Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - November Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

And in prize news, Heather has won a signed copy of Richard Van Camp's Three Feathers for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a Canadian novel set north of 60. Congratulations, Heather! (Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Reader's Diary #1419- Margaret Atwood (writer), Johnnie Christmas (artist): Angel Catbird

It's hard to find a moderate voice on Margaret Atwood. It seems some think everything the woman writes is golden, worthy of yet another Governor General's Award, while others despise her simply because she's popular-- heaven forbid a Canadian writer get famous, the mere fact alone should disqualify them from any awards which apparently can only be given to flavours of the week. I happen to think Atwood is a damned fine writer. Most of her novels are great (not all) and I enjoy her poetry. I don't, however, think she's has any business writing children's books (Princess Prunella is dreadful).

All of this is my way of saying that I was open to the idea that her first attempt at a comic is good, but I was skeptical. Reviews would be no help.

In her introduction, Atwood goes out of her way to justify her qualifications in writing comic books. She read them as a kid, she even drew some! Then she describes the terrible struggle she had finding an illustrator and a publisher for Angel Catbird. Please. Publishers are savvy enough to know that there are enough of the "Atwood can do no wrong" types out there willing to shell out a few bucks regardless of the quality.

Now that I've read it, I wouldn't go as far as saying she has no business writing comics, but this smacks of a first, amateur attempt. It would seem that she's not read a superhero comic since her youth because Angel Catbird comes across oddly dated. Strig Feleedus, the man whose DNA is merged with a cat and an owl (in a ridiculously implausible manner), tends to narrate the action in his thoughts and speech the same way that Spider-Man stopped doing in the 80s. "My hands... what's happening?" If he's looking at his hand and they're suddenly not human-looking, we can guess what he's thinking! Less is more!

Johnnie Christmas's art is slightly better, but just serviceable. I'm a sucker for background details and Christmas's are sadly scant. They come across like newspaper strips when artists at least had the justification that they were under a deadline.

All in all, a disappointment.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reader's Diary #1418- Marc Andreyko (writer), various artists: Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

After the success of Batman '66, the comic based on the old Adam West TV series, I'm not shocked that DC would try to replicate that with Wonder Woman '77, this time based on the Linda Carter series.

Largely, I would suppose this is another win. That said, I've never actually seen the Linda Carter series so, whereas I could give praise to Jeff Parker and illustrators for capturing the whimsy of the old Batman series, I cannot say whether or not Marc Andreyko and crew were able to replicate the feel of the old Wonder Woman series. I would say it does give a pretty accurate portrayal of the 70s, but that's as far as I can go.

However, I can state that it works as a fun, low-stakes comic book series. Not yet having found a Wonder Woman comic that has really worked for me in terms of offering me compelling stories or endearing me to the character, this series doesn't quite achieve either of those either. That said, it's the first one that I've nonetheless enjoyed.

Now if they'll just do a Superman '78 series based on the old Christopher Reeves movies, we'd be all set.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reader's Diary #1417- Sally Clark: Moo

Some plays I read and enjoy and don't care if I ever see it performed. Other plays I read, don't enjoy, and think that perhaps it best be seen. Sally Clark's Moo is one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and has left me wanting to see it.

Moo is a dark, fast-paced comedy about one of those typical disaster couples. The Sid and Nancy type. I don't think I'm alone in stating that Harry, the Sid in this equation, is easily the villain of the two, but Clark also goes out of her way to chip away at any sympathy one might feel towards Moo, the Nancy. The play opens with Harry having Moo locked up in an insane asylum under false pretenses. Yet that is not a deal breaker.

It's a quirky story and one that could provide much fodder for intelligent debate, yet for all of that, it's accessible and works just fine as pure entertainment.

Reader's Diary #1416- Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston: Sheets of Earth

It's usually only when an artist (painter, musician, actor, writer) does something distasteful that we make the effort to separate the artist from his work. The art must have came from the muse, the great beyond, belonging to the world and let's not credit the monster behind it, or at the very least, let's not give him back his art. Odd that this is when the artist is free.

The artist in Silvina Ocampo's "Sheets of Earth" is a gardener. He does not have a fall from grace and is thus consumed by his work. Literally. The struggle is weak, more acceptance really. Likewise, those around him seem to not put in any effort to help.

