Author: Andrew Wheeler

Andrew Wheeler spent 16 years as a book club editor, most notably for the Science Fiction Book Club, and has been a judge for the 2005 World Fantasy Awards and the 2009 Eisner Awards. He is now Marketing Manager for John Wiley & Sons.
Monica by Daniel Clowes

Monica by Daniel Clowes

Some cultural artifacts are so rigorously assembled that one hesitates to criticize them, expecting that the answer from the trufans will be something like “well, but you see, the figure at the top left of the back cover is obviously there to explain your complaint, and you are a churl for missing that, and therefore all of your complaints are invalid.” But here I go anyway.

The figure at the top left of the back cover, by the way, is a satyr. There isn’t one in the book itself. This is clearly A Clue. But this is the kind of book that makes you tired of Clues long before you reach the back cover.

Monica  was Daniel Clowes’ new graphic novel for 2023; he reportedly had been working on it for five years, roughly since Patience . It’s told in nine chapters, all of which have Clowes’s standard mature art style but which diverge greatly in voice and tone. They also, I think, don’t all take place on the same level of story: I originally thought it was alternating the “real” story with in-story fictions, but it’s not quite that clear or obvious. My guess, as much as I care (which is frankly not much) is that three or four of the chapters are stories told by the title character, though it’s not clear when she told these stories, to whom, or why she wrote them within the confines of the overall story.

Bluntly, those chapters are horribly overwritten in a clanking style. I think this is deliberate on Clowes’ part – but it also calls the reader’s attention to the fact that even the “well-written” bits are overwritten, over-narrated, and overcooked. Clowes has always been a creator who loves extremes and trashy genre elements, but I don’t think it was a smart thing to call attention to his overwriting in a book as overwrought as this one.

Monica is the main character, and our wordy narrator. The book covers her whole life, in leaps and bounds, plus those digressions that I’m going to take as her (mentioned once, never important) adolescent attempts at fiction.

Before I go further: I will run through each section of the book. There will inevitably be spoilers. I do not recommend this book for anyone other than those who enjoy watching train-wrecks in slow motion. Take all that into account if you read on.

We start with “Foxhole,” in which Johnny and Butch, two footsoldiers in what we realize later is Vietnam, talk in a massively self-consciously doom-laden way for three pages about their lives, philosophies, the specter of imminent death, and how everything must be going to hell back Stateside. This has the tone of the later “fictional” pieces in Monica – overwrought, clunky dialogue and all – but I suspect it’s meant to be part of the “real” narrative. 

Smash-cut to “Pretty Penny,” where we open with Johnny’s fiancé having just fucked some other guy – he’s Jewish, which I suppose is supposed to make it worse? They also talk in a patently ridiculous way: even dull readers should realize by this point that this isn’t to be taken seriously, that it’s dialogue reconstructed much later from someone’s slanted perspective.

That fiancé is Penny, who, in the much later words of Elvis Costello, doesn’t know what she wants, but wants it now. We soon learn we’re hearing her story told by Monica, who is born almost three years later (assuming we start in the late ’60s, that puts her birth somewhere around 1969-1972) – and that may be why it’s sketchy and random and why Penny comes across as an unknowable ball of anger, reaction, and spite. This section is about twenty pages long, getting Monica to about the age of three, when Penny – after a pinball round of boyfriends and apartments and random caregivers and emotional explosions – dumps Monica with her own parents and disappears forever.

Next we get the seemingly unrelated “The Glow Infernal,” a vaguely Lovecraftian tale about a young bowl-cutted man in an ugly purple suit who returns to his childhood town to find it controlled by blue-skinned people of vague origin. He quickly joins the resistance and is instrumental in their downfall, but is transformed in the process – very literally.

Monica returns to tell “Demonica,” the story of how she fell apart during college when her grandmother died suddenly. She holed up in a lake cottage, talked to no one, and claims to have communed with the spirit of her dead grandfather through an old radio. At the end of this period, she has a car accident that puts her in a coma.

By this point, the reader may wonder if Monica is a reliable narrator. I don’t think that’s the direction Clowes wants the reader to go, but if one assumes she’s prone to psychotic breaks (perhaps like her mother?) that’s one way to interpret the story.

“The Incident” is another story written by Monica, I think, in which a version of her father is some kind of detective or fixer, bringing a young man back from bad companions to his family, only to find (yes, again) something unexplained and maybe inexplicable has happened to the town, so he has to flee with his charge.

