Friday, January 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1713- Joshua Whitehead: Full-Metal Indigiqueer

Reading Joshua Whitehead's poetry collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer, I found myself thinking a lot about accessibility and more specifically, how accessible poetry should be. Over the life of this blog I've gone through, and got exhausted with, a poetry phase. I was reading a lot of contemporary white poetry and after a while it all sounded the same: slightly mournful and full of words only poets use. When the poems wouldn't trigger any emotion except for bitterness over the use of "ephemeral" or yet another Greek reference, they started to become inaccessible. Yet, poems that are too accessible are problematic as well. They become poorly written rhyming quatrains, odes to dead dogs in the local obituaries. Though I've not read anything by her yet, Rupi Kaur's poetry has been similarly criticized as pandering to the masses, equivalent to shallow pop songs.

To be sure, Full-Metal Indiqueer, despite its many references to modern global culture, is not a shallow pop song. It's as inaccessible as all hell. But damn it, unlike all that dull white poetry, it's evocative and makes you want to access it. I'm still not 100% sure I understood all of his intent, but I trust that there were true intentions (verses obscure for the sake of it), and how I did interpret some worked for me. This is thoughtful, exciting poetry. While the themes can be angering or sad from time to time, reading it as a whole was a fun experience.

The most startling thing about Full-Metal Indigiqueer is the strong voice. The back of the book identifies the narrator as being a trickster hybrid of organic and technological identities and whether that is Whitehead's own voice or a character remains to be seen. It was, in any case, completely mesmerizing. So completely inventive and in control and unique and proud of it, weaving effortlessly in and out of more standard English and occasional Cree to invented spellings, number-letter combos, and pseudo-programming jargon. Language is essentially his bitch. His use of punctuation was like nothing I've ever seen before. Instead of adding actual question marks (?), for example, he consistently wrote [question mark] and to me it solidified these questions, acknowledging that by merely asking they become real, a Schrodinger's cat statement/question; a perfect metaphor for a character that is comfortable in his own skin regardless; he's here (H3R31AM) and whether he is organic or technological at the moment or somewhere in between hardly matters. What matters is love, sex, culture, Culture, death, history, future, and all those awesome themes good poetry brings us closer to understanding.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1712- Matthew Rosenberg (writer), Tyler Boss (artist): 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank

I've heard a lot of hype around 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank and to be honest, it probably made me judge Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss's 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank a little more critically than had I discovered the book on my own.

This tale of a quartet of misfit kids robbing a bank is certainly entertaining and funny. It hits the nostalgia buttons of Stranger Things and Paper Girls (though I'm a little unclear what the time period is meant to be in this case), has the imagination of The Lego Movie, the edge and quirk of a Tarantino movie, but I'm not sure that it's as good as any of those. The characters are well defined and interesting, the plot is unique, and it is certainly stylistic but it's perhaps there where it fell apart, at least a little, for me.

I wasn't wild about the art. It's minimalistic in the vein of David Aja's work on Hawkeye, complete with the flat pastel colours of Tintin comics. Boss also plays with panel sizes, reminding me Chris Ware's art. Again, these are all good comparisons. Sometimes though the characters movement felt stiff and unrealistic; people walking without bending their knees enough, that sort of thing. And the dimensions were also off from time to time. Panels, for instance, showing the front of a van present the driver and passenger as being way too far apart.

It all sounds rather nit-picky on part and again, I did quite enjoy it. Because of the slight imperfections, however, I'm just not sure it deserved all the hype.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1711- Various artists and writers: Native American Classics

Native American Classics is a collection of (mostly) older stories and poems by indigenous North Americans illustrated into a comics format.

One aspect I cannot comment on, of course, is the fairness and accuracy of this compilation in terms of the various indigenous cultures they represent. I will instead point you to Beverly Slapin's (much more thorough) review of the book here.  The only disclaimer I'll make is that the creators of this book (who, according the biographies at the back, are also of indigenous heritage) would probably beg to differ on some of her points.

I can comment on my enjoyment of the book and by and large, I did. There were a variety of themes and tones, ranging from the serious to more light-hearted. The art was mostly good, though (as Slapin also points out) in one or two instances didn't always seem to match the tone, or even details, of the stories.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1710- Thi Bui: The Best We Could Do

One of the most shocking things about Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do is that is her first graphic novel. It's absolutely beautiful. Stunning. The linework, the watercolours, the unique angles and paneling, the connection to the text. It's flawless. And, as a credit to her respect for the medium, she writes in the preface that she told this story as a comic as she wanted to "present history in a way that is human and relatable and not oversimplified." It's that last one that jumps out at me as many non-comics readers suggest that comics are simpler. That fact that Bui gets it shines through in every page.

Here is a complex story of Vietnamese and familial history, of an immigrant experience, paternal legacies and insecurities, of self-discovery through others. It's touching, frustrating, funny (not hysterical), and enlightening.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1709- NoViolet Bulawayo: Happy Birthday Africa President

It's the rarest of times that I come across a sentence so spectacular to make me fall in love with the author's writing almost immediately, but it happened several times during NoViolet Bulawayo's "Happy Birthday Africa President."

The first was with the second sentence in the story, a run-on sentence and spectacular because it breaks rules intentionally and to great effect. It's an artist laying down a setting and also triggering the effect that ubiquitous propaganda posters have on one's senses. The next time was shortly after in a scene describing the sun, "searing us like we owe it money," a sentence pulling double-duty to describe the heat plus the mindset forced upon the characters by their poverty.

