Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - April 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 Irene for winning a signed copy of Elizabeth Purchase's Warm for Winter for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a Canadian Picture Book. Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reader's Diary #1584- Stuart Moore (writer), Ariel Olivetti (artist): Namor The First Mutant Vol. 1 / Curse of the Mutants

Though DC Comic's underwater superhero Aquaman is undoubtedly more popular than Marvel's Namor, Namor predates the former by a couple of years. With DC having pushed Aquaman into the spotlight more often, he is also the character I am more familiar with.

Still, the more snippets of Namor I'd gotten of Namor through other comics, the more intrigued I was. Especially interesting to me was the idea that he's not always the nicest of guys, possibly even venturing into villain territory.

It was high time I explored this character a little deeper.

The first thing I noted was that they refer to him as a mutant and on the cover he's wearing the X-Men symbol. I hadn't known that he was part of that world and I suspect there was some retconning going on. In any case, with the exception of a visit from X-men Emma Frost and Loa, his X-Men connection seems a bit forced and unnecessary.

Still, the story is fun, if a bit convoluted at times. It involves underwater vampires and so, a scuba diving Blade would have made more sense than the X-Men, but I don't want to be too negative— there were freaking underwater vampires. 

Ariel Olivetti's art is pretty great. Lines are crisp and the visuals are lifelike, with a touch of fantasy. The last issue has a new artist whose work was decent if nowhere near as good as Olivetti's. The colouring, too, was wonderful with Olivetti's run, with a murky blue overtone that fit the tone and setting, but still clear enough to see the details.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Reader's Diary #1583- John Semper Jr. (writer), Paul Pelletier (Artist): Cyborg Vol. 1 / The Imitation of Life

I'm not sure where I'd come across Cyborg's origin story before, as I'm pretty sure this is my first time reading a comic book devoted entirely to the character, but I wasn't wild about having to reread his origin again (as much as I do love a good origin story).

Nonetheless I did appreciate what John Semper Jr. took to the table. It is revealed this time around that Cyborg's father and creator had doubts that he actually saved his son by joining his mind and body to a computerized machine, or rather had simply downloaded a reasonable facsimile. When Cyborg hears this it does a number on his psyche. What if his father's doubts are true? It raises a lot of philosophical questions about what it means to be human. When Cyborg, for instance, feels different than others and unable to relate: is that because he's really a robot or is it just a normal human feeling?

And despite Cyborg being so unique a member of society, Semper also has tried to describe a typical African American experience. I cannot relate to this, of course, but I always appreciate being introduced to a lens other than my own.

The art is typically strong, very detailed and suited to the tale, right up until the 5th comic in the collection which, just like happened in the Xena collection I read recently, switched artists for no apparent reason halfway through. Not only is it jarring, the new style doesn't fit at all with its overly cartoony characters and vacant backgrounds.

5th comic aside, a solidly entertaining and intelligent collection.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reader's Diaty #1582- Genevieve Valentine (writer), Ariel Medel and Julius Gopez (artists): Xena Warrior Princess All Roads

I was only vaguely aware of Xena the TV show when it first came out. I definitely never watched an entire episode and what little memories I have the show were not altogether great. It looked cheaply produced and I wasn't interested.

That said, I would have had to have lived under a rock since then to not be aware of its cult following and legacy. When I saw that it had been turned into a comic series, I was suddenly interested. I think this character is made for comics.

Unfortunately the execution is this particular run is quite terrible. The story, which sees Xena and her sidekick/girlfriend Gabrielle teaming up with a band of female warriors known as the Harpies to stop the violent spread of Rome, is decent but the attempts at character building flounder. The personalities and motivations of various Harpy women are teased but never fully explored, and worse, Xena herself seems never gets a good focus. Gabrielle is developed somewhat better, which is fine for her fans, I suppose, but it's Xena's name on the cover.

More problematic is the art which goes from serviceable at the beginning (the characters somewhat resemble their TV counterparts), to suddenly horrible. And when I say suddenly, I mean without warning, without rhyme or reason part way through the 4th comic, the artist switches and the style is an atrocious mismatch. Filled with squiggly lines and arbitrary scratches, colours that looked dripped on to the page, it's difficult to look at and gritty when there's no reason to be.