Monica wakes up from her coma for “Success,” told from a viewpoint twenty-two years later. (Note: that is not now, and not the frame story for any other section. Every section vaguely hints at being a document from a particular time-period, without ever making that clear or doing it believably.) She started a candle business after a few years of recuperation from the coma and then the usual youthful dissipation, but has just sold that business for a small fortune. She’s now getting obsessed with finding Penny, and learning the truth about her mother – but gets sidetracked by a pamphlet from her childhood from a nutty cult.

“The Opening The Way” continues that story, with Monica learning about the cult (which schismed into a blandish New Age convention business and a hard core of the really loony ones) and then, inevitably, joining it and getting caught up in its horrible philosophy, unpleasant people, and grungy surroundings. She gets out in the end, still not having found Penny.

And then we get “Krugg,” which is probably another story written by Monica – this late in her life? who knows – in which a painter monologues tediously as a blatant stand-in for the father Monica never knew (and who she sought in the crazy cult just before).

Last is “Doomsday,” in which an aged Monica, in what seems to be the present day or near future, explains how she did find Penny – who was old, and more than a little unhinged, and didn’t give Monica any real insight before she died – worked through her problems with a therapist over a number of years, met a nice man that she might be able to have a relationship with, and finally found her father, who was a bland old man who also couldn’t give her any real insights into herself.

Oh, yeah, and then she unleashes Armageddon in the last panel, because why not?

Um, OK.

I have to assume Clowes means that literally, and thinks that he has constructed his story to lead to that point. I didn’t believe it at all, and didn’t see even the kooky cult teachings as really leading to this particular apocalypse. (There’s a demon-figure in the cult’s mythos – if he appeared to Monica, that would be one thing. This is something entirely separate.)

My working assumption is that this is another sour Clowes story, about how all of humanity is sordid and corrupted and horrible. But I took it as a story about one woman with serious mental problems, who tells us the entire story but, in the end, can’t be relied upon at all.

I can’t recommend this at all. It’s longer than it looks, it’s full of bad writing – most of it on purpose, I hope – and doesn’t say anything new or interesting for Clowes. It’s just a confusing, kaleidoscopic wallow in his typical misanthropy, without anything new or special to redeem it.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories by Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, et. al.

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories by Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, et. al.

I don’t know if Dark Horse is actually trying to adapt every last bit of short Neil Gaiman into comics form. He’s written a lot of stuff, and much of it wouldn’t adapt well. But it does feel like they’re trying, at least, with a long sequence of individual graphic novels and a few omnibuses stretching back more than a decade.

The grandly titled “Neil Gaiman Library” has mostly been stories that can turn into reasonable-length books. I’ve seen a bunch of them: A Study in Emerald Only the End of the World Again Chivalry ; Snow, Glass, Apples ; and Troll Bridge . But not all Gaiman stories can be fit into that length, no matter how hard Procrustes works.

So in 2019 we got The Problem of Susan and Other Stories , which includes adaptations of the title story, another short story, and two poems. Presumably, with this as a model, the rest of his oeuvre on ISFDB is now under development, and we can look forward to Nicholas Was… and Other Festive Poems Real Soon Now.

My joking aside, it’s actually good to see that someone realized that not every short story is suitable to be turned into a sixty- to eighty-page graphic novel. If you’re going to adapt things to other formats, it’s important to keep what works and is distinctive about the original.

All four pieces in Susan were adapted, scripted, and laid out by P. Craig Russell – as usual, Gaiman’s participation seems to consist entirely of signing contracts and allowing his name to be used – two of them for other artists and two of them drawn by Russell. 

Now, I say “laid out,” but the last piece here is “The Day the Saucers Came,” a quick bit of doggerel that is presented on seven splash pages, one for each stanza, so I don’t know how much credit Russell should get for that one. It was a fun little poem, and it’s a fun little story here, with art by Paul Chadwick.

The other poem is “Locks,” which has Russell art. It’s a shorter piece (four pages) but broken into regular comics panels – and not as obviously verse, actually, reading like “normal” comics. It’s also slight: most of the Gaiman poems I’ve seen have been interesting ideas turned into solid verse rather than poetry, in the lets-explicate-the-deep-meaning-here sense. (My headcanon is that Gaiman intermittently writes poems to solidify ideas, and sometimes it turns into a fuller story and sometimes the poem is it.)

