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.
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The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge

It’s fascinating the way that art comics are similar across vastly different cultures, the same way adventure comics are. (“OK, there are these guys, with crazy powers, wearing colorful clothes, and they fight!”) If I were being saturnine, I’d say something like “it’s almost like we’re all human beings.”

The Man Without Talent  is almost forty years old, by the Japanese man Yoshiharu Tsuge, and it could almost have been made by Joe Matt last decade. Oh, sure, the cultural signifiers would be all wrong, but the core of the story, the one man who just doesn’t want to do anything, is remarkably similar.
Man Without Talent is a series of six linked stories about the former manga-ka Sukezo Sukegawa, who now tries to make a living selling stones next to the Tama River – stones that he found in that river. It’s a quixotic pursuit, but we soon learn Suzeko has been through several of them already: fixing and selling cameras, being an antiques dealer, a crazy dream to build a toll footbridge. All of this is to avoid making more comics, which are both harder work and barely remunerative to begin with. (Suzeko is not much in demand as a comics-maker, he complains, but he actually has established contacts there, so it’s hard to see that would be a worse career option than the ones he actually chooses.)
Suzeko has a wife and a young child; the three of them seem to have no other family in the world, no strong connections. One of the stories tells of a “vacation” – to a lousy, cheap hot springs, combined with a mostly-failed attempt to find rocks in another river – where they specifically say that they don’t have anyone else in the world: no parents or siblings, whether alive or near or what, and no close friends. They exist on the margins of society, in the company of a loose group of similar people – shop-owners one step above beggars, men who salvage random junk for a living, rock dealers, and other oddballs.
What all of these people have in common, which is only lightly commented on, is a distaste for the bustle and forcefulness and go-getter pace of modern life, of urban living. They want to be left alone, to do not much, and to just get by. So they mostly do.
Yoshiharu Tsuge’s own life is very close to Suzeko’s – this is the kind of story where the reader is expected to understand that Suzeko is not Tsuge…but that he’s not Tsuge in a mostly technical, official sense. This edition has a long essay about Tsuge by the translator, Ryan Homberg, which notes that Tsuge has not produced any comics – or, apparently, done work of any kind, since this book was published in 1987. So, in a way, Suzeko did win: he got what he was looking for. I doubt that made him happy: Suzeko is not someone made with the capacity for much happiness.
Man Without Talent is an art comic, and one from a culture on the other side of the planet from me. So it is quiet, and elliptical, and filled with details of a culture I know only from other works of art. Anyone willing to spend the time, and with an inclination to find the slacker life worth examining, will find this deep and resonant. The only real criticism I could make of it is that the text is all typeset in a very obvious font; comics don’t need to have hand-lettering, but their letters should look like individual effort went into them.

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

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Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

So I was, to put it mildly, not happy with the way Descender ended . I knew that there was a sequel to that series — this is it, Ascender — but I figured I would not be coming back after writer Jeff Lemire set up a Backswing Fantasy larger than any seen previously. (Larger both in the backswinginess and the fantasy: this is full-bore dragon-starship goofiness here.)

But the local library had a copy of Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy , and that last Descender volume was literally the only time I’d read a Jeff Lemire comic and not really enjoyed it, so I thought I should give it a chance.

I tend to suspect the Descender/Ascender transition was the plan all along, since Ascender is not so much a thematic riff on Descender, or another story set in the “same” (vastly changed) universe, but a flat-out pure sequel. The main character of Ascender is Mila, the roughly nine-year-old daughter of Andy and Effie from Descender, and the main action of this volume is Andy and Mila running away from danger to get to another character we recognize from the previous volumes.

That is to say: you could start here, but starting here is not the point, and not the expectation. This is for people who read Descender. (And that makes me think, with my old fantasy-editor hat on, that this will want to be a trilogy eventually — what would that make the merged science/fantasy galaxy’s story? Leveler?)

