Saturday, June 29, 2019

Reader's Diary #2053- Tom King (writer), Mitch Gerads (artist): Mister Miracle

Mister Miracle isn't the first superhero comic to contrast superhero life with domestic life. Off the top of my head, Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman did it with Animal Man, Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez did it with Spider-Woman, and Tom King himself did it before with Vision (drawn by Gabriel Hernandez Walta). I'll admit that I'm a sucker for these kinds of stories and it's particularly easy to be a sucker when they're as good as Mister Miracle. It's also no wonder that King and Mitch Gerads won Eisner Awards for best writer and best artist respectively.

Mister Miracle isn't the most well known superhero, and if I'd encountered him before now, I didn't recall. Originally created by Jack Kirby in the early 70s, he's an alien to Earth from the planet New Genesis who acts as a stage performing escape artist. He's immortal and has the usual superhero abilities (strength, speed, smarts, and stamina). He's also romantically linked to Big Barda, a reformed supervillain.

In this story, Mister Miracle and Big Barda are trying to move past their dark past (Mister Miracle was raised as the evil Darkseid's adopted heir) but a war affecting their birth planets and their friends keeps calling them back. Laid out like that, the plot seems simple enough. But it's so much more.

Infused in this are rich, provocative themes handled with maturity and philosophy; depression, reality, and nature vs. nurture to name but a few. And all of this is balanced out with wit and slapstick. It's a damned funny book to boot.

All of which would be fine enough as it is, but Gerads' art matches the writing panel by panel. It's a mastercraft of a book and should be taught alongside Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Especially great is the way he breaks the "rules" for effect. Blurriness gives particular panels glitchy-vibes showing Mister Miracle's tenuous grip on reality and peace. Darkseid's evil legacy cannot be contained in a single panel. Words and scenes betray one another as Mister Miracle and Big Barda risk life and death breaking into Darkseid's lair all while debating kitchen renovations, effectively showing how even the adventure-stuff is just par for the course for these two.

If I read a better comic than this this year, I'll have read two genius books.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Reader's Diary #2052- Brooke Hartman (writer), Evon Zerbetz (artist): Dream Flights on Arctic Nights

There are more than a few picture books that catalogue the animals that live in the north. What sets Brooke Hartman and Evon Zerbetz's Dream Flights on Arctic Nights apart from the rest is the art.

First off, Hartman's decision to set the book at night is a neat and unique choice and Zerbetz makes the colours practically pop off the black backgrounds (the text too is in white). I thought at first it was done in oil pastels but it turns out to be linocuts. In addition, there's a real flow to the pictures which perfectly complements Hartman's verse (which thankfully scans!) and the idea that it's all in a child's dream. It reminded me of somewhat of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Reader's Diary #2051- Teresa Wong: Dear Scarlet

Mental health talk has come along way. I remember back in the day, when anyone had a mental health problem my mother would say they had a case of the nerves and leave it at that. Nerves was all encompassing. Except for postpartum depression. I distinctly remember her being surprisingly up on that and empathetic with sufferers, though she never experienced it herself.

Still, and despite progress in mental health recognition, a postpartum depression memoir is brave. There is still stigma attached and there's an idea of Motherhood that doesn't make it much easier for people like Teresa Wong. Her graphic novel Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression wrestles with it in the form of a letter to her daughter. She knows, objectively, that there shouldn't be shame but the nature of depression is such that she felt it nonetheless.

There's beauty among the sadness and stress and hopefully others who experience postpartum depression will find some degree of solace in knowing they are not alone.

This is Wong's first graphic novel and so the art is a little amateur perhaps, but it's direct, reminiscent of Sarah Leavitt's Tangles in how it still conveys complex, real emotion even with simple art.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Reader's Diary #2050- Barry Loewer (Editor): 30-Second Philosophies

A short time ago I read and quite enjoyed Stephen Law's The Philosophy Gym. It was a very engaging and enlightening introduction to philosophy. Still not fully confident to progress beyond the beginner stage though, I thought 30-Second Philosophies, edited by Barry Loewer and with an introduction by Stephen Law himself, would be another fun choice.