The other story is “October in the Chair,” in which the personified months of the year meet and tell stories. (A very very Gaimanesque idea, clearly.) Most of it is taken up by the story October, the host this time, tells – which is a somewhat creepy one, about a “runt” of a boy who runs away from home and what he decides to do then. The art here is from Scott Hampton, I think in full paintings as he often does, and it’s moody and deep to match the story. 

And leading off is the title story, a riff on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, in which an old academic – who we suspect, by the end, is Susan, or maybe the real-world version of her – talks to a young reporter about her life and work studying folklore and fantasy. Susan was the Pevensie who didn’t die in a train crash in The Last Battle, who didn’t get to return to Narnia at death, because she had already grown up too much and was no longer innocent. That is the problem, as both the old academic and the young journalist agree. Gaiman also has a somewhat darker view of the Lion and the Witch here, which will be unsurprising to those who have read his fairy-tale retellings like “Snow, Glass, Apples.”

So all four of the stories are interesting and done well, and they vary substantially in tone – the poems are much lighter than the stories, and “Susan” is perhaps even darker than “October,” if you accept its cosmology. There isn’t really a thread that ties all four pieces together, other than being by Gaiman – but that, I suppose, is the deal of the whole series.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Memoirs of a Man in Pajamas by Paco Roca

Memoirs of a Man in Pajamas by Paco Roca

So the book today is all kinds of things – source of an animated romantic comedy , compared to Seinfeld, a new 2023 collection of the work of the cartoonist behind Wrinkles  and The House . What it isn’t, though, is a single thing.

Memoirs of a Man in Pajamas  doesn’t explain itself. But it collects Paco Roca comics in three sections and has three copyright dates – 2011, 2014, 2017 – which three sections are somewhat different in style and format and concerns. And it says, here and there, that these comics originally appeared in Spanish publications, I think always weekly, at those times.

I’ll note, here, that all of the reviews I’ve seen of it focus most tightly on that first section, making me wonder if Publishers Weekly and all the rest only flipped through the back half of the book.

The strips here feature a cartoonist, happy with his life as he hits forty and most enthusiastic about the fact that he works from his home in his pajamas. He is mostly Paco Roca himself, but there are a few strips here that make it clear that Roca intends the pajama-clad cartoonist as a fictional character: this is not a diary comic, it’s not trying to be true, and he implies that he’s taken stories from friends (other cartoonists, perhaps?) and adapted them for Pajama Man.

That’s most important in the first section, too, which is entirely single-pager slice-of-life stories about the cartoonist and his life. The second and third sections see Roca shift to two-pagers (with a few longer pieces here and there, particularly to open each section) – the second is mostly slightly deeper concerns about the cartoonist’s life, shading into larger issues, and the third section shifting in the other direction, mostly Pajama Man thinking about larger societal issues with a few this-amusing-thing-in-life pieces mixed in.

What’s notable is that none of this is personal. We see Pajama Man’s girlfriend consistently, but never learn her name or job or backstory. A small child appears midway through, also without a name. We see Pajama Man traveling to give talks about comics, but – except for a couple of sly references to Wrinkles – no one talks to him about specific books, nor do we see him working on comics. He’s just at a screen that we can’t see, working long hours like any other knowledge worker – again, this isn’t a diary comic, Roca doesn’t talk about tools or art supplies or styles or anything about the creative work.

The Seinfeld comparison is apt in an unexpected way: this is a packaged, fictionalized version of a life – turned into comedy for a particular purpose. It looks real, because that’s the way to make it work best. And that – Roca has Pajama Man complain a few times here – of course makes his readers think it is real, which is good (for the work) and bad (for Pajama Man, and presumably Roca speaking through him).

Man in Pajamas is denser and longer than you might think – the strips are wordy and discursive, and the book is over two hundred pages long. It’s all amusing, and much of the back half is deeper and more thoughtful than that, as Pajama Man grapples with capitalism and Spanish history and the modern world in general. Roca’s line is detailed and illustrative, but still fairly close to ligne clair – there are a lot of small panels here, and the type can get a bit small (I read it digitally), but Roca is a fine storyteller, even when the story he’s telling is “one guy sitting around, trying not to do anything.”

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Mickey Mouse: Zombie Coffee by Régis Loisel

Mickey Mouse: Zombie Coffee by Régis Loisel

Formats come with expectations and assumptions – not always warranted, but they’re along for the ride already.

For example: Mickey Mouse: Zombie Coffee , a bande desinée by Régis Loisel, originally published by Éditions Glénat in France in 2016 in (waves hands) some format, possibly within Le Journal du Mickey , is laid out like a newspaper comic. Four panels across, most of the time, about four times wider than tall, two strips to a page, 137 strips total.

