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Okay, let's get the awkward part out of the way. Sunstone (a 5-volume graphic novel from Image) starts out with, "This is a love story about two BDSM-loving girls".

No, it's not porn.

Well, mostly not. Bear with me.

Our narrator is Lisa, a struggling writer (and novice sub), who works as a barista by day and writes BDSM porn online by night. Her primary series of stories is "Lisbeth", something of a MarySue featuring the title character and Allison, who is based on...

... Ally, a successful game programmer (and moderately experienced domme), who has been Lisa's online penpal for some time now.

The story opens when Lisa finally gets up the nerve to ask to meet Ally in person, and they get together to play out their fantasies a bit. They hit it off really well, and the book follows their evolution from play partners, to best friends, to roommates, to...

... well, that's the hard part. Sunstone isn't porn; it is very much a romance novel, about the difficulty of admitting to your best friend that you've fallen in love with her. It head-on tackles the not-unusual problem of modern society that sex is easy, but romance can be much, much harder.

Now, normally I'm not a huge fan of romance novels -- I've hit a few too many stories that depended on someone being outrageously dumb, or some Terrible External Force Keeping Our Protagonists Apart, or something like that; stuff that I can't really relate to all that well, and which has made me a little cynical about the form.

Sunstone has basically none of that: our heroines are smart and witty, there are basically no antagonists (indeed, pretty much everyone in the story is quite likeable), and nothing horrible happens. Rather, both Lisa and Ally are real, well-rounded people -- but both are smart enough to be horribly prone to over-thinking things, a little bit proud, and insecure enough to be lousy at communicating about the stuff that really matters. In short, they remind me an awful lot of me and many of my friends.

It is pure character study, and most of the content of the five volumes is simply people talking. I credit the author, Stjepan Sejic, for managing to pull that off well enough that I intentionally read the story quite slowly, a few pages a day, just to savor it. (At the end, he confesses how terrifying it all was. He seriously contemplated putting an alien invasion into the middle, just so it would be more in his comfort zone. Fortunately, he thought better of it.)

Now, I should explain that "mostly not" above. While Sunstone is a pure romance novel in structure and style (and quite a sweet one at that), it is a novel about two people who get together over their shared interest -- and their shared interest is BDSM. So bondage is a constant element of the story, and if you get off on beautiful women in leather and vinyl, you'll find plenty of lovely artwork here. There's a moderate amount of nudity, and there is occasional partial porn -- you'll sometimes find yourself three pages into a scene, and just around the time you start going, "Wait, this is getting kind of porn-y", it snaps back to reality as you realize that it has digressed into Lisa's latest story, which she is using to process what's going on in real life. And at times it gets a wee tad didactic about Safe Bondage. Suffice it to say, it's not porn, but it's not SFW either.

There isn't much "will they or won't they" tension to it -- the entire story is told in retrospect, from a viewpoint about five years later, and it's pretty clear that they will wind up together eventually. This is all about the road to getting there: the initial nervousness about meeting, the passion at the start, the settling down to deep and abiding affection, the stumbles, mistakes and fights (including what amounts to some hard-learned lessons about poly), and eventually figuring it out.

It's a delightful journey, and I regret getting to the end -- I've been using it as my end-of-the-day reading, because it pretty much always leaves me feeling good, as few comics do.

Highly recommended, especially if you like romance stories. Not quite High Art, but excellent enough that it's going onto The Shelf, at least for the moment. The story reaches a clear end with Volume 5, although Sejic is by now having enough fun that he is moving on (as often happens in romance universes) to spin-off novels about Lisa and Ally's friends. Check it out...

Vote Loki

Oct. 12th, 2016 11:36 pm
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No, really -- that's an actual 4-issue Marvel mini-series that wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I just got to the end of it. It more or less goes as you'd expect: Loki pulls a publicity stunt, at the end of which he "lets himself be talked into" running for President. (This makes more sense with the current Marvel incarnation of Loki, who is the much-more-interesting God of Stories, not the older God of Evil he used to be. Think a *very* mischievous version of Coyote.)

The series is kind of a hoot, a thinly-veiled metaphor for modern politics, in which Loki's publicly-stated motto is, "I'm going to lie to you, right to your face, and make you love me for it". Over the course of the story, he gives a masterclass in modern politics, taking every nasty revelation about himself and spinning it into a positive.

The ending -- well, suffice it to say, he's not the President of Earth-616. But the really *unsettling* thing about it is that, in the end, he blows the election by being significantly more decent and honest in public than anything we've seen from Donald Trump, and thereby alienating his core constituency. As morals go, it's a rather uncomfortable one...
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I always like to save the best for last -- piling a couple of pieces of pepperoni up on the last bite of pizza, and like that. And so I'll wrap up the current series of reviews with the absolute best.

I think of the mid-1990s as the period when comics began to grow up, moving past its adolescence of the 1980s (full of overly-adjectival anthropomorphics and Grim'n'Gritty) into real stories that stand the test of time. I suspect that most people think of that growing up as being epitomized by Sandman, and I can't disagree -- it's a brilliant series, and won wide-spread attention. But for those of us in the know -- the people haunting the comics shops and buying the black and white comics that the mainstream didn't pay attention to -- the first truly great graphic novel (originally told in 21 issues) was Teri Sue Wood's Wandering Star.

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way first: the author, [livejournal.com profile] the_resa, is an LJ pen-pal of mine. (Hi, Resa!) Indeed, one of the pieces of art in the back of the new edition is a retouched version of a piece she made for me about ten years ago. But I first got in touch with her *because* I was an enormous fan of this book.

Wandering Star, set in the late 22nd century, is the story of Casandra Andrews, daughter of the President of Earth, and starts as she is about to leave to attend the Alliance Academy, the first human to get to join; she isn't there long before war breaks out, and she finds herself in the middle of it.

Let's just say it: the premise *sounds* trite. The end results aren't.

Part of the genius of the story is that it is narrated, and continually intercut, by the framing sequence of a 50ish Casi giving an interview to her would-be biographer. This is the quiet account of a melancholy and slightly haunted famous woman, explaining quite frankly what really happened to her, with all the mythology stripped away, and wrestling with those memories. That framing sequence changes the story. The spine of the story isn't about whether Casi survives (she obviously does) or whether the invading Bono Kiri win (they obviously don't) -- it's about how the girl in the story becomes the woman telling it.

I was amused that Carla Speed McNeil, in the Afterword to the new edition, calls it a Space Opera -- which I completely agree with, but for totally different reasons than she gives. As I mentioned a short while ago, Person of Interest is very much science fiction, despite being set in mundane modern-day New York; Wandering Star is *not* science fiction by my lights, despite being all spaceships and aliens and things blowing up. Science fiction is fundamentally about exploring an *idea*; space opera is fundamentally about the *people*. Science fiction is generally about how *different* things could be; space opera is about how much the future could be *like* us. (In this respect, I often find much space opera more like fantasy than science fiction. Neither is more or less worthy; they're just different in focus.) Despite the aliens, this is very much a story about people.

