Monday, April 30, 2018

Reader's Diary #1809- George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant

George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is a heartbreaking story in more than a few ways.

The most obvious is the shooting of, and subsequent suffering of, an elephant.

The other ways involve colonialism and its nasty ramifications. The story is told from a settler's point of view in Burma, a settler who has come to see the evil side of the Europeans that he nonetheless and regrettably represents. He knows some of his own prejudices are a product of this manufactured power dynamic as well, but still finds it hard to shake given his position.

It could make for a fascinating conversation as to whether or not the elephant works as a metaphor for the European empire, or perhaps the Burmese culture.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Reader's Diary #1808- John Layman (writer), Chris Mooneyham (artist): Predator vs Judge Dredd vs Aliens / Splice and Dice

I didn't have high hopes for this Predator vs Judge Dredd vs Aliens crossover. I've been bingeing on crossovers lately and have, by and large, been disappointed. Plus, I'd not consider myself a fan of any of the trio in this equation. So what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be.

No, John Layman isn't going to win a Pulitzer for this story, but it's fun, inventive, and easy to follow. A mad scientist is using alien (Xenomorph) DNA to "improve" life on Earth and can only be stopped by Judge Dredd and the Predators. Layman keeps true to the character identities and franchise mythologies and it all fits together perfectly.

Likewise Mooneyham's art isn't groundbreaking, but it's suitably realistic and grainy for the tale.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Reader's Diary #1807- Various writers and artists: Kraven's Last Hunt

First off, I should note up front that this "Epic Collection" from Marvel isn't just the "Kraven's Last Hunt" arc which was written by J. M. Dematteis and illustrated by Mike Zeck. In fact Kraven doesn't even appear until after 300 pages or so. Prior to that we get other important Spider-Man storylines including the death of Peter Parker's good friend Ned Leeds and Peter's marriage to Mary Jane Watson. So, while the title is a bit problematic, it's hard to complain that you get much more bang for your buck with this collection. Also included at the end are essays from some of the contributors, including a piece from Stan Lee who is happy that now that Peter is married he won't have to do his own laundry anymore (sigh), cheesy photos from a publicity stunt wedding with actors in bad Marvel costumes in the 80s, the Mary Jane Watson paper-doll wedding dress, and a selection of Stan Lee's Spider-Man newspaper strips.

The death of Ned and the marriage aren't as well done the later Kraven story and I'd forgotten how "aw shucks" the Spider-Man character is sometimes portrayed. When he's depicted as a teen this is less problematic than when he's an adult, as he was here.

Which brings me to another thought about the dilemma that both DC and Marvel have had over the years, resulting in reboots, new versions of the characters, but a lack of disappearance of the old characters. It seems like they were always stuck between Peanuts and For Better or For Worse. Do they age their characters or not? They seem to want it both ways and this has caused more problems than either approach would have if they just stuck with it. (Personally, I'd prefer if they just aged them and let replacements eventually take over.)

The art is especially garish in that 80s sort of way, which I admit I'm starting to appreciate. There are sometimes bizarre colour choices and very little shading outside of line work. Plus, Peter Parker has a bad perm, and having been there myself, this amused me to no end. Mike Zeck's art in the Kraven storyline is more artistic in terms of angles, close-ups, etc.

Plus, Dematteis' story is darker, more adult and artistic, and feels more inline with the acclaimed Watchmen and Batman stories from around the same period. Plus, he has to get props for somehow making the loin clad Kraven a less ridiculous, more compelling villain.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Reader's Diary #1806- Tee Franklin (writer), Jenn St-Onge (art): Bingo Love

Tee Franklin's Bingo Love is a beautiful and hopeful love story that spans 3 generations.

It involves two African American girls, Hazel and Mari, who first meet and fall in love at a bingo game back in the 60s. Especially given the time period, this was heavily frowned upon by society at large and absolutely forbidden by their parents when it was discovered. Time passes and the two girls go their separate ways, eventually marrying into mostly convenient heterosexual relationships. Then one day, the now grandmothers are fated to meet at a bingo game once again.

So, ultimately the message is good things come to those who wait. The pessimistic side of me knows that isn't always true, but it's possible of course. And lest I've made it sound like it's completely an unrealistic happy ending, Franklin does acknowledge the pain of others. Hazel's marriage in particular is especially complex as she does actually love her husband, and presumably he loves her just not romantically.