You may have also noticed that Bandit, the robot dog, is on the cover along with Mila, so mentioning it shouldn’t be a spoiler. His arrival sets in motion the plot, which so far is running on the same kind of rails as Descender, with two cases of “that person has got to be dead” already showed prominently, one immediately subverted and the other obviously going in a very specific direction. It’s all a bit lazy and obvious, I’m sorry to say.

In related news, the Big Bad is a vampire queen named Mother – I guess it’s positive that she’s of the old and morbidly fat style of evil vampires, not the slim and seductive type? – who is the latest in a centuries-long series of vampire queens who apparently immigrated in from some other universe between the end of Descender and this book. (Seriously, there’s nowhere in the universe shown in Descender they could have been. I’ll buy “the universe flipped to magic, and now we have vampires!” but not “oh, and they’re centuries old, because they were actually .”) She is casually cruel to her underlings and rules the galaxy with a bloated fist, because of course she does, and she somehow did all this in less than a decade.

There are Rebels, because any Star Wars-inspired story worth its salt has to have them, and they are obviously the good guys. Mila will join them, eventually, but probably not until book three – my guess is that she meets them in passing in book two, maybe with her keepers at the time getting into a violent disagreement with the Rebels, and then that has to be papered over later. The Rebels have a secret Sorcerer leader, whom the evil vampire queen is of course insane to find and kill, but said sorcerer does not seem to be actually good enough at the sorcery thing to make the Rebels any kind of match for the Forces of Evil.

(Oh, and the sorcerer is almost certainly a robot. My money is on Tim-21, but it’s definitely not going to be a new character. I expect his big reveal will be at the end of one of the volumes: maybe two, more likely three.)

Ascender looks wonderful, moves quickly, and is full of action, adventure, and vigor. It’s also hugely derivative and barely exists as a thing of its own, being a Descender remix by DJ Star Wars using beats from several hundred years of generic horror. I may read more of it, if I can keep getting it from the library, but I’ll be damned if I’ll spend money on this.

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

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The Contradictions by Sophie Yanow

Most of the reviews and blurbs I’ve seen about Sophie Yanow’s graphic novel The Contradictions  focus on the radical politics, on how Sophie is learning about anarchism and communism and feminism and various related isms as a college student spending a year in Paris. But that seems to me to be entirely surface, and not what the book is about at all.

Sophie does meet Zena, who pulls her into that radical world. And The Contradictions is centered around a road trip the two of them make together, to Amsterdam and Berlin, the spring break of that year. But The Contradictions is about Sophie’s unrequited desire for Zena.

(Here I need to back up briefly, and explain a standard reviewer tactic. When I say “Sophie,” I mean the character in this story, as written and drawn by Sophie Yanow. When I say “Yanow,” I mean the author of the work. I have no way of knowing how close Sophie’s experiences are to what Yanow actually experienced, and that’s besides the point, anyway: I’m not talking about a life, I’m talking about a work of art. And Yanow has clearly, carefully, constructed this book – it is very much a work of art, based to some unknowable degree on her own life and experiences.)

And I mean “desire” in a broad sense. I think Yanow is showing that Sophie wants and desires so many things about Zena: her passion, her energy, her enthusiasm, the way she knows who she is and what she wants to do. Sophie both wants Zena and wants to be Zena. 

Sophie is gay: she makes that clear early on. She’s not in a relationship as the book opens; we don’t see her in any other relationship in this book. Zena is coming out of a relationship with a boy, and we don’t see her start a new one. Sophie, in the course of the book, never says anything explicitly to Zena. (There is a moment, late in the book, involving controlled substances, written messages, and a certain four-letter word.) And Yanow does not present them as being in a physical or romantically emotional relationship – though they clearly are in a close friendship, and Sophie obviously wants even more closeness.

I find it hard to believe Zena is clueless. I don’t think Yanow means to show Zena as clueless. Zena has faults – The Contradictions is in large part the story of Sophie coming face-to-face with Zena’s faults – but she is good at seeing opportunities. So I believe that Zena is deliberately stringing Sophie along.

