I’d rather be alone than with you jerks

Ivy
by Sarah Oleksyk

This is an indie comic about a girl in her final year of high school going through a crisis. It’s hardly an original basis and yet this book feels fresh and new, and above all honest.

Ivy is snarky and difficult with everyone, even her closest friends. The only class at school that she likes is art, but her (single) mother is adamant that she not apply to art schools, only business schools. This comes from a place of love, because Ivy’s mother dropped out of high school, never got a degree and now works long hours in jobs she hates and rarely sees her daughter. But of course Ivy only sees the part where she rarely sees her mother and when she does they fight.

Ivy hates the star of her art class, Charlotte, for “trying too hard”. She hates her maths teacher for calling her out on not paying attention in class. She hates her friends Brad and Marisa for hanging out without her sometimes. She doesn’t hate Josh, the cute guy she meets at a college open day.

Continue reading “I’d rather be alone than with you jerks”

Comics in brief

To celebrate the sunny long weekend I decided to sort out our comic book collection, which had become several scarily tall piles around the house. We already had the boxes, the plastic covers, the back boards – I just had to combine them and give them some kind of order. The latent librarian in me thoroughly enjoyed it. And it reminded me of how many said comics I wanted to read, so I read a handful.

I-Kill-Giants-coverI Kill Giants
by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura

This is a gorgeous graphic novel about a teenage girl going through a difficult time. Barbara and her younger brother Dave are being cared for by their older sister Karen, but their situation feels precarious. Barbara won’t stop telling everyone that she kills giants, that the handmade bag she carries is her secret giant-killing weapon, and everyone is getting fed up of humouring her. What is this fantasy life all about? How much does she really believe in it herself? Can her new friend Sophia and the school counsellor get through to Barbara before something awful happens?

The art is manga-inflected, which feels right with the dark fantasies and darker themes that are gradually revealed. It’s heartfelt and sad, so much so that I pretty much wept through the last 20 or so pages. If anyone ever doubts that comics and graphic novels can deal with deep, nuanced themes, this is the story to show them. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Thanks to Purple_Steve for the reading suggestion!)

Continue reading “Comics in brief”

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.

Continue reading “Autumn reads in brief”

Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

Nightmares sneak out into the daylight

The Sandman

The Sandman Vol. 1 Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artists)

I have been told so many times that I should read The Sandman that I just assumed it would be wonderful. It’s Neil Gaiman, it’s a highly acclaimed comic-book series, it’s about dreams and nightmares – it sounded perfect. And it is pretty good, but I think my expectations were too high.

This is the first of 12 volumes, republishing the full original run of The Sandman. The artwork is beautiful in a dark, gothic style. The concept is fascinating and open-ended. Quite simply, the Sandman is the lord of the world of dreams, both good and bad. He can move in and out of the real world, magical realms and dreams themselves.

This volume has a clear complete storyline – in 1916 a magic circle tries to summon Death and instead gets the Sandman, whom they imprison for many decades. This has a terrible effect on the world – with no-one controlling the dream world, some people go mad, others just stay asleep for years. The Sandman must escape and regain control, but it won’t be an easy task.

“Daniel Bustamonte returns to his best dream. But this time the clouds are flimsy, frail, less real. And then the clouds aren’t there at all. Too scared to sleep, he sobs to keep himself awake until dawn.”

“Stefan’s case is new to the doctors. They thought they’d seen every form of shellshock. How long can a boy go without sleeping? When do the nightmares sneak out into the daylight? The morphine is proving useless. It’s sad.”

“Unity Kinkaid finds it harder and harder to stay awake. She now sleeps for almost 20 hours a day. She used to dream; to shift in her sleep, muttering and sighing, locked in half-remembered fantasies. Now she lies unmoving, breath shallow and silent, lost to the world. Unity sleeps.”

I liked the concept, I liked the story and the artwork, I like that it’s dark (even a bit grisly in places) but…I’m not sure exactly what was wrong but it didn’t grab me. The stuff about the world going mad without the Sandman was brilliant but over a little too quickly, I felt a lot more could have been made of it. And there was surprisingly little of the dream world depicted, but I’m sure that’s still to come. Only, I’m not all that bothered about reading the remaining volumes.

Maybe I was in the wrong mood. Maybe I should treat it as much as a work of art as a work of fiction. I’m not sure. I had half a plan to try The Books of Magic next. Perhaps I should lower my expectations first?

First published as The Sandman issues 1–8, 1988–1989, by DC Comics.
This edition published 2010 by Vertigo, DC Comics.

Source: I bought this from my local comic-book shop.

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.

The trouble with eternal life

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969
by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

The first two volumes in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series were fantastic, a book lover’s dream, so I have continued buying all of the series even as they have gone (in my opinion) seriously downhill.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I recommend you check out the first two books and don’t read this review, because part of the pleasure of the first book is figuring out who the characters are. The first set were all taken from Victorian fiction, and some of those characters became the League, but the hints were dropped slowly as to who was who (in most cases, some were clear from the start).

Since those brilliantly clever beginnings, the plot has jumped forward in time to 1958 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier), back to 1910 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910) and now 1969. A final book set in 2009 is in the works.

In this volume, Mina and Allen are growing weary of eternal life (already!) and Orlando is, as ever, mid-change, so there’s a lot of tension in their little group. They have been called upon to investigate the murder of a pop star, which turns out to be related to a circle of black magicians and an attempt to create an antichrist (spot the Harry Potter references…).

