Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.


pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Crossing the Rubicon

Y: the Last Man
The complete series
by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra

This is a series of comic books that Tim really really wanted me to read so I told him I would if he would help me write the review afterward. Here is our joint effort.

Y: the Last Man begins with all humans and animals with a Y chromosome dying at the same instant, apart from 20-something-year-old Yorick and his monkey Ampersand. Yorick suddenly goes from being just some ambitionless and jobless guy to having everyone after him, as the potential key to the whole situation. But do all women want or even need men to come back?

First, a quick taste of the dialogue:

“[You’ve] crossed the fucking Rubicon.”
“The what?”
“Shut up.”
“I’m serious. What is that? ‘Crossing the Rubicon’?”
“It’s just a saying, all right? Means you’ve passed the point of no return—that you’re fucked.”
“But why does it mean that? What’s a Rubicon?”
“Jesus Christ! You just executed a human being, and all you—”
“You don’t know, do you?”

Y: the Last Man

Kate: You really wanted me to read this series. Why in particular?

Tim: It’s a very well written, touching, non-superhero comic book based on a strong SF trope. I am still trying to be your guide in SF and comics. Plus, y’know, literature plays a large part. And I know you love literature. What did you think of the literary allusions?

K: You had told me there would be literary references so I think I was expecting more than there was. But it’s actually done well, quite subtly, and I think it’s very true that an ardent reader would place a lot of value on finding people he could talk to about books, even in the middle of global disaster.

T: Also, the art is beautiful, I love the graphical themes that tie the issues/books together.

K: For science fiction, there’s not much science. It’s mostly about the impact on society of a major humanity-changing event.

T: True. SF that doesn’t dwell too much on the “plumbing” of the event can be very good SF. The beauty of this one is the way that Brian K Vaughan toys with characters (and the reader) having different theories for what caused the plague, all in different levels of mysticism/science. I often like this in stories, and that kind of uncertainty can really lend itself to some great storytelling. Take Bladerunner, or Total Recall, or Forever War, or I Am Legend, or Gateway, or Drowned World or… okay, there are a lot of titles that use the uncertainty and not-explaining attitude to SF. Is uncertainty in the heart of a plot an SF thing, or a general good lit thing?

K: It’s not just SF. It’s also not always good (but it often is).

Although our main characters keep facing violence and aggression, the all-female society does pull itself together and get stuff working over time. A comment is made that if the situation were reversed men would have been way more warlike and disorganised in reaction. In fact, a lot of women react with hatred for men and determination that women are better off.

T: Yep. You know, every English teacher I ever had was a feminist.

Several women are shown or implied to have become lesbian or start self-identifying as male as a result of the plague. Is this a cis-hetero/masculine fantasy or an offensive assumption? It is important to note that many other women do NOT.

K: I don’t think it’s handled in a male-fantasy way, whatever that would be. I think it’s realistic that some women would be open to it immediately while others would gradually turn to it from a lack of the alternative and others would resolutely refuse. It could have been discussed more but that’s a BIG conversation.

T: And it’s interesting that the one woman in the book who was already lesbian becomes, basically, celibate.

K: The main character is a man. Is this actually quite a masculine book with an idealised view of women?

T: Do you mean masculine or male chauvinist? I think you need Yorick as a contrast to the assumed macho male, and to evoke reactions (to him being male) from all the other (female) characters they meet. It would have been very easy to have him exist in the story just as a foil or a mirror. What’s impressive is that he is a character with depth without being macho or heroic.

K: Agreed. If anything Yorick is happy when he sees communities figuring shit out and would prefer to blend into the background and let women get on with it.

Though it eventually opens out, a large part (indeed all of the early stuff) of the story is set in the US, with a classic cross-country road trip. Would it have been too conceptual to see more of the world from the start?

T: I don’t know. I think it was important to concentrate on one thread of plot to begin with, allowing some measure of claustrophobia. It’s important because with the death of half of society, communications failed. The point is that the characters we follow don’t know what’s happening in their own city (to start with), and it gradually opens out as communications and society open out. I thought it was a well used device.

K: One observation I made early on was that the cities were falling apart, essentially war zones, while small towns were making it work. Is that realism or idealism?

T: I think it’s realism. There’s a bunch of reasons for it, though. Firstly, you start off in the domesticated east coast, and head west, towards the frontier, “can do” spirit. But I think, more importantly, (as seen in Make Room, Make Room or Caves of Steel) cities don’t exist in a vacuum, they rely on technology – that in this case failed (the power plants blew up, etc) – and a constant stream of food and supplies into the city (transport also broke down). The people living in more rural areas were not only more self-sufficient and practical to start with, they already had handy generators and the ability to grow/catch food. Cities cannot exist without civilization (I checked. I tried playing a whole game of Civ without building a city and it didn’t get anywhere).

