Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1797- Cheah Sinann: The Bicycle

Cheah Sinann's The Bicycle tells of an unlikely friendship between a Japanese soldier named Toshiro Iwakura and a street kid named Ah Cheng during the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the second World War.

Not much educated on this topic, the setting was quite interesting to me. I especially enjoyed hearing about the use of bicycles during the war.

However the real point of the story is, of course, a hopeful message about finding decency in unexpected times and people. This is well done, though a bit quick. The dialogue comes across as stilted and a tad too formal, but I was able to quickly adjust.

The art looks to be assisted by computer painting for shading, but is nonetheless a pretty unique style with simple, thickly inked lines.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1796- Malik Sajad: Munnu

Malik Sajad's Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir is probably my favourite loosely autobiographical graphic novel set in the violent backdrop of Kashmir circa 1980s to the present and that features anthropomorphisized deer. If I was forced to choose.

Yeah, it's a fascinating book, especially to this white western reader who should probably not relate to any of it though Sajad excels at demonstrating a child's capacity to have universal experiences (curiosity about sex, mischief making, idolizing an older sibling, not being taken serious due to his age, and so on) even if the daily political turmoil is something I could barely fathom. Several times I had to remind myself that this was not in fact a distant past.

Considering the microscope Kashmiri people were and are under by the Indian government and military, I am in awe of Sajad's bravery in speaking honestly and with unflattering opinions.

Even the art is great. While not the first to use animals as a symbolic representation of people, his style stands out. Based on German woodcuts, the panels very much have a print-like quality and the angular deer strike are very cool design that especially works when crowds are shown, the deer almost fitting one another like puzzle pieces and effectively showing them at such times as a united whole.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1795- Simon Hanselmann: One More Year

Whoo-boy. Not having been familiar with Simon Hanselmann's work before I was not prepared for this collection of degenerate characters. Most have depression and/or addictions, neither of which makes one a degenerate of course, but their level of selfishness and judgmental attitudes certainly does.

The characters in One More Year are not all created equal. On the absolutely no sympathy from me side is a character known as Werewolf Jones. On the other end are Booger and Owl who I judge only for hanging around with the others. In between are a witch named Megg and her lover, a cat named Mogg.

There are a lot of drugs and genitals. Again, some of that's fine, too. We're all adults after all. I'd be lying if I didn't say some of it wasn't funny. I have a dark sense of humor. There's a fine line, however, between dark and shock and I have far less tolerance at my age for shock for the sake of shock. My 14 year old self would have loved it.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1794- Taqralik Partridge: Fifteen Lakota Visitors

I first encountered Taqralik Patridge with her short story "Igloolik" a couple of years back. Having loved that story, I was not surprised to hear that another of her short stories, "Fifteen Lakota Visitors" has been shortlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

This story, initially told by a dying girl, involves a perhaps surprising bond between her Inuit family and a family of Lakota. As the cultures are so distinct and from such different locales, even the girl herself is a bit perplexed. Nonetheless, it's a strong and beautiful relationship that begins to make more sense. It also provides some much needed comfort.

Besides the warm message, the writing is also incredibly strong in the voice and with a powerful switch in perspective near the end.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1793- Sina Grace: Nothing Lasts Forever

My introduction to Sina Grace came with his run on Marvel's Iceman. I adored his writing but wasn't overly enthused with the artwork (which Grace did not do). It was enough that I wanted to explore his work further, bringing me to last year's Nothing Last Forever, one of his memoir comics.

I'm not sure if it's an accurate depiction (is there such a thing?) but he comes across as a mildly neurotic but endearing, funny guy. He suffers from writer's block and depression and wants to find true love, or at least a definition that works for him. When he's on a high, he name drops and appreciates his blessings, when he's low he worries about his career, aging gracefully, his appearance, and his health.

Is it self-obsessed? Well, yes,  it's a memoir after all. But his earnest attempts to be honest, flattering or unflattering as that may be, makes it all tolerable. Of course, it helps that his life is interesting and unconventional to those of us not in the arts.

In a brief note at the front Grace states that as a journal entry the sketches are bit purposefully rough. It's still quite good. My only issue is that the text often appears to have been done with a dull pencil and sometimes difficult to read.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1792- Gabby Rivera (writer), Joe Quinones (artist) America The Life and Times of America Chavez 1

I wanted to like America, Marvel's first queer Latina superhero to have her own solo series, more than I did. I won't say I didn't like it all, but my verdict is still out.

It took a bit too long to get a sense of either the character or the plot and there was a lot that felt only beginning to come together toward the end of this collection. Often, too, it felt like a parade of cameos just slowed things down, shoehorned in to establish America as a legit Marvel superhero.

However, once I started to see some real development in America (self-doubt underneath all that boldness) and her backstory/mythology expanded, it was enough that I've decided I'll probably read more down the road.

As for the art, I've enjoyed Joe Quinones work before and didn't mind it here, but given the more sci-fi/supernatural direction the story seems to touch upon, I'm not sure if a more experimental artist wouldn't have been a better fit, or maybe someone who plays homage to the more "out there" art of Steve Ditko.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1791- Eleanor Davis: You and A Bike and a Road

The title of Eleanor Davis's long distance cycling memoir is interesting. Rather than Me and A Bike and a Road, she's chosen to give it the second person You. As a daily journal, you'd expect the first person perspective, as a graphic novel you'd expect the perspective to keep changing. I suppose the title grounds the stories for readers, makes them empathize with Eleanor from the get go as she attempts a solo bicycle trip the from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the lower US states.

Personally, I don't feel I needed the push to envision myself in her place. I enjoy long distance bike trips and would prefer doing them on my own. I've not been brave enough yet to overnight on such a trip and as Eleanor was also a rookie on the beginning of her trip I can definitely relate to her nervousness and excitement and the reflections she makes about her mistakes. She also provides glimpses into her politics (especially as she notes excessive border controls) and I was happy to see we were kindred spirits in that regard as well.

Not that our experiences would be totally interchangeable. As a woman, she faced additional perils I would not. She also rides through a lot of desert land. That said, if I was to take on such an excursion from my current home, I'd have to face much longer distances before seeing another community and I'd be out of cell phone range for much of that should I run into trouble.

But, even without an interest in biking, I think other readers might appreciate the writing. The daily journaling, the focus on inner thoughts and astute observations of landscapes, flora and fauna, and people, is all quite calming (and captures much of what I enjoy about biking).

Davis's art here is sketchy; quick with simple, sometimes exaggerated lines. There are some hints at her real skill at drawing in her perspectives and so on, but I don't think it was meant to be a carefully crafted piece of art rather than honest, in-the-moment interpretations.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1790- Mairghread Scott and David A. Rodriguez (writers), Max Dunbar (artist): Transformers GI Joe First Strike

Not much a fan of either toy, I didn't have high expectations for this Transformers / GI Joe crossover comic. I wish I could say I was pleasantly surprised.

Basically it's a convoluted mess. There are two many characters to keep track of, too many plot twists and subplots, and while Dunbar is adept at drawing humans and transformers, I found the pictures equally as busy rather than aid in simplifying things.

At one point a transformer remarks, "we need to rise above this fear. We can't allow a small group of radicalized humans to drive us to mass murder." It's a great theme, an allegory for our times, and hence, there were some hints that this could have better executed. Likewise, I was impressed that the leader of the GI Joes was a woman. As a crossover, I was also happy they didn't do the typical multiverse angle, instead just situating everyone in the same world. Unfortunately, all this potential for greatness is buried.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1789- Various writers and artists: Tales from the Crypt

Growing up, I'd seen the old Crypt Keeper character from Tales from the Crypt and heard many references to the old comics but never actually read any of them. I just couldn't find them anywhere and it bugged me to know end. The cheesy puns, the horror? This would have been right up my alley.