Zena is a woman of passions, the kind of person – so common at that age – who does nothing in small ways. She’s passionately committed to veganism, to anarchism, to her own role in smashing everything she sees as horrible and making a better world. And if that passion comes out in petty theft, because that only harms evil rapacious corporations? That’s fine with Zena.

Sophie, though, needs to figure out if she’s fine with all of that as well. And if she’s fine with Zena’s lack of passion for the things Sophie cases about: art and museums and dancing, things large and small and in-between. Sophie’s politics are more centered in art and feminism; Zena’s are more performative and anarchist. Zena is the kind of passionate person who only has room in her life for her passions. And the road trip at the center of Contradictions is where Sophie has to live with Zena, and all Zena’s baggage, for an extended period of time.

If I wanted to be cute, I might say that Sophie stuck around because she thought she could become one of Zena’s passions. Maybe she did. Maybe Yanow was implying that. And maybe there was an element of how-flexible-can-this-person-be in the desire: Sophie learned that Zena was exactly as inflexible as she said she was.

Zena is not a bad person at all. By her own lights, she’s as good as a person can possibly be, and she’s not wrong in horrible ways. (Just in smaller, actually-living-in-a-world-with-other-people ways.) But she’s strong medicine, especially if you don’t agree with her on every passion. And who does agree with anyone else on every passion?

So The Contradictions is, maybe, a falling-in-and-out-of-love book. A book about an infatuation. And, yes, the politics is a huge part of the appeal: Zena, and people like her, are sexy and exciting because of their unwavering commitment to unpopular ideals. But Sophie has her own ideals, which do not entirely line up with Zena’s, and her passions may be quieter, but that does not mean they are not passions. Zena is not someone who has much time for people who disagree with her on fundamental things…and nearly everything is fundamental with Zena.

I haven’t mentioned Yanow’s art, because I’m a words person, and because it intimidates me. She has a razor-sharp ligne claire (and I feel like a poser just typing that, though it’s absolutely the right term) style that leaves nothing to chance, just precise lines on the paper and inky blacks where needed. It’s a pretty absolutist style, which is deeply resonant for a book about someone as absolutist as Zena: I don’t know if Yanow always works like this, but it’s an amazing match of matter and style.

The Contradictions is a deep, resonant book that won’t tell you what it’s about; even the title slips out of your hands when you try to explain it. It is a great graphic novel that is as much about love as politics. And I hope Sophie Yanow will keep making books this strong for decades to come.

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

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All Together Now by Hope Larson

There’s something deeply pure about a middle-book about middle-schoolers. The characters are in a point of their lives where they’re growing and changing – not still the people they were as kids, and not even the teenagers they will be in another year or two, much less the actual adults they will eventually become – and the story is similarly middle, starting from another book it hopes we’ve already read and handing off at the end to a book the author may not have even planned out yet.

It’s very thematically appropriate, is what I’m saying.

That’s how I think about All Together Now , Hope Larson’s new graphic novel for 2020 and a sequel to 2018’s All Summer Long . It picks up soon after the end of the previous book: Bina is still thirteen, it’s still the same year, and she still wants to write and play music. But the entanglements and problems are different, because it’s not summer anymore – All Together Now begins in September and runs through nearly the end of the year. So Bina is back in school, has formed a band with her new friend Darcy, and hardly sees her neighbor and one-time best friend Austin, who has a punishing travel-soccer schedule.

So the Bina-Darcy band needs a drummer, and gets one, which changes everything, and keeps changing things. And Austin eventually circles back, with a different opinion of Bina than he had before.

Things change. They can change really quickly when you’re thirteen.

Together is the same kind of book as Summer: episodic, quiet rather than flashy, introspective rather than dramatic. It’s about how Bina feels about what’s happening as much as it’s about the things that happen…and, to be honest, Bina isn’t really sure how she feels about the band-drama and the next-door-neighbor drama a lot of the time.