Thank you Tim for the discussion and indeed the original recommendation. It is an excellent series.

Originally published 2002–2008 by DC Comics.
Deluxe editions published 2008–2011 by Vertigo.

Non-fiction in fiction’s guise

War is Boring
story by David Axe, artwork by Matt Bors

I am starting to acquire a collection of this “graphic novel style journalism” and I’m really liking it thus far. If anyone has any recommendations for more titles, let me know!

That said, this is not my favourite of the bunch. It’s a slim volume by war correspondent Axe and flits quickly through Chad, Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia, with really only a few short scenes in each place. Which is the point of the book but still not what I was expecting. I suppose I was hoping for a little more background behind each war; in fact I say “more” but in some cases we learn no more than “it’s a war zone”.

But I’m being unfair. Axe’s actual journalism about all these places was published elsewhere. This is not that. This book is about the effect of war on him, on his way of seeing the world. Or perhaps it’s not about war itself but solely about him and the type of person he is. You see, from the start his maxim is “War is boring, peace is much worse” and despite coming perilously close to bullets, explosions, rockets and deadly knives, this view of things doesn’t change.

While he calls himself a war junkie, Axe doesn’t seem to get a thrill from war, it’s just that a direct attempt on his life is the only thing that makes him feel alive. I can’t really understand that but then I’ve never experienced it; I suspect my whole world view would change.

I do empathise with Axe’s aim, which is to bring world conflicts and the people affected by them to wider attention. He genuinely cares and is deeply upset by what he sees when he travels to these places. His website, is part webcomic, part blog from the warzones that he continues to travel to and, with all the space of the internet, it seems to get deeper into the minutiae of each conflict visited, or even just Axe’s experience of each. There are photographs of soldiers in action and straight journalistic accounts alongside the panels of the comic and this combination works better, for me, than the comic alone.

As with previous examples of this genre, the artwork is excellent – detailed and illuminating without showing a lot of graphic violence. And the depiction of Axe himself is self-deprecating and self-aware and more likeable than not. Maybe he has since struck a better balance in life, but the book ends with a frighteningly bleak statement about the awfulness of humanity and the senselessness of violence that made me want to tell him to go see some beautiful things in-between wars – but then, I’m an optimist.

First published August 2010 by Penguin Books.

A break from the norm

by Joe Sacco

This is an unusual, interesting, informative but potentially inflammatory work from journalist Joe Sacco. It’s an account of two months spent in Palestine (and occasionally Israel) in 1991–1992, told in graphic novel form.

It’s an interesting idea, this “comic-book journalism” and one that has won Sacco awards, including the 1996 American Book Award for this work. He’s an intelligent man, from what I can tell, and Palestine is a difficult situation that could potentially be too complex or political and therefore dull to many readers. This book is certainly not dull. It’s political, sure, but also moving, graphic, disturbing and compelling.

As journalism goes, this isn’t the third-person, bias-free, author-free account you might expect. The book stars Sacco, following his time in Palestine, his interviewing technique, his thoughts, fears, boasts and worries. Sacco does not do himself favours in his self-depiction. Comic-book Joe is both physically and at times morally unattractive. He admits to craving sordid details that will enliven his journalism. He pushes interviewees for the most disturbing stories and shows little emotional reaction while his translator or host is weeping at what they have heard. He also, unusually for an American, places himself solidly on the Palestinians’ side.

Now I’m not sure if this is a position he took in retrospect, after spending months in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem. He certainly went there with the intention of getting the Palestinian side of the story, because the US tends to only ever hear the Israeli side. It’s a reasonable background to have for his trip. And he clearly knows that he comes across as biased because toward the end of the book we see him spending time with two Israeli women and failing to engage with their arguments. But it did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Very few of the characters he meets are blameless. Yes, the small man on the street, even the soldiers, are ultimately in thrall to what the politicians do or say, but when everyone is throwing stones…who is innocent?

I don’t know a great deal about this situation, a situation that started long before I was born and continues now. I know a lot more than I did before I read this book and I feel both incensed and helpless. Because so many people are trying, have tried, to help. The events of this book happened 20 years ago and it still goes on; people still die, are thrown in jail, live in abject poverty.