Subtitled The 50 Most Thought-Provoking Philosophies Each Explained in Half a Minute, I think therein lay the problem. I, and assume Loewer, had mistakenly believed that these could be reduced to such brevity (dumbed-down?). Too often the ideas were confusing or else lacked the real life connection that Law's The Philosophy Gym found and explained so well and so entertainingly.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Reader's Diary #2049- Neil Simon: Lost in Yonkers

Lost in Yonkers, a play by Neil Simon, isn't necessarily fun but it's also not without some dark, dry wit here and there.

Basically it’s a dysfunctional family story about a multi-generational family living in New York in the early 40s. A couple of teenage boys are dropped off to live with their cold, impatient grandmother after their mother dies and their father needs to hit the road for work. There’s also an aunt with an unspecified cognitive disability and a low-tier gangster uncle.

There seems to be some debate in review circles whether or not books need to have likeable characters. Given the focus on dysfunction, it was quite likely for this play to become overbearing. Centering it on the boys though allowed me characters to root for. Would their grandmother’s bitterness lead them into a life of crime like their uncle or would they remain optimistic and warm like their aunt?

In addition to the plot, Simon has given some pretty decent character studies. In particular, the grandmother character becomes far more easy to empathize with before the play is through, though never rises to the level of sympathy. Less successful for me was the aunt character. What could be a compelling look at the sexuality of adults with special needs is hampered somewhat by an inconsistent and too-convenient range of cognitive abilities. Nonetheless, she is a charmer.

I'd be curious to see the play or movie though as it felt somewhat short, almost sit-com length.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Reader's Diary #2048- Robert Carlton: Hannigan's Backyard

Robert Carlton's "Hannigan's Backyard" begins with a nightmarishly surreal description of a garden that is almost Lovecraftian. It becomes clear though, as the story progresses, that childhood imagination and fear may be fueling the memory. The truth might be far less sinister.

It's a story necessarily rich in imagery but accurate in terms of emotion. It made me recall a house not far from where I lived as a child that had huge white concrete lions and chains out in front. It was ostentatious and way out of wack from the Newfoundland outport surroundings. I may have believed the man inside to be a James Bond sort.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Reader's Diary #2047- Daniel Kibbelsmith (writer), Ricardo Lopez Ortiz (artist): Black Panther Vs. Deadpool

Just a couple of days ago I wrote about a Squirrel Girl/ Ms. Marvel team-up and about how it worked so well because they offered balance to one another; Squirrel Girl could use a little more seriousness, Ms. Marvel could use more fun. A Deadpool / Black Panther pairing should take that idea to its extreme.

Of course, the "vs." in the title tells you up-front that it isn't a love-in. Black Panther clearly has little patience for Deadpool. However, they do team up do defeat Jack O' Lantern in Wakanda. As Deadpool himself points out, this is par for the course in such a crossover: two heroes hate each other at first but then must put their differences aside in order to defeat a common enemy.

It's funny, definitely falling more in line with a Deadpool comic than a Black Panther comic, and not without its charm. The art took me a while to appreciate. I do like when a superhero comic doesn't look like all the other superhero comics, but Ortiz's character work is scratchy and exaggerated almost to the point of grotesque. However, it also adds energy and humour, so complements the story well.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Reader's Diary #2046- Susan Orlean: The Library Book

My only knowledge of Susan Orlean was the brilliantly bizarre film adaptation (called Adaptation) of her non-fiction The Orchid Thief. In the film (starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep), a book about flower enthusiasts takes some wild left turns and is shockingly exciting.

The same might be said The Library Book (of which there are no film adaptations planned as of yet, to my knowledge). The "might" is not lack of assertiveness on my part, it's that I'm biased.

The Library Book deals with the burning of Los Angeles Public Library in 1986; the worst library fire in American history in terms of damage. Along the way though, Orlean discusses the history of the LA Public Library, of libraries in general, and looks at the direction and relevance of libraries today. The hook, I'm presuming, for people who are not library aficionados like myself is the number one arson suspect: Harry Peak. Peak was by all accounts an eccentric character and his most notable quirk was his compulsive lying.

Like Adaptation, the Library Book doesn't exactly follow a clear path. Peak's story is introduced early, but then left for a few chapters for Orlean to talk about libraries, then revisited. I assume that she's struck a great balance. Non-library folk, hopefully, will find something surprisingly interesting as they patiently wait to get back to Peak and the true crime angle. I, on the other hand, was just as (if not more), fascinated by the library stuff.