As ever, every character and most (if not all) of the background detail is a reference to books, TV or films set in or around 1969. Possibly I’m not as familiar with that time, or possibly the references are getting more obscure (this has been mooted by a few critics) but I didn’t get that pleasure I got from the first few volumes at recognising the fictional references and how they all fitted together. And the 1960s setting appears to have given Moore licence to go all out on the sex front, with far too much of it for my liking (I’m no prude, but I prefer to read about it rather than see it). Add in drugs and psychedelia and it was pretty hard to follow what was actually a simple plot.

No doubt I will still buy the last book in the series, and I am interested to see what 2009 references it will incorporate, but I don’t hold high hopes for it being as good as the first volume.

Published 2011 by Knockabout Comics.

Girls and guns and science

Echo: the Complete Edition
by Terry Moore

So I quite liked this graphic novel, then Tim said that the maths that the whole storyline is based around is complete rubbish and now I’m not sure if that makes a difference or not. I think I still like it.

It’s almost a superhero story, but not quite. Super-clever scientist lady invents a new element and makes herself a suit out of it, then gets blown up by her superiors while wearing it and the suit attaches itself to two unlucky bystanders. That’s the first couple of scenes. The rest of the story follows those two bystanders as they discover what the suit can do and have very different reactions to it. And both get chased by various government agencies and scientists who want their tech back.

This is one of those beautifully drawn graphic novels that includes a lot of panes with no words, so despite this being a huge tome (this was previously published as six trade paperbacks) I tore through it in one day. I probably didn’t pay enough attention to the detail.

The main character is Julie, one of those two bystanders in the desert. She is an artist struggling to pay her bills and resisting signing the divorce papers that her husband has sent. There’s a large supporting cast, but foremost among them are Dillon, who was the boyfriend of the dead scientist lady, and Ivy, a kickass agent for a mysterious organisation. The first time we meet Ivy she is picking flowers with her daughter. In the next scene she is flying a plane on her own and puts it into autopilot while she changes her clothes. Awesome.

The maths/science stuff is complete rubbish and I did get a bit annoyed by it, even before discussing it with Tim. And there’s also a religious storyline that I found a bit questionable, to say the least. But the main characters and their lives on the run are engaging, funny, upsetting, sad and touching in all the right places. A main character appearing to be offended by the suggestion she might be gay is made up for by there being other characters who just happen to gay, without it being a thing.

Throughout the book there are quotes from writers and scientists about man and science, especially the destructive nature of man. Really it’s quite a negative view of science. There are plenty of scientists in the book who are trying to do good, but the suggestion is that it’s futile, that there will always be someone who wants to do something terrible with any new scientific discovery and that someone will always get their way. I prefer not to be that pessimistic.

There’s also a lot of excuses come up with for drawing women wearing very little. In fact, flicking through the gallery of cover art at the end of this collected edition, the majority of them concentrate on Julie and her large chest.

But dodgy science and fan service aside, I really did enjoy this read. I was interested in and cared about the characters, even some we only meet very briefly, and the bikers were very cool. But not as cool as Ivy.

Published 2011 by Robyn Moore.

Adaptation

City of Glass: a graphic novel
by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
adapted from the novel by Paul Auster

This is a strange, complex story that I greatly enjoyed but I must admit that I could not stop wondering how it compared with the original novel. I’m still not quite sure what the purpose is of graphic novel adaptations.

It seems to be a story about identity. The main character, Daniel Quinn, is a New York writer who once had everything – wife, son, respected writing career – but then lost all three. Now he writes cheap detective fiction under the pseudonym William Wilson. One night he gets a phone call, a wrong number asking for Paul Auster, a detective. Quinn decides to say that’s him, and arranges a meeting for the next day. His client Peter Stillman is terrified that his father, also called Peter Stillman, is coming to kill him. Quinn agrees to take the case, but soon realises he knows very little about real detective work. At one point he visits Paul Auster, who the telephone call had been intended for, only to find that Auster too is a writer, not a detective.

It’s a curious mix of plot-driven gritty noir and complex literary psychological study. Nothing is certain. In fact one of the first lines in the book, written across three panes, is “Much later, he would conclude…that nothing was real…except chance.”

The story has a very strong sense of place. Quinn walks a lot around Manhattan and there are some beautiful panels showing his routes walked, or details of the city. There’s also a very strong sense of loneliness. Quinn is grieving, and partly agrees to take the case because he recognises in Stillman (the younger one) a fellow troubled soul.

The drawings cleverly and subtly show Quinn taking on characteristics of other characters in the story, making you question whether those other people are real at all. But plays on language, presumably central to the original novel, are also well conveyed. Some of the names seem carefully chosen: Stillman, Dark, Work. There are long forays into Don Quixote and Paradise Lost. There is a whole subplot about language acquisition.

The artists have done a good job with the long passages that follow convoluted thought processes or discuss literary works. They use very simple, often blocky, images to create dreamlike sequences reminiscent of a 1960s film. It’s all done very well and yet…I really love the language in this book, above all else, so won’t I get more from the full novel?

Only one way to find out.

First published in the US in 1994 by Avon Books. This edition published 2004 by Faber & Faber.

I won this book from Jenn of The Picky Girl in her Book Blogger Appreciation Week giveaway. Thank you Jenn!

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, warisboring.com 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.