So when Super Genius Comics revived the series last year I was excited if not a little skeptical. What if they weren't as good? And how could I compare if I've never read the originals? Smartly, in this collection they include two classic stories, and I can say with confidence that the new stories felt very similar. More importantly, they're what my ten-year old self had imagined they would be.

The new ones did incorporate modern things (selfies, for instance), but they all hit the same notes as the old stories. Typically a bad guy creates mayhem and then gets his/her just ironic desserts. There are gross and outrageous scenes but the edge of the stories are dulled (intentionally) with a cartoon wisecracking narrator.

Despite having a range of writers and artists, they were all pretty consistent with one another in terms of style.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1788- Tove Jansson: Moomin

Tove Jansson, despite having a worldwide following even today long after her death and the last original Moomin comic, was virtually unknown to me.

Even now, I'm left a little confused. I enjoyed her cute hippo-like characters, I enjoyed the innovative use of objects as panel walls. The stories were a bit odd, jumping from one adventure to the next, but at least there was adventure. It's all typically amusing, occasionally funny. The dialogue though... that's the biggest reason I'm so perplexed. It seems so strange, too formal and stilted. I question whether or not the translation was just bad. Even still, it hasn't stopped thousands of other English fans from enjoying it. Perhaps had I grown up with these characters? Perhaps the oddness adds some hipster whimsical appeal?

Monday, April 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1787- RaisinGirl: The Day Rock and Roll Changed the World

RaisinGirl's "The Day Rock and Roll Changed the World" features an odd assortment of characters; Walrus, Sergeant Pepper, the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Jim Morrison, Edgar Allan Poe, and Frodo.

It's like the old dinner party scenario where fictional, real, living, and dead characters can all be invited. Worked into the story is a lot of references to Beatles and Oasis songs in particular.

So it's fun and I was entertained, but it's hardly a literary masterpiece and a bit uneven and pointless. It won't, in other words, "change the world." That said, not a bad idea for a writing exercise.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1786- Sholly Fisch (writer), Igor Lima (illustrator): Mighty Mouse Saving the Day

I have vague recollections of Mighty Mouse cartoons as a kid and of the Andy Kaufman bit with the theme song, but otherwise not a lot of knowledge of the character. Still, I kind of love that no comic or cartoon ever seems to die thanks to Dynamite and others. Interesting tidbit, at one point Marvel Comics used to produce Mighty Mouse comics. (The thought of a Howard the Duck / Mighty Mouse comic amuses me to no end.)

Mighty Mouse Saving the Day is pretty juvenile fare. It involves a young boy, a victim of bullying, who accidentally wishes his favourite cartoon character into existence. Mighty Mouse must help the boy while also figuring a way to get back home (his familiar cartoon world of Mouseville) to stop an alien invasion. Its very mildly violence, its squeaky-clean humour, but still entertaining story would make the comic a very good introduction to superhero comics and one wouldn't require a lot of familiarity with the old cartoon.

Oddly the publishers have chosen their own rating system listing the book as "A" for "Appropriate for All Readers." I don't know about you but if I see a giant A rating on a book, I immediately think "Adult."

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1785- Roxane Gay: Hunger

I few years back I hit a peak weight. According to my BMI (which is a questionable measure according to Roxane Gay), I was overweight. Not by a lot, mind you, but that plus peaking plus generally not feeling healthy, all combined as the incentive I needed to do something about it. I downloaded the MyNetDiary app (a calorie counter) and began exercising regularly on an elliptical. I started losing weight in no time.

Unfortunately this also coincided with a very stressful period of my life professionally. And you know what people recommend for stress? Exercise. So I doubled-down. Oh yes, I anger-cized. And I cut out even more calories.

Eventually I lost too much weight to become dangerously underweight. It was at this point I can relate to some of the anecdotes in Roxane Gay's Hunger: A Memory of (My) Body. I couldn't find clothes to fit me anymore. People around me suddenly thought it was okay to bring up my weight as a conversation, to give me unsolicited advice, to express their concern.

I've reflected on this period from time to time, trying to figure out what went wrong. I've come up with a couple of theories: 1. I have some addictive tendencies and got somewhat addicted to the app and the exercise 2. I falsely believed I had control over something (i.e., losing weight) which at that point was something I desperately wanted.

I will not pretend that my weight story is anywhere near as dramatic as Roxane Gay's whose largely revolved around a much more traumatic event from her childhood. Plus, she's lived with her weight issues for much longer. Plus, she's a woman in a misogynist society. Plus, she's black in a racist society. In other words, the variables involved in her story should eradicate any misguided notion that I can relate to her; to her challenges or to her strength.

But maybe it's her gift of writing that made me feel I could nonetheless. I especially liked her sarcastic, funny tone that still got serious, respectful, and poignant when needed.

For a memoir, Hunger is surprisingly not navel-gazing. Yes, Gay looks inward a lot as she unravels how her body became her body, but it's as much a sociology book as it is a psychology book. And I so enjoyed how honestly complex she is. I guess we all are complex, but few have been able to convince me like Gay has that it's possible to be simultaneously full of doubt and confident at the same time.

Hunger is told in bite-sized recollections, usually related to a specific anecdote and/or theme, that made the book go down a lot easier.

I loved it.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1784- Various writers and artists: DC Meets Looney Tunes

If you take the "Most Published DC Comics Most Published Characters Quiz" over at Sporcle, you may be surprised to find Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters on the list. However, their comic book rights have belonged to DC for some time and in that sense, I don't really consider DC Meets Looney Tunes to be a true crossover. One of the things I enjoy about crossovers is the behind-the-scenes goodwill that is implied when two publishers come together on a project. If DC already owns all of these characters, it seems more like a marketing ploy than a creative endeavour.

But still, the meeting of their superheroes and Looney Tunes funny characters don't often meet and you can tell many of the artists and writers here gave it their creative all.

I tend to like crossovers best when I know both halves of the equation fairly well. I thought I'd have more of a shot with this collection, but it turned out I knew the Looney Tunes world far better than the DC heroes world. For one story, Bugs Bunny, for instance, is paired with the Legion of Super Heroes, whom I've never even heard of. For another, Wile E. Coyote is partnered with Lobo whom I've only vaguely heard of. And while these were okay, I appreciated the ones most where the superheroes were more popular (Wonder Woman and Batman, for example).

I liked the set-up overall, whereby none of the stories mattered to the others. A Looney Tunes character would be paired with a superhero (or team) for two tales, one told and drawn in the style of a superhero comic, another told and drawn in the style of a Looney Tunes cartoon. One writer's interpretation had no bearing on another. For instance, when Bugs meets the Legion of Super Heroes, he's drawn in the usual anthropomorphic rabbit style whereas in the Elmer Fudd meets Batman story (by far the best in the collection), Bugs appears as a human with bucked teeth.

This last point is important to note as it implies that none of these stories are canon and indeed, when the writers accepted that the mashups worked best. When they didn't, the writers tended to rely on generic crossover tropes involving multiverses and whatnot.

One huge misstep in the collection came in the Yosemite Sam meets Jonah Hex story. The writer, Jimmy Palmiotti seems to be setting up Sam as a bit more of a sympathetic character than we're used to, which is fine, but then out of the blue and completely irrelevant to the larger story, he punches a prostitute in the face. Worse still, it's played for a cheap laugh. I'm still kind of shocked by it actually. Even more shocking and disappointing is how little mention this scene has gotten in most of the reviews I've read. Thankfully J. Caleb Mozzocco calls the writer out and in far better detail than I'm doing here.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1783- Kerry Clare: Mitzi Bytes

I started my blog over a decade ago and at its (my?) height of popularity I had been the subject of stories in the Globe and Mail and on CBC Radio and was a panelist for the National Post's "Canada Also Reads" (an answer to CBC's "Canada Reads"). I pissed off some folks who worked at a literary journal based in Toronto who subsequently tried to steal my identity for a while. I got to interview Michael Crummey. I was asked to be a panelist at a writer's festival. And I had a fair share of regular followers, some of whom became "real life" friends.