Of course, managing a Public Library myself, I was constantly comparing the LA Public Library to my own. It was clearly much bigger and they took on much more of an archival role than mine. They were devastated by the loss of materials, whereas my biggest concern would have been the lives of the patrons, staff, and firefighters. Not that people weren't a concern at the time, but there was a lot of emphasis on salvaging irreplaceable "things". On the other hand, the talks about budgets, the growth needs, the importance of libraries in serving the needs of the homeless? All those things definitely struck chords.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Reader's Diary #2045- Devin Grayson, Ryan North, G. Willow Wilson (writers), various artists: Marvel Rising

A fan of both Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, I was pleased to see that they were teamed up in Marvel Rising, even better that G. Willow Wilson and Ryan North were on board as those two writers are the reason those two characters are so beloved.

It's a great balance too as Squirrel Girl is often over the top funny but could use more serious action, while Ms. Marvel often falls the other way. While this volume is more aimed at younger readers perhaps, it's still a fun romp for us old folks and I was happy to see Arcade appear as as a villain as I'd only just encountered him for the first time a short while ago in an old Captain Britain comic.

I did find myself thinking more about Ms. Marvel as a character than I had previously. Perhaps it's because there are a few rumours floating around about her appearing in an upcoming MCU movie, just after Marvel Studios has reclaimed the rights to the Fantastic Four, that I've taken note that she doesn't have any unique abilities. She can stretch? That's sort of Mr. Fantastic's thing. She can get big? That's Ant-Man's. But I suppose there are other MCU characters that have the same powers (Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk all have brute strength), so it's still possible to co-exist.

I also found myself thinking about the role of actual religions in a Marvel universe. It's odd to think about that this time around as Ms. Marvel's Muslim identity isn't focused on at all in this particular book like it was in some of the solo books I read, but I don't know how a character in that role can believe in the same Gods as they do in the real world, considering that universe has their own. The same thing goes for Daredevil and his Catholicism.

None of these thoughts are to suggest that the book didn't hold my attention, just that when I put it down I was thinking more about the characters than the plot.

Art-wise, it's a bit inconsistent which is not surprising considering that different artists were involved, but all did manage to infuse a lot of humour and youthful energy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Reader's Diary #2044- David H.T. Wong: Escape to Gold Mountain

I'd heard but whispers of stories of the Chinese who first came to Canada, usually tied to their exploitation in order to finish the Canadian Pacific Railroad. It was ashamedly missing from the history I'd learned in school. I wonder if it still is? I'd like to think that Canada's at a slow turning point in acknowledging our racist, colonial, murderous past; a necessary turning point if we can ever get even an inch toward the ideal Canada a good many of us had been led (shockingly off-mark) to believe had already been achieved.

When I came across David H.T. Wong's Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America I thought it could serve as a good primer on the topic.

That it did. I'd thought from the name that it would have more to do with one of the gold rushes than it did, but Gold Mountain was the Chinese nickname for North America at the time. While following the fictional Wong family, the book is still largely steeped in facts, facts unbeknownst to me (such as head taxes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Opium Wars, relationships with indigenous people, and so on). It's not exclusive to Canada, but also the U.S.. The family angle does provide an emotional hook but seeing some of the more graphic scenes (hangings, crushings) I'd like to think readers would have had an emotional reaction anyway. Perhaps the family helps the more optimistic takeaways of the story; resilience and overcoming great odds.

I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the art though. The character-work looked amateurish and the backgrounds, while more more realistic, look like they may be line tracings of old photos. It would also have benefited from colour.

Nonetheless, the story telling is well-done and it's a story that needs to be shared.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Reader's Diary #2043- Shawn Kobb: Street Dog

The last time I was in Vancouver I was taken aback by how many homeless people had dogs. For protection, for companionship, it made sense to me. But as this is not something I've encountered in Yellowknife despite having a large homeless population, I found myself wondering about the complications; are shelters accepting of these animals? Is it possible to scrape enough food together for a second mouth? And what about the economics? I'm sure some people are dog lovers and are maybe even more likely to donate spare change, I'm sure there are others who deem it irresponsible and withhold donations (the same folks who'd withhold donations for a homeless person who smokes). Of course, a homeless dog owner would be able to weigh in on this and I could only guess.