Books about people this age often have the young people bemoaning the changes, and wanting things to stay the way they were, forever – Bina had a bit of that, in Summer. She’s still not thrilled with all of the changes now, but I think she’s happier, or maybe just resigned, about the changes. Maybe she’s starting to see the places the changes could take her, and those are thrilling and frightening, like all adult life is. That’s a good sign for her: life is change, and the earlier people realize that, the better off they will be.

All Together Now is another fine, deep, naturalistic graphic novel by Hope Larson, following a long string like Chiggers and Mercury . I’m not as plugged into that world, so I hope the reason I don’t hear about her work as much is because I’m not part of that conversation, and not because she’s little-known. This book, in particular, should be in every middle-school library in the country: it has a lot to say to other actual and aspirational thirteen-year-olds.

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

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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine has always struck me as the closest thing to a literary short-story writer in the comics field – our Raymond Carver, perhaps – with his tight, focused stories of real people in real worlds dealing with mundane lives and just interacting with each other. It’s the kind of work that sounds dull when I try to describe it, but is thrillingly true when done right, and Tomine generally gets it right.

So it was strange first to see that his new book last year, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist , was a memoir – I wondered if that knife-edge would still be there when writing about his own life. (It wasn’t, obviously, in his wedding-favor-cum-celebration-GN Scenes from an Impending Marriage , because if a book like that was in the typical Tomine tone, it would be a horrible sign for the marriage in question.)

And it was even more surprising to meet eight-year-old Adrian on the first page, on his first day at a new school in Fresno in 1982, declaring his undying love for John Romita. OK, sure, he was mercilessly tormented for it – that’s how he remembers it, so I’ll buy it on that level, but my memory is that eight-year-olds in 1982 liked to read superhero comics a lot, though I was not in hoity-toity Fresno – but the origin story of Adrian Tomine, as he presents it here, is basically the same as every other Gen-X cartoonist: imprinted on Marvel early, spent too much time in his own room making comics, ended up socially stunted and possessed of a massive imposter complex.

I’m being reductive, here. And Tomine doesn’t linger on that childhood: it’s the one quick sequence at age eight, and then smash-cut to 1995, when he’s on his way to his first San Diego Comic-Con. The bulk of Loneliness is made up of scenes from his professional life – moments when he’s “on-stage” as a cartoonist, at a signing or convention or publicity interview or just in public where someone recognizes him. And these moments are the ones I would have expected from Tomine: they’re all ones where things go wrong, or he’s embarrassed, where he says the wrong thing or is more clearly lonely and confused and out-of-place than he wishes he was. It could be a giant wall of cringe, but it’s all particular and grounded in the kind of person we learn Tomine is: he’s a creator, who spends his days in a chair thinking up stories. People like that always have trouble interfacing with the world: other people don’t know their lines in your story, and wouldn’t follow those lines if they did.

Tomine quietly keeps the focus on himself and his insecurities. There’s a number of places where names and faces are obscured – comics insiders probably already have a secret cheat sheet to figure out who all of those people are – so that the story is not “big name pro was mean to Adrian Tomine!” but instead stays “Adrian Tomine is insecure and obsesses about these moments, which exist in everyone’s lives.”

So Loneliness is the story of a career, but only the worst, saddest moments. The moments that you remember when you wake up randomly at 3AM, the ones that you can’t stop thinking about and that you can’t do anything about. Because it’s Tomine, it’s very specific: these are his issues, his anxieties, his worst moments.

The last thirty pages are the culmination of the book, a sequence of events in 2018 that I probably shouldn’t go into too much depth about. He presents it as what drove him to make this book, and that makes sense…but I think a lot of these moments have been in his head a long time, and he had been trying to figure out a way to contextualize them and turn them into a story and not just a list of bad moments.

