Friday, March 31, 2017

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - March 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, congratulations to Heather for winning a copy of Gordon K. Jones's Defending the Inland Shores: Newfoundland in the War of 1812 for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a book written by a past or current participant in the Canadian Book Challenge. Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reader's Diary #1565- Kate Leth (writer), Eman Casallos (artist): Vampirella / Hollywood Horror

Kate Leth, whom I just happily discovered is Canadian, seems to have a knack for modernizing older comic book characters. Retaining enough character essence but making them contemporary, more attuned to today's values and issues (or as the young'uns might say, woke). She did so with Marvel's Hellcat and pulls it off again with Vampirella.

This is how Vampirella first appeared in 1969:

Believe it or not, this outfit got even smaller as time went on
Thankfully, there's been a lot of healthy discussion about the way that females have been portrayed in comics and we've seen some notable improvements. Indeed, the cover of Kate Leth and Eman Casallos's Vampirella: Hollywood Horror depicts an outfit much more conducive to kicking ass than showing ass.

Of course, vampire legends are often highly sexualized, and slut shaming Vampirella would be wrong, too. Fortunately Leth strikes the perfect balance with the character. Vampirella comes across as having a healthy sexual appetite. But even more impressively, Leth devises a way to reclaim the barely-there costume. Vampirella takes ownership.

Politics aside, this is a fun story. Alien vampires, werewolves, and demons? The camp of Hollywood is an ideal setting and the homage to old monster movies works perfectly. And the respect for the characters provides a much needed balance so that the novelty doesn't wear itself thin.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Reader's Diary #1564- Reinhard Kleist: Johnny Cash I See A Darkness

Considering myself a big fan of Johnny Cash, I've read and seen enough about the man that I don't feel that I really learned much about him through this graphic novel biography.

However, I did quite enjoy revisiting him and his music with this beautifully rendered comic. Reinhard Kleist's art is scratchy, like Jeff Lemire's, but inky and dark, like Charles Burns'. Both are fitting styles for a moody man-of-the-people artist like Cash.

Furthermore, Kleist works in other themes like the difference between factual truth and artistic truth that linger well beyond the book. In the end, where the man ends and the legend begins is almost irrelevant.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Reader's Diary #1563- Mikhail P. Artzybashev: The Revolutionist

With a title like "The Revolutionist" and by a Russian author, no less, one might suppose this short story would have lots of bearing upon what is happening currently in Russia.

It does, I suppose, but this tale of how a mild, mannered teacher might become a revolutionary, is not particularly profound.

It is enjoyable, nonetheless. Artzybashev's depictions of nature and weather seem almost Canadian, whereas the violent images were a somewhat surprising touch considering that it was written in 1917.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reader's Diary #1562- Steve Gerber (writer), various artists: The Man-Thing The Complete Collection

Swamp Thing has recently become one of my favourite DC Comics characters and as a card-carrying Marvel fan it has pained me somewhat to think that they ripped off DC with the Man-Thing. The good news is I was wrong about that. The bad news is, it doesn't really matter. Swamp Thing still reigns supreme.

The first Swamp Thing appearance was actually a few months later than Man-Thing's. Perhaps tellingly, the creators of both monsters lived with one another at the time. And the whole originality question is moot when one considers that both were rip-offs of the Heap who was in turn a rip-off of It (not the Stephen King clown-monster).

With nearly identical origin stories (a scientist injects himself with a chemical, falls into a swamp, and becomes a rotting vegetable monster), the Man-Thing/ Swamp Thing differences begin to veer from there. The former has a demonic penis face, the latter a demonic vagina face.

But more importantly, the Man-Thing doesn't think but merely reacts to emotions and a vague sense of good/evil. The Swamp Thing on the other hand is quite a thinker. Steve Gerber, to his credit, managed to milk more out of the Man-Thing's premise than I would have thought possible, but in the end, he comes across as a bit of a dog. The Swamp Thing's writers throughout the years have been able to infuse him with existential angst which is far more interesting. (Gerber did touch upon such topics in his latter Man-Thing stories but had to rely on peripheral characters to do so.)