It's an interesting tale with the air of a parable.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reader's Diary #1415: Ian McEwan: Atonement

Years ago I created a list called "glaring omissions" of all the books that everyone else seemed to have read by me. I stuck it up on the side bar of this blog and over time have whittled away at it, bringing the number down from 20 to 2. Ian McEwan's Atonement has been one of the hold outs for a couple of reasons. First off, I've since seen the film adaptation and regardless of how I feel about a movie, I'm much less likely to read a book after seeing it on the screen. I usually find it taints my perception, I find it hard not to envision the actors in the roles and so on. Secondly, I've since read Ian McEwan's Saturday. I enjoyed it but probably not enough to be inspired to seek out another novel by him, being more interested in familiarizing myself with other authors. But now that time has passed and both are becoming more distant memories, I've finally given in and knocked Atonement off the list.

I knew I was in trouble when it opened with a quote from Jane Austen. Finding old British literature rather stuffy, especially Austen, it was not a good sign.

For the few remaining people who have not read Atonement or seen the movie, the story involves a couple of sisters, Briony and Cecilia Tallis, and their childhood friend Robbie. Briony is increasingly becoming shocked at the actions of Robbie towards her older sister Cecilia, not understanding that they are on the brink of a new, sexual relationship. When a rape happens nearby, Briony convinces herself and others that Robbie is the culprit and many lives spiral downward as a result.

Being set in the 30s and involving an upper class British family is essential to the story as it would be much more implausible or at least much less likely in today's society. I started to wonder if perhaps McEwan was making such a point, that just as Briony needed to atone for her sins, so must society for having created such a culture of secrecy and rigid norms that would allow such tragedies to happen. But if that was the case, McEwan struck me as the type of father who, upon catching his teenage son smoking, would force him to smoke an entire pack in order to become sick and learn the lesson the hard way. The first third of Atonement is in itself stuffy. The Tallis family is pretentious and unlikable. Worst of all, the plot plods along so painfully slowly.

Not that I think McEwan is a bad writer and in fact, take any page and you can find some gorgeous passages. It's such passages that allowed me to continue. Still, as a complete package Atonement was a tedious chore.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reader's Diary #1414- Harvey Pekar (writer), various illustrators: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

I had seen the infamous clips of Harvey Pekar being "interviewed" by David Letterman before but quickly put them out of my head, not thinking about him again until reading The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, a double collection of two American Splendor anthologies. Harvey Pekar was the grandfather of graphic memoirs.

That's a pretty neat title for someone who never himself drew. Instead he tended to badger artists friends into illustrating his work. Fortunately, he seemed to have some pretty talented friends. His most common collaborator, and the only one whose work I was previously familiar, was Robert Crumb. I'm okay with Crumbs thick-lined, almost grotesquely exaggerated cartoons, but it was Gerry Shamray's work that really blew me away. He used negative space like no one I've ever seen before.

Actually, all of the authors here are to be applauded for finding any way to illustrate Pekar's work. Half the time they're simply rants, the other half really text-heavy stories and observations. (Future graphic memoirists have found a better balance of words and pictures, for sure.) Nonetheless, it all works as a complete package, a package meant to give a sense of who Harvey Pekar the man is (or was, as the case might be).

At first I wasn't sure I'd like Harvey Pekar all that much. Or even at all. He seemed to take pride in being cheap and using his friends. Worse, he had a misogynistic streak. (Any woman who dared turn him down was a "bitch," or even a "cunt" in one case.). Not that I ever got over my reservations completely, but by the end, I grew to discover that he was more complex than that, he was more sensitive than he first appeared, and he had a penchant for self-deprecation. Nonetheless, he came across as honest and for a study of another man's life, you could do worse than The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Reader's Diary #1413- Elise Holland: Tattered Cotton

I like to see real middle class domestic life in my stories and TV. A little less sheen, an acknowledgement that we're not all supermodels living in immaculately mini-mansions and wearing designer clothes fresh out of the store. This is not to say I want us always presented as slobs either, and Elise Holland does a supremely fair job of balancing it all.