It may be more personal, but it’s still an Adrian Tomine book. He doesn’t tell the reader how to feel in the end, he doesn’t contextualize it all and wrap it up in a bow. He does have a long speech, at nearly the very end, that comes close to explaining it — he even says outright “my clearest memories related to comics – to being a cartoonist – are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults.” But is this book his way to get beyond those moments? Or does it come out of a realization that the material that hits you the hardest is the stuff you need to do next? Or both? Or neither?

We’re not all famous cartoonists. (Tomine might even say that he isn’t a famous cartoonist, except in very specific circumstances – that’s the buried message of the first two pages.) But we all obsess about things. We all have memories we don’t want to think about but keep coming back to. Loneliness is the exploration of one life through those moments, by a master cartoonist and storyteller.

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

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Born a Doofus by Adam Huber

Gag-a-day cartoons are a wonderful and mysterious art, a triumph of style and viewpoint, precise phrasing and engaging drawing, with a clear point of view and a world that can be encapsulated in four panels but expands with four new panels every day for as long as the cartoonist is inspired.

Well, good gag-a-day cartoons are like that. We also have Blondie and Garfield.

Bug Martini , though, is a good gag-a-day cartoon. It’s been running for about a dozen years, and its creator, Adam Huber, finally put together a physical-book collection of the strip this past year, gathering the first year of strips under the title Born a Doofus.

So this book starts with the first strip (October 19, 2009 ) and runs through the strip for October 18, 2010 . It also includes, in the back, about a dozen sketchbook pages about the pre-history of his “bug” main character, but the real draw is the comics themselves, which were funny and smart right from the beginning. (Huber’s art has evolved a bit – his bugs were chunkier, with smaller eyes, at the very beginning – but his writing was basically fully-formed from strip one. He may have gotten slightly denser with jokes as he went on, but that’s about it: this was really funny from launch.) I was chuckling all the way through Born a Doofus, and only avoided trying to read out a dozen or so random strips to The Wife out of my finely-honed sense that reading the words from a comic are not the preferred experience…especially to a woman trying to make dinner for her family.

But, Andy, you say. You’re linking to those strips, which are still available online. Why would I buy a book when I can just read straight through the archives, and hit another ten years of strips after that?

Aha! There is a fatal flaw in your plan: you can’t buy this book. It’s not available to you. It was funded by a Kickstarter, and you are too late. So it’s not a case of “should I get this book,” but instead a case of “you missed out on this awesome book, so sad for you.”

So I am not recommending this book to you. I am gloating that I just read it, that it is wonderful, and that you cannot have it. Oh, maybe Huber will deign to open sales of Born a Doofus in the future – check out his webstore , and live in hope – but, for right now, I have it and you do not.

(Or maybe I’m joking, and I do hope you can buy this someday, and Bug Martini will become an empire to rival Paws, Inc. Maybe.)

So that is Born a Doofus. It is funny, and I hope the stress of making it didn’t turn Huber off making further books, since he could do at least half-a-dozen more out of his archives. And maybe, just maybe, if you’re really good and the world is better than it usually is, you will be able to get a copy yourself someday. But, for now: you missed it.

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

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Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists edited by Ted Rall

Any book with “new” in the title will age really badly: it’s just inherent. If what it’s trying to do is present something fresh and immediate, that will just be less compelling fifteen years later. No one can do anything about that effect.

So it’s a pretty quixotic thing to read Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists  in 2021, since it’s a book from 2006 about a world that was fast-moving at that point and has only sped up since then. Attitude 3 was the last of the series — the first Attitude profiled new political cartoonists and the second one new “alternative” cartoonists” (primarily those of the weekly newspapers that flourished in the ’90s, I think), and all of them were edited by Ted Rall, at a moment in his career when he seemed to be working more as a connector than he looks to be doing now.

(Parenthetically, Rall – as the sourest, most uncompromising and most ideologically leftist cartoonist in the US – now looks like an odd person to do something this broad and inclusive, but, again, fifteen years can change people and worlds and industries. Early-Aughts Rall is not the same person he is today; none of us are.)