Majorly disappointing. I hope someone else has a go because I still think the character has potential.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Reader's Diary #1581- Paul Dini (writer), various artists: Zatanna

My first exposure to Zatanna was through Justice League Dark comics. While I loved those, I cannot say that I was particularly drawn to Zatanna herself. As a member of that team, I thought she got lost in the shuffle a bit, certainly not the most interesting of the bunch. Now I kind of wish that I had read Paul Dini's collection of Zatanna comics first. I feel I have a better sense of the character and I'd like to review those interactions with her teammates again.

Paul Dini is perhaps best known for having co-created Harley Quinn. However, besides their disdain for pants, the two characters have little in common. Despite being magical, Zatanna is quite a grounded woman, pragmatic, professional, and confident. She's not without flaws, but for the most part, this magician has her act together.

The premise itself is neat: a personal with real magical abilities has a Las Vegas stage act and the plots are helped along with a pretty great rogues gallery that challenge Zatanna's typically level-headed approach.

One small misstep came with the introduction of a few different writers here or there and the problems caused by an inconsistent understanding of Zatanna. For instance, in one story it is stated that her magic cannot be used on living tissue yet there are examples everywhere in the book where she does just that. Rare is a superhero whose abilities are consistent across time and multiple creators, but in the same volume it was slightly distracting.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Reader's Diary #1580- Sarah Selecky: The Cat

Okay, I'll admit it but only because Sarah Selecky has gone first. I sometimes pretend that my cat has the reincarnated soul of a human. In "The Cat," the feline in question is the narrator's father. But in an interesting twist, the father had more cat-like qualities during his living days than the current cat has human-qualities.

Obviously there's a quirky sense of humour at play here but the exploration of a father-daughter relationship that was less than ideal is genuine and one that I am sure many people can relate to. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Reader's Diary #1579- Jeph Loeb (writer), Ed McGuinness (artist): Nova Origin Volume 1

Nova is one of those Marvel characters that has always been in my periphery, but beyond noting the ridiculous helmet (it looks like he swam into a starfish), I'd been almost oblivious.

I'm not entirely sure that this collection is the best jumping on point despite the "origin" in the title as it involves a passing down of the powers and therefore, I'm missing the origin of the original. That said, I suppose there's sufficient background.

The story revolves around Sam Alexander, son of a former Nova Corps fighter whose stories of previous outer space battles are chalked up as the ramblings of a drunken madman. However, once Rocket Racoon and Gamora arrive and Sam's powers are revealed when he dons the helmet, it is clear that there was much truth behind those tall tales.

I know some people feel origin stories are overdone, but I actually enjoy them. Seeing a character test out, make mistakes, and eventually learn how to control their new-found talents is typically very entertaining. As it was here as well, made more amusing by the presence of Rocket and Gamora. Beyond that, however, it was not particularly memorable.

Some of that lack of enthusiasm no doubt is attributed to the completely utilitarian art of Ed McGuinness. Expressions are exaggerated when the scene is to be funny, but it's all pretty unremarkable. Plus, Gamora is dressed in her skimpiest Vampirella-ish outfit, so I'll sexism on that.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reader's Diary #1578- Mark Russell (writer), Steve Pugh (artist): The Flintstones Volume 1

One of the most unexpectedly good comics to come out of last year was Mark Russell's take on the Flintstones. Nothing against the Flintstones, of course, but it seems like so many comic publishers are scooping up every other extinct TV show or movie franchise that the idea of the Flintstones, not even the coolest of by-gone entertainment, was nothing to get excited about.

One thing that it's important to note is that unlike a lot of modern interpretations, I didn't find this one to be subversive of the original premise. But, to keep the "modern stone-age family" modern, there are some adjustments. It's frequently darker and more cynical (the chatter of the animal appliances, in particular), it's a little smarter, sophisticated, and worldly. It also provides a lot of social satire, but if you'll remember the original Flintstones (before it started pandering to juvenile audiences), satire's always been there.

