Archive for the ‘Graphic Novels’ Category


Two Novels, One Graphic, One Not…

September 2, 2008


Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson

Greetings all.
Though I mentioned at the end of the last review that my current reading was of the decidedly non-recreational variety, I decided that my weary brain needed a break so I set aside the heavy (in all senses of the word) text that had taken over my reading life.
Fortunately I had a couple of things waiting in the on-deck circle, neither of which was particularly heavy, so I took myself a small reading vacation.
The first thing I read was a short graphic novel – another BoingBoing recommendation – ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ by Alex Robinson.
I’ve gone on in this space before about my experiences (often positive) with the graphic novel format, and I’m happy to say that ‘Too Cool…’ is very, cool that is.
“Graphic Novel” has become a catch-all for any long(er) form comic with literary pretensions (sometimes actually delivered upon). Alex Robinson’s ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ is probably closer to a longer short story than a novel. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d be the first to admit that some of the greatest writers have worked in the form. Robinson is both an excellent storyteller – in both words and pictures – and I found ‘Too Cool…’ to be one of the more moving entries in the genre.
I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that the book is a fantastic look at adolescence and high school as seen through the eyes of approaching middle age. Maybe it hits closer to the bone because I’m about the same age as the protagonist, and have many of the same regrets about my high school years (and I’d be suspicious of anyone that didn’t). I suspect however that anyone that’s experienced high school from anything but the very top of the social heap will find a great deal of truth in this book.
Highly recommended.


The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My most recent read came along unexpectedly in a box of books mailed to us by my in-laws. I’d heard a lot about ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, and as it was among the shortest book in the pile that interested me, I grabbed it and plowed through it in a few days. Though the first impression, via the title (a Sherlock Holmes reference), word of mouth and the jacket copy, suggested to me that this was a mystery of sorts, in the end the book is more an impression (from within) of the world of a teenager with Aspergers Syndrome, and how he navigates (with varying degrees of success) the world around him.
The author, Mark Haddon tells most of the story from the point of view of the protagonist Christopher Boone, but manages to move the story, and put events in context using the actions and reactions of those around him, some who know Christopher and are aware of (and often sympathetic to) his condition, and many who are not.
Though I can’t say with any certainty how accurate the portrayal of Aspergers is – and there have apparently been many (some with the condition) who have disagreed with Haddon’s portrayal of his main character – I have been doing some reading about this end of the Autism Spectrum, and I applaud Haddon for attempting to shine some light on a condition that is increasingly common, yet barely known to most people.
That said, ‘The Curious Incident…’ is a very interesting and thought provoking book, and the literary device he employs, while drawing tangents to the “outside” world, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (there is a mystery of sorts here, just not what you’d expect) really drew me in.
Also highly recommended.
Now reading – Vols. 1&2 of the Fables graphic novel by Bill Willingham.


Escapement / Watchmen

August 15, 2008


Escapement By Jay Lake

Greetings all.
It’s been a while since I posted, but this is another one of those whipped through one book dove right into the next (and then again into another) things.
When I posted my review of ‘Mainspring’ I had already begun reading its sequel ‘Escapement’.
Though at the point that I wrote that post it seemed that Jay Lake had conquered some of the pacing problems from ‘Mainspring’, once I completed the second book it was obvious that instead of going away, the problems had merely come into sharper focus.
‘Escapement’ continues the story of the alternate, clock driven, orrery-esque earth. Though the hero of the first book is present only in a few peripheral mentions, two of the three main characters in ‘Escapement’ are carried over from ‘Mainspring’.
The main problem with these books is ironically also their greatest asset, that being the world that Lake has created. This alternate universe and the warring religio-philosophical factions that attempt to control it are a truly amazing invention.
Perhaps too amazing.
Lake spends a tremendous time on exposition/explanation, and the detail is wonderful, but I finished ‘Escapement’ wishing he’d spent less time on minutae and more time actually plotting the book.
My main issue with ‘Mainspring’ – that the story moved in fits and starts, with long periods of slow unwinding (no pun intended) followed by inorganic jumps in the story and changes in tone – was continued in ‘Escapement’. I found myself with less than 50 pages left wondering when and how the story was going to be resolved, and arrived at the end unsure that it had. Though there was an “ending” of sorts, the book concluded as if I had just purchased not a full novel, but the first half of one.
I’m not a huge consumer of series, but one that I’ve been reading for the last few years, and enjoying a great deal is the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik. Though the books cover a finite period, and the adventures of the dragon and its master continued from book to book, these stories (and the word story is crucial) have a beginning, middle and, here’s the catch, and ENDING. Each book, though connected to the ones before and after, has it’s own distinct plot.
‘Escapement’ has a number of loose ends, one of them unforgivably huge. The ending of the book points directly to a sequel, but ends not like a self-contained novel, but more like the first half of a larger book.
I’m not exactly a prodigious consumer of fantasy literature, so maybe this is par for the course (I doubt it), but I’m not sure I’m going to want to read the next book in the series.


Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

On a more positive note, I finally got with the program and grabbed a copy of ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (20 years late…I know). Though I knew about the series (now collected into a single volume), my lack of interest in superhero comics kept me away. My interest was piqued by a recent review (and an endorsement by a friend), so I grabbed a copy at ye olde book barn, and I’m glad I did.
I know that the whole “turning comics clichés on their head” thing is pretty much a cliché itself, but Moore and Gibbons were  – in 1987  – at the vanguard of this movement.
‘Watchmen’ is, like the best of the genre truly a graphic novel (as opposed to a swollen comic book). The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling.
While I can’t wait to see the movie, I wonder of there’s any way to bring the story to the screen without doing it a great injustice.
A good friend of mine – a huge comics fan with a serious grip on the history of the genre – tells me that Moore and Gibbons have steadfastly refused to expand upon ‘Watchmen’ with spin-offs, prequels or sequels. This is both cool – in that they feel the story is strong enough to stand on its own without elaboration (and it is) – and a huge drag because several of the characters, especially Dr, Manhattan are ripe for expansion.
Either way, if you’ve been avoiding graphic novels because you thought them lacking in depth, go out and get yourself a copy of ‘Watchmen’.

Now reading – Stardust by Neil Gaiman


Another Two In the Outbox…

June 17, 2008


Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

Greetings all.
Thanks in large part to a combination of sloth and speed reading I come to you today with not one but two books.
The first is the graphic novel ‘Bottomless Belly Button’ by Dash Shaw.
Oddly enough both of the books I’m writing up today were picked up via mentions on BoingBoing.
The BB plug (for Bottomless Belly Button) sounded so interesting I ordered the book from Amazon forthwith. A few days later I arrived home to a small Amazon box that was shockingly heavy.
“What’s this?” I thought. I didn’t recall ordering an anvil, but I went ahead and opened the box anyway, discovering the graphic novel in question.
“Oh dear…there is no fucking way I’m lugging this thing with me back and forth to work.”
I immediately resolved to hold it in abeyance as a “home” book to be read at night and on weekends.
As it turns out the physical size of the book was deceptive, as I ripped through in in a two day period.
‘Bottomless Belly Button’ is another example of a graphic novel with a drawing style that I found immediately off-putting, which ended up grewing on me over time. I’ve seen other examples of Shaw’s work and realize that not everything he draws looks this way, but I’m from the old school where I’ve come to expect a higher level of craft where drawing is concerned.
I am of course – as is often the case – wrong on that count. The deal with graphic novels is (at least as I see it) that the story is at least as important as the art (or it ought to be) and that sometimes an individualistic, non-traditional drawing style is really a crucial part of the whole presentation.
In the case of ‘Bottomless Belly Button’, Shaw has taken the story of a family coming together to mark the disintegration of their parent’s marriage (after 40 years). The characters are well thought out and the storyline – which contains a fair bit of symbolism – creeps up slowly, enveloping the reader along the way.
Interesting, but in no way crucial reading, though I will be on the lookout for Shaw’s other work.


Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Though I wouldn’t call myself a sci-fi nut, I will say that over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of excellent writing hiding inside that scorned genre (and many others as well). Great writing that was basically published as disposable paperback pulp, often lost to the ages except where passed on from one generation to another (though H. Beam Piper’s ‘Fuzzy’ novels had been reprinted over the years, so I would hesitate to describe them as ‘forgotten’, but rather lesser-known).
The BoingBoing was written to announce the fact that Piper’s novel ‘Little Fuzzy’, which had – due to copyright neglect – passed on into the public domain, was being released as an audio book. The story sounded interesting, so I looked on-line, found a used omnibus of the three ‘Fuzzy’ books (two published during Piper’s lifetime and one posthumously) on the cheap.
Man, what a great book.
Sure, there are traces of 50s/60’s space opera clichés, but that could be said of almost all sci-fi written during that era. That aside, ‘Little Fuzzy’ sounds like it could have been written this year, with it’s themes of ecological destruction, industrial (and official) espionage and the onrush of corporate hegemony.
The story concerns the discovery of a new race of beings on a corporately owned planet and the threat that presents to the company, and in turn to the Fuzzies themselves.
I had a little trouble at the beginning, mainly because I mistakenly (arrogantly) thought that I had the whole plot figured out. By the time I was a third of the way into the book I was hooked and found several satisfying plot twists (I even got choked up a couple of times…).
I haven’t started the second book (‘Fuzzy Sapiens’) yet, but I plan on digging in tonight at bedtime.
I’ve seen it mentioned that ‘Little Fuzzy’ has been classified by some as “juvenile fiction” but it is definitely a great example of a book of that type that transcends that classification in spades*.
If you are so inclined you can download the public-domain version of the book, or if you’re a book fetishist like me you can grab a used copy very inexpensively.

*Like Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy

Now reading – Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper



May 10, 2008

Greetings all.
Here, right before your eyes you are now priviledged to witness the very moment I went insane and started a third blog.
That’s right, three…
The big difference being that this blog deals not with music – and it’s not like I haven’t considered a third music blog – but rather with books.
The other night the fam and I were driving somewhere I and mentioned to my lovely wife that I had just ordered two books (which I’m hoping arrive in short order as I’m almost finished the one I’m reading now).
‘You read too many books’ says the wife (only half kidding).
I’m pretty sure that the kernel of truth in that statement is something more along the lines of:
‘You BUY too many books’
…but I’m cool with that too.
Last week we were listening to something on NPR (or PRI, I can’t keep track) and someone was talking about how proud of themselves they were for reading a book a month.
I chuckled (not warmly) and thought ‘piker….’
I said to my wife, ‘I read a book a week (sometimes two)’
‘You ought to start a blog about that’
says she.
So here I am.
And I’m not really insane (in any serious way).
I won’t be updating this blog as frequently as my others, and since writing about the books I read doesn’t involve recording mountains of vinyl. I read whenever I can (usually during lunch and before bed) and I’ll post here whenever I finish something.
The point of this exercise – if there is one – is that I’m always on the prowl for something new and interesting to read, and I figure there are a lot of folks out there with the same literary monkey on their back. Other than spending time with my family, and digging for records, nothing makes me happier than finding an interesting new book with which to feed my head.
I’m always making note of new books I want to read and I usually out them up on my Amazon wish list so I don’t forget (I used to take care of this with a folded up scrap of paper in my wallet).
So, I figured that this blog would serve two purposes, the first which I just mentioned, and the second being a way for me to track what I’ve read over the course of a year (or longer).
I’ll start things off with a quick recap of the last few weeks…


Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ‘N Roll
by Josh Alan Friedman

I picked this one up on one of my patented ‘blind’ trips to the bookstore, in which I comb the racks by genre waiting for something to jump out and grab me. I have to say – that aside from being accosted by suspicious clerks – these trips have proven rather successful over the years with an overall 80/20 ratio of books that ended up being satisfying.
Friedman – brother of illustrator Drew Friedman and son of screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman – collects a number of essays about his years on the fringes of the music business as musician, fan, journalist and oddly enough boyfriend of Ronnie Spector.
Friedman is an excellent writer with a very solid historical perspective. The opening piece – a long form essay on songwriter Jerry Lieber – is revelatory, giving him and his partner Mike Stoller the respect they deserve not only as major songwrting talents by innovators in the recording industry.
I also dug his portraits of Mose Allison, bassist Tommy Shannon and his vignette of Ronnie Spector’s career – as it was in the late 70’s – and his own spot on the sidelines as her boyfriend.
Highly recommended.