Nowadays my numbers are way, way down. I'm lucky if I get a comment a week. I blame this on a few things: Goodreads mostly, which has usurped for better or worst book blogs, the decline in blog popularity in general, my own lack of blog hopping, and my switch to talking predominately about graphic novels which may have alienated some of my readers. I don't care too much. When I first started the blog it was borne out of frustration that I couldn't find an actual book club in the small town I was living in and just wanted to talk with people about books. However, I've since come to just appreciate the journaling aspect and do it more for myself than anything else. That said, I'm still cognizant that it's out there for anyone to read at anytime.

And that my name is attached. This is important to note as it dictates a lot of what I say or don't say. I always felt that it's a bit cowardly or naive to hide behind a pseudonym online. Attaching my name keeps me in check. Before I say anything that could be construed as controversial, I have to consider if I'd be willing to back it up with those who might challenge me. I have to consider my employers and loved ones (or enemies!) who know me. But with that in mind, there's also the question of authenticity. I try to be honest with my opinions, but I also try to spare feelings some times. I live in a relatively small city and the literary community is even smaller. If I don't like a local author's book, how do I balance that against wanting to be the Northern book blogger? I have to comment on it, right?

Despite having my name attached, I've never broadcasted having a blog to people I know and when people I know reveal that they've read my blog I always feel awkward and a little panicky. When my parents mentioned that they discovered it I nearly had heart palpitations. I'm much more liberal and open-minded, I would think, than they are and while my blog reflects that I don't care to get into big debates with them. (Too much of a chicken?) Fortunately, I don't surround myself with many that like discussing books as much as I do, and very quickly such acquaintances lose interest in my blog and I rest a little easier. My mother's only comment was that I like to use "big words." She's not mentioned it again in years.

Even with this awareness of outside readers and associated possible repercussions, I've had moments that I'm not proud of. There was one case when a writer in Newfoundland had been a regular follower of my blog but under an assumed name. She was also attending all the local writers festivals and schmoozing. Then she released her first novel and I really didn't like it. I was also flabbergasted that it was getting good reviews from fellow local writers. I believed at the time that she had been only schmoozing for this very reason and someone needed to give an honest review. I was definitely too mean, too tactless in my review.  First off, why shouldn't she schmooze? Second, it was her very first novel. Third, she wasn't using her author name when visiting my blog, so there goes any theory that she had only been visiting to ensure I'd be nice. I wasn't being used.

Other regrets come from a couple of reviews I did of Inuit writers. In one I felt that another reviewer had only given a book a good review because she was putting the culture upon a pedestal when to me the book in question was "crazy." I still, in hindsight, don't "get" that particular book, but perhaps I, as a white person who didn't grow up in the north, wouldn't immediately "get" it and that's okay. I maintain, however, that the reviewer I had questioned was also a white southerner, and so neither one of us was in a position to review without bias or with real understanding. There was another local Inuk poet who's work I didn't appreciate and I suggested that it seemed as though she just threw random thoughts on a page to see if any sounded poetic. When a fan of hers countered that it had just been a poetry journal she had kept that she hadn't intended to ever publish, I argued that the publishers shouldn't have. I've since come to realize that we don't have enough diverse poets being heard and I do think they should have.

I sometimes consider going back and deleting these posts but I wonder if it's not too much like censorship. Pretending that I was better than I was. I also consider adding update disclaimers, but when I think about how many other posts I'd probably not feel great about today, I get overwhelmed. Finally, it's probably important, as a record to and of myself, that people change, people mature, and that's fine. (And I will always reserve the right to go back and edit a typo if I catch one!)

As a very long intro to talking about Kerry Clare's Mitzi Bytes, it should also serve as a sample of the many personal reflections I had while reading it.  Mitzi Bytes revolves around a woman named Sarah Lundy, who has run a wildly successful personal blog for years unbeknownst to those around her. Mitzi is her secret identity. However, an angry email threatens to blow the whole thing wide open if she doesn't quit.

Whereas the parallels and differences to my own blogging experience should by now be evident, I don't think Mitzi Bytes is only relevant to other bloggers. We've only begun having the long overdue conversations about the effects of the internet and social media upon society and Kerry Clare has served up a wonderfully balanced look at this complex reality.

I found it especially interesting to also be reading Roxane Gay's Hunger at the same time. In Gay's book she digs deep into personal traumas and familial relationships. I wondered how her family responded to her book and her portrayal of them and this also made me realize that in one sense Mitzi's story is not a modern one. Yes, her observations were published on a blog, but like Gay, people have been writing down their observations and opinions of other people in book format for years, for centuries. Still the immediacy and availability of publishing that came with the internet certainly affects things dramatically.

Of course, Clare could have delved into this discussion in non-fiction but that wouldn't have been nearly as compelling as it turned out. It works largely in the first in the first half of the book as a bit of a mystery. There are many potential blackmailers and figuring out the culprit and his or her motivation kept me hanging on.

I'd also give credit to Clare's deft hand at portraying flawed characters in authentic situations. Most readers will be like me, I suspect, and flip back and forth to whether or not Sarah was in the right. On the one hand, she doesn't give anyone's name away in her blog posts, people talk about others all the time, and often her observations are made in order to philosophize and discuss higher themes. On the other hand, when reading some of these blog posts, it's obvious that some  are quite judgemental and to those that would recognize themselves, no doubt hurtful.  Even then, does she deserve the hate?

I will be mulling over this book for some time.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1782- Sonny Liew: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Further exploring Asian comics thanks to Paul Gravett's Mangasia, I am very thankful to have read my first comic from Singapore, Sonny Liew's fake biography The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

I would have found a straight-up history of Singapore fascinating, if I'm being honest. It's not a country I've ever really considered and therefore, it was all new to me. Told in a graphic novel format, even better. Told as part of a fictional biography of a comic artist and simultaneously a love-letter to the medium? Now we're really talking!

It helps immensely that Sonny Liew has an amazing illustrator's talent as well. Showing supposed art of Charlie Chan as it progressed through his life, drew inspiration from manga and American sources (like MAD Magazine), can only be accomplished by someone with real appreciation and skill. (His chameleon-like artistry could be compared to R. Sikoryak's.) There was also an amusing tongue-in-cheek aspect to it where it subtly implies for instance that Charlie Chan's comics inspired the likes of Maus and Spider-Man, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Reader's Diary #1781- Tom Taylor (writer), Stephen Byrne (artist): Justice League / Power Rangers

One of these days I'll read a crossover comic where I am better familiar with both halves of the mix. Alas, I was much better acquainted with the DC Comics heroes than Power Rangers. All I knew of the latter group was that my nephew was into them when he was much younger and the production value of their tv show really cheap and cheesy to me.

To better assess a crossover, of course, prior knowledge would be an asset. Unless you know the characters, it's impossible to say if the writers are keeping in the proper spirit. I knew, for instance, that Batman is often a jerk and so I felt Taylor's depiction of the character was fair. (I'm also not a Batman fan, for what it's worth.) But is Billy the Power Ranger always supposed to be the reserved supergenius-type? I'll guess, sure, but I really don't know. I'll also acknowledge that even my DC Comics expertise is lacking to some extent (I'm more of a Marvel guy) and I'll admit that the main villain represented by their side here, Braniac, was not one that I knew either.