All that aside, I didn't really get into this collection until about the 4th story. It took awhile, I think, for Russell to find his groove. In the earlier stories it seems that every aspect of society was being spoofed, whereas the writing in the later stories got tighter and the satire seemed more meaningful.

Steve Pugh does a fine job updating the look of the Flintstones, giving as much realism as possible without losing the original style.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Reader's Diary #1577- Peyo: The Smurfs Anthology

When I was a kid, I lived for Saturday morning cartoons and the Smurfs were easily among my favourites.While they're still obviously kicking around, they are certainly not critical darlings. And yet, I have often heard them in the same breath as Asterix and Tintin when people discuss the importance and legacy of European comics. Have the modern non-Peyo takes tarnished the Smurfs?

I'll say up front that computer animation does not capture Peyo's unique style. Something about his curvy lines, vibrant palette, and short/stubby characters is very welcoming. You want to be a Smurf and live in a Smurf village.

But some of the most annoying aspects of the Smurfs (to adults, anyway) were there from the beginning. Specifically, the Smurf-talk. Replacing every other word with Smurf wears itself thin fast (it gets a little more longevity when imagining it as the F-word, but that too loses its charm). I suppose kids like it. I was interested to note, however, that its usage is discussed and somewhat explained by a couple of human characters. I take it that to human ears, it all just sounds the same, but to Smurf ears there must be slight differences in pitch, inflection, and so on, that makes perfect sense.

The stories themselves are inconsistent in terms of quality, but even at their worst they're slapstick, adventure stories. At their best, there are clever satire. Again, I'm not sure how much the modern films do that. I haven't seen the latest, but the earlier two seemed to be but shallow marketing ploys.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reader's Diary #1576- Laolu Poe Alani: Adéláìdé

Laolu Poe Alani's "Adéláìdé" may wear its philosophy and themes of ambition and obstacles on its sleeve, but it's also one of those short stories where a lack of subtlety seems the point.

Further, I loved the contrast of universal themes such as these with a pretty unique (i.e., Nigeria) setting. And the protagonist was compelling and likeable, even if a bit on the depressing side.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Reader's Diary #1575- Matt Fraction (writer), Chip Zdarsky (artist): Sex Criminals Volume One / One Weird Trick

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick is basically a superhero tale. But it's a great superhero tale!

The trick, or super power, is to stop time after having an orgasm. Strange enough that one person has this ability, but when a couple discovers they share this ability? Yes, it's a love story, too. Now granted, I think this introduces an M. Night Shyamalan sized plot hole: does this couple always orgasm at the exact same time? That's a bit unrealistic.

But if you can get past that, it's quite an original and humorous tale. As of yet, the couple isn't exactly using their super powers for good. Okay, they've decided to rob a bank to save a library, and I think that's a good thing, but still not superhero territory just yet.

Also, I should note, that the title and premise might lead some to believe that it's pornography. I'd beg to differ. In fact, there's quite a lot of really frank and important talk about healthy sex. It comes in an entertaining package, true, but this is far from smut even with all the genitals.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Reader's Diary #1574- Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer

There was a time when I'd have been all over a book about Jeffrey Dahmer. (I had planned, for a while, to be a forensic psychologist.) I no longer, however, looked forward to reading about Dahmer's gruesomely depraved murders. Not that I didn't think I could handle it, I just felt that I had long since heard enough of the lurid details and wouldn't find it particularly interesting.

However, reading My Friend Dahmer, I quickly rekindled my interest in the psychological and sociological aspects of serial killers. In most cases, and as it turns out, in Dahmer's as well, there's a toxic brew. Dahmer had major psychological problems (sexually attracted to dead men) and the sociological conditions at the time (70s, rural Ohio, dysfunctional family) were not exactly conducive to him getting help, or even to reach out for help.

This is not to suggest that Derf Backderf, who knew and hung around with Dahmer, presents an entirely sympathetic picture. In fact, he's very clear in his intro that his sympathies come to an abrupt halt when Dahmer first kills. Still it comes a little closer, perhaps as close as anyone can ever really get, in understanding how something like Jeffrey Dahmer happens.

It's not, for the record, gruesome. As the book ends after his first human kill, we are largely spared from the more shocking details. (I say mostly as end notes do get into such things, but fortunately they lack the visuals.)