More precisely, this is an exploration of emotion. That's a theme that comes up time and again: from Madison, the empath who can can both sense and influence the feelings of those around him; to the Tul'sar devices that enslave by eliminating emotion; to all of the main characters wrestling with almost unimaginable loss. Casi starts the story a bright-eyed young woman -- this is the tale of her growing up, all too quickly, in the midst of wartime chaos and tragedy, mostly trying not to die or be enslaved, and eventually making her mark.

The obvious comparison here is to The Hunger Games, but Casi is less of a superhero and a bit less broken (and better-rounded) than Katniss. This is the tale of folks doing what has to be done *not* because they are capital-H Heroes, but because *somebody* has to do it.

The art is superb -- an elegant pointillist style that isn't much like anybody else's. The only artist I can think of in the same general area is Matt Howarth, but where he evolved towards ever-angrier angles, Teri's style became delicate curves. It's a remarkably subtle and wide-ranging style, especially compared with the first draft (included in the back of the book), which was terribly *ordinary* in every respect compared to the final result. There are beautiful nuances everywhere, including a usage of shading as leitmotif that I don't think I've ever seen elsewhere. Teri is also notable as one of the only artists I know who truly mastered the use of *lettering* as a key element in the storytelling -- Dave Sim is the one other person I know to use it so effectively to convey the entire range of emotion and tone.

God bless Dover and their new graphic-novel imprint -- the new edition is luscious, a fine doorstop of a hardcover. Printed on higher-quality paper than existed for comics when Wandering Star was first published, it allows the detail of the artwork to shine.

Let's sum up: this one is going on The Shelf, the highest compliment I can pay to a graphic novel. In my estimation, it's one of the dozen finest ever, in the same company as V For Vendetta, Transmetropolitan and, yes, Sandman, and it's wonderful to see it back in print. Get it -- the Dover edition is reasonably-priced to begin with, and it's downright cheap (for a nearly 500-page graphic hardcover) at Amazon at the moment.
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The comics industry tosses around the term "graphic novel" a lot. One thing you quickly learn is that most of these really are nothing of the sort: they may be large and lovely, but they're usually Graphic Short Stories, really, because in terms of reading time a typical comic page goes a good deal faster than a typical prose one.

Keep that in mind when I say that Locke & Key is *actually* a very good graphic novel. It takes six volumes, collecting 37 issues that were originally done as six mini-series, but this is *not* a conventional comics series, wandering around episodically until they finally decide to end it. Instead, in structure this is *absolutely* a single novel, and a fairly tight and compelling one. Like many good novels, there *seems* to be a lot of randomness in the early volumes, but pretty much all of it turns out to be far more significant later in the story. This is a story with exceptionally little fat for a three-dozen-issue series: not only do many of the amusing one-off panels turn out to be significant later on, you sometimes have to pay close attention to catch details that will pay off several issues later.

Locke & Key is a horror story, although more of the classic Stephen King sort than the modern all-gore-all-the-time one. Indeed, some of the flavor reminds me a bit of Madeleine L'Engle -- not quite so much "terrifying" as "disturbing", illustrating the thin line between horror and fantasy. That said, this story *does* get bloody at times, so take this recommendation with that in mind: if blood and guts are a serious turn-off for you, this may not be your story.

It actually starts with the most horrifying segment, and that almost turned me off right from the outset. This is the story of the Locke family, and in the first issue Randall Locke, the father, is quite horribly murdered in what appears to be a completely random killing. (But remember, *nothing* in this story is random.) After that bit of mundane tragedy, his family moves back to his family mansion, Keyhouse, in scenic Lovecraft MA. And then things begin to get strange.

For the most part, the story is classic fantasy, as the three kids discover that Keyhouse is, indeed, full of keys -- wondrous magical keys, each of which has its own power. There's the Angel Key that gives you wings; the Ghost Key that opens the back door, which lets you walk right out of your body; the Skin Key that changes your skin color; and many more. There's the Head Key that lets you and others literally look into your own head, and add and remove things from it. (Yes, that's creepy -- the Head Key is central to much of the story.) And more as the story goes on. The history of Keyhouse, both ancient and modern, permeates the story, and the backstory unfolds relentlessly throughout.

This is a story about how to cope with both tragedy and wonder, and how they can distract from each other. The reader only learns the backstory as the family does so, one piece at a time, but we *do* get to see all of what's currently happening as it unfolds -- there's a villain to the piece, frighteningly evil and well-disguised in the best horror-fantasy way, and we see his every step, resulting in a lot of "No -- don't go in *there*!" tension. But it's also a story about heroism, little and big, and the way that family, both born and chosen, can save each other even when they sometimes can't look at each other.

Mind, it's not all grim. Indeed, the tone varies all over the map, as it needs to -- unrelenting darkness just gets boring. There are sections of real joy, a lot of friendship, and a fair amount of just plain humor. (The story takes place over the course of a year: the issue of "February" is downright funny, as the weirdness starts to become second nature to the kids.) One of the delights of the story is that it is seen through the eyes of our three heroes, aged 8, 16 and 17, and is full of the amped-up emotions of those ages.

I always focus mainly on the writing and story, but suffice it to say that the art is gorgeous, and well-suited: intricately detailed and expressive, realistic or thoroughly *not* depending on the needs of the moment.

It's beautiful stuff: a gripping novel that left me reading the last two collections straight through because I couldn't put it down. I'm not sure that it's going to make The Shelf (that's a high bar), but it's definitely a series than I'm going to keep permanently; I suspect it reads quite differently the second time, and I look forward to finding out. Recommended, particularly to anyone who likes thoughtful but somewhat disturbing urban fantasy...
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I've been picking up a lot of great comics collections lately, so it's time for The Review of Obscure Books. Today's review is the first of three classics on my stack: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram.

Phonogram isn't a single graphic novel, it's a series of three, each one collecting a short series. These were written over the course of quite a number of years, and can be thought of collectively as a story about passing the generational torch, in music, and in magic.

It's an odd setting. Phonogram takes place in our world, save that it is a world where music is, subtly, magical. Not magical in the sense of, "people flying through the air and shooting lightning bolts" -- magical in the sense of transformational. The beauty of the series is that it's one of the few urban fantasies where you could actually *believe* that most people don't even know the magic is there. There's a lot of high weirdness going on here, but you can interpret nearly all of it as metaphorical and imaginary, and the story still makes perfectly good sense. This is magic of the heart and mind, more than the physical.