As an American comics reader, on first glance I assumed this was a little less than half a year of dailies in some newspaper, and my thought was “who knew there was a regular Mickey Mouse strip in French newspapers?”

But I think that’s wrong. I think these appeared in that magazine, weekly – maybe one at a time, maybe two or three on a page each issue – and that the strip format is either an artistic choice or a very specific slot in that magazine that might look like an American daily, but is a different thing.

So I’m left wondering about the rhythm of this story: was it just one strip a week? That’s pretty slow for an adventure strip – though a lot of webcomics are on a similar pace, these days. It might explain why a lot of these are pretty wordy – you need to remind the reader of what’s going on. Or, to be positive, perhaps this ran in a really large space, and these strips are shrunken a bit for this book publication.

In any case: it’s a Mickey Mouse story, of the old school. The time is during the Great Depression, the place is Mouseton (presumably USA, but unspecified), and our hero and his friends are the downtrodden, pushed-around little guys of the early days rather than the fancy suburbanite or corporate icon of more recent years.

Mickey and Horace Horsecollar are looking for work, with no luck. Mr. Ruff, “the foreman” (seemingly the only way to get hired in Mouseton) keeps finding excuses not to hire them. So the two decide to run off with their girlfriends (Minnie and Clarabelle Cow) to go camping and fishing for a while, bunking with Donald Duck on a lake somewhere, because “camping is free.”

That takes up about the first quarter of the story – they return to Mouseton to find things have changed. A rich developer, Rock Fueler, is turning their neighborhood into a golf course. The potential good news is that means jobs, plus money for the houses he’s buying. But of course the capitalist is the villain, so his plans are much more nefarious than simply building something.

Fueler has employed two chemists to create massively addictive “Zomba” coffee, which he then distributed free to all of the citizens of Mouseton. The men, zombified by coffee, work almost for free, and the women and children get packed off to a new housing project on the outskirts of town. And the chemists are working on further foodstuffs, to squeeze the last few cents out of the Mousetonians.

Even Goofy, left behind, is now a coffee zombie, though Horace and Mickey do save and reform him.

And then our heroes fight back, against the nearly overwhelming forces arrayed against them. Pegleg Pete is one of Fueler’s top henchmen, as of course he must be, so he does a lot of the immediate attacking, sneaking, and other evil deeds. There are chases and fights and confrontations, and various bits of comedy along the way – for example, the chemist’s food is so seductive that noseplugs are required to resist its tantalizing aroma, so the big end scene is played out almost entirely with people speaking with those stuffed-nose voices.

I read this digitally, and I think that means I saw it somewhat smaller than the printed book – I hope so, since it’s full of detail and life and energy, and a larger format would make it a lot better. I haven’t seen Loisel’s work before, but he’s clearly great at this style, and has had a long and respected career making things that mostly haven’t been translated into English.

It’s a classic Mickey story told well for a modern audience – my understanding is that the French audience is mostly middle-graders, but there’s no reason it needs to be limited to that age.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings by Ryall, Akins, Kyriazis, & Livesay

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings by Ryall, Akins, Kyriazis, & Livesay

I suppose the Hitchhikers‘ ground has been thoroughly salted at this point – I’ve seen the movie; you don’t need to tell me – which is why we’ve gotten two Dirk Gently TV series and these comics over the past decade. But even leaving aside how much Douglas Adams was a writer of voice to begin with, the Dirk books were fun because of the way they were told rather than the vague shaggy-dog stories they told. So doing the same sort of thing in a different medium feels like the wrong next step: the Adams estate would have been better off commissioning someone to write more Dirk novels, I think: assuming anyone could convincingly do that, which is the rub.

Anyway, there is a comics series continuing the Dirk Gently books. This first miniseries, from 2016 – probably not coincidentally the same year as the second, more successful TV show – promises there will be more, but a quick Google here in 2023 did not actually discover more. So I think this slots in just like the original novels: fun, faintly disappointing, not quite going anywhere despite apparent velocity and direction.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings  was written by Chris Ryall, long-time comics scripter and (probably much more importantly) then the head of IDW, publisher of this series. Art is by Tony Akins (pencils on the first two of five issues), Ilias Kyriazis (rest of the pencils), and John Livesay (inks). Colors are by Leonard O’Grady. There is also an introduction by Arvind Ethan David, who produced the second TV series and says here he will be writing the second – so far nonexistent – comics series.