The plot itself isn't complicated, basically a fight breaks out between characters of different political bents, but it certainly has topical and relevant themes and besides, the writing is so gorgeous and masterful I'm left in awe.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1708- Various artists and writers: Marvel Generations

Marvel readers are no doubt aware that almost all of their legacy characters have been replaced, somewhat, in recent years. The somewhat is the problem. The publishers seem not to know what to do with the divisions among their fans. Some, most likely for nostalgia, want the heroes to stay the same, be the same characters they grew up with. Others welcome the changes, as the new characters are more diverse and it's about time. Personally, I see where these sides are coming from (except for the racist, sexist, bigoted sides-- your side can go to hell), and my solution would be to simply introduce brand new diverse characters rather than rewrite the old ones. That one would take a longer investment than I think Marvel, a rather short-sighted company, is willing to take on. They typically, very half-heartedly, try a new character for a single arc of comics, find that it hasn't sold as well as familiar characters and cancel it. The promotion is almost non-existent, they don't back it up with t-shirts and other merchandise, and most importantly, they've not exhibited any patience.

In the case of the newer variants on the old, Marvel seems unwilling to commit fully and write the old ones out of existence. Yes, we have a female Thor now, but the old one is still around. Likewise for Iron Man (sort of), Hawkeye, and a bunch of others. This doubling will be problematic down the road, I suspect (and some would argue, it already is), but for now Marvel Generations was at least a good way to catch people up on the newbies and to celebrate the legacies.

These were enjoyable, if somewhat, inconsequential stories. In all cases, the new characters found themselves plucked from their current existence and meeting their namesakes at some point in the past, prior to them having met in the real/ current time. The new ones all know enough about time travel to try and keep a low profile, but all wind up in various battles, fighting side by side, and then returning. Some of the authors try to give the stories more importance, tacking on lessons they've learned about themselves or their roots, but those angles seemed forced and non-canon. It's best to just enjoy these for their entertainment value.

As there are various creators taking part, the quality is a mixed bag, though none are terrible and some are quite good (G. Willow Wilson's writing, the artists on the Spider-Man story, for example).

There are a few other characters that could have made it in but did not for whatever reason (e.g., Wasp) but one omission I found most glaring was Nova and the reason is that the two Nova characters are included on the cover! I'm guessing they initially planned to include them?

Reader's Diary #1707- Christian Klengenberg: Klengenberg of the Arctic

I first heard of Christian Klengenberg through a student of mine. He was a descendant of Christian Klengenberg and told me some of the most fascinating stories. I've since met a lot more of his descendants and have been very curious to read Klengenberg's autobiography, Klengenberg of the Arctic. Written in the early 30s and published shortly after his death in 1931, the book has been long out print and very hard to come by. Finally, I've been able to track the text down online (and hopefully someone will republish it as a book).

Originally from Denmark, Klengenberg was a world-traveled adventurer and jack of all trades by the time he ventured north to Alaska and northern Canada. It was here that he seemed to be most at home and where he married an Inuk woman named Gemina and began a family. His was not a life without controversy, however. He once went to trial for murdering a man. While he was acquitted for that, some still had their doubts and indeed, he was also under suspicion for a few other criminal acts including the theft of a ship and the disappearance of another man.

Of course, one shouldn't expect to find any evidence against him in his autobiography, but it was at least interesting to get his side of these stories, as well as many other tales. His personality runs large in these pages and at times he can come across as a bit arrogant (about himself and his family). This is especially problematic when he suggests in one paragraph that he is easy-going and can get along with anyone, but later describes a near mutiny against him. Some of his arrogance, I suppose, was warranted as there is no doubt he had superb survival skills and was more adaptable than a good many visitors to the north before and since. Nor, it should be noted, does being arrogant prove he was guilty of any of the crimes accused of him.

Klengenberg of the Arctic is a wildly entertaining and insightful collection of memories by an eccentric personality, one that has left an immeasurable impact on the north.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1706- Tony Medina (writer), Stacey Robinson and John Jennings (illustrators): I Am Alfonso Jones

I had a few reservations heading into Tony Medina's I Am Alfonso Jones, mostly on my ability to talk about it after. A few misconceptions going in: 1. this was aimed at American black teens 2. it would be overly didactic. If number 1 was true, would I, a white, middle-aged man in Canada be able to review it? I took some solace in the fact that I try not to be too much of a reviewer anyway, but rather focus most of my time simply thinking aloud about my own personal reactions to a book in the (unrequited) hope that someone might what to share their own thoughts and discuss. If number 2 was true, well, again related to my privilege, I shouldn't judge how didactic someone from another race, another culture feels they should be. I enjoyed Netflix's Luke Cage, for instance, but at first felt the messages were heavy handed. Then, I considered the possibility that for some peoples it isn't exactly  the time for subtlety. Again, not my place to decide. All that in mind, I'm glad I chose to carry on.

Yes, I Am Alfonso Jones may be aimed at American black teens, but probably not just at them and there's something others, including myself can take away. Just the story alone is engaging; of a teenage boy who is murdered by a police officer and finds himself of a subway of souls who are to travel forever, or at least until there has been justice. It's also creatively told, with flashbacks, multiple perspectives, and a subplot about a hip hop version of Hamlet. (Had I remembered Hamlet a little better, I think would have aided in my enjoyment in that aspect.) And the art is great, with fluid lines, a 70s sort of style (Will Eisner-ish), and black shading. More importantly though, messages about racial biases and inequality, abuses of power, etc were not lost on even me who has never lived in an area with a large population of black people. I have, however, lived in populations with a large number of indigenous people and they too have, unfortunately, often met with the same fate at the hands of the police.

And, I didn't feel it overly didactic. I did learn a lot of history but perhaps owing to creative storytelling, it felt natural and unforced. It's also a fair book that, while it certainly takes a stand for justice, nonetheless explores all the complexities without selling easy, unrealistic fixes.

I Am Alfonso Jones will stick with me for some time.