Kieron Gillen is, mind you, my pick for Best Comics Writer currently working, and is in contention for best ever if he keeps going the way he's doing. His major series to date include Loki and Young Avengers (the story that redefined one of Marvel's best villains); Uber (a darkly brilliant examination of superheroes as weapons of mass destruction); Mercury Heat (cyberpunk hard SF -- bloody, violent and kinda fun); and the major fan-favorite The Wicked and the Divine, which he has described as the flip side of Phonogram -- where Phonogram is about music fandom, WicDiv is about music creation. All of them are well worth reading, and the latter three are still in progress. (Uber and WicDiv are explicitly novels, but I'm not sure how long either is intended to run.)

Several of these were done in collaboration with McKelvie, who is the modern archetype of "clean line" art: beautiful, unpretentious, clear and expressive comics. I sort of think of McKelvie as accomplishing what John Byrne was always attempting.

But the first series of Phonogram, collected as "Rue Britannia", was the story that first introduced me to Gillen and McKelvie. It's in a fine greytoned black and white, and is the story of David Kohl (a presence throughout the series), who is investigating the creepy resurrection and mutation of Britannia, goddess of BritPop, the music god who made him who he is. Kohl is tasked with figuring out who is behind it and stopping them before their meddling redefines him into unrecognizability. Written about 15 years ago, it's a bit rough around the edges, and the metaphor is, if it's not obvious, laid on rather thick. But it's still a fascinating story, and a clear case of two rising talents finding their feet.

Which they did find in The Singles Club, back in 2010. I wrote a full review at the time -- suffice it to say, this was tied (with daytripper) as my pick for best comic of the year. The story is set in one evening, down at the nightclub, told from seven different viewpoints, and it's a masterpiece of character study. Each of its seven issues is wildly different, featuring a wildly different character, and the same evening looks very different to each of them. From the lovely but self-absorbed Penny to the hip but divided Emily Aster to the nearly wordless story of Kid-With-Knife (who is almost the opposite of what that nickname might imply to you -- he is the avatar of in-the-moment ferocity, and is in some ways the most joyful of the bunch), these tight little stories bring out each personality quickly and brilliantly -- rare in a world of comics that take forever to get anywhere. It's not *quite* Will Eisner level conciseness, but it's close.

The story concluded last year with The Immaterial Girl, which takes the story of Emily Aster -- hinted at in Rue Britannia and given a full issue in Singles Club -- and brings her front and center. Emily is the head of the coven: cool, powerful and utterly cutting. But she got there, when she was young, by selling half of her personality to The King Behind the Screen. That sacrificed half, Claire, has managed to take control again, and wants her revenge by destroying Emily's life utterly, in a story about how our prior choices do and don't control our lives. (And while Emily is dealing with the consequences of this (and running for her life through the music videos of her youth), Laura Black and Mr. Logos, introduced in The Singles Club, are beginning to come into their own, so the series gets a sense of generational closure.)

One side-benefit of the series is that it is an education in music -- Gillen is a *serious* music aficionado, and it shows. Each volume has a glossary of all the musical references in it, and it runs impressively long. And it says something that each volume's music is quite *different*, reflecting the characters and stories told therein. I'm slowly making my way through the glossaries with Spotify, figuring out which of these groups and albums I should be picking up. (The major discovery for me so far seems to be The Arctic Monkeys, who I'd never even heard before.)

Each of the volumes stands reasonably well on its own -- the earlier volumes drop hints that get followed up later, and the later ones refer to earlier events, but you could read any of them individually. If you read only one, it should be The Singles Club, which is on the all-time-greats list. But the series as a whole is a classic, and well worth picking up in collection: fun, thoughtful stories that benefit from an occasional re-read. Check it out...
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[There's a lot of good stuff coming out, so it's time to get back into the habit of The Review of Obscure Books.]

Downstairs in our basement, there is The Shelf.

The Shelf was kind of an accident. When I was moving in with Kate, I stumbled across some graphic novels that I had liked too much to put in boxes, so they'd been living on random bookcases at my old house. So I stuck them together down there. And as I come across more really great GNs in going through the Stuff, I've been putting them on The Shelf.

Gradually, it's becoming my distillation of the Creme de la Creme of comics history. I have -- no shit -- somewhere north of 300 linear feet of comic books; The Shelf is the 29 inches of the absolute best. It's still a work in progress, but already represents my very eclectic picks for the masterpieces. From V For Vendetta and Watchman to Girl Genius, from Moonshadow to The Singles Club to Hepcats to Murder Mysteries, it's gradually evolving into a pretty good education in the best comics ever.

As soon as I'm done writing this review, The Sculptor is going onto The Shelf.

The Sculptor is by Scott McCloud, best known for Understanding Comics, the best explanation ever written about comics as a medium. But those of us who've been around a while remember Zot!, the comic that made his name as one of the shining lights during the blossoming of what I think of as the modern age of comics. IMO, The Sculptor is his masterpiece.

What's it about? Our protagonist is David Smith, a down-on-his-luck sculptor who is wallowing in his sorrows one day when Death shows up and makes him an offer: he can have remarkable gifts, in exchange for which he will only live 200 days. A lot happens during those 200 days, but that's the heart of the story.

It's a bit hard to assign a simple genre to the story, but I'm inclined to call it Magical Realism: extraordinary things happen, but this is fundamentally a story about very real people and their very real problems. David falls in love, and finds all of his assumptions about everything from Art to Love to Time to Mortality (most especially) Purpose challenged. He grows up, all too slowly, gradually setting aside his simple inward focus.

This is a *big* book -- at 500 pages, one of the few "graphic novels" worthy of the name -- but it's a pretty fast read. McCloud shows all of his technique and understanding of the medium, both to tell story and set mood -- he is one of the few people who can make a blank white page starkly frightening -- and the student of the form will find a lot of lessons in here. But you don't need to worry about that: the story will carry you along.

Mind, this isn't a happy or simple story, and it doesn't have any easy uplifting moral. It is beautiful, engaging and often fun, but rather melancholy at its core, and a day after finishing it I'm still getting a catch in my throat from it. It is fundamentally about Mortality and Time, so apply your own trigger warnings as necessary.

Anyway: highest recommendation. Certainly the best comic of the year so far, and I'll be pleasantly surprised if anything surpasses it...
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Welcome to another edition of The Review of Obscure Books, my occasional comics review column. Up today, just for once (I tend to be months behind the times), is something that's quite new, just hitting the stands now.

I decided to Kickstart Strong Female Protagonist largely on whim: the pages shown in the KS looked like an interesting change of pace, and the price was reasonable, so I figured I'd support the indie comics. I got the book in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and having finished it the other day, I'm glad I did.

SFP is a little hard to describe properly, especially without giving too much away. The book (and mind, this is just volume 1 of an ongoing story) takes its time, and much of volume 1 is devoted to gradually showing you the background.

It's very much a supers book, but *feels* much more like a black and white indie. Our eponymous protagonist is Alison Green, aka MegaGirl, who has serious super-powers -- basically, Superman-grade invulnerability and strength. As the story opens, she is 20, studying at the New School in NYC, having quit the superhero business quite loudly a year ago. She's had a social awakening about just how *meaningless* the superhero thing is, and now she's trying to find ways to actually make the world better. The world is *not* making this easy for her.

