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Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Just over a decade ago, Jason Shiga made a big, complex story engine in book format, called Meanwhile… , telling a choose-your-own-adventure-style story with clusters of comics panels connected by “pipes” and numbers, driven by the reader’s choices. It was twisty, it was complex, it was inventive, it was brilliant, it was a hell of a lot of fun. It rewarded an obsessive re-reading, to get to every page, every path, and was equally amusing and thought-provoking.

As far as I can tell, there’s been nothing else like it since – not from Shiga, not from anyone else. But this fall, what looks to be the first in a series with somewhat smaller (presumably easier-to-achieve) goals appeared, to show that Shiga is back with his pipes and story choices.

That’s Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan . This one is a small-format book, which cuts down the amount of real estate devoted to the story, and it’s a more straightforward D&Dish adventure: “you” are an adventurer in a tavern in a fantasy land, and “you” get hired by an old sea captain to retrieve a fabled artifact that is at the center of your land, Cloud Harbor.

The story is much simpler than Meanwhile: there’s a “good” ending and a “bad” ending, but all of the other mishaps that could potentially lead to other bad endings tend to dump “you” on an island for exiles and miscreants, and, if you paid attention, you know how to get back from that island to the mainland.

In terms of story structure, if the average choose-your-adventure book is a branching bush – a few choices lead to a lot of different, mostly unpleasant endings – then Leviathan is a latticework, with multiple paths through and around it but almost always another connection that loops back to places you’ve been before.

So, while reading this book, you may find certain sequences of pages come up multiple times, especially navigating around this small world. In that way, it’s a lot like an computer adventure game: even the way Shiga draws the world-view pages echoes classic games like Zelda and early Pokemon titles. The cover reading line does say “Part comic! Part maze! Part game!” and that is roughly true, though the maze elements are pretty simple.

Shiga has always been a rationalist, both at the base level of his stories and in how he works out permutations of his premises. I don’t want to give away the details of Leviathan, but that’s still the case here, even if a fantasy world seems to be an odd choice for such a science-focused creator.

In the end, this is fun and entertaining, with a lot of small details that are important when looping back around and a mostly-serious tone. It’s not as ambitious as Meanwhile, and doesn’t hit the heights of that previous book, but it’s a good, inventive story-machine mostly for younger readers. And the promise of more books like this is also intriguing: will they also be set in Cloud Harbor, or somewhere nearby, or will they be entirely separate stories? With Shiga, I would always bet on the side of complexity and connection, but we’ll have to see.

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

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a world-famous 1963 semi-autobiographical novel, and the 1977 movie based on it, about one woman’s mental illness and survival. It’s also a bland 1970 country song by Lynn Anderson.

And a number of other books as well. Probably other things. Titles can’t be copyrighted; the evocative ones get used over and over again. But when they’re used for something big in the same area, a careful writer will want to make sure that any baggage from that title are appropriate, that the connotations are resonant, that the title has a purpose.

I have no idea why Mannie Murphy’s debut graphic novel is named I Never Promised You a Rose Garden . But, then, there’s a lot of things about this book I don’t understand: it’s in large part a series of very specific artistic decisions that baffle me.

I want to be clear: this is at least partially a Me Problem. Murphy’s Rose Garden circles a knot of topics that are obviously very important to them, and that they deeply believe are inextricably interlinked. But I did not find the book itself made those connections clear, or told its story cleanly, or could even stay out of its own way consistently.

Perhaps the deepest issue is the place of Murphy in the book itself. This is a deeply told book, with a specific point of view, often angry, politically committed, specific and local to Portland, Oregon. But the book tells us nothing about Murphy; they remain just the voice telling this story – this story which, the book says repeatedly, is personal but will never say why or how – with a few disjointed, random facts about their life dropped in, almost by accident. There’s also a friend named “Alder” who reappears multiple times, maybe as a stand-in for this whole Portland community Murphy is trying to represent, but is never seen on the page.