So Attitude 3 interviews and profiles twenty-one relatively prominent webcartoonists of the time, mostly focusing on political/personal cartoons – things closer to the editorial end of the world, or gag-a-day in some cases, rather than the kind of webcomics that are basically long serialized stories formatted as comic-book pages presented in electronic form. Some of them will be familiar, some of them will be lost to the mists of time. (Well, they were for me; you might be intimately familiar with every single one of these and know exactly what they’ve all done in the fifteen years since. If so, you are creepy and I am unobtrusively moving away from you.)

Cartoonists I recognize/follow/enjoy include Richard Stevens of Diesel Sweeties, Matt Bors (more recently of The Nib), Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl, Nicholas Gurewitch of Perry Bible Fellowship, and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. A couple of others – Mark Fiore in particular – are names I’ve seen since then. But the majority of the book was made up of cartoons and creators I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of: my guess is that some of them are still going, in their own corners of the Internet, and some have moved on to other art-adjacent things, and most have moved on to work that’s nothing like making pictures on the WWW.

Each cartoonist has five or six pages, including a decent selection of cartoons in black-and-white – this is an issue for some, since most were in color on the ‘net, for obvious reasons – and the interview with Rall. It’s all professional and well-done and informative, but it does feel like a moment frozen in amber this many years later.

I think we’re at the wrong time to look at a book like this again. One the one hand, it’s too long for most of these people to still be doing the same work, though a few are. On the other, they were all very young then (mostly mid-twenties) and so now are mostly in the middle of their careers – so it’s too early for this to be useful as parallax to evaluate anything like their whole oeuvre.

Still, it’s a moderately heroic book, trying to gather a vast, massively-distributed world and get it between two covers for posterity. It is a serious accomplishment, and it will be there for that re-evaluation in another thirty years or so, if any of us are there to look at it again.

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

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Elektra by Greg Rucka Ultimate Collection (with various artists)

I’m going to try to be quick with this one: it’s very much not my thing in multiple ways, and I read it to sample both what my old college buddy Rucka has been doing and what mainstream Marvel comics are like. The answer, in both cases, is: still things I’m not all that interested in, and which I do not enjoy, which is totally fine.

Elektra by Greg Rucka Ultimate Collection  collects more than a year of the title comic about the ninja super-assassin, issues 7-22 from just over a decade ago. The art is by a whole lot of different people, most of which was in styles I found actively off-putting. (Worst: Greg Horn, whose glossy photorealism seemingly only comes at the expense of composition and energy and movement and human body proportions. Best: Carlos Meglia, with two great cartoony issues full of zip and vigor. Everyone else was variously muddy and dull and generically gritty, to my eye.)

This is the kind of comic that aggressively insists that it’s nothing like superheroes as it features an unstoppable overpowered killing machine wearing a silly unfeasible costume and fighting against magic ninjas. I have never found any part of that argument compelling. And the fact that the overall plotline here is, more or less, “maybe, Elektra, spending your life murdering people for money in job lots is not the greatest thing you could possibly be doing” adds to that great-power-great-responsibility hoo-ha.

Anyway, Elektra is the world’s greatest assassin, who kills people in that stripper costume she’s wearing on the cover (and often other clothes; she’s an equal-opportunity murderess) in various inventive ways and, at this point, was completely separate from the regular Marvel Universe so she could be grimmer and grittier. Although the trained-by-good-and-then-evil-ninjas thing, and the whole she-was-dead-for-a-while-but-got-better deal, are still baked into her backstory on a molecular level.

These are crime stories about a globetrotting international assassin, and they are never as fun and thrilling as that phrase makes them sound. As usual, Rucka focuses on the mental trauma his characters face, and Elektra has been brainwashed so many times it’s a wonder she can cross the street without a Boy Scout. They are largely “about” the kind of serious “issues” that superhero comics get into when they’re feeling expansive: life’s purpose and meaning, how glorious and intoxicating it is to murder a whole lot of people, the difficulty of maintaining a steady clientele in the international-assassin business, and so on.