"Tattered Cotton" is a simple story really. There's a couple who are now in that real stage of couples life. Worn clothing, complete with holes, simple conversations about supper, not a lot of sleep or free time, 2 kids. But in love nonetheless or because of it all. Still, when finding themselves with a night to themselves, they make the most of it. The story, from the woman's point of view, is about getting fixed up for their date. As the husband points out, he's attracted to her when she's less than fancy. But still, fancy is appreciated on both sides on occasion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reader's Diary #1412- Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer), Brian Stelfreeze (artist): Black Panther A Nation Under Our Feet Book One

It was back in February, in anticipation of the Captain America: Civil War movie that I read Christopher Priest's first collection of Black Panther comics.While the comics were a huge disappointment, luckily Black Panther's portrayal in the movie was not and my appetite for the character was whetted once more.

Make no mistake, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Black Panther run is vastly superior. Brian Stelfreeze's art is consistent, there's no annoying Everett Ross character, and Wakanda is far more interesting than the United States.

But as great as Wakanda is, and it's the star of this book, I'm still left longing for more insight into King T'Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther). As an anti-monarchist I struggle with the idea of a king as a superhero anyway, so I'm not necessarily looking to like the character as much as to understand him. Unfortunately he's just not on the page enough. Granted, the other characters are interesting in their own right, they're not the ones with their name on the cover.

Despite my issues, I am glad to have read this as a collected volume versus the individual comics. Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't come from a comics background and perhaps that's why I found the story a little slow to develop. Slow is not necessarily a bad thing, but as individual comics, I suspect many many would find it all a little too boring and not bother coming back. As a collection though, I began to see the myriad plots and characters coming together and I'm hopeful that Black Panther himself will be developed a little more in future collections. I even sense that the idea of democracy is just around the corner.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reader's Diary #1411- S. L. Dixon: 1993

"1993" by S. L. Dixon provides an unintended lesson in subtlety. It tells of a young boy in rural Ontario who is a closeted Canadiens fan. In Leafs country.

Did you catch that "closeted" there? If you usually associate such a word with gay people who are fearful of revealing their true selves, rest assured that the connotation was intended.

Very early in the story I was feeling good that Dixon's story could be a metaphor, especially with the hockey cover story; the message may be felt in the athletic community, where I have heard, it is even harder for young people to be themselves.

But then all subtlety is lost.

Why couldn't he love like everyone else did? Why did he have to feel such a way about something everyone else saw as wrong?

Just a little later

Nicholas couldn't understand all of the hatred, as it wasn't a choice he made, but it was who he was.

and finally

Loving the Canadiens was no longer a taboo issue and Nicholas could be free to love without ridicule or torment.

I don't know. I guess to me those lines stuck out like sore thumbs, more relevant to the metaphor than the actual surface story. As if readers might be to dumb to pick up on the connection otherwise. Also, the tone of the story, despite the "message," comes across as lighthearted and comparing a boy and his Habs sweater to a gay person who wants to be himself without fear of repercussions seems to trivialize the latter if you ask you me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Reader's Diary #1410 - Ryan North: The Best of Dinosaur Comics 2003 - 2005

It's very fitting that one of the strips in Ryan North's The Best of Dinosaur Comics 2003 - 2005 refers to Scott McCloud's definition of comics: "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." 

I've never been 100% comfortable with this definition, though I'm a huge fan of McCloud's 1993 masterpiece Understanding Comics, from where it originally came. First off, I'm not entirely sure about  the omission of hand-crafted art. This definition would suggest that a family photo album is a comic while a single panel Far Side cartoon is not. Secondly, I'm not entirely comfortable with the omission of words. Sure I can think of brilliant wordless comics (Shaun Tan's The Arrival), but the best comics are the ones where well-chosen words and pictures work together. 

So, despite North's claims that he created the web-comic series Dinosaur Comics with the simplest of intentions and methodologies (he wanted to meet girls who were into comics but he couldn't draw, so he found a handful of dinosaur cliparts, stuck them in a particular order, and repeated these images and sequences day after day, only altering the words), he nonetheless understood that there was something deliciously subversive about the whole thing. Here, words ARE the most vital part of the comic. You can only barely suggest that the pictures are in a deliberate sequence, and secondly, as the words sometimes don't even reference the images at all, the only thing that keeps it interesting at all are the words. It is, of course, fascinating that this works at all, not feeling monotonous at all and one almost forgets that it's the same set of images day in and day out. Whereas McCloud puts all the emphasis on images, North provides an example where the images hardly seem important at all.