Which is why I could not say with any certainty that Shawn Kobb's "Street Dog," a short story about a homeless man and his dog, depicts a situation authentically.  There's one particular passage that decidedly didn't ring true to me:

It’d probably be more interesting if I said he occasionally hunts down a rabbit and returns it to me so I can clean it and cook it up for the two of us. That’d be a lie, though. I doubt he knows how to hunt rabbits, and I sure as hell don’t know how to clean one. Lighting a fire is a good way to get the cops to come down hard on you.

This came across as a writer wondering aloud if a homeless person's dog could do such a thing and deciding against it rather than the thoughts of an actual homeless person.

Otherwise though, I believed the emotion of the story and quite enjoyed it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Reader's Diary #2042- Jeff Parker, Michael Moreci (writers), Dan Parent (artist): Archie Meets Batman '66

I'm still holding out for a Batman '66/Wonder Woman '77/ Superman '78 (with Christopher Reeve) crossover, but in the meantime an Archie/Batman '66 is a pretty good fit too considering that the Archie gang was quite popular at the time. (There's a reference to their "Sugar, Sugar hit from the era.)

As crossovers go, it's pretty good. There's no traveling to an alternate dimension nonsense and both franchises get equitable treatment. Batman's rogues gallery decide they've had enough of their plans being thwarted in Gotham City and set their sites on Riverdale instead. Of course, villains don't always think things through and of course, Batman (along with Robin, Batgirl, and Alfred) just head on over to Riverdale as well. But with the adults in town being under the sinister Siren's spell, Batman needs to recruit Archie's gang to lend a hand.

The writing feels like typical Batman '66 while the art is reminiscent of Archie comics. And as both rely on a lot of puns and slapstick, it meshes quite well.

Best of all, there's a set-up for a sequel, likely to be set in Gotham City the next time around.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Reader's Diary #2041- Maggie Shipstead: Acknowledgements

I definitely have a contender for favourite short story of the year with Maggie Shipstead's "Acknowledgements". Particularly surprising considering how uncomfortable it made me.

It's a very meta-story about a man who's just written a novel and recounts a woman who inspired it all (much, I'm sure, to her chagrin).

I think, at my worst, in my younger days, I may have had a bit of this asshole narrator in me. Hence, the discomfort. But because it rings so true I'm in love with the writing. The nauseatingly pretentious, immature, entitled voice? My god, it's good.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Reader's Diary #2040- Nnedi Okorafor (writer), Leonardo Romero (artist): Shuri The Search for Black Panther

I'm a bit fickle when it comes to humour in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I enjoyed both Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther but I thought the former needed to dial down the jokes while the latter needed to lighten up a little. That said, I did think the character of Shuri added some comedic relief and that's one of the reasons I think it was a break out role. I'm not surprised that Marvel Comics has since given her a title series.

I quite enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor's take. Shuri is very similar to her character from the movie but with some added depth. She's strong and wrestles with finding/maintaining her own identity with the expectations upon her by an admittedly wise ancestry.

Also, I'm so thankful that Okorafor also touches upon some of the issues I've had with some previous Black Panther comics, namely the patriarchal overtones and the idea of a monarchy (vs. democracy). Make no mistake, this is a smart comic.

But it's also fun! At one point Shuri has her soul sent into space and she winds up in Groot's head.

Romero's art doesn't have anywhere near the gravitas of that beautiful Black Panther cinematography but his lines are fast and simple, similar to Erica Henderson's work on Squirrel Girl, and again, perhaps this helps balance against the more serious themes.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Reader's Diary #2039- Dorotheé Floriane Conley: Tiled Floors

Lest anyone be caught off guard, the title of Dorotheé Floriane Conley's blog is Weird Short Fiction. That her first short story published there, "Tiled Floors" comes across as either a bad trip or a nightmare, is not altogether surprising.

Not typically a fan of surrealistic writing, I'm good with it in small doses like this. I appreciated the bizarre voice and imagery even if I didn't exactly understand it all. (How does a snail kick anyway?)