I’m already running on too long, and getting too snarky: the stories here are solid of their kind, but they’re very tough-guy stories, in the old paperback thriller mode. It is nice to see that Marvel can publish stories in which people in funny costumes kill each other, instead of just punch each other through buildings and then take each other to super-jail, I guess.

This sequence of stories seems to have largely been Rucka trying to reset from “Elektra kills people for money and is a total badass about it” to “Elektra feels bad about having killed lots of people and might possibly be looking to do Good Things to redress her karmic balance,” but the moment of reset, if I’m right, is at the very end of this book. So I don’t know if it stuck, and frankly I don’t care enough to investigate.

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

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The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 5 by Herge

I am still not your Tintin expert – I’m in the middle of my first reading of this series, seventy years or so after it was published and a good forty years after I was in the target demographic – but I did just read The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5 , the first major post-war chunk of the adventures of the Belgian boy reporter (ha!), so I can, I hope, tell you a few things.

I’ve previously gotten through the earlier omnibuses: one , and two , and three , and four . I have not yet found the first two, semi-forgotten books Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are generally considered to be racist and/or dull and/or not up to Herge’s later level; I may get to them eventually, though the library copies I originally expected to read seem to have been quietly removed from circulation since I first thought about reading Tintin.

This volume starts off with Land of Black Gold, the story interrupted by WWII – Herge started it in 1939, was interrupted in 1940 by a small Nazi invasion of Belgium, and did six other books before getting back to this in 1948. [1] I didn’t know that until I read it on Wikipedia a few minutes ago, so major props to Herge and/or his estate for smoothing that transition out. Then it dives into what I see is the last two-book story in Tintin’s history: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, in which a pre-teen Belgian boy, his sea-captain buddy, and their absent-minded professor accomplice become the world’s first astronauts in a program run by a random Eastern European country, because comics, that’s why.

Black Gold does feel pre-war, with some vaguely escalating tensions in the background – mostly seen commercially, in oil prices – but the focus of the plot, as I think was always the case with Tintin, is on individual evil people rather than The Land of the Evil People or SMERSH or anything like that. Oh, the evil people are organized, and come from somewhere, but it’s not the named, re-used Land of the Evil People, it’s just a place where these particular Evil People came from. This one is also deeply colonialist, obviously – how could it be otherwise?

And then Professor Calculus has been recruited by Syldavia to run their space program, because a small Balkan monarchy of course has a space program in 1948. (Admittedly, everyone wanted a space program in 1948, at least on the V2 level, and fictioneers are not obliged to let reality impinge too heavily on their worlds.) A rival country – unnamed but probably Borduria, unless I missed something – attempts skullduggery both before the launch (in Destination) and during the trip to the moon (in Explorers), but, as always in Tintin, is foiled by the forces of good and right and spiky-haired Belgianness.

This series is still the same kind of thing: everything I said about the earlier books still applies. They are very wordy for adventure stories, which makes this small-format omnibus a less than ideal presentation. These pages should be large, to be savored and to let the word balloons be somewhat less overwhelming. The comic relief is deeply slapstick, entirely silly, and mostly successful. The plots aren’t complex, per se, but they are complicated, full of additional wrinkles and problems as Herge rumbles through his stories and makes sure he has sixty-some pages of stuff for Tintin to overcome each time.

I expect I’ll finish up the series, and maybe even find the old suppressed books if I can, because I am a completest. But if you didn’t grow up with these, they’re just OK. Solid adventure fiction for boys, yes. Deathless classics of any kind, no.

[1] It’s all much more complicated than that, and I say “books” when I mean “serialized stories in a series of different magazines, which were then collected into books not always in the same sequence and then re-edited and revised multiple times over the next few decades, including but not limited to during different rounds of translation into English.” But they’re books now.