Art-wise, the characters reminded me of a cross between Charles Burns (Black Hole) and Don Martin (MAD Magazine), which may not necessarily be a perfect fit for the story, but the strange essence of the 70s and the peculiarities of teenage years, are both there at least and it's not as jarring as you might expect. In black and white, a liberal use of ink gets the emotion across when needed.

My Friend Dahmer has been adapted for a movie which will be released this year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reader's Diary #1573- Erik Burnham (writer), Dan Schoening (writer): The New Ghostbusters

Sigh. There goes my run of amazing graphic novels.

The New Ghostbusters by Erik Burnham is bad. Very bad. It seems to owe much more to the old cartoon than the old movie and nothing to the new movie, except that it has female ghostbusters.

Its humour consists of unwitty sarcasm and slapstick. The story is needlessly convoluted and easily resolved. The characters are uninteresting, almost interchangeable with one another.

Even the art is bad. Schoening relies on goofy expressions and the setting and layouts are pretty unremarkable. I will say, however, that he at least did a better job than the cover artist, Carlos Valenzuela. Valenzuela seemed to have no idea what the final characters would look like. I somehow missed the Sofia Vergara/ Jennifer Lopez hybrid and the Indiana Jones with the oversized head.

Seriously, no redeeming qualities. Perhaps all the excellent comics I've been reading in recent weeks are making me judge this one extra harshly...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reader's Diary #1572- Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer), Valentine De Landro (art): Bitch Planet 1 Extraordinary Machine

I've been on a very fortunate roll with some pretty amazing comics lately and that trend continues big time with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's Bitch Planet 1 Extraordinary Machine.

It will come as no surprise given the title that Bitch Planet is quite a provocative read. It revolves around a dystopian world where women who don't comply (i.e., put up with male crap), are sent to an outer space prison camp known informally as Bitch Planet. On top of it all, a select group of these women are now expected to compete against men in a rigged competition, all for ratings in a televised event.

Make no mistake, these are tough, independent women with a range of personalities and backstories and it's next to impossible not to root for them (except of course, if you're a misogynistic a-hole).

Even more engaging is the awesome art. Influences from Tarantino to Lucha Libre to vintage comics to 1950's B-movies abound, complementing the drama with sensationally ironic eye-candy. Violence is in the air and it feels empowering!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reader's Diary #1571- Tamar Merin, translated by Ari Liebermam: What You Looking At?

While Tamar Merin's "What You Looking At?" is set in Israel and touches upon the Hebrew language, it nonetheless resonated with me. The older I get and the longer I live away from Newfoundland, the more the idea of never being able to go back (metaphorically, not physically), nags at me. And as for my kids? Newfoundland is but a holiday destination. They enjoy it but understand on a surface level at best.

As the mother in "What You Looking At?" struggles to adapt back to life in Israel after having lived in the U.S. and to see her son, still very Americanized, it seems that pop culture (read American culture), might be enough common ground to act as a starting point. Merin leaves this to the reader to decide if it's a good or bad thing.

It does end rather abruptly for my taste, but it's an interesting portrait in time nonetheless.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Reader's Diary #1570- Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist): Paper Girls 1

I'm not sure that the 80s was the perfect decade to set a sci-fi mystery, but Stranger Things and Paper Girls certainly make a strong case.

Make no mistake, Paper Girls rocks. Centered around 4 kick-ass tween girls who run paper routes, the story takes one mysterious turn after another, getting weirder and weirder. Aliens? Time-travelers? Dinosaurs? Check, check, check.

Combine that with Cliff Chiang's ability to totally capture the 80s vibe (check out the hair-sprayed bangs on Erin!) and gorgeous colouring by Matt Wilson and you've got a series that I cannot wait to continue.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Reader's Diary #1569- Bryan Lee O'Malley (writer), Leslie Hung (artist): Snotgirl: Green Hair Don't Care Vol. 1

Snotgirl is a successful fashion blogger with a much more glamorous online life than real life, and with boyfriend problems to boot.