I was slightly concerned that the story would simply turn out to be whiny social commentary, but that's far from the case: this is actually one of the more thoughtful deconstructions of superheroes that I've seen. The setup works well for that, since Alison is herself trying desperately to introspect on what it all means and how it should be used. She's terribly well-meaning but immensely frustrated by the contradiction that she can move mountains, but can't make a damned difference when it actually matters. Frankly, she is very, very 20, and the story gets into the implications of that quite deeply.

Bit by bit, volume 1 explores what's going on here: the origin of this odd cohort of supers; exactly what happened during her encounter with the evil mastermind Menace that led to her quitting the business; her family and her attempts to fit in as an ordinary university student. It plays with a lot of superhero tropes in all sorts of surprising ways: Chapter 3 essentially explores how Wolverine could truly be heroic, and the result is both horrifying and heartbreaking. The story is very self-aware, and one of the more interesting nuances is the way that supers in the US have fallen into the superhero/villain modes mainly *because* the American comic book industry has trained them to think that way.

Now that the KS is done, the book is showing up in comic stores and other outlets for better graphic novels. It's my pick for Best Graphic Story of the year (beating out Fatale, which needs its own entry). Highly recommended, especially to anyone who likes Astro City, which is the closest cognate I can find. They're similar in flavor, although quite different: where AS looks at what the world would really be like if it was full of supers, SFP is more focused on what supers would be like if they were real people. Check it out...
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The Review of Obscure Books is my occasional column on comics that deserve more attention than I've seen them get. Today's pick is Three, Kieran Gillen's recent look at Sparta.

Now mind, ever since Phonogram, I've been a pretty serious Kieron Gillen fanboy -- he's one of a handful of authors whose work I will buy more or less automatically, because it's always good. But much of it is either superheroes (so there's an element of, "Great if you like that sort of thing") or, eg, Uber, his ultraviolent look at what WWII might really have been like if there had been supers in the mix. (Brilliant, but a pretty typical Avatar book -- you need to be willing to cope with prodigious levels of gore.)

Three is closer to what I think of as Gillen's sweet spot, though: a short novel that I recommend unreservedly. It isn't precisely a rebuttal of Frank Miller's 300, but the echoes are powerful.

300 was the Sparta of legend, retelling (and embroidering even further) the tale of Thermopylae. This, OTOH, takes place later, in a Sparta that has been dining out on the Thermopylae myth for centuries and has developed a bit of a beer gut in the process. A series of military reverses have reduced Sparta's fighting force considerably, and the empire has become a bit ossified and scared of change. And into that, we toss The Helot Problem.

The core focus of Three isn't on the usual noble Spartiates, but on the Helot slave class that supported them. Like most great classical Greek states, Sparta was built on the backs of slaves. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't exceptionally cruel to them, but it *was* quite arbitrary. This is the tale of what happens when one of those "arbitrary" moments goes sour, a few of the Helots snap, and the state is forced to make an example of them, hunting them down as they go on the run.

It's a somewhat grim tale, but beautifully honest, with none of the hagiography of 300. The Helots aren't by any means perfect: they're just a few decent people who are trying to find a little freedom and fairness in the world. And the Spartiates aren't consistent nasties -- the story is more an indictment of a broken system and an increasingly-dysfunctional society, rather than of the individuals in it.

Gillen also tackled the story with admirable seriousness. While it is a work of fiction, it is grounded in a lot of research into the period; that is buttressed by the backmatter, which is an interview with a leading historian of Sparta, discussing the story and how it fits into the historical context. In that respect, it comes off more like Age of Bronze than 300 -- the sort of story I can see being used in a classroom setting to teach some history and culture.

I'm focused on the writing here, but the art of Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire complements the story quite well. It isn't "pretty" art, and it shouldn't be: instead, it is expressive and clear, capturing both the emotional subtleties and the passions well, and setting the dark tone of the tale.

There *is* some serious violence, mind, but only in service to the story. This isn't violence pornography, but we're talking about a life-and-death fight in a military society: death plays an important part here.

Of course, since I just finished it, that means that it came out months ago. But I highly recommend seeking it out in collection. It's a tight little novel (5 issues, so under 200 pages total), and a quick read, but well worth savoring. Check it out...
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[Here's something I don't think I've ever done in the twenty years of The Review of Obscure Books -- a TRoOB preview.]

Those of you who follow my LJ may remember my review, a year or so ago, of Phonogram -- The Singles Club. My assessment at the time was that it was the best comic of 2010, and that opinion has largely held up (with the possible exception of the equally-brilliant daytripper).

So thanks to [livejournal.com profile] hungrytiger for pointing me at the great news that Phonogram Volume 3 is coming in November. It will apparently be expanding on the story of Emily Aster, probably the most intriguing of the seven stories in The Singles Club. Emily's issue there hinted at a lot of backstory, and really didn't resolve much: now we're apparently going to get more depth.

It's great news, and I'm very much looking forward to it. I strongly recommend adding it to your pull list when it comes out, or at least planning to buy the inevitable collection afterwards. (I suspect I'll be getting both, but I'm impatient.)
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Okay, now we get to the meat of it. This morning, I got to the third issue of the ten-issue story daytripper, and realized I was going to need to read the rest and write a review at the end of the day. (Which got me off my duff and dealing with my backlog of stories to review.)

The thing is, I always focus on the writing. Good comic book art is important, but for me the writing comes first. So I hadn't paid all that much attention to the brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba before. Oh, sure, they were the artists on Casanova, one of my all-time favorite comics, but I'd ascribed my fondness for that book to Matt Fraction, who is another of those great young writers. Surely, the artists didn't have *that* much to do with the story's greatness?

Sometimes I'm dumb.

daytripper (which just finished from Vertigo) is... well, you know how a great story makes you feel? The fascination that won't let you stop reading, but every few pages you almost feel like you're going to break into tears? Not because of manipulative writing or simple pathos, but because it is getting so deeply under your skin in the way it deals with the universal realities? This is one of those.

(I will confess, I had to pause and read an issue of Anita Blake and suchlike from time to time, just to calm myself down.)

Our hero is Bras de Olivia Domingos. He's from Brazil (as, I believe, are the writer/artists), and at the beginning of the story he is 32 years old. He's gently in love, suffering under the fame of His Father the Author, but getting by. He is working at the newspaper writing obits, but he knows that that is a job rather than a career. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

Next issue, he is 21, reveling in youth and life, finding love in Salvador, knowing that his entire life is ahead of him. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

It sounds grisly, but it's far from that. This is a meditation on love, family and why we live. And the deaths? Well, the book says it best:
"Life is like a book, son. And every book has an end. No matter how much you like that book, you will get to the last page, and it will end."
Death is omnipresent in the story, but in the end, not something to be feared.