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

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Starport by George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden

Stories are inherently molded by their format. A novelization is different from a movie: it typically will include scenes and lots of interior monologues absent in its model. The same happens in any adaption – the original format has certain strength and structures, the new one does things differently.

Starport  is a TV pilot: it declares that in every second the reader experiences it. I also found it to be a somewhat quaint TV pilot, in the ’80s/90s vein, because George R.R. Martin wrote it as a script in 1993 and it’s been mostly sitting in a drawer ever since. (It was published, as a script, in the GRRM collection Quartet nearly two decades ago.) But it was available, and, for whatever reason, it was dusted off and artist Raya Golden took that TV script (of what seems to be long enough for a three-hour TV movie, planned to launch a series, and that length may be a clue why it never happened), adapted it into a comics script (of about 260 pages, if I counted correctly). Golden keeps the TV beats and structure: Starport in its graphic novel form is divided into twelve chapters, each one just the right length to fit between commercial breaks.

In this universe, the inevitable Harmony of Worlds contacted Earth the day after tomorrow (Super Bowl Day, to be exact), and invited us to join the previous 314 species in intergalactic peace and prosperity. Starports were built in Singapore, Amsterdam, and (last and most troubled) Chicago. [1] That last one is the focus of the story, and smart people will realize all of that allows the production to use normal US exteriors and sets, with just a few skiffy specifics and a lot of rubber facial prosthetics and a few carefully-husbanded FX shots to sell the aliens.

It’s a post-ST: TNG SF pilot, with no hint of X-Files, to place it in time — DS9 and B5 were in development when Martin wrote the script, and he may have been able to see finished episodes before he turned the Starport script into Fox. Possibly more importantly, it’s post-Hill Street Blues, and I would not be surprised if one of the pitches was “What if ST: TNG aliens were in HSB Chicago?”

This is a cop show, with a large cast. We have the new detective getting promoted and joining the precinct responsible for the Starport; we have his new partner, the Buntz character; we have two duos of uniformed cops; we have the tough-as-nails female sergeant and her tired-and-ready-for-retirement captain; we have the honor-obsessed alien cop whose anatomy is compatible enough to be fucking a human main character secretly; we have the womanizing, super-successful undercover cop; we have a harried and potentially corrupt alien starport overseer; we have a bar where all the human cops go to drink together and make sure the reader can keep them and the plot straight. I may be presenting them all as stereotypes; in my defense, they are stereotypes. The point of this script was to establish exactly which stereotypes each of them were, to slot them into a dependable American TV framework and allow the actual actors to start expanding those roles if and when it went to series.

It did not go to series; it was never produced at all. And twenty-five-plus years later, it’s so much an artifact of its time that I doubt it ever could be. So this is the only version I expect we will ever get, with Golden’s slightly cartoony art well-suiting the era and aliens but falling a little short on the moments of high drama.

Technically, Starport is a complete story: it sets up a conflict and resolves it. Several major characters have arcs as well. Realistically, it was designed to set up larger conflicts and concerns that Martin hoped would run for several years in a prominent hour-long prime-time spot nationwide, and give him a lucrative showrunning job for the mid-90s. That did not happen; after Starport, Martin felt burned out on Hollywood and focused his attention on what he planned as a fantasy trilogy, starting with the novel A Game of Thrones three years later. (You may have heard of it.)

So this is a road not taken, and, frankly, I think any Martin fan reading it will be happy about that. This could have been a decent TV series, maybe better than that. It could even have broken out and been a massive sensation, as X-Files was about to do at the same network Martin pitched Starport. But Martin’s prose fiction is better than this, and we’ve gotten two-plus decades of that fiction since then in large part because Starport failed.

And now we also got something like the pilot of Starport that never happened, so I think we’ve gotten the maximum we could reasonably expect.

[1] That the backstory of Starport includes a Super Bowl in Chicago is the least likely thing about it.

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