It was another generic alternate reality crossover story; I wish there was another way that writers could think of to have superheroes from different publishing houses meet up as this seems to be the predicable standby, but to be honest, I can't think of another way either. I'm also starting to think that maybe if you've read one crossover, you've read them all. Besides for the familiar "cause" of their meet-ups, they all tend to hit the same marks: initially the heroes don't trust each other and fight, then their villains team-up, the heroes quickly learn they're on the same side, and they defeat the bad guys.

The idea of having characters from different worlds meeting up sounds more fun in theory than it winds up in practice. I think it hearkens back to our childhood when we had toys from various franchises in imagined meet-ups all the time. But whereas the Lego movie capitalized on that quite successfully, the crossover comics I've come across have done less so.

Which brings me back to Tom Taylor and Stephen Byrne's work here. It's no worse than other crossover comics, but I suppose my view of it is unfortunately soured by crossover fatigue. Had I read this one a few months ago, I'd probably view it more favourably. The art is good and bright, and the positive characterizations reminded me somewhat of Grant Morrison's great All-Star Superman where he didn't feel the need to be all-gritty all the time (as many DC writers and directors especially do), offering humour in doses more familiar to Marvel yet without sacrificing character personalities or plots for a cheap punchline.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Reader's Diary #1780- Jake Waller: Division

Jake Waller's "Division" is a pretty interesting piece of flash fiction involving a vix tournament (a variant of table tennis) being played by intersex Martians. At least, I think they're Martians, maybe they're humans who just happen to be on Mars.

What I found most interesting is the unknown cause of the tension- there's a sabotage afoot but it could be due to intersex bigotry or it could be purely an athletic conspiracy. It helps that Waller is able to establish a plausible world, even aspects of a culture, in such a short space.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Reader's Diary #1779- Luke Healy: How to Survive in the North

Luke Healy's graphic novel How to Survive in the North deals primarily with the ill-fated Karluk expedition. I'm pretty sure that I've read enough about northern exploration that I've come across this story before, but I must have forgotten most as none of it rang many bells. While Healy advises that he's tweaked facts and details to the point where he'd not be comfortable calling it non-fiction, he nonetheless presented at least a couple of characters in an intriguing enough way that I now plan to read more about them, namely: the captain Bob Bartlett and an Iñupiat woman named Ada Blackjack.

As a teen in Newfoundland I recall being forced to read a biography of Bob Bartlett in high school and my only recollection is that I found it dull as dishwater. For Healy to spark my interest again is no small achievement. As for Ada Blackjack, I was not surprised to hear that after her ordeal with the Karluk, she's been the subject of much media interest. Her treatment, her survival, and the aftermath sound fascinating.

There's a subplot in How to Survive in the North, however, that I didn't find as successful. It involves a modern day professor in New Hampshire who is having a potentially career-ending affair with a student. It's not so much that this story isn't interesting it's that it's connection to northern story is loose at best. One of the morals Healy seems to make about the Karluk expedition is that northern exploration seemed exciting but required much preparation in order to survive. I'm guessing readers were also being given the same advice regarding love? Normally I don't like it when writers don't give readers credit to be able to figure out metaphors, but I did feel a little more assistance may have been needed here.

The art is very Herge-esque (Tintin) which fits better for the adventures of the Karluk crew than for the New Hampshire story.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Reader's Diary #1778- Gabrielle Bell: Everything is Flammable

I'm always a little torn about autobiographical comics. On the one hand, I think everyone's life could be a story. On the other, I often find such comics self-indulgent. It took me a while to decide how I felt about Gabrielle Bell's Everything is Flammable.

It began with small anecdotes about Gabrielle's life, most of which seem to have no real conflict or resolution, barely connected to the other quasi-anecdotes, and it felt somewhat dull and unnecessary. Like reading someone's doodle journal.

However, when the book became more about her mother who lives, I want to say on the outside-of-society, I felt the book had more of an anchor or at least a focus. I was then much more interested and found the writing at turns poignant, provocative, or funny. She especially had a knack for exploring complex human relationships.

The art is fine, a bit sketchy and therefore fitting for a book with a diary-type feel, and coloured in flat pastels like Tintin comics.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Reader's Diary #1777- Bev Sellars: They Called Me Number One

Bev Sellars' They Called Me Number One is one of a handful of residential school memoirs that I've read. Rather than getting any easier to handle however, it gets increasingly difficult. I admit that I have the luxury of pacing myself, of choosing lighter fare to read in between, and so on. While they may have an emotional impact on me, I recognize my privilege that these painful memories are not mine.

It gets increasingly difficult even when many details are disturbing similar. The nuns and priests who had no experience raising children of their own and were racists to boot; the litany of the abuses they inflicted; the devastating impacts that continue to be felt today in terms of anger, mistrust, mental health issues, alcoholism, and so on. Even the small moments of solace the children were resourceful and optimistic enough to find within these conditions; these are all commonalities I've come across in most if not all the residential school memoirs I've read.

And yet, as Bev Sellars points out in her introduction to They Called Me Number One, her story is uniquely hers and it is important to recognize such differences, not just in occasional details but also in her personal takeaways and the lessons she wishes to impart.

I think it was this that I appreciated most about Sellars' book; her adherence to education and life-long learning. It's inspiring that she was able to retain this despite the efforts of the so-called teachers at residential school to either suppress learning and/or define it in colonial terms.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Reader's Diary #1776- Mark Evanier (writer), Steve Uy (artist): Grumpy Cat / Garfield

I wasn't expecting an Earth-shattering Eisner winning comic with the Grumpy Cat / Garfield crossover. To be honest, I wasn't even sure it really fit the definition of crossover as until then I didn't even know there had been comics based on the internet-famous meme cat and I so I was thinking it was more of a cameo-type deal. It turns out there is a Grumpy Cat comic strip. It also turns out that it's not half bad. No, it won't win awards but for the younger folks, I'll bet they'll be entertained.

As for this older folk, I was interested in seeing how Mark Evanier would extend Jim Davis's creation, Garfield, into a full length story versus the usual three panel strips. I was also looking forward in seeing how he'd manipulate the plot to bring the two characters together in the first place. Finally, I wanted a chance to see how they'd interact, how their personalities would work together (or not).

Extending Garfield to a full length story didn't appear to be a huge challenge for Evanier. He had enough gags throughout to keep the punchlines more or less three panels apart while not losing sight of the larger arc involving an evil pet company who have kidnapped the titular cats. On that note, the meet-up assumes that Garfield and Grumpy Cat actually inhabit the same world. They've been selected as victims based upon their sour personalities as the company has a new device that they need to test on them. The device will hopefully transform them into being more loyal and lovable, more like dogs. The idea is that if it can work on these two it will work on any cat. So again, it's a pretty juvenile concept but to be honest, superhero crossovers always resort to multiple-universe collisions and at least this has a bit more originality. As for the personalities working together, that's probably the weakest part of the book. It seems like Evanier took more time to learn Garfield. He comes across very much as the cat from Jim Davis's strips and as such he's a bit more defined. Grumpy Cat on the other hand is just, well, grumpy. Not being as familiar with that character, I might suppose that he's just that great of a character. In any event, it's hard to generate much interest in the usual crossover constructs (1. they don't get along at first and 2. then they are forced to worked together and appreciate one another more) especially when a half of the equation is pretty flat.

The art is bright and not bad, though a bit inconsistent. Garfield and Grumpy Cat look different but as they're based upon their original comic characters that's fine. But the human characters have yet a third style, similar to manga characters, and I'm not sure it all blends that well.

Still, it's all a fun diversion if not perfect.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Reader's Diary #1775- Terry Fallis: One Brother Shy

Not having read anything by Terry Fallis before, I've certainly heard a lot of praise about his brand of humour and knack for political satire. I thought it was high time I give his writing a shot. I almost went with The Best Laid Plans as that seems to be his most popular title, but I've been terribly bad keeping up with new releases (not a great look on a librarian!) and so went with 2017's One Brother Shy instead.