The story bounces around Bras' life: he is 11 this issue, 42 the next, 33 the one after that. There is nothing random to it, though: little nuances and throwaway lines turn into the focus of subsequent issues, and the structure is subtle but pervasive. It's a rich biography of a life that is normal yet full of joy and melancholy.

I have to admit, I can't do this one justice -- anything I can say is trite compared to the story itself. It's fantasy, but more in the sense of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than anything you usually find in comics: beautiful, affecting and so *real* it hurts.

Probably the best comic of the year, certainly the best since Phonogram. I won't be underestimating the brothers again (it's unclear how Moon and Ba split the work, and I don't much care), and I *strongly* recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out. I expect to pick up several copies for friends...
jducoeur: (Default)
Okay, now we get to the meat of it. This morning, I got to the third issue of the ten-issue story daytripper, and realized I was going to need to read the rest and write a review at the end of the day. (Which got me off my duff and dealing with my backlog of stories to review.)

The thing is, I always focus on the writing. Good comic book art is important, but for me the writing comes first. So I hadn't paid all that much attention to the brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba before. Oh, sure, they were the artists on Casanova, one of my all-time favorite comics, but I'd ascribed my fondness for that book to Matt Fraction, who is another of those great young writers. Surely, the artists didn't have *that* much to do with the story's greatness?

Sometimes I'm dumb.

daytripper (which just finished from Vertigo) is... well, you know how a great story makes you feel? The fascination that won't let you stop reading, but every few pages you almost feel like you're going to break into tears? Not because of manipulative writing or simple pathos, but because it is getting so deeply under your skin in the way it deals with the universal realities? This is one of those.

(I will confess, I had to pause and read an issue of Anita Blake and suchlike from time to time, just to calm myself down.)

Our hero is Bras de Olivia Domingos. He's from Brazil (as, I believe, are the writer/artists), and at the beginning of the story he is 32 years old. He's gently in love, suffering under the fame of His Father the Author, but getting by. He is working at the newspaper writing obits, but he knows that that is a job rather than a career. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

Next issue, he is 21, reveling in youth and life, finding love in Salvador, knowing that his entire life is ahead of him. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

It sounds grisly, but it's far from that. This is a meditation on love, family and why we live. And the deaths? Well, the book says it best:
"Life is like a book, son. And every book has an end. No matter how much you like that book, you will get to the last page, and it will end."
Death is omnipresent in the story, but in the end, not something to be feared.

The story bounces around Bras' life: he is 11 this issue, 42 the next, 33 the one after that. There is nothing random to it, though: little nuances and throwaway lines turn into the focus of subsequent issues, and the structure is subtle but pervasive. It's a rich biography of a life that is normal yet full of joy and melancholy.

I have to admit, I can't do this one justice -- anything I can say is trite compared to the story itself. It's fantasy, but more in the sense of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than anything you usually find in comics: beautiful, affecting and so *real* it hurts.

Probably the best comic of the year, certainly the best since Phonogram. I won't be underestimating the brothers again (it's unclear how Moon and Ba split the work, and I don't much care), and I *strongly* recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out. I expect to pick up several copies for friends...
jducoeur: (Default)
A *serious* modern maxi-series is genuinely long. When the term was first coined, it meant a story that was, OMG, a full twelve issues, but ever since Cerebus ended that's looked a bit pathetic. Nowadays, graphic novels are often novels, every bit as long and complex as a modern 500-page book. 100 Bullets ran (as I had expected) 100 issues; Lucifer ran 75. Ex Machina, like Y: The Last Man, clocks in at 50 issues, which seems to be about the length needed to write a seriously complicated tale. Ex Machina was published by Wildstorm, but it's right up there with the best of Vertigo: a well-conceived, deeply structured novel that knows where it is going from the first page.

It is the story of Mitchell Hundred, a fairly ordinary civil engineer who, one day in the late 90's, finds what is clearly a small alien device. The Box flares just once and then burns out, but not before affecting him forever by giving him the power to control machines with his mind. Being a good American, he decides that he should do what anyone does with super powers: go off and become a costumed hero, The Great Machine. He builds himself a jetpack, winds up with a couple of sidekicks, tries hard and does some good. The problem is, this is the real world: he's the only super-being in it (apparently), and being a super-hero doesn't actually work very well in practice.

At this point, things go off on a tangent from both ordinary reality and super-hero practice, as Hundred mounts a successful run for Mayor of New York City, and that's what the book is mainly about. The super-powers almost seem like a pointless distraction at times -- much of the story is simply about a good, politically centrist guy who doesn't fit into any of the usual pigeonholes, trying to do the right thing in a very important job. Major storylines revolve around him trying to deal with everything from garbage strikes to gay rights. His history as The Great Machine always lurks in the background, and there are frequent flashbacks to his heroic (and sometimes embarassing) exploits, but the story is mostly set during his term as Mayor, from 2002 to 2006. (Pretty much every scene has a specific date, and it's pretty well-synchronized with real history.)

But the super-powers still lurk in the background, and remember that this is *not* a superhero comic. That has a clear implication: it's a science fiction story instead. The great mystery of the book is where the Box came from, and why it affected him as it did. Threads of that are entwined throughout, and gradually lead up to the fairly creepy climax that occupies most of the last ten issues or so. Suffice it to say, every power has its price.

This story isn't as uplifting as Air, nor as mystical as Electric Ant, but it's a serious hardcore science fiction story in the best tradition -- mixing the real world with one or two specific fantastic premises, and seeing what comes out. Mitchell Hundred is *not* a typical saintly superhero: he's a decent, slightly bull-headed ordinary guy who is plunged into the grey world of politics. He is faced with compromises every day, sometimes comes to regret them and sometimes makes decisions that will shock the reader, but remains broadly sympathetic by generally trying to do the right thing as best he can figure it out.

A smart, interesting novel: recommended to anyone with a taste for both SF and politics, who finds the cut-and-thrust difficulties of public life interesting. It's a character study of a good man, but illustrates that, even for someone who tries to do right, politics is a lot more difficult than super-villains...
jducoeur: (Default)
A *serious* modern maxi-series is genuinely long. When the term was first coined, it meant a story that was, OMG, a full twelve issues, but ever since Cerebus ended that's looked a bit pathetic. Nowadays, graphic novels are often novels, every bit as long and complex as a modern 500-page book. 100 Bullets ran (as I had expected) 100 issues; Lucifer ran 75. Ex Machina, like Y: The Last Man, clocks in at 50 issues, which seems to be about the length needed to write a seriously complicated tale. Ex Machina was published by Wildstorm, but it's right up there with the best of Vertigo: a well-conceived, deeply structured novel that knows where it is going from the first page.