Perhaps owing to the existential angle, the Swamp Thing's artists were also able to make him a much more horrifying character with a creepy mix of psychedelic imagery and symbolism. None of the artists of Steve Gerber's Man-Thing stories were really able to do much that was truly frightening, except perhaps if you're terrified of garish70s colours. 

All this aside, I'm glad to have given the Man-Thing a chance and I'm still curious to see what R. L. Stine will accomplish with the character this year.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reader's Diary #1561- Astrid Lindgren: Pomperipossa in Monismania

Revolver is often cited as the best Beatles album of all time, sometimes the best album of all time by anyone. It is ruined, however, by the opening track, "Taxman." Rich people complaining about paying taxes. Great riff or not, it's hard for me to get beyond that.

In "Pomperipossa in Monismania," Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish writer who was raking in the money from her Pippi Longstocking fame, however, made a better, and much more sympathetic case against her country's then marginal tax code which could result in independent business owners paying 102%.

Thinly disguised as a fairy tale, it's really not much more subtle than "Taxman" but there is at least a respectful acknowledgement of the role taxes pay in society. And 102% is outrageous.

It's a lightly humorous tale, perhaps made funnier because it so transparent.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reader's Diary #1560- Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith (writers), Aaron McConnell (artists): The Comic Book Story of Beer

In some aspects, Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith's The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World's Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today's Craft Brewing Revolution reminded me of Mark Kurlansky's Salt. Both took a food that most people probably don't give a second thought about, even while being enjoyed, and shared a surprisingly fascinating history of how that food has influenced society the world over.

An obvious difference between the two is that this one is illustrated. Much of the praise heaped on this book claim that the art makes an otherwise dull topic interesting. As a fan of Salt, which wasn't illustrated, I'd disagree. The history of beer would likely have been engaging even without Aaron McConnell's art.

However, McConnell's art acts as the hops, the flavouring agent. While it doesn't, as in many comic books, weigh equal importance to the text, doesn't add any new insight, it is good. It's consistently styled throughout, except when he veers to say, draw in the style of an old-timey political cartoon in order to complement the words. There's also a dry sense of humour that reminded of the Simpsons' Behind the Laughter episode with its over-the-top attempts at symbolism.

And, as a fan of craft beers but with little background knowledge to adequately explain why I prefer some beers over others, I can definitely say I learned a few things.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reader's Diary #1459- Various writers and artists: Luke Cage Avenger

Luke Cage has had disappointingly few solo outings in the comics. This book is a collection of solo stories that were part of larger story arcs where Cage was but one of many superheroes. But after really enjoying the Netflix series, I'll take it.

Of course, coming from Netflix as a starting point, it's impossible not to compare the two. His origin story is slightly different, whereas his strict moral code is still rather similar. I enjoyed this comparison exercise.

That said, the compilation still leaves much to be desired. With a title like Luke Cage: Avenger, I was hoping to see more Avenger story lines. In the series and in this book, he comes across more of a solo street fighter. I'm intrigued to know how he would lead with a larger ensemble (there are some team-ups here, but not many, and certainly not with Luke in a leadership role) and even more interested in seeing him take on larger, global threats. Unfortunately, this collection doesn't really deliver on these fronts.

Another disappointment was the portrayal of Jessica Jones. I knew beforehand that in the comics Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were married and with a child. I didn't know that meant that Jessica Jones would be reduced to a nagging housewife. That really sucked.

As for the art and writing, as with any compilation with this many writers and artists involved, it was a mixed bag of quality. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reader's Diary #1458- April White: Luck and the Long Dark

In the lead-up to "Luck and the Long Dark," April White writes that this was an award-winning entry in a short story contest to write in the style of Jack London, Robert Service, and Pierre Berton. Certainly Jack London's style comes through loud and clear and it is no wonder that she won.