If he's best known for political satire, I'd say this is isn't terribly representational of his work. However, it is amusing and there are definitely satirical elements, so perhaps some of his more avid readers would a make a better assessment.

One Brother Shy revolves around an awkward 20-something year old programmer named Alex MacAskill. Alex's life suddenly takes a left turn as his mother dies and posthumously reveals a family secret. There's also a mysterious subplot involving an incident known as "Gabriel" that has somehow damaged Alex terribly.

There are a lot of wild twists and turns that, along with the light humour, make for a very entertaining read. I've read some other reviews complain that there too many convenient coincidences and while I can see where they are coming from, I didn't think there was anything completely implausible.

I also appreciated some of the brushes against larger topics. Alex's shyness for instance, especially in certain circumstances made me consider the spectrum of assertiveness. Psych 101 classes often label us Type A or Type B, introverted or extroverted, but Fallis hints at a more realistic and fluid approach, one that considers other variables such as the situation, current moods, and so on.

As well, there are a lot of references to modern technology and I found myself wondering about the longevity of such novels. With the pace of technology going the way it is, will this book hold up in 10 years? In 20? In 100? Will readers get enough of the references? If they don't, will they understand the plot? And is this even a concern of Fallis? On the flip side, without such references, the world he's created wouldn't have rang nearly as true.

Finally, and while I said above that I didn't have issues with implausibility, I did note one plot hole that could have decreased my enjoyment more had it not been for the way Terry Fallis kindly responded to my question via Twitter. I won't get into too much as it would involve a spoiler, but if you're interested, you can read the Twitter thread here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reader's Diary #1774- Jay Disbrow: Monster Invasion

It's futile but nonetheless a fun exercise to wonder what the North American comics scene would look like had Frederic Wertham not published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. His scathing and unfair attack on comics led to industry-wide censorship. Horror comics, which were enormously popular just prior, was one of the biggest victims. Superheroes remained, however, largely unscathed and today the most recognizable genre of the medium, at least in the western hemisphere. Were horror comics a passing craze or would they, had Wertham not intervened, be every bit as popular today? Would Jay Disbrow have been a household name like Stan Lee?

Monster Invasion is a collection of cult-legend Jay Disbrow horror and sci-fi comics from back in the day (late 40s, early 50s), lovingly compiled by Craig Yoe. Interestingly, they're pretty tame and according to Disbrow in an opening interview, not just by today's standards. (He states that he'd have refused to go as gross as Bill Gaines.)

I can see why Disbrow still enjoys a fan-following today. His writing, it should be acknowledged is ridiculously cheesy. You could do a drinking game and be quite pleasantly sloshed by doing shots every time a monster walks with "prodigious strides." But this inadvertently humorous quality is no doubt part of its charm for many.

The art, however, is quite great. Characters have the semi-realistic look of superheroes and they're expressive and full of movement. The monsters are the real delight though; complete with fur and fangs and slime.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reader's Diary #1773- Manuel Gonzales: Blondie

When someone new moves into our cul-de-sac my wife likes to meet them and welcome them to the court. It's neighbourly and puts everyone off on a good foot, even if I couldn't make such an assertive move if my life depended on it.

Manuel Gonzales's "Blondie" opens with a couple delivering brownies to their new neighbours two houses down. I hope to god that's where the similarities between us and any character in this story end.

They've heard that the new neighbours are neo-Nazis. Still they're showing up with brownies.

Okay... so maybe they're hoping they're not actual neo-Nazis, maybe they've been given faulty intel. Give them the benefit of the doubt and all that. Alas, no, they seem to accept that they're neo-Nazis and go to meet them anyway. Not so they can give them a piece of their mind but because they somehow, in their warped just-as-bad-as-being-actual-neo-Nazis way, decide the new neighbours still can be decent folks. Yes, decent neo-Nazis, as if that could even be a thing!

Gonzales ups the discomfort by playing with this supposedly generic scene, planting horrific images that should be innocuous. A rope hanging from a tree is meant for a swing but...

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Reader's Diary #1772- Alootook Ipellie: Arctic Dreams and Nightmares

Not one to normally appreciate magical surrealism, I nonetheless quite enjoyed Alootook Ipellie's Arctic Dreams and Nightmares which is rife with it.

It's still difficult at times to see a larger picture, connections between stories, or even to fathom some of the supernatural elements. Granted, by Ipellie's own description it is meant to be a smorgasbord of ideas based upon his own dreams and nightmares, Inuit legends and myths, and more. Some of my confusion, I don't doubt, is due to my not being part of the Inuit culture.

Still, none of this bothers me or detracts from my enjoyment. Each story in the collection stems first from Ipellie's fantastic (both in the fantasy and the great sense) lined drawings. The cover, if you can see it, features a man with faces on each of his fingertips. This is one of the more tame drawings. On that note, the sheer creativity alone is entrancing. But it also helps that there's a sly sense of humour throughout, especially when Ipellie subverts typical European culture to blend in with the northern Inuit worldview. Christianity, the Russian ballet, Shakespeare, and Brigitte Bardot are but few of such topics that are blended in with hilarious and/or provocative results. But it is still, fortunately, the Inuit culture that is front and center, celebrated, challenged, and explored.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Reader's Diary #1771- Kanako Inuki: School Zone Vol. 1

Well, this was a disappointment.

Known as the Queen of Horror Manga, I thought for sure I'd enjoy Kanako Inuki's School Zone, Vol. 1. Unfortunately, this collection of stories set in a haunted school was not scary and poorly drawn.

See that wide-eyed, open-mouthed girl on the cover? She looks terrified. But when every character looks like that all the time it kind of takes the oomph out of it when something meant to be truly scary happens.

As for the stories themselves, the best I can say is that they got better as the volume progressed. The first ones are hard to follow and seem to be missing info. In fact, a couple of times I flipped back thinking I'd accidentally skipped a page or two that might have explained what had happened or why the character focus suddenly switched.

Oh well.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Reader's Diary #1770- Abhishek Singh: Krishna A Journey Within

Abhishek Singh's Krishna: A Journey Within is another suggestion that came to me via Paul Gravett's Mangasia as an example of a religion/mythology based comic (which are popular across much of Asia) and as an example of Indian comics.

Krishna: A Journey Within is stunning to look at. While the characters are sometimes Disney-esque, the backdrops, the colours, the patterns, and inventive layouts are just gorgeous.

Story-wise, I wasn't always clear what was going on and the book seemed to fade in and out of straightforward narratives (of a battle, for instance) to poetic religious philosophy. I am sure more of it would have been clearer had I better understanding of Krishna or Hinduism, but I'm not sure that the book is meant to act as a primer on the subject anyway.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1769- Cecil Castellucci (writer), Marley Zarcone (art): Shade The Changing Girl Vol. 1 Earth Girl Made Easy

My favourite corner of DC Comics by far has been the weird Justice League Dark stories. It was here that I first encountered the Shade the Changing Man (Dac Shade). I don't recall much about him, but I did quite enjoy this passing of the torch, or jacket as it were, to Loma Shade. Like Dac, Loma Shade is an alien from the planet Meta, but Loma is an Avian (basically a humanoid bird). Loma is tired of her life and looking for a change, takes up residence in the comatose body of a teenage Earth girl named Megan.

She seems to be making the most of her time in this body, except that apparently Megan was a bully and Loma needs to navigate that and her new, complicated relationships with Earthlings. To further her difficulties, some of Megan's negative energy has residual effects on Loma's psyche, Megan's spirit is trying to reclaim her body, and the dimension-transporting jacket that Loma used in the first place tends to make its wearers go insane. Still with me?