It is the story of Mitchell Hundred, a fairly ordinary civil engineer who, one day in the late 90's, finds what is clearly a small alien device. The Box flares just once and then burns out, but not before affecting him forever by giving him the power to control machines with his mind. Being a good American, he decides that he should do what anyone does with super powers: go off and become a costumed hero, The Great Machine. He builds himself a jetpack, winds up with a couple of sidekicks, tries hard and does some good. The problem is, this is the real world: he's the only super-being in it (apparently), and being a super-hero doesn't actually work very well in practice.

At this point, things go off on a tangent from both ordinary reality and super-hero practice, as Hundred mounts a successful run for Mayor of New York City, and that's what the book is mainly about. The super-powers almost seem like a pointless distraction at times -- much of the story is simply about a good, politically centrist guy who doesn't fit into any of the usual pigeonholes, trying to do the right thing in a very important job. Major storylines revolve around him trying to deal with everything from garbage strikes to gay rights. His history as The Great Machine always lurks in the background, and there are frequent flashbacks to his heroic (and sometimes embarassing) exploits, but the story is mostly set during his term as Mayor, from 2002 to 2006. (Pretty much every scene has a specific date, and it's pretty well-synchronized with real history.)

But the super-powers still lurk in the background, and remember that this is *not* a superhero comic. That has a clear implication: it's a science fiction story instead. The great mystery of the book is where the Box came from, and why it affected him as it did. Threads of that are entwined throughout, and gradually lead up to the fairly creepy climax that occupies most of the last ten issues or so. Suffice it to say, every power has its price.

This story isn't as uplifting as Air, nor as mystical as Electric Ant, but it's a serious hardcore science fiction story in the best tradition -- mixing the real world with one or two specific fantastic premises, and seeing what comes out. Mitchell Hundred is *not* a typical saintly superhero: he's a decent, slightly bull-headed ordinary guy who is plunged into the grey world of politics. He is faced with compromises every day, sometimes comes to regret them and sometimes makes decisions that will shock the reader, but remains broadly sympathetic by generally trying to do the right thing as best he can figure it out.

A smart, interesting novel: recommended to anyone with a taste for both SF and politics, who finds the cut-and-thrust difficulties of public life interesting. It's a character study of a good man, but illustrates that, even for someone who tries to do right, politics is a lot more difficult than super-villains...
jducoeur: (Default)
Philip K. Dick has been a mighty force in science fiction for decades, albeit an odd one. His primary mark has been on movies that bear the names and some of the ideas (if not, usually, the actual stories) of his novels, but relatively few people have actually read the originals. A major change to that has been the adaptation that Boom! Studios is currently doing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book from which Blade Runner was adapted. If you aren't following that, it's highly recommended: a full-length word-for-word adaptation of the novel, which turns out to be far deeper (and IMO significantly better) than the movie. But for today, let's talk about David Mack's adaptation of the short story Electric Ant, recently published by Marvel.

Electric Ant is set in much the same playground as DADoES -- indeed, there are hints that it might be the same world -- but takes a very different slant. Whereas the famous novel is about a human detective hunting androids, Electric Ant focuses on a concept that lurks in the background of that and Blade Runner. Our hero, Garson Poole, is the successful CEO of a company in the mid-future: he is successful, he has a beautiful girlfriend, and life is good. Until the day he gets into an accident, and discovers that he is actually an "electricant", a sophisticated but somewhat obsolete android.

The five-issue story is entirely about him exploring his own identity. He searches for why he was built and who controls him, and begins to muck with his own innards -- especially once he realizes that he has circuits that were designed to prevent him from realizing what he was, altering his perceptions of reality. Deciding that this is no longer tolerable, he starts to screw around with the circuitry that interprets that reality for his brain. And at that point, things start to get *very* weird.

Make no mistake: this story is strange, trippy, mystical stuff that makes DADoES (or any popularization of Dick's work) look downright down-to-earth by comparison. The hard SF fan is likely to throw it across the room at one of the points where the logic simply goes off at right angles to normal reality. But if you're a fan of the sort of mystical SF that reached its pinnacle in the 70s, this is pretty neat: no-holds-barred Dick, seriously examining questions that Descartes only began to scratch at. It's a tight little graphic novel, and worth reading if you want to bend your brain a bit...
jducoeur: (Default)
Philip K. Dick has been a mighty force in science fiction for decades, albeit an odd one. His primary mark has been on movies that bear the names and some of the ideas (if not, usually, the actual stories) of his novels, but relatively few people have actually read the originals. A major change to that has been the adaptation that Boom! Studios is currently doing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book from which Blade Runner was adapted. If you aren't following that, it's highly recommended: a full-length word-for-word adaptation of the novel, which turns out to be far deeper (and IMO significantly better) than the movie. But for today, let's talk about David Mack's adaptation of the short story Electric Ant, recently published by Marvel.

Electric Ant is set in much the same playground as DADoES -- indeed, there are hints that it might be the same world -- but takes a very different slant. Whereas the famous novel is about a human detective hunting androids, Electric Ant focuses on a concept that lurks in the background of that and Blade Runner. Our hero, Garson Poole, is the successful CEO of a company in the mid-future: he is successful, he has a beautiful girlfriend, and life is good. Until the day he gets into an accident, and discovers that he is actually an "electricant", a sophisticated but somewhat obsolete android.

The five-issue story is entirely about him exploring his own identity. He searches for why he was built and who controls him, and begins to muck with his own innards -- especially once he realizes that he has circuits that were designed to prevent him from realizing what he was, altering his perceptions of reality. Deciding that this is no longer tolerable, he starts to screw around with the circuitry that interprets that reality for his brain. And at that point, things start to get *very* weird.

Make no mistake: this story is strange, trippy, mystical stuff that makes DADoES (or any popularization of Dick's work) look downright down-to-earth by comparison. The hard SF fan is likely to throw it across the room at one of the points where the logic simply goes off at right angles to normal reality. But if you're a fan of the sort of mystical SF that reached its pinnacle in the 70s, this is pretty neat: no-holds-barred Dick, seriously examining questions that Descartes only began to scratch at. It's a tight little graphic novel, and worth reading if you want to bend your brain a bit...

TRoOB: Air

Sep. 11th, 2010 03:13 pm
jducoeur: (Default)
A number of good miniseries have ended in the past few weeks. All have been "graphic novels" in the true sense: not just appendages to ongoing comics, but well-contained stories in their own right, and all are quite good. So it's time once again to pull out The Review of Obscure Books, and talk about stuff worth reading. First up is Air, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by M. K. Perker, published by Vertigo.

Wilson first made her mark a couple of years ago with the graphic novel Cairo, and it established her style: magical realism (realistic fantasy?) centered on slightly messed-up but sympathetic female protagonists, in a modern world that turns out to have wonders lurking beyond darkened doorways. The style sounds like urban fantasy, in the way that a third of the SCA can be described as, "y'know, he's got glasses, a beard and a ponytail". But it has neither the self-important darkness that one strand of urban fantasy affects, nor the obsession with the usual fantasy tropes of vampires, werewolves and elves. She instead draws from a broader palette, mixing ancient mythologies with her own wild imagination and a slightly melancholy but generally optimistic outlook.