The art is done well with healthy and realistic variance in body types and skin tones.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Reader's Diary #1805- Inio Asano: Goodnight Punpun 1

Wow, two awesome mangas right in a row. And like Hiroya Oku's Inuyashiki, a large part of the appeal was the amazing art. This came as a bit of a surprise after the cover which depicts the titular character as a crudely drawn bird (basically a ghost shape with a beak). Besides Punpun and his family however, every other character is drawn as human and each with very distinct features. Then the backgrounds are incredibly detailed. I've since read in another review that Asano used photos in his comics but where the photos end and the drawings begin is usually and magically difficult to tell.

Besides the art though it's just a zany but still comprehensible and engaging story with superb character building. Essentially it's Punpun's coming-of-age story, but he comes from a dysfunctional family and a realistic boy's adolescence is shown with warts and all. Punpun, however, has a naive charm (perhaps aided by his appearance) and won me over almost instantly. Given some of the themes, it was at times dark and/or sad, but it's also funny as hell.

Reader's Diary #1804- Hiroya Oku: Inuyashiki 1

I absolutely loved the first volume in Hiroya Oku's Inuyashiki.

First off, it's so rare to see an elderly character in any comic, so right away I liked Ichiro Inuyashiki, the main character. He is still only 58, which is still older than most characters, but he looks even older. He is down on himself and his family doesn't help matters with their complete lack of respect. Again, I haven't come across a midlife crisis manga before. It only spirals down further when he discovers that he is dying on stomach cancer. Perhaps the saddest moment in the whole book is when he tries calling his wife and kids on their phones to give them the bad news and not one of them chooses to answer.

The plot goes crazy from there.

One night Ichiro is accidentally blown up by aliens. They decide however to "fix" this by replacing him with an android version and uploading Ichiro's consciousness into it. He doesn't even realize at first that his body is no longer his own. Once he does, however, he slowly begins his transformation into a superhero.

Towards the end, a younger character is introduced whose undergone the same transformation and while I'm somewhat interested to see where it goes, I hope Oku doesn't lose focus on the old guy. As the series is named after Ichiro, I don't think I need to worry too much.

Along with the compelling story and unique characters, the art is amazing. The characters are suitably emotional, and the line work, especially on objects and backgrounds, is so detailed it appears lifelike at times.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reader's Diary #1803- Jon Schnepp (writer), Guiu Vilanova (art): Slayer Repentless

So, a bit of a change from yesterday's Jem and the Holograms comic. But knowing that I can be equally into Jem and Slayer is probably the first step to understanding me. Not that you care to, of course.

Actually, if I'm being honest, I was never really into Slayer. I did love thrash metal though, so the possibility was there, but of the big 4, I really only dug Metallica and Megadeth. I respect Slayer and Anthrax but can't say that I connected.

So, not having been much a follower of Slayer, I don't think I appreciated the Slayer Repentless comic as much as someone who was familiar with the video trilogy (for "Repentless," "You Against You," and "Pride in Prejudice") the source material behind this adaptation.

It's bloody (as you can gather from the cover) but it's always nice to see racists get what they deserve. The isolated desert town setting helped with the gritty vibe and the colouring by Mauricio Wallace was pretty excellent.

I do wish the band themselves had more of a role though. They were mostly irrelevant to the story, looking cool on the sidelines, maybe giving a line or two or firing a gun once or twice, but that's about it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Reader's Diary #1802- Kelly Thompson (writer), Sophie Campbell (artist): Jem and The Holograms 1 Showtime

I unashamedly admit to loving the Jem and the Holograms cartoon back in the 80s. This doesn't, unfortunately, mean that it was necessarily any good or that it would hold up today.

I think it helped that writer Kelly Thompson came to the project with similar skepticism referring to nostalgia as being the "greatest strength and the greatest weakness." She sought to capture the history and essence of the old show, while giving it modern sensibilities and just plain make it good!

I'd say the comic was a smashing success. She gets the origin story out of the way almost immediately, keeps the characters of old including the hologram creating earrings and Synergy (a notable failure by the live action movie adaptation a few years back). The stories are fun, mostly light with some hints of deeper meaning, and the art is bright and pink and full of movement. I'm not entirely sure that the song sequences were captured well, though I'm also not sure how that would have succeeded in such a change in medium.

I loved the modern takes especially, with the social media presence now a factor, with a member of the Holograms and of their rivals the Misfits falling in love, and with the more realistic and varied body shapes.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Reader's Diary #1801- Katherena Vermette: Half as Much

Katherena Vermette's "Half as Much" is a story about an elderly Métis man named Gus who reflects back on his life and in doing so, illustrates the unofficial status of many Métis in Canada. As he's doing so, it's apparent that he's been treated, at best, as a 2nd class citizen. In the present day, the news media is calling it a historic occasion that the Métis are now, according to Canadian law, to be treated as Indians. After a conversation with his nephew, it would seem that Gus is a little more cynical about it, knowing I suppose, that this acknowledgement doesn't exactly elevate them in the racist eyes of colonialist society.