As the book opens, Dirk is moving – carrying basically nothing – from his native UK to San Diego, for no obvious reason. (This isn’t a problem: “for no obvious reason” is the way Dirk does everything.) Your Cynical Reviewer assumed San Diego was chosen because Ryall and IDW are headquartered there, but I’m willing to entertain alternate explanations. None are provided, let me be clear. But I’d entertain them if they were.

He soon gets caught up in multiple quirky plots: he grabs a random suitcase, which belongs to a yuppie couple who are engaging in serial-killer touristry: I mean, both being serial killers and doing it in ways that are inspired by classics of the field. There’s also a couple of ancient Egyptian men, King Ahktenhamen-adjacent, who are now in the modern world after half-explained magical shenanigans and have the traditional life-stealing curse. Someone is also giving nifty gold cellphones to the homeless of San Diego, but this is much less important to begin with. And Dirk is also casting about for a new base of operations, which of course he does by walking into a random business and claiming it.

There’s a lot of complication and goofiness, and the tone strikes me as authentic to the Dirk novels – but I have to admit it’s been decades since I read them, so my memory could be off. It’s less jokey than Hitchhiker, as I recall – light adventure rather than near-parody.

The whole thing was pleasant but didn’t feel Adams-esque, if you know what I mean. Douglas Adams had a tone and a way of constructing sentences, so I’m not sure (as I said up top) that any other medium  or writer could replicate that to begin with. And Dirk is a quirkier, more fragile thing than Hitchhiker to begin with. So this is a nice light adventure comic about a guy called “Dirk Gently” that was pleasant to read but left me a bit flat. Given no sequel has appeared in nearly a decade, I have to assume that reaction was common.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Macanudo: Optimism Is for the Brave by Liniers

Macanudo: Optimism Is for the Brave by Liniers

Some comic strips have ongoing stories – adventure strips are rarer these days, but long continuities still exist, here and there. Some have recurring gags, done slightly differently each time – Lucy and the football, the possibly imaginary Ernesto Lacuna, a sergeant viciously beating a private.

Those are things to grab onto, when you are, as I am now, trying to write about a new book collecting that comic strip.

Liniers’ Macanudo is a wispier, quirkier, more variable thing – it does have recurring characters (five or six sets of them, in fact), but their interactions are oddly both more and less templated. The elves always talk about the same kinds of things, ditto the penguins. Olga and Martin have imaginative adventures, usually outside. Henrietta reads books, and does other little-girl things. But what they each do is more intellectual, more about the life of the mind, and less “little Billy draws a dotted line through the neighborhood again” – it’s more patter, and less business, to put it in comedy terms.

It’s not really patter, either – I think Liniers means it. His characters are serious about their thoughts in a way that’s mostly alien to the least-common-denominator dullards of North American zombie strips, who enact the same few actions over and over again because those actions once won their original creators hundreds of syndicated papers and minor fortune.

That’s what’s interesting about Macanudo, and distinct and exciting. But it does make it difficult to find things to say about a collection of two hundred or so strips. Especially when you (well, me, in this case) said it all once already.

Macanudo: Optimism Is for the Brave  is the second collection of the strip in English [1]; the first was Welcome to Elsewhere , last year. I had a long post then, talking about the style and feeling of the strip, and cataloging all of the recurring situations I saw in that first book. There are more, I understand – the Wikipedia entry lists two dozen, so some of them may appear much less often, or were only in the earlier Spanish-language days, or have been left out of these books for other reasons.

So what I said then is still true: it’s still the same kind of strip, as you’d expect for something that has been running (counting the Spanish-language-only years, which of course you have to) since 2002.

The title of this one is appropriate: it is a strip with an optimistic tone, most of the time, a strip about the casual bravery of everyday life – the bravery of being positive and open and welcoming to the world instead of closed and hateful and destructive. All of those situations – even the witches, who tend to be more put-upon by people unhappy with their lifestyle – are in a positive, optimistic mode, about being happy and learning new things and exploring both physically and intellectually.

It’s not exactly a gag-a-day strip – each strip is a thought or a moment, and they do tend to be separate moments. But they’re not “gags,” most of the time. They are amusing, or thoughtful, rather than the “hey laugh at this!” post-vaudeville rhythms more common in the standard comic strip. That makes Macanudo a quieter, different  thing, and I wonder how well it fits on the page with the usual comics rabble.