Yes, it's bizarre. But it relishes in the bizarre, with fast pacing and psychedelic art and funky colours. Plus the "finding oneself" takes on more poignancy with the teenage angle as it's typically a time of self-discovery anyway. Strong, defined characters and complex friendships help ground the weirdness without diminishing the fun.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1768- Yusei Matsui: Assassination Classroom

The first volume of Yusei Matsui's Assassination Classroom is the most fun I've had with manga in quite some time.

This came as a pleasant surprise when I wasn't entirely sure of the premise. A story built around a class of kids trying to kill their teacher? In the wake of all of the school shootings in the U.S., it sounded distasteful to say the least. Fortunately, this isn't real world violence at all.

The teacher, it turns out, is some sort of ultra-powerful supernatural being who has already destroyed most of the moon and plans to do the same to the Earth by the end of the school year. However, first he (or she? or something else?) has decided to be the teacher for a low performing class of kids. He's given them the assignment to assassination him by the end of the year. The world's governments and military have thus far been powerless to stop him and thus they not only give into the bizarre demands to become a teacher but to also offer an additional reward: 100 Million to any student that can pull it off.

Its quirky, somewhat dark sense and occasionally self-aware humour, is prevalent throughout as students try and fail to take this teacher down. But more than just fun murder attempts, there is a surprising amount of character building in the book, not the least of which involves the enigmatic teacher who bizarrely seems to care for his students and their learning, despite his promise to destroy their entire planet. Who is he and what is his motivation?

I also quite enjoyed the art. You'd not know it from the teacher who is essentially a smiley face with tentacles, but the scenes are often finely detailed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1767- Li Kunwu and P. Otie: A Chinese Life

Another book brought to my attention courtesy of Paul Gravett's Mangasia book was A Chinese Life written and illustrated by Li Kunwu with assistance from P. Otie. Gravett had used it as an example of historical comics, a genre that enjoys popularity across a large swath of Asia.

It's interesting to note that A Chinese Life is also Kunwu's autobiography as I found myself questioning his role as history teacher. Documenting China from 1949 (creation of the People's Republic of China) to the present, it is through one individual's eyes; one who was a celebrated propaganda artist for the Republic and became a member of the Communist Party. P. Otie, who is French, states in his intro that he tried to balance patriotism against fact, propaganda against critique. And while I'd suggest that they succeed on that front, I wondered if one man out of a billion would be representative. I'd be okay if he wasn't (it's A Chinese Life after all, not Chinese Life), but when all was said and done, I do feel that I have a better sense of China as a whole, rather than just of Li Kunwu.

This period of history is fascinating and like nothing I can compare it to in Canada. The overt and sudden upheavals brought on with Mao, the adoption of Communism, the Cultural Revolution, felt almost shocking in its intensity. Children ratting out adults resulting in imprisonment, outright disdain for cultural history, modern technology coming almost shockingly late compared to most of the world, the hybrid of socialism and capitalism that they have currently adopted... it's all so very overwhelming.

Li Kunwu's art is perfect for this story. It actually (and this will probably seem like an odd comparison) reminded me of Jim Unger's Herman cartoons. This was in the inky, rough, caricatures. Clearly the roughness was intentional. Describing his time as a propaganda artist, Kunwu shows some of his Mao art and we can see that he is quite capable of refined line work. But there's something more truthful about the roughness. It also seems at times like Kunwu barely raises his pen, and it gives the history more of a connection, more of a natural fluidity.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1766- Molia Dumbleton: If She Were to Lay Down

Molia Dumbleton's "If She Were to Lay Down" is a quietly beautiful story of a woman working through her attraction toward a man who is asleep on her couch.

At the very beginning there's a slight implication that she doesn't find him physically attractive, perhaps even finds him a bit on the simple side. But as the story progresses, we (and she) begin to understand just what she does like about this man.

It's thoughtful, full of purposeful imagery, and overall, quite lovely.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1765- Rob David and Larry Goldfine (writer), Freddie E. Williams II (artist): He-Man/ Thundercats

I was a huge He-Man fan back in the day, spending any chore money I had on the dolls, refusing to let go when all my friends had moved on to G.I. Joe. Somehow though I don't have any recollection of the Thundercats. Looking them up, I see that they first aired just a couple of years after He-Man, when I was still a Saturday morning cartoon junky, so I must have encountered them, but even this crossover comic between Thundercats and He-Man didn't jog any memories.

I did learn a little about a few Thundercat characters and the mythology through this book, enough to find it even stranger that I wasn't into them back in the 80s. My favourite He-Man characters were the animal based ones (Buzz-Off, Stinkor, Clawful) and Thundercats were all cat-based He-Man-looking heroes. Again, how did I miss these??? Was my childhood retconned?

Despite being impressed with the Thundercats though, the crossover comic by Rob David and Larry Goldfine didn't do a lot else for me. The story, which revolved around Skeletor and Mumm-Ra, the main villains of both franchises, teaming up to take over the world was pretty obvious for a crossover comic. That is to say, it was fine, but nothing terribly original. Likewise, all the typical crossover tropes were there. There's a contrived scene where the heroes turn on each other, that sort of deal. There wasn't much of the background characters either, which in old He-Man cartoons I always found more interesting than He-Man himself.

There were some small problems that perhaps would have been overlooked with a stronger story. For instance, there are attempts at narration, basically the heroes offering their philosophical interpretations, but it's completely unnecessary and distracting. Also distracting is the busy art. Normally I like watercolours, but combined with Freddie E. William's abundance of lines and panels, the pictures were a bit over-complicated.

There were a few fun moments here or there. In the final comic, for instance, they explore the multiverse. In one world and making the best of their home at DC Comics, we see Prince Adam/ He-Man as Clark Kent/ Superman. In another we see a world where the Thundercats and He-Man characters are all morphed into hybrids. I would have liked a visit to Etheria and a meet-up with She-Ra as well, but I guess I couldn't have it all.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1764- Inhae Lee: My Milk Toof

Finally, a photocomic more aligned with what I was imaging the form could be. Finally a writer that takes the time to create stories, takes the time to create photos that help tell the story.

My Milk Toof, which began life on a blog, tells of two baby teeth who move back in with the adult (unseen, except for a hand now and then) who'd lost them in her youth. This collection is subtitled, The Adventures of Ickle and Lardee, and based on these character names, you'd be correct to assume that the book can be on the cutesy side.

So, it's a little more saccharine than I'd normally choose, but it's occasionally funny. Plus, I appreciate the creativity and effort that went into it.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1763- Jordin Tootoo, with Stephen Brunt: All the Way

Two huge takeaways for me from Jordin Tootoo's autobiography All The Way: My Life on the Ice are Jordin's love for his brother Terrence, who committed suicide in 2002, and how much of an advocate for communication Jordin is.

I don't have a lot to add about Terrence's suicide except that I was living in Rankin Inlet when it happened at went to a very emotional service in the middle school. I was new to the town at the time and didn't really know the Tootoos, but the impact of Terrence's death on the town (everyone went to that service) was palpable and has stuck with me. Sadly, suicide, as I would soon learn was a very common tragedy in Rankin and the rest of Nunavut.

Perhaps related to that is the issue of communication. Jordin describes being a young boy when him and Terrence would escape the house to avoid his parents' alcoholism and abuse. They'd be playing outside at all hours with other young friends who, in hindsight, he figures were also avoiding trouble at home. Still, that fact he has to figure is underscored by the fact that they didn't talk about it. To be fair, they were kids looking to escape. Who'd want to talk about crap going on at home? That said, even as adults there was a lot being hush-hushed, too much being kept in secret, bottled up until it exploded. I wonder if this is yet another terrible side-effect of colonization of the north.