Groucho & Me
By Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx was – along with his brothers – a comic genius. If you aren’t already aware of that fact, stop reading and go watch ‘Duck Soup’. If you are (aware) then you ought to check out ‘Groucho and Me’ which is an autobiography of sorts. I use that qualifier because the book is more of a free form, anecdotal reminiscence than a strict, historical recounting of his life (of which there was much left as this was written in 1959).
Groucho was almost as funny in print as he was on the screen and if you aren’t already on the Marx Brothers tip, you may find his comic sensibility familiar, but that is due entirely to the fact that his humor is so elementally a part of everything that came afterward. Marx – along with the geniuses that wrote his films like George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and S.J. Perelman – brought a wry, sarcastic, often anarchic vibe to bear on movie comedy that still echoes today nearly a century since he and his brothers first set foot on the vaudeville stage.
If you’re already familiar with the Marx Brothers on film, it’ll be hard for you to read ‘Groucho and Me’ without hearing his voice in your head (which is a good thing).


Haight Ashbury: A History
By Charles Perry

I’ve always had a deep interest in the 60’s counterculture, especially in San Francisco where the legacy of the Beat Generation was played out – and expanded upon – by the Merry Pranksters (with Neal Cassady as the direct link), the Diggers and others.
Charles Perry’s history of that most eventful San Francisco neighborhood – originally published more than 20 years ago and just reissued – is no hippy dippy valentine to a bygone age. Perry recounts the political and artistic undercurrents that gave birth to the Summer of Love and brings to life many interesting personalities that are often overlooked in the short-attention-span “documentaries” that are pretty much the current generations only connection to that time.
The picture he paints is of an era is a lot more intellectually driven, and often darker than the nostalgic one we see in movies and on TV.
My favorite part of the book is the long chronological chapter that illustrates how, by the time the summer of 1967 arrived, the initial glimmers of utopianism were well on their way to destruction thank to forces both external (government and police repression) and internal (struggles for ideological control and an epidemic of hard drugs and homelessness).


Little Things
By Jeffrey Brown

Ever since reading Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’ a few years back – the first long form graphic novel that I ever picked up – I’ve made regular stops at that section of the book store (as well as the occasional trip to comic shops). It is via those trips that I’ve become acquainted with artist/writers like Joan Sfarr, Linda Barry, Chris Ware and Jeffrey Brown.
The first Brown book I picked up was ‘Clumsy’. It took me a little while to get used to his somewhat rustic drawing style, but eventually his way of framing the small vignettes that make up (his) everyday life won me over.
‘Little Things’ is his most recent book, and I dug it a lot. I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work.


Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and the Bundy Drive Boys
by Gregory William Mank, Charles Heard, Bill Nelson

I can’t remember where I read about this book, but I’m glad I did.
I’ve always been a big fan of old Hollywood – especially the like of W.C. Fields, one of the funniest people ever to walk this earth – and thanks to early exposure to Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’, have long been aware that even in its earliest days the movie capitol had a dark side.
‘Hollywood’s Hellfire Club’ – while much less lurid than Anger’s book – is an unsparing look at a fairly wild gang of geniuses, of stage, screen and the page who hung together as drinking buddies and intellectual companions for many years.
Though I’d heard of most of the key players (a few like painter John Decker and proto-bohemian Sadakichi Hartmann were new to me) I had no idea that they had been so close, especially John Barrymoore and Fields, two of the biggest stars of their time nor that younger stars like Errol Flynn and Anthony Quinn were also part of the group.
There’s plenty of debauchery here but the overwhelming sense you get after reading about the group is one of wasted potential and tragedy (especially Barrymoore who I’d like to read more about).
Very well written and researched.