Cairo was built on the mythologies of the Middle East, ranging from ancient Egypt through Islam. Air, by contrast, uses the mythologies of the modern world, and specifically the little-considered mystique of the most modern of devices: the airplane. Our heroine is Blythe, a stewardess with just one small problem: she has a paralyzing fear of heights. That turns out to be the least complicated part of her life, though, as she gradually learns the secret history of the 20th century: a story where the mundane art of traveling through the air is just part of the quest to understand the ancient Mayan secrets of how to bend space and time. Blythe learns the art of the Hyperpract, and along the way wends her way into so many time paradoxes it would make even JMS' head hurt.

It's a delightful story, and every bit as much a romance as an adventure, as her life increasingly intertwines with the mysterious Zayn, and they slowly learn everything about each other. Lighter in tone than the average Vertigo story (while there are dangerous excursions, one never gets that sort of overwhelming gloom that is fashionable nowadays), it manages to pull in figures ranging from Jules Verne (whose history of Blythe's life winds up a significant MacGuffin) to Amelia Earhart (one of the great Hyperpracts) as significant characters.

The story was told as a mid-length maxiseries (24 issues -- and when did that become just "mid-length"?), and I assume that it is being released as collections. It's not quite as strong as Cairo, simply because the story is necessarily not as tight, but it's a fun read with some genuinely new fantasy ideas. Too much of fantasy has become sterile, recycling and remixing the same ideas over and over; Wilson is one of those authors who is breaking new ground and exploring in the best fantasy traditions. I give it a strong B+: good stuff from an up-and-coming writer who I plan on following.

TRoOB: Air

Sep. 11th, 2010 03:13 pm
jducoeur: (Default)
A number of good miniseries have ended in the past few weeks. All have been "graphic novels" in the true sense: not just appendages to ongoing comics, but well-contained stories in their own right, and all are quite good. So it's time once again to pull out The Review of Obscure Books, and talk about stuff worth reading. First up is Air, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by M. K. Perker, published by Vertigo.

Wilson first made her mark a couple of years ago with the graphic novel Cairo, and it established her style: magical realism (realistic fantasy?) centered on slightly messed-up but sympathetic female protagonists, in a modern world that turns out to have wonders lurking beyond darkened doorways. The style sounds like urban fantasy, in the way that a third of the SCA can be described as, "y'know, he's got glasses, a beard and a ponytail". But it has neither the self-important darkness that one strand of urban fantasy affects, nor the obsession with the usual fantasy tropes of vampires, werewolves and elves. She instead draws from a broader palette, mixing ancient mythologies with her own wild imagination and a slightly melancholy but generally optimistic outlook.

Cairo was built on the mythologies of the Middle East, ranging from ancient Egypt through Islam. Air, by contrast, uses the mythologies of the modern world, and specifically the little-considered mystique of the most modern of devices: the airplane. Our heroine is Blythe, a stewardess with just one small problem: she has a paralyzing fear of heights. That turns out to be the least complicated part of her life, though, as she gradually learns the secret history of the 20th century: a story where the mundane art of traveling through the air is just part of the quest to understand the ancient Mayan secrets of how to bend space and time. Blythe learns the art of the Hyperpract, and along the way wends her way into so many time paradoxes it would make even JMS' head hurt.

It's a delightful story, and every bit as much a romance as an adventure, as her life increasingly intertwines with the mysterious Zayn, and they slowly learn everything about each other. Lighter in tone than the average Vertigo story (while there are dangerous excursions, one never gets that sort of overwhelming gloom that is fashionable nowadays), it manages to pull in figures ranging from Jules Verne (whose history of Blythe's life winds up a significant MacGuffin) to Amelia Earhart (one of the great Hyperpracts) as significant characters.

The story was told as a mid-length maxiseries (24 issues -- and when did that become just "mid-length"?), and I assume that it is being released as collections. It's not quite as strong as Cairo, simply because the story is necessarily not as tight, but it's a fun read with some genuinely new fantasy ideas. Too much of fantasy has become sterile, recycling and remixing the same ideas over and over; Wilson is one of those authors who is breaking new ground and exploring in the best fantasy traditions. I give it a strong B+: good stuff from an up-and-coming writer who I plan on following.
jducoeur: (device)
It's Christmas Eve Eve, 2006; if you're lucky enough to have had an invitation foisted on you, Seth Bingo and The Silent Girl are running their dance club, Never on a Sunday. The club has three simple rules:
  • No Boy Singers

  • You Must Dance

  • No Magic!
Because this is The Singles Club, the just-finished miniseries set in the Phonogram universe, and there is just a *bit* of magic in the world. Music is sort of magic-in-potential, albeit mostly the subtle magic of the mind and heart and soul -- a metaphor wrapped in the literal wrapped in a metaphor. Other than that, it is quite exactly our world.

The first Phonogram tale was Rue Brittania a few years back, and told the story of phonomancer David Kohl tracking down the killers of Brittania, the Goddess of Britpop. It was a good start, but with The Singles Club we get real magic on the printed page. Its seven issues tell seven separate but tightly interlocked stories, of a bunch of friends and their night at the club. Each issue tells the same story from a different viewpoint, not so much contradicting each other as filling in each others' gaps, so that the stories considered together are very different from individually. Each takes a different viewpoint character; for example:
  • There is Emily Aster, the ultra-cool girl who got the way she was by casting her original messed-up identity and soul into Limbo. But just because Claire isn't around any more doesn't mean she can't mess with Emily.

  • There's Lloyd, aka "Mr. Logos", who is certain that he can change the world -- if only someone will pay attention to his ideas.

  • Laura Heaven is the nominal villainess of the piece -- and yet, is so easy to identify with, when you read it all from her viewpoint.

  • And of course, there is Penny. She's the beautiful and sweet one, living white magic on the dance floor, and is having the worst evening of her life: as far as she can tell, all her friends have turned against her. Of course, that's not true: they're just all living their own stories.
In clumsier hands, the conceit would be precious and tritsy, but this is a wonder. Each story and character is achingly real, wrapped up in the magic of their lives as only a 20-year-old can be.

Kieron Gillen, the author, has a passion for his subject that borders on obsession. Each issue comes with a page or two of footnotes, detailing the musical references in the stories; between that and the structural intricacy, the result would make Alan Moore proud. (Why can't American authors write this well?) I'm keeping the series out as reference material for the next time I want to do an online musical trawl: I want to dig around and learn more about these characters by learning more about their musical tastes.

All of this is complemented by Jamie McKelvie's beautiful, elegant clean-line artwork. Imagine what John Byrne might look like if he had some visual imagination and the ability to draw more than one face. Actually, that's unfair -- on his best day, Byrne's art has never been this pristine. Even Matthew Wilson's coloring contributes crucially to the story, literally providing it with the subtle tones it needs.