Jordin's book is almost immediately shocking from the very first chapter in his unflinching openness. Right away he gets into his troubled relationship with his parents, their drinking, their abuse. I've met both parents and didn't know this. I didn't hear it talked about. I've seen Jordin touring the town with his father and things looked great. I found myself wondering what the effect of this book was. How did they feel when they read it? I think a follow-up book is necessary. I would imagine that emotions were initially negative, some sadness, some anger, but I would also imagine that Jordin's dragging the past out into the light is an important first step toward healing.

I'm not much of a hockey follower, but I found All The Way to be a compelling human story with important messages.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1762- Michael Deforge: Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero

I was a few pages into Michael Deforge's comic Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero before I was confident that it was meant to be funny.

That might sound like an attack on his writing or comedy, but it's not meant as such. It is, however, meant to convey how wry and idiosyncratic it is. It's also sometimes witty, sometimes silly. There's a species of snake in the book called a Harmless Snake but they are deadly poisonous and have given themselves the name as a "form of camouflage". If you don't "get" the humour right away, if you're like me, it will quickly grow on you.

Most of the book is told in page length strips but nonetheless, characters become well-defined. They're flawed characters but I came to appreciate them.

The art matches the style in quirk and is coloured in black, white, and pink.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1761- Kentaro Miura: Berserk Vol. 1

I became aware of Kentaro Miura's Berserk manga series thanks to the 11th Annual Graphic Novel and Manga Challenge where another participant has been enthusiastically reviewing the series.

I wish I could share the enthusiasm, but I suppose I can help balance it out with a dissenting voice?

While I'm terrible at finishing any manga series, even if I wasn't I don't think I'd be continuing with this one. I found it hyper-masculine and gratuitously violent and while I thought I could appreciate the humour of how over-the-top it all was (the main character's name is Guts and his sword is ludicrously big), the novelty of that wore off very quickly. It then seemed like cheap shock tactics.

I also didn't really like the art which reminded me somewhat of Hajime Isayama's work in Attack on Titan. In both I found the body proportions to be often slightly amateur-looking and off, a head sometimes too small, fingers occasionally too short, people bending stiffly, that sort of thing.

If I was to name one positive feature, I did enjoy the horror. It's largely a fantasy based tale but touches of the grotesque added a more interesting element. Plus, if it's a monster, it's hard to argue that the proportions are wrong.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1760- Jesse Jacobs: Crawl Space

Jesse Jacob's Crawl Space is unlike anything I've ever seen or read before. Even if I didn't wind up enjoying the book, I'd have to give credit for originality.

The graphic novel begins with what appears to be a bunch of random colourful squiggles and circles falling into place to form a (still abstract) picture. I was nervous after the very first page that I was not going to get this.

Soon, some of the shapes form into a couple of humanoid figures. There were still psychedelic backgrounds but the vague, now talking figures, was enough to land some comprehension. Later, the colours and shapes fade in and out of this bizarre world with a more traditional cartoon world.

There's a surface story about a character introducing another to a new found world and experience, eventually sharing it with a slightly larger group of their peers. There may be a metaphor about drugs, religion, or just general open-mindedness or it might just be meant to be a weird little story.

It's certainly eye-catching and engaging and awesome.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1759- Doretta Lau: Best Practices for Time Travel

It's kind of fascinating to me that Doretta Lau's short story "Best Practices for Time Travel" opens with a quote from Louis C.K. I cannot find a year on the story, but I believe it was written in 2016. It was only last year that the revelations about Louis C.K.'s repulsive behaviour hit mainstream media, though many remarked at the time that it hadn't exactly been a close guarded secret. Whether Lau had heard of it when she wrote the story or not, it makes for an even more powerful statement in 2018 to open with one of his quotes. It certainly accentuates the theme of the story.

For those expecting a sci-fi story, as I was, you may be disappointed that it doesn't quite deliver on that front, but you might also be pleasantly surprised, as I was, in the idea behind the story: would a woman or minority even want to time travel? Things aren't exactly great for them in the present, would the past be even worse?

The story serves as an important reminder of things (pressures, prejudices, etc) that others (such as white males like me) often take for granted. Even among minority groups that may relate on many things (in the story they all advise against reading the comments), each person is still an individual with unique questions and struggles.

I also enjoyed the story as a chance to "eavesdrop" on a discussion I'd normally not be a part of. Though, I also like the point in the story when the narrator talks about fetishism of other cultures.

It's a very thought provoking piece.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1758- Tony Isabella (writer), Trevor Von Eeden (artist): Black Lightning 1

Less familiar with DC Comics' superheroes, it wasn't until this year's TV adaptation of Black Lightning that I became aware of the character though he's been around since the 70s.

This is a collection of these early days and as such should also be prefaced with a few disclaimers. Created by Tony Isabella, who's not black, Black Lightning is nonetheless a black character. In the introduction to the collection, Isabella recalls his motivation in the first place. Specifically, he noted the few black superheroes, fewer still at DC than at Marvel, and sought to remedy that. So, I suppose, the intentions were fine. That said, if DC really wanted to support the idea, it would have probably been a safer bet to go with an actual black writer.

Much has been said about a much more offensive character named Black Bomber who DC had been eyeing as a headliner before settling on Black Lightning. To be sure, that character was much, much worse (he was a white racist who turned black when stressed). But, Isabella's stereotyping doesn't get him off the hook completely. Black Lightning was a schoolteacher by day, Afro-wig wearing, jive-talking superhero by night. And while I'm certainly no expert on 70s slang, especially urban black slang, I think some of Black Lightning's "authentic" dialogue was dubious at best.

Another, but less important issue considering how often the two companies did it to one another, is the ripping off of Marvel. While there's not a perfect carbon copy of Black Lightning at Marvel, other ideas and characters in Black Lightning's world seem lifted from there. First off, Black Lightning is presented as a street level alternative to the world-saving exploits of Superman, set in the Suicide Slum quarter of Metropolis. Clearly this a take on Marvel's heroes of Hell's Kitchen. Speaking of which, one of Hell's Kitchen's most notorious baddies, Kingpin, is clearly the inspiration behind Black Lightning's nemesis Tobias Whale. One difference between these two villains, and an unfortunate aspect they kept for the TV show, is Whale's albinism. Why are so many albinos presented in the media as villains? Oh wait! I forgot. Different = evil.

All of these issues aside, it's a fun introduction to the character even if, I'm told, much of his origins and superpowers have since been retconned. It's a 70s superhero comic so the stories are exactly profound, but they are entertaining. Also like other 70s DC and Marvel outputs, there's too much talking, the colours are garish and flat (the shading is all done with line work), but from a 2018 perspective this level of cheese is fun in itself.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1757- Keiji Nakazawa: Barefoot Gen

Reading Paul Gravett's Mangasia recently, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen came up as a particularly notable example and trendsetter of political and historical Asian comics. It tells of Nakazawa's experiences pre, during, and post the bombing of Hiroshima. This first volume that I read is predominately pre-bomb but it is dropped before the book ends.

Much controversy of Barefoot Gen seemed to be around the harsh critique Nakazawa makes on Japan at the time. Largely, to be fair, it is demonstrated not by Nakazawa who was only a child at the time but by his father who was particularly against Japan's propaganda and war-mongering. I suppose some readers felt this was not the time or place to criticize Japan. Clearly the bomb dropped by the US was horrendous and nothing could justify it. Perhaps Nakazawa's critics felt he was making a "both sides" argument similar to Trump's recent remarks regarding white supremacists in Charlottesville?

I'm not sure. In any case, I found the portrayal of WWII era Japan fascinating and certainly important. I've been to Japan, and a brief visit would lead one to believe it to be one of the most peace-loving countries on Earth. Perhaps they are. If so, they certainly weren't always that way (generally, speaking) and there's a hopeful message here that even the most militant of peoples can change. Hopefully, of course, it doesn't take an atomic bomb to learn such a valuable lesson and I suppose if one must have something positive to come from the tragedy that was Hiroshima, that would be it. It also doesn't, by any means, absolve the U.S..