Following the introspective male fighting to survive in a brutal north winter trope, is perhaps predictable, but the truly inspirational touch was to turn the story into an epistolary tale that, through the use of letters, also allows a female voice to shine through.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Reader's Diary #1457- Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis (writers), various artists: Scooby Apocalypse Volume 1

Archie Comics set the bar pretty high for subversive takes on their iconic characters beginning with the zombie-filled Afterlife with Archie. Now it seems everyone's getting in on the action. There's a socially satirical Flintstones, a gay, southern-gothic Snagglepuss, and an apocalyptic Scooby-Doo. Surprisingly almost all of these are meeting with critical and commercial success.

While I wouldn't go as far as suggesting that Scooby Apocalypse is as great as Afterlife with Archie, it is nonetheless pretty darn good.

Looking at the cover the most pressing concern is the hipster version of Shaggy. It's one thing to be subversive but it's quite another another to completely ignore the appeal of the original. Shaggy, I thought, used to be appealing for his total lack of awareness, not one to be caught up in dressing cool or current trends. This one has a hipster beard (complete with styled moustache), jewelry ear plugs, tattoos, and skinny jeans.

I can't say I ever came to accept this artistic decision, but I will say that the writing itself was good enough that I at least temporarily forgot about it. It's a bit of an origin story explaining how the gang all get together, as well as Scooby's ability to talk (however rudimentary). But the larger story is a sci-fi end-of-times story, complete with monsters and mind-controlling nanites (microscopic robots).

If it's not perfect, it is a lot of fun. In this most important way, it is very true to the source material.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Reader's Diary #1456- Riad Sattouf: The Arab of the Future

For this white North American male, Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future is a difficult book to discuss publicly. To be clear, Sattouf's memories of Libya and Syria from  the late 70s early 80s are not particularly flattering of either place. They come across as dirty, violent, backward, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic just as starters. To say that I enjoyed the book: does this imply that I necessarily believe him? Or worst, than I'm racist towards Arabs?

I will say that I think the book accurately reflects what Sattouf has taken away from his experiences and I believe it to be honest in that way. I'll also point out the discord between the text and visuals. For most episodes, even the appalling ones, Riad depicts his childhood self as grinning and pretty nonchalant toward the whole thing (an exception comes later in the book when he becomes more scared of personal injury), but it is pretty evident that this is the 30 year old Parisian self writing it, revaluing and interpreting events from an altogether different perspective.

On those notes, and even because of any discomfort I might feel toward discussing it, I quite enjoyed this book. It's challenging philosophically but in all the ways a book should be.

It's not particularly challenging from a purely literary approach as the cartooning is simple and expressive. One minor difficulty I had was with the use of colours. For the most part panels are monochromatic with different locales taking on a different pastel. It was interesting to look at, for sure, but I found myself wondering if Sattouf had intended readers to draw more meaning than simply a change in geography.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Reader's Diary #1455- Lucy Knisley: French Milk

A few years back I ruffled a few feathers by negatively reviewing a local poet's work whose defense turned out to be that they were poems written for her diary, not originally intended to be published. Fine, I suppose, but we've merely shifted blame to the publishers (and their editors). Not that such a book can't be pulled off, acceptable to outside readers, but without an audience in mind, there's a real danger of it being an exercise in navel gazing.

At its finest moments, and/or those moments when I was feeling most generous, Lucy Knisley's memoir French Milk worked fine as a travelogue. Otherwise, I found this 20-something's Paris tale to be self-indulgent, rushed, and aimless. A perfectly fine personal record of her trip, but the appeal for others is lost on me.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Reader's Diary #1454- Donald Hubbard: Meat Shop

Last week a couple of sisters who'd disappeared from Alberta way back in the 80s were found alive and well, kicking about in the U.S.. Though the details of the case were scant, many news outlets picked up on the story because perhaps of the happy ending but likely also because it's a sensational story that gets the imagination cranking.

Of course, when it's not a movie (or short story), we can more readily ignore the life that must have been lead to lead people to walk away unannounced, we can pretend that their lives, like all lives, are not inextricably entwined with others and to cut ties so dramatically affects everyone.

Donald Hubbard's flash fiction, "Meat Shop," has some fun with a similar idea, hinting at some of the high stakes involved, but still keeping it on the level of sensational entertainment.