(I only read it in book form, myself – it’s not in my local paper. I have no idea how many English-language papers it is in. Given the contractions of the industry, I’d bet fewer than it even was in a year ago.)

You probably know already if Macanudo sounds appealing to you. If it does, you will enjoy it. If it sounds fussy or overly precious to your ear…you might still like it; it’s simpler and more grounded than I might be making it sound. But it is different, it is a strip about thinking rather than bonking people on the head. I like that; I hope you will, too.

[1] There’s an asterisk if you both read Spanish and have access to the book markets of Argentina, where a dozen previous collections were published.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

Don’t tell anyone, but I think this is a stealth reprint collection. If it were in prose, I might even go so far as to call it a fix-up.

Roz Chast is one of the giants of contemporary cartooning, a New Yorker mainstay since the late ’70s and the author of the major memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  about a decade ago, plus a number of other books, both reprints and original. All of her work is fun and quirky and specific, coming out of a relatable New York sensibility – so I’m purely talking categorization here, not making a value judgement.

I Must Be Dreaming  was her new book for 2023, billed as a “new graphic narrative, exploring the surreal nighttime world insider her mind.” Which is true, as far as it goes: the narrative is clearly new. But I think a lot of the pages here, probably a majority of them, already existed. I think this is a themed reprint collection lightly cosplaying as an original graphic novel.

The alternative, though, is that all of the things that look like individual cartoons here – mostly retelling specific dreams – were all new work, that Chast dug through her dream notebook and did all of this work in one rush as a book. That’s possible, but it feels like a compendium of several decades of dreams – that she pulled published cartoons and sketches and ideas from the body of her work, maybe with a tropism for things that hadn’t been in a book yet, to cover this material.

Because creators don’t just suddenly have a completely different idea that they’ve been working on for years, and Chast has been thinking and cartooning about her dreams for a long time now.

Either way, Dreaming starts out with what is clearly new material, in Chast’s GN-esque style – hand-drawn type in paragraphs around individual illustrations – as she explains what she finds interesting about dreams, and how she’s captured hers – then dives into compendia of different types of dreams, mostly drawn as single-page cartoons – and then has a somewhat historical/overview section, again in that more discursive GN style, to close.

Everyone’s dreams are weird and random, I think – some in an interesting way, and some in a tedious way. Chast is clear that she’s curating dreams here: illustrating the most distinctive or visual or bizarre ones, and avoiding the dull ones. (Anyone else had the “trying to walk somewhere in the rain, and your legs don’t work right?” Unpleasant to experience, boring to explain.)

It’s a Roz Chast book, so it’s full of her sensibility and viewpoint – though maybe more so, because of dream logic. I liked it a lot, again because it’s Roz Chast. In sum, unless you are one of those weirdoes who can’t stand Chast, this book will make you laugh and enjoy life just a bit more during the time you read it.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

When I was a lad, the standard bio-for-young-people format was a small hardcover, heavily illustrated but written in prose, in short, punchy chapters and topping out at maybe a hundred and fifty pages. There were a lot of them: I recall shelves in classrooms and school libraries full of the things, some of them in specific series from particular publishers.

At some point since that dim misty past, the format seems to have shifted – or maybe a new format has been added, but I think the old style is at least declining if not dead – into a graphic novel that covers roughly the same territory but in a more visually exciting (and reluctant-reader-appealing) way.

Now, let’s be clear: the new style is not just for middle-schoolers who need to do a report on Random Famous Dead Person a couple of times a semester. But that is a large and powerful audience, with vast collective library and school budgets seeking books to buy all the time, so it’s not surprising that things tend to be published that will fit that model, even if they were conceived for different purposes and audiences.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television , a 2019 book by Israeli-American cartoonist Koren Shadmi, fits pretty comfortably into that category: it covers Sterling’s whole life, with a Twilight Zone-ish frame story where most readers will guess the payoff very early (which is very Twilight Zone, and so deeply appropriate), tending to play up the drama and struggle to give a clear arc of a life.

It’s crisp and clear and sweeping, covering Serling’s fifty years with a central focus on what every reader really wants to know: how he got to create Twilight Zone, what those years were like, and how it affected him afterward. To be reductive: he was an award-winning writing superstar for the then-popular TV anthology-show format; super-busy and stressful, with increasing network trouble over the five-year run; he didn’t live long enough to get a real third act, and his second act was all reaction and scrambling for any, usually tawdry, work as the anthology-show format entirely disappeared.