The series has been running for a good while now, not even remotely monthly. With any luck, Image will be smart enough to come out with a collection promptly, and will include all of the backmatter that adds even more depth to the whole thing.

Recommended unreservedly: this may well be the best comics story of 2010, the sort of thing that snaps the chains of genre that so often wrap and limit comics. If you like music or magic or comics, this is worth a try; if you like all three, it's a must-have...
jducoeur: (Default)
TRoOB, for those who came in recently, is The Review of Obscure Books, my occasional comics review column. (It doesn't come out often nowadays, mostly because I'm embarassingly behind on my reading.) I've been doing it for over 20 years now, and its remit is especially to review the relatively odd and little-known books. And surely, little is odder than Dave Sim's Glamourpuss.

Sim is best known for the book Cerebus, the longest limited series ever. By a couple of years in, he had declared that it was a 300-issue story, and he stuck to that. Sadly, Dave went slightly nuts somewhere in the middle there, and the result was a deeply flawed masterpiece, with 100-odd issues of brilliant (and often wickedly funny) satire followed by increasingly abstruse (and sometimes downright dull) philosophy and fictionalized biography. Particularly conspicuous was Dave's misogynistic streak, which got pretty brutal after a bad divorce.

So it was with trepidation that I saw his new book, which from the cover was obviously some sort of parody of fashion magazines. And honestly, I still can't say whether the book is any *good*, but it's fascinatingly strange.

This is the peanut butter cup of comic books: two utterly unrelated books crammed together. Half of it is exactly what it looks like -- an utterly vicious satire of the fashion world. There is no story to it whatsoever, although there is a cast of characters: the model Glamourpuss, her despised sister Skanko, her shrink Dr. Norm, and so on. The art is *entirely* traced / adapted / parodied from fashion magazine advertisements, with the humor coming from the tweaks and changes along the way, as well as the editorial content surrounding it. (The characters exist only in that surrounding text.)

Glamourpuss herself is an odd combination of Dave and his neuroses: at once an utter dimwit, yet often insightful (and brutally funny) in her deconstructions of the world of "high culture". I have to say, as an outlet for Dave's disgust and anger with the world, it's a well-chosen target. And heaven knows, there's a lot of material out there.

What makes this book strange is the other half of it: an illustrated history of the neo-realist movement in comic strips. Yes, this has nothing to do with the more visible half, and he's utterly unapologetic about that. The comic veers, page by page, back and forth between perfume advertisements and 1950s art history.

That said, it works in its strange way. The satire keeps the biography from getting as turgid as Cerebus got in its bad stretch. It *is* sometimes dull, but also sometimes oddly fascinating. For example, issue 3 spends ten pages digging into a photograph of Milt Caniff and Alex Raymond, which looks friendly and collegial on the surface and yet, when he looks at all the tiny details (blown up in his drawings of the picture) gives hints that these guys had a terrible rivalry going on; he then digs into why Caniff might have had cause to really hate Raymond, as the two of them drove the field of comics art forward, stealing ideas along the way.

More than anything else, this is a comic book of obsession. It's been no secret that Dave is obsessed with fine-line comics art, and with women and the way they get used in modern culture. So he's built a book that is simply an excuse to explore those passions. The result is unbalanced, strange and erratic, and yet his passion continues to carry it through. Every issue, I find myself asking, "Why the heck am I buying this?" And the answer continues to be, "Because it's still strangely fascinating."

So I can't exactly recommend it: I suspect that this is one of those tastes that is only going to appeal to a modest number of people. Personally, I find it incredibly uneven. But if you have a taste for the weird, it may be worth checking out an issue, and seeing if this particular collection of obsession works for you...
jducoeur: (Default)
TRoOB, for those who came in recently, is The Review of Obscure Books, my occasional comics review column. (It doesn't come out often nowadays, mostly because I'm embarassingly behind on my reading.) I've been doing it for over 20 years now, and its remit is especially to review the relatively odd and little-known books. And surely, little is odder than Dave Sim's Glamourpuss.

Sim is best known for the book Cerebus, the longest limited series ever. By a couple of years in, he had declared that it was a 300-issue story, and he stuck to that. Sadly, Dave went slightly nuts somewhere in the middle there, and the result was a deeply flawed masterpiece, with 100-odd issues of brilliant (and often wickedly funny) satire followed by increasingly abstruse (and sometimes downright dull) philosophy and fictionalized biography. Particularly conspicuous was Dave's misogynistic streak, which got pretty brutal after a bad divorce.

So it was with trepidation that I saw his new book, which from the cover was obviously some sort of parody of fashion magazines. And honestly, I still can't say whether the book is any *good*, but it's fascinatingly strange.

This is the peanut butter cup of comic books: two utterly unrelated books crammed together. Half of it is exactly what it looks like -- an utterly vicious satire of the fashion world. There is no story to it whatsoever, although there is a cast of characters: the model Glamourpuss, her despised sister Skanko, her shrink Dr. Norm, and so on. The art is *entirely* traced / adapted / parodied from fashion magazine advertisements, with the humor coming from the tweaks and changes along the way, as well as the editorial content surrounding it. (The characters exist only in that surrounding text.)

Glamourpuss herself is an odd combination of Dave and his neuroses: at once an utter dimwit, yet often insightful (and brutally funny) in her deconstructions of the world of "high culture". I have to say, as an outlet for Dave's disgust and anger with the world, it's a well-chosen target. And heaven knows, there's a lot of material out there.

What makes this book strange is the other half of it: an illustrated history of the neo-realist movement in comic strips. Yes, this has nothing to do with the more visible half, and he's utterly unapologetic about that. The comic veers, page by page, back and forth between perfume advertisements and 1950s art history.

That said, it works in its strange way. The satire keeps the biography from getting as turgid as Cerebus got in its bad stretch. It *is* sometimes dull, but also sometimes oddly fascinating. For example, issue 3 spends ten pages digging into a photograph of Milt Caniff and Alex Raymond, which looks friendly and collegial on the surface and yet, when he looks at all the tiny details (blown up in his drawings of the picture) gives hints that these guys had a terrible rivalry going on; he then digs into why Caniff might have had cause to really hate Raymond, as the two of them drove the field of comics art forward, stealing ideas along the way.

More than anything else, this is a comic book of obsession. It's been no secret that Dave is obsessed with fine-line comics art, and with women and the way they get used in modern culture. So he's built a book that is simply an excuse to explore those passions. The result is unbalanced, strange and erratic, and yet his passion continues to carry it through. Every issue, I find myself asking, "Why the heck am I buying this?" And the answer continues to be, "Because it's still strangely fascinating."

So I can't exactly recommend it: I suspect that this is one of those tastes that is only going to appeal to a modest number of people. Personally, I find it incredibly uneven. But if you have a taste for the weird, it may be worth checking out an issue, and seeing if this particular collection of obsession works for you...

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