So we don’t know who Murphy is. Murphy’s voice in this book wants to tell us this is all important, and that we should believe them because they know this world…but gives us no reason to rely on that voice. Worse, the voice rambles and wanders, jumping from topic to topic in a way that may be carefully planned but feels chaotic and disjointed. The occasional wrong word choice or obviously agit-prop smash cut (“suddenly, a hundred years earlier, there were racists!”) only adds to the shakiness.

We want to believe in Murphy. We want to settle in and believe this voice will tell us the truth, connect all these disparate strands into something specific. But, as the book drones on and on, we start to think it’s the comics equivalent of one of those scrawled manifestoes sent into a newspaper, making the grand case for water fluoridation being the world-controlling tool of the Trilateral Commission or that the Alien Space Bats are coming to steal our spleens.

So: what are the topics of Murphy’s Rose Garden? First, the overdose death of River Phoenix in 1993 – Murphy clearly identified with or loved the actor Phoenix was, and there’s a semi-buried note of wanting to find people to blame for Phoenix’s death throughout the book, that this needs to be someone’s fault. Related to that – partly because Murphy seems to be most focused on Phoenix in the movie My Own Private Idaho, partly because what’s most important to Murphy all of the time is how Portland anything is – is the filmography of Portland local Gus Van Sant, who Murphy seems to loathe with the heat of a million suns.

The first section of the book stays mostly focused on Phoenix and Van Sant and Keanu Reeves, the other lead of that movie, as Murphy passive-aggressively attacks Van Sant over and over again for…this is not quite clear to me. There’s a sense that Van Sant is just wrong – about the people and places of Portland, about what queer life is like, about everything and anything in the world. To Murphy, every single artistic choice Van Sant made is the wrong one and everything he did was horrible…except that Murphy is also clearly obsessed with Van Sant and his movies. There’s also an implied theory of art that needs to be correct – that some viewpoints, some stories are just wrong, and can be discarded because of that, and that the good people will obviously know which stories and themes and ideas are right and which are wrong.

Along the way, Murphy uses first names exclusively, as if these were close friends and not famous people that the pre-teen Murphy, as far as I can tell, never met or interacted with. “Gus” does this, and “Keanu” surely must feel like that, and obviously “River” is a dark, tormented, perfect, lovely soul, too good for this world. It’s all personal, as Murphy takes that tween-fan connection and bases a whole implied theory of Portland, queerness, and white supremacists on what seems to be primarily the first awakenings of sexual desire.

From that first section, Rose Garden swerves hard into white supremacy. You see, one character in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy was loosely based on a locally-known Portland-scene guy, who led a hate-crime murder somewhat later and also appeared on an episode of Geraldo with a bunch of skinheads. As with many things in Rose Garden, the sequence of events is muddy – I’m never sure if this is just the way Murphy is telling the story, jumping to ideas as they come to mind, or if they’re being deliberately obfuscatory about dates that don’t line up to tell the clean story they want to be true. And, again, everything Van Sant ever did is either deliberately evil or accidentally malevolent, according to Murphy.

(Note: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Van Sant movie; I have no dog in this fight. But it’s really, really important to Murphy.)

All of the connections in Rose Garden are on that level: things that are so blindingly obvious in Murphy’s head that they can just jump from one thing to another, leaping decades or centuries or from film criticism to racist murders and get right into the thorny messy details that an outside reader doesn’t know or recognize or, frankly, often care about.

Most of Rose Garden is about the specific Pacific Northwest manifestation of white supremacy, as seen from the outside. Looking back on the book, I’m surprised there’s no queer critique of the obvious homosocial nature of that movement: Murphy seems to think of anyone in any level of that mindset, from any time in the past two hundred years, as equally evil and culpable for all bad things, utterly unredeemable and horrible and never distinguishable as individuals. For Murphy, Portland is the epicenter of evil white people, and that’s it.