Shadmi has been doing this sort of historical non-fiction book fairly regularly the past few years – I’d previously read his Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula , which came out two years after Twilight Man. He’s good at it: it takes a lot of research and synthesizing to present wads of historical context and full conversations (or large chunks of TV-show dialogue) in an engaging way, and Shadmi does that consistently here.

He tells this story in Serling’s voice, which is appropriate for the man who so intensely narrated his most famous production but presents certain potential pitfalls. As far as I could see, Shadmi avoids them all: Serling comes across as understandable but clearly a man of his time, with the right cadence and style in his speech. Shadmi also keeps his trademark cigarette in hand consistently – I wonder if that was less of an issue in this book because it came out from Humanoids, a dedicated GN publisher, rather than the young-readers division of a major house? I would not be surprised if some school districts avoided buying it because it has a cigarette on the cover.

Twilight Man aims to tell the story of this one guy, and somewhat show what writing for TV was like in his heyday of the ’50s and ’60s – it does the former well, and gives at least a Serling flavor of the latter. The second half of the subtitle is more expansive than the book itself; it really is just about Serling. I see Shadmi has a couple of other similar books I haven’t found yet; I’ll be looking out for them.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Reset by Peter Bagge

Reset by Peter Bagge

I’m running close to a decade behind reading Peter Bagge’s books – but, the weird thing is, I seem to still be reading all of his books, just with that big time-delay. I have no explanation, and may catch up one of these days: cartooning is time-intensive work, and even someone as prolific as Bagge doesn’t pile up books the way a prose writer like Stephen King or Nora Roberts does.

That’s as close to a reason why I read his 2012 miniseries/2013 graphic novel Reset  here at the end of 2023. As usual, I find bits of the worldbuilding to be weird, especially in retrospect: maybe because of the things Bagge needed to create this story, maybe because I fundamentally don’t agree with his assumptions about life and society in general.

Bagge’s worlds are full of mildly updated ’50s gender-essentialism: men are hot-headed and often physically violent, because They Are Men and the World Is Frustrating. Sometimes they are divided into the smart ones (effete, tentative, too weak for this world, typically wearing glasses) and the strong ones (stupid as a post, addicted to incredibly counterproductive ideas, full of zeal and energy for all the wrong things, typically wearing mullets). Women are sneaky, vindictive shrews who you (the reader, who is of course a man) can never trust and who drive you (ditto) crazy all the time, and usually won’t even let you fuck them! (Not that you want to: damn harpies! But a man has needs!)

This time out, the man is Guy Krause, right in the middle of that Bagge male stereotype: we meet him in a mandated traffic-safety class, where he was forced after a road-rage incident. Krause is a minor celebrity, a former stand-up comedian turned movie actor, maybe B or C-list at best but recently hitting a stretch of bad luck and bad breaks.

The woman is Dr. Angie Minor, who meets him in that class – with ulterior motives, we soon learn – and recruits him for a research project.

That project is not what it seems to be, of course. And Bagge seems to be interested in yet a third aspect of the project, which makes the book a bit lumpy and thematically jumbled. But let me start with what it seems to be.

Angie is working for an unnamed company, developing a fancy new VR headset and associated software program. They claim not to know what they’ll use it for yet, but they can create a Choose-Your-Adventure version of a subject’s life, after some serious, presumably expensive research, to build the world-model. (Anyone who understands capitalism will have warning bells ringing in their heads at this point: there’s no plausible product here aside from maybe masturbatory fantasies for billionaires.)

So Guy will be put in a chair with this headset and some fancy electrodes and relive important moments of his life, while Angie and her tech, Ted, monitor him to find out…something they’re unclear about. The title comes from the fact that Guy has one control, a button that pops him out of the simulation and resets it back to the base state: the beginning of this particular scenario.

It is also the big honking metaphor at the center of the book, of course: what would you do if you could live the important moments in your life over? If you could Reset, what would you do? Bagge runs away from this idea almost immediately; it doesn’t fit his plot and his tech is too crude to really be believable to the user.

Ray is both a bad subject – headstrong and unwilling to be led and obnoxious (did I say he’s a Bagge main character yet? I may be repeating myself) – and the only possible subject for this custom bespoke simulation based entirely on his life, which seems really weird and becomes the obvious Chekhov Gun looming over the whole book. And, yes, the real explanation of Angie’s research comes into it – though Bagge never gives any adequate explanation of why Guy was chosen, aside from the very weak initial “you’re famous enough that it was easy to research you” one, which is only plausible if they sign up the subject before doing the research.