Humour-wise, Dinosaur Comics reminds me a lot of Kate Beaton's comics, both take on a variety of subjects (comics, science, philosophy, and so on) with a hint of academia, but ample doses of friendly sarcasm (snark, but dialed down). It's like a first year university student trying undergraduate degree what to pursue. Again like Beaton, North avoids pretension in a project such as this all thanks to an infectious personality (though North projects his personality onto a T-Rex), one that is self-deprecating, cordial, and full of curiousity.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Reader's Diary #1409 - Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Mallam Sile

Mohammed Naseehu Ali's "Mallam Sile," set in Ghana, is full of wondrous imagery, most of it describing the titular character. Then, about halfway through, the story switches and seems to focus on his new bride. But, in case you were missing Mallam Sile, the two come together— in the most perfect way— at the end.

For a story that seems to dwell in characters, the plot is surprisingly compelling and raises a lot of questions about theological determinism versus free will. 

Friday, November 04, 2016

Reader's Diary #1408 - Dennis Hopeless (writer), Javier Rodriguez (artist): Spider-Woman Baby Talk Volume 1

Another Marvel character I didn't know much about, but as I've been exploring the Spider-Verse a bit this year, I knew enough that I definitely couldn't forget her. She may not have been around as long as Peter Parker's Spider-Man, but longer than Spider-Gwen, Silk, or Miles Morales's Spider-Man.

And as female Marvel character who's been around for a while, you'd be correct to assume that she's not always been treated with a lot of respect by the myriad of artists and writers who've had their turn. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very pregnant and respectably posed Spider-Woman, especially after the Milo Manara debacle just a few years back.

I'll also say that I was surprised that they went with 2 males for the writer/artist team, but I think the results are great. Again, this is coming from a male who's never been pregnant, so perhaps my opinion on this isn't highly prized either, but Jessica Drew's (a.k.a. Spider-Woman's) pregnancy did remind me a lot of my wife's two pregnancies, so it at least seemed accurate.

Of course, my wife didn't give birth in a Black Hole while fighting off an army of Skrull terrorists (that I'm aware of), so lest I make you think this is all about a pregnancy and not a superhero, I would like to set the record straight that even in a late stage pregnancy, Spider-Woman kicks ass. The balance between depicting a single mother, going through many physical and emotional changes, and a funny, action-filled superhero comic was just perfect.

For the most part, Rodriguez's art looked like generic superhero stuff, but I was quite impressed with his varied use of panels, whether they showed several Jessicas in one scene to capture her movements or repeated a scene several times side by side but with minor differences to slow down the pace, I found it all very purposeful and appropriate.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Reader's Diary #1407- Evie Wyld, illustrated by Joe Sumner: Everything is Teeth

In Everything is Teeth, Evie Wyld recounts her childhood memories of Australia and in particular a growing obsession with sharks. At the surface, this is a simply told story with (mostly) simple illustrations. But underneath the surface is so much more.

Even now, after I've had some time to process it, I'm left wondering if the shark was a symbol to represent all of Evie's fears or a distraction, a diversion created to avoid focusing on more serious issues (like her brother being bullied). Could it even be both a symbol and a diversion at once?

By no means is this a criticism. In fact, it's quite the opposite. I enjoy books that are so much more than they first appear, ones that have an unexpected bounty of meat on their bones.

The same compliment can be said for Sumner's illustrations. The majority of scenes involving Evie as a young girl are very cartoony and because of that, when Sumner veers off this style, things get very interesting. Why are the characters in the Jaws movie drawn so much more realistic? And while everything else is black and white with a yellowed-sepia tone, bloody reds almost shock the system. Is it a way of suggesting that fears are very real?

On that note, one of my favourite (and for me, one of the most powerful) scenes in the book involves Evie and her father going to a shark exhibit. They watch a video in which the narrator seems to take delight in cutting open sharks while trying his best to convince the audience of the shark's evil murderous tendencies. At the end of the exhibit, the main attraction "Conan the Shark," is poorly preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, his jaws pulled open to reveal the razor sharp teeth. Despite fearing sharks, Evie seems to find the whole thing depressing.

Here, I feel, she is on the verge of a rather adult notion that some of those supposedly negative emotions, such as fear, are healthy and meant to be respected, not shunned or whatever the hell that was with Vic Hislop, the mustachioed man from the video who laughs while revealing the contents of a shark stomach that he has just gutted.