Written by Bryan Lee O'Malley, I was immediately uncomfortable with the premise and the fact that a male was telling the story. A shallow fashion blogger? Is that a stereotype? Does it demean "female" interests? And the boyfriend issues? This certainly wouldn't past the Bechdel test.

But just as O'Malley might be question for his ability to fairly tell this story, perhaps I might be questioned for my ability to discern if this is offensive or fair to women. So, I went looking for critiques by females to see what they thought. If this discussion by the crew at Women Write About Comics is any indication (and I realize that they don't necessarily speak on behalf of all women), it didn't seem to be a major concern, at least not in the first issue. It was enough, at least, for me to put my concerns on the back burner and focus on other aspects of the story and art.

As you may have gathered from the title, this is a very quirky book. The humour (yes, sometimes of the gross-out variety) helps round off the edges of some very compelling characters, none more compelling that Snotgirl herself. Perhaps it's a by-product of the very current, very deftly handled theme (i.e., our online personas versus our our "real life" personas), but Lottie Person, a.k.a. Snotgirl, is a flawed mess.

I didn't, however, dislike her because of it. Sometimes I pitied her, and sometimes I definitely disliked her choices, but I liked her more in the end because she felt authentic. None of us are perfect, especially to the level that social media demands.

In the end, I quite enjoyed the book. It was super entertaining (it was different, it was funny, it even had a mystery that has hooked me enough to read the second volume) and had some real intelligent food for thought buried just below the surface.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Reader's Diary #1568- Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows

While I enjoyed Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness while reading it, I seemed to have soured on
it somewhat as time passed. I recall finding her characters slightly too quirky to be believable. Since then I've encountered many more such characters in other books by other novelists and my tolerance for quirky has gone way down. I know it's not fair to say that Miriam Toews started it all, but it's hard to shake the feeling.

So, I wasn't overly eager to take on All My Puny Sorrows

Wow, I'm glad I did. Her characters are still left of normal, but toned down just enough to be believable. Very believable. In fact, and I'm almost hesitant to say it around people that have read the book, I found the character of Elf (the protagonist's suicidal sister) a lot like me. And no, this is not a cry for help.

Exploring themes of assisted suicide, depression, familial bonds, and more heavy topics, there was a real threat that All My Puny Sorrows would be so much of a downer as to be unreadable. Fortunately the likeability of the characters and Toews' wry wit (though not "hilarious" as an asinine Toronto Star review referred to it), kept the pages turning.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Reader's Diary #1567- Michel Hellman: Nunavik

I'm always a little guarded against those who visit the north for a brief period of time, believe themselves to be sudden experts, and then write a book about it.

So, it was with no little reservation that I picked up Michel Helman's Nunavik which serves as his travel memoir as a tourist across the northern communities of Quebec, in Nunavik. Still, I was instantly attracted to his style, which reminded me of Alison McCreesh's work. One odd feature, however, is his portrayal of himself as a polar bear while everyone else as human. If this were the case, I'm guessing he would have gotten himself shot very quickly!

Also, I'm more convinced that he managed to fairly represent the place. Perhaps artists are able to observe and process more quickly than I give credit. It felt, at least, like my experiences in Nunavut. And, I think he was fair; respectful but not afraid to point out negative aspects as well. Of course, Nunavut is not Nunavik, and besides spending a little time in the Kuujjuaq airport, I can't claim to be an expert on the place either.

Authenticity aside, it was an entertaining read.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Reader's Diary #1566- Aruna Harjani: The Tour Guide

For those who still think that a short story doesn't provide the space to develop a character, I invite you to read Aruna Harjani's "The Tour Guide."

Set in Bali, the titular character is a heartbroken man who nonetheless puts on a smile for the tourists. Even worse, a large number of them are newlyweds. Is this a case of penance? That would be a difficult case to make. He doesn't seem to think he was ever at fault, nor does his disposition suggest his role is a punishment. Perhaps the newly in love reminds him of what he once had and he's choosing to live by the old adage, "it's better to have lost and lost, than never to have loved at all."

Of lesser importance, but interesting in any case, is the couple he's escorting around on this particular day. I'm still left trying to decide if their final request was selfish (ignoring the guide's woes) or sensitive (trying to distract him).