The plot is more about what’s really going on and less about Ray’s re-living his life, though I think Bagge wants the core of this story to be what Ray learns. (He does re-connect with a girl he had a crush on in high school, for example.)

Again, in a Bagge world, everyone is selfish and horrible and unpleasant – occasionally not all that bad to specific other people that they like, at that moment, but you can never count on that. So people yell at each other, act out, ramp up the experiments, maliciously comply with instructions, and much more. We do find out the secret reason for the project in the end, and it’s dumb and vague and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that that would lead to this.

So it’s a Bagge book: full of talky, angry people with rubber-hose limbs gesticulating at each other, spitting fire, yelling, and so on. I don’t have an overly sunny view of humanity, I think, but even I think he can be a bit much. This one is amusing and doesn’t have any unpleasant background assumptions (unlike Apocalypse Nerd , for example); it’s somewhat lumpy but generally moves well and is full of amusing Bagge stuff. Maybe not top-tier Bagge, but pretty close: good, almost current work from a creator who is like no one else. If Bagge seems interesting, this is a decent one to dive into, though Hate is still the core.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Pixels of You by Ananth Hirsh, Yuko Ota, and J.R. Doyle

Pixels of You by Ananth Hirsh, Yuko Ota, and J.R. Doyle

It’s not usual for a creative team to accrete members over time. OK, sure, you can think of bands that got bigger as they got successful enough to add, for instance, a horn section, but those accretions tend to be semi-separate: The Fantastic Desperadoes with the Horns of Doom! People get replaced, of course. But it’s not common for new people to come in, set up, and just be added.

So I’m wondering what will be next for the team behind Pixels of You , a 2021 graphic novel from Amulet, Abrams’ teen-comics imprint. Co-writers (and partners in life, too, I think) Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Oda did the book Lucky Penny together before this – there, Hirsh was billed as the writer and Oda as the artist, but we all know artists in comics do at least half the storytelling (which means “writing”) anyway.

This time out, they have a new artist – maybe to have a particular look, maybe for other artistic reasons – J.R. Doyle, who also does a webcomic called Knights Errant and seems to do storyboard work as well.

Pixels looks nothing like Penny, and the tone is completely different, so that’s my assumption: Hirsh and Oda knew they wanted this new project to go in a different direction  If so, it worked: I had to look them up to remember what it was I read by them, and didn’t bring any expectations to Pixels.

Pixels of You is a personal drama, enemies-to-friends division (maybe more than friends, as is often the case), set in a near-future SF world. AI is ubiquitous and well-integrated – the SFnal kind of AI that quite likely will never actually exist, humaniform persons who are just part of human society. They don’t seem to be an underclass, though there are hints of prejudice and most AI persons may be vaguely considered lesser than meat-people. There are also hints that AI personhood, or possibly citizenship, are contingent in some way, with regular tests AI persons need to pass to stay in their current status.

Indira is a young woman working as an intern in an art gallery: she’s a wannabe photographer, and her boss is influential in that world. The internship is a strong way into the world she wants to be part of, and she’s trying to make the most of it. She also has a cybernetic eye – totally realistic-looking; no one knows unless she tells them – from a tragic accident in her past, and either that accident or the eye or both are the source of health issues, pain and bad dreams and sometimes worse.

Fawn is the next intern in line at the gallery: she’s on her way in as Indira is finishing her time. Fawn is a human-presenting AI, the “daughter” of two traditional-looking AI persons who seem to be quite successful – maybe managerial-class jobs, something like that.

They meet at a show, and immediately get on each other’s worst sides: Fawn insults Indira’s work, without know it’s hers. Indira is prickly and standoffish to begin with, so gives as well as she gets.

But the gallery owner needs them to work together, and forces them to do so: the next show, which was originally planned to be a combined look at their separate work, now will be of work they make together.

Both Indira and Fawn are well-meaning, mostly nice people, so they don’t stay enemies all that long. (Coming from Penny, I might have expected a longer, funnier sequence of squabbling, physical or verbal, but Pixels is a quieter, much more serious book.) They do learn to work together, they do learn each other’s secrets, they do become friends.

That sounds trite, I suppose, but any story is trite when stripped to the barest plot. The team here tells this one well – there’s a lot of single-panel pages to show what Fawn and Indira’s work looks like, and a lot of semi-wordless sequences, since photography is more about seeing than talking. It’s a sweet story, even if I do have some quibbles with the SFnal background.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.