Sacco’s artwork is excellent. He draws in black and white, packing in the detail, with lots of big half-page or full-page scenes. He recounts atrocities without getting too graphic, tending instead to concentrate on what he himself saw – one room after another full of people telling him their stories. Which sounds dull. Luckily his humour, in addition to further details from his trip (hazardous roadtrips, riots, menacing soldiers in the street) and the occasional depiction of a story he is being told ensure that this book never gets boring. It is genuinely gripping, in part because from what we learn it seems likely that some of the people we meet will not survive until the end of the story.

I do have a couple of gripes. In a few places early on, Sacco packs a lot of text in to contextualise. Which is necessary and helpful but it’s visually offputting, because to retain the comic-book feel without having many or any pictures he presents the text in various skewiff, haphazard arrangements, sometimes hard to follow. And these are historical events being described which I felt could have been, maybe should have been, illustrated.

Secondly, there’s no real narrative arc. It’s just Sacco’s time in Palestine start to finish. Except not quite because a couple of times he breaks from chronological order to talk about something thematic. But there’s no lessons learned, no how it affected or changed him, no “this is what I’m going to do now I’ve seen what’s happening for real”. Maybe that can’t be helped. If all the world’s politicians can’t figure out what to do then why should I expect an American journalist to have the answers? But somehow I did. The closest he comes is to quote one (Israeli) man he met in Jerusalem:

“Ultimately I don’t think peace is about whether there should be one state or two. Of course that issue is important, but what is the point of two racist states or one racist state…or one racist state dominating another? The point is whether the two peoples can live side by side as equals.”

Of course, what Sacco did was to write and draw this comic series, to spread the word about what life is like in Palestine, what really goes down day-to-day. That’s what journalism is about and it’s an important role. He actually went back and produced a sequel to this, Footnotes in Gaza, in 2009. I definitely want to read it. And that’s saying something. This is not an uplifting read and I don’t expect the sequel to be, but it’s enlightening and if there’s one thing I read for, it’s to be enlightened.

First published as a nine-issue comics series in 1993–1996. Reissued as a single volume with a new introduction in 2001. Published by Fantagraphics Books.

Triumph and tragedy

T-Minus: the Race to the Moon
by Jim Ottaviani (author), Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (artwork)

I think this comic book is strictly aimed at children but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it and learning all sorts of new facts about the space race. And I live with Tim and have been to Kennedy Space Center, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in this stuff.

The story begins in 1957 with the text “T-minus 12 years” and ends (except for a short postscript) in 1969 at “T-minus zero”, the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story inbetween shows both the Russian and the American teams of scientists, engineers and pilots, not to mention the politicians who had their own ideas about going into space. There’s more detail about the Americans, possibly because much more information about them is available to an American author, and not every question I had was answered, but overall this was an impressive and entertaining summary of historical events.

Most of the missions get their own panel with a list of pertinent details: rocket used, launch date, flight duration, etc. Deaths and other disasters were not lingered on, which I actually found a little difficult, but there were enough of them to make it clear how immensely daring the astronauts and cosmonauts were. These men and women (the first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – I didn’t know that before today) really were braving the unknown, human guinea pigs essentially. Early flights went up before having figured out urine disposal or temperature control. There’s a scene where cosmonauts discuss not taking much food on a 2-day flight because the smell in the capsule made them feel too queasy to eat.

There are a couple of jumps back in time to show the development of the science behind space travel, though I’m sure another book this long could have been written/drawn on that subject. The story is reverent without painting everyone involved as perfect. NASA engineer Caldwell C Johnson is picked out as being a workaholic who rarely saw his family, lost track of days of the week and didn’t stop to celebrate each victory on the way because he was already immersed in the next challenge (or indeed the one after that). Russians are shown mocking American failures and achievements, not to mention covering up the cause of Laika’s death and keeping many other details secret. Interestingly, the book does mention that the American and Russian teams met up every so often to discuss their work and that these meetings were friendly affairs, but no detail is given. I don’t know if this is because it’s all classified or if there were no details important enough to pick out for this abbreviated history.

The full-page bibliography reveals that most of the authors’ sources came from NASA, including mission transcripts, but they also spoke to astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Alan Bean. They also say that they didn’t read one particular book they found because it was only available in Russian, which sounds like a bit of a rubbish excuse when researching Russian history. Surely they could have found a Russian speaker to help out? However, they did do a lot of research (they provide a web address for the full list, described as a stack of books “more than ten feet tall”) and it shows.

I heartily recommend this to any adult or child interested in the space race, but I would also be interested in learning more about the Russian side of things.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Available from GT Labs.