At first Nakazawa's account seems uneven. While his father is being critical of Japan's jingoism, such political messages as these are pushed somewhat to the background and belied by the over-the-top emotions and physicality of Nakazawa and his younger brother. These kids reminded me a little of old Astro Boy cartoons. I couldn't often tell if it was meant as comic relief, perhaps a cultural difference I didn't understand, or an outdated style but there seemed to a lot of leaping into the air, a lot of big, unrealistic reactions to small things.

Then the bomb hits and it all makes sense. These scenes are horrific.

The earlier silliness is suddenly more understandable in retrospect. Yes, leading up to the bomb was a very serious time, but Nakazawa was still a child and much was shown through his eyes. He didn't always appreciate the magnitude of what was happening. What seemed important to him prior to the bomb was not necessarily of true importance. Nakazawa's own hindsight would come with and after the bomb.

Barefoot Gen, like my visit to Hiroshima, will stick with me for a very long time.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1756- Saladin Ahmed (writer), Christian Ward (artist): Black Bolt Hard Time Vol. 1

The hype for Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt: Hard Time run was well deserved.

Black Bolt is not an easy character to write and, as the recent tv Inhumans show proved, when he's adapted poorly he comes across as a dud, though he's supposed to be one of Marvel's most powerful superheroes. The challenge comes with his main power, a voice that can flatten buildings with as much as a whisper. He cannot, however, control when his voice has force and it always does. This means that the character cannot talk most of the time and in TV or comics, where dialogue is typically relied upon heavily to tell a story and to give insight into a character, options are limited. (In the TV show the actor raised an eyebrow now and then which... didn't cut it. Like at all.)

In the first chapter of Hard Time, Ahmed uses skilled narration to do the work.

Black Bolt wakes in filth. He does not know where he is. He does not know how he got here. He only knows... that he is leaving.

Written narration isn't new to comics of course, but I find it less common now than it was in the 70s and earlier and when you read some of those older comics, it makes them seem dated. It also makes it feel like the writers didn't trust the artists to get their points across and the results were often redundant. Ahmed's narration, however, works with the art. He pulls back when the art pushes the story forward and steps in when it does not.

In later chapters, Ahmed "cheats" a little by having Black Bolt and his fellow prisoners (the overarching story is essentially a prison break-out) discover that their powers have been stripped away leaving Black Bolt free to talk without hurting anyone.

Likewise the art by Christian Ward is most fascinating in the first chapter, full of futuristic, pyschedelic shapes, angles, and colours. In later chapters this is all toned down a little.

But while I may feel the first chapter was the strongest, it's not like the collection ever goes off the rails. It remains an engrossing, exciting story with wonderful character building. The friendship that forms between Black Bolt and Absorbing Man is a beautiful thing. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1755- Michael Avon Oeming (writer), Mel Rubi (artist): Spider-Man/ Red Sonja

Webcomics, photocomics, old-timey comics, lesser-known-superhero comics, non-Japanese manga... I'm starting to have a lot of comic obsessions. My latest is crossover comics, particularly crossovers between publishing companies, so expect a lot of those in upcoming months.

Bringing me to Spider-Man/ Red Sonja, a crossover between Marvel and Dynamite back in 2007, with the trade collection in 2008. This is not the first time these two characters have met and fortunately, this trade also includes that first encounter from 1979. I don't really consider that a crossover, however, as at the time Red Sonja was a Marvel property.

Being set in a fictionalized, medieval time, with no superpowers beyond being a skilled fighter, Spider-Man doesn't seem like an obvious choice for a Red Sonja crossover. She's more akin to Conan the Barbarian (who she's already crossed over with). From Marvel's roster, I'd think Ka-Zar or Shanna the She-Devil would be better fits. Then, those are hardly household names and I suppose the Spider-Man pairing was a better financial bet. Besides, as a fan of musical mashups (and essentially crossovers are mashups), it's sometimes the less obvious mixes that are the most interesting.

In Spider-Man/ Red Sonja, Michael Avon Oeming uses a slight resemblance between Spider-Man's girlfriend and Red Sonja to work the story (they both have red hair). Red Sonja's nemesis Kulan Gath recalls his previous attempt to take over modern day New York and how it was thwarted by Red Sonja and Spider-Man. This time he's planned a rematch but schemes to pit his two adversaries against one another as a distraction. To do so, he transposes a medieval version of New York over the modern one, affecting almost everyone inside with the inexplicable exception of Spider-Man. This is when Mary Jane becomes Red Sonja, or becomes trapped inside of her...

Okay, so it's not high art, not the most literary comic I've ever read, but it was fun and as such does what a good crossover should.

The art is decent, though as I've complained before, I'm never wild about the sexist way Red Sonja is typically portrayed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1754- Antony Johnston (writer), Sam Hart (artist): Atomic Blonde

I was excited to see a spy book with a female lead though in hindsight, I've never been a huge fan of the genre and so I'm not entirely sure why I thought having a female protagonist would change that.

My biggest issue has never been the sex of the spy but that I tend to find espionage plots confusing. This was the case with Atomic Blonde as well. I started off okay; the initial plot involves an MI6 officer named Lorraine Broughton (who isn't blonde by the way, the title was changed from its original The Coldest City to capitalize on the recent film adaptation starring Charlize Theron) heading off to East Germany in 1989 to get back a list that threatens to blow the covers of all the good spies. Then it turns out there was no list and a couple of double crosses and questionable motives later and I was thoroughly lost.

So, after I was done and still scratching my head, I decided to see if someone else online could explain it to me. It turned out it wasn't just me and my usual trouble with spy books, but plenty of others were left bewildered by just what the heck happened in the second half of the book.

I did diverge somewhat from other reviewers though as it seems plenty of others also didn't enjoy the art. I actually did. It's heavily inked in black and white but still without a lot of detail. It looked at times like wood prints. The cold effect created by such a stylistic choice fit the setting, fit the plot heavy (vs character driven) story, and any more detail would have been too distracting for what was already a difficult to follow tale.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1753- Eric Grissom (writer), William Perkins (artist): Gregory Suicide

In a lot of ways, Eric Grissom and William Perkins' Gregory Suicide felt like a Black Mirror episode. Dealing with artificial intelligence, the sci-fi aspect was definitely there. But it also has the mystery element; where the plot is a bit confusing at first but then the pieces start to fall into place (and new mysteries begin to pop up).

The titular Gregory in this story is the early version of an AI program. This was in earlier, friendlier times. Now the new AI robots and the humans are hellbent on wiping one another out and Gregory is caught in the middle.

It's stark in a near apocalyptic sort of way both in themes and art. Perkins work is reminiscent of Jeff Lemire's with just the slightest bit more refinement, fitting of a dystopic, futuristic tale. The colours, too, which are mostly monochromatic, fit well.

It's instantly engaging and provocative throughout, complete with interesting, well-defined characters.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1752- Charlotte Ashley: Sigrid Under the Mountain

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but Charlotte Ashley's "Sigrid Under the Mountain" has convinced me that I should read more.

Like good sci-fi, good fantasy came make a reader reflect upon the current world while offering an entrancing alternative reality. That's exactly what "Sigrid Under the Mountain" did for me. I was completely invested in this rich world and its mythical creatures, the cultures, the geography. Remarkable that it could be so richly developed in the space of a short story.

And then the strong themes of feminism and prejudices? I think fantasy is often written off as mere entertainment. While "Sigrid Under the Mountain" is certainly entertaining, it was also thoughtful, provocative.

The titular Sigrid is a strong character who is frustrated by her husband, by the mysterious kobolds, by an oncoming war. She takes matters into her own hands...