As important as this message is, and as powerful as Vermette makes it, I enjoyed other themes and aspects of the story almost as much. I liked the contrast between, for instance, the generations and the blue-collared Gus and the nephew scholar. I was amused that despite the nephew's PhD for instance, Gus thought of him as lazy. I also thought it was pretty accurate the way she describes the treatment of senior citizens; the patronizing. I wonder if it's a comparison to the way many whites treat Métis of any age.

If it all sounds bleak, there is, at least, a promise of spring at the end.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1800- Alison McCreesh: Norths

Having been a huge fan of Alison McCreesh's comic memoir Ramshackle about her move to Yellowknife from the south, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of Norths: Two Suitcases and a Stroller Around the Circumpolar World. In addition to being in awe of her illustrations, I've also been a long time traveler, complete with the kids in tow, and have been fascinated with the circumpolar world since I taught grade 7 social studies years back (in the Northwest Territories, the circumpolar world is the entire theme for the grade 7 socials curriculum— I wish this book had existed back then as it would have made a far more interesting textbook!). 

Rather than a comic this time around, McCreesh took a slightly different approach. For each day she was away (180 days in total), she sent back an illustrated postcard to family, friends, and fans. On the back of the cards she wrote a small description as well as a quick diary-esque message. 

Curiously, although working in the book's favour in terms of flow, I didn't notice much difference from one's recipient's postcard to the next. I imagine in "real-life" her voice would change somewhat from family to friends and different levels of relationships, but as this project was planned in advance, I suspect she knew that keeping things consistent would work better for an overall reader.

This is not to say there isn't a change in emotion and indeed I found it most interesting to get occasional insight into the toll such an extended trip was taking on her and her family, both physically (I believe they got sick in every country) and emotionally (highs and lows). 

Important to the theme of course, I also learned much about the circumpolar world, despite McCreesh's acknowledgement at one point that as a visitor her observations were only superficial at best. (I'd argue that one of her skills as the brilliant artist she is is to make astute observations quicker than average schlubs like me, but I get what she's saying.) I learned much about languages, architecture, currency, geography, climate, food, and more. And it was all aided with delightful line drawings enhanced with gray scale watercolours. 

She was not able to make it to Alaska this time around but once she's rested up, I'm hoping for a sequel. Maybe she she could also take in Yukon and Nunavut as well. If she does, I'm hoping to get a postcard for myself this time around!


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1799- Kenneth Oppel: Silverwing

Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel, is about a young bat who strikes up an unlikely friendship after getting lost from his mother. No, it's not Stellaluna and that's where the similarities end. (Well, they're also both great, I guess!)

I am not surprised to here that this book has been chosen for novel studies in classrooms right across North America. There's tonnes of action (complete with the villainous Goth) that would appeal to the more energetic readers but also a lot of rich themes to explore for the more subdued types.

I especially loved Oppel's rich development of fictionalized bat cultures, complete with religion and folklore.

Silverwing is the first in a trilogy though works well enough as a standalone.

One minor negative observation is that the illustrations by David Frankland, while fine, are few and far between and don't actually add anything significant to the book.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1798- Angela Hovak Johnston: Reawakening Our Ancestors' Lines

Angela Hovak Johnston's Reawakening Our Ancestors' Lines: Revitalizing Inuit Traditional Tattooing is a collection of photos and brief essays from participants in her amazing, admirable, and beautiful traditional tattooing project spearheaded by Johnston back in 2016.

With assistance from a traditional tattoo artist from Alaska, a contemporary tattoo artist from Yellowknife, a photographer, Elders, and more, Johnston explored the history behind the striking and unique cultural body art, including the shameful way it nearly died out altogether due to colonialist pressures. Most importantly she began tattooing new volunteers.

Because of the rapid decline in the art across the north and because Inuit from different communities assigned different meanings, there were differences in interpretation. Some suggested the tattoos traditionally had symbolic cultural meaning, other suggested they had more individually assigned symbolism, and still more suggested that the tattoos was for beauty, not symbolism at all.

In any case, for each volunteer in the project the art, the process, and the various symbols took on much importance. Most powerfully, it helped connect the volunteers with one another, with their families, and to Inuit communities past and present.

Flawlessly capturing these beautiful stories are crisp, artistic photos courtesy of Cora DeVos of Little Inuk Photography.

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.