But every American city has a racist past. Every American state is based in some way on white supremacy. Every region in the US has a history of cops killing people – usually POC, usually poor, usually low-status – that stretches to the present day, and a history of those cops getting away with it. I find it really hard to believe that Portland and Oregon are vastly more so than, for example, Birmingham and Alabama. So Murphy’s arguments comes across as special pleading, at best, or, more often, as a failure to see a large picture and a relentless focus on the parochial.

Bluntly, Murphy never makes the case that this place is different. Rose Garden never shows an understanding that other places even exist, that larger systemic problems exist, that any of this is more than just personal. In the end, I came to believe that Murphy cares about these issues because this is where they live and the people they know.

And, to quote Terry Pratchett, “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

Rose Garden‘s physical form also tends to aim in that personal direction, to make it look like a scrawled personal manifesto rather than a reasoned, generally-applicable argument about the wider world. Murphy’s pages are all split, half hand-written scripty text and half blue-wash images, one big picture per page. Again, it’s personal without being specific: Murphy doesn’t give away many details of their life here. It’s all public stuff: what school they went to, the media they cared about, people in the wider world. The viewpoint is personal, but Murphy doesn’t particularize it: we never learn what kind of person Murphy is, besides the clichés of someone who really liked River Phoenix and really hated white supremacists.

So, in the end, I want to believe in Rose Garden and to agree with its stances. I mean, I am against white supremacy – I hope anyone reading this can agree with that. And it is sad when young talented people take a lot of drugs and kill themselves. But Rose Garden is confused enough, and gets in its own way so much, that’s about as far as I can go. And that’s disappointing, but I think Murphy is still a young creator – there’s plenty of time to do more, to get more specific, to tell better stories, to make a clearer case. The energy is there, the spark is clear: it just needs focus.

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

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi

There seems to be a decent-sized, and maybe still-growing, sub-genre of graphic novel biographies out there in the world. I’ve been away from that end of publishing for a while now, so I can’t speak authoritatively to the reasons why, but my cynical side thinks they’re aimed at the middle-grade need-to-do-a-report crowd, the modern equivalent of heavily illustrated “junior biographies” from my day.

But maybe there’s a serious adult market for comics biographies of random people – who knows? The world is big and full of unlikely things. I’m definitely seeing more of them, for whatever reasons.

Such as this random book today: Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula , from the cartoonist Koren Shadmi. Shadmi is Israeli by birth, and some of his early comics stories were first published in France, but he’s now resident in New York and works in English. 

I’ve seen two very different books by Shadmi before: recently his fictional graphic novel Bionic , and a while back his debut short-story collection In the Flesh . From his website , I see he’s got a bunch of other books, roughly mixed between non-fiction and fiction, coming out more-or-less annually for the past decade – Lugosi is his most recent book, published last year.

It’s a fairly standard biography in comics form, starting with a loosely related introduction by a vaguely famous person (Joe R. Lansdale, the horror writer) that talks a lot about the subject of the book and very little about Shadmi’s work. Shadmi frames Lugosi’s story through the lens of a 1955 stint in rehab, near the end of his life, and returns to that frame periodically, mostly for a few panels or a page. I see that structure a lot in non-fiction comics – The Incredible Nellie Bly, where my post hasn’t gone live yet, does very much the same thing – but I think it’s mostly a fashion or style; it doesn’t necessarily add a whole lot to the chronological story to know that the subject eventually got old. At best, it’s a dash of pathos when we’re reading about an arrogant, womanizing guy who we might not be inclined to like all that much. (And we are doing that here.)

Other that returning to that frame story periodically, to show Lugosi in the grips of delirium tremens for dramatic effect, Shadmi tells Lugosi’s life in order, starting off with the usual early material on his youth in Hungary and how he got to America. The bulk of the book covers his American career, starting with the Dracula play in New York in 1927, when Lugosi was already in his mid-forties. The play is a hit, it goes on tour, Lugosi ends up in Hollywood, he stars in the film version – and his career is launched. From there, the book is a sequence of this movie and that one, feuding with Boris Karloff, and so on, with a few highs and a whole lot of mediums to lows. But Lugosi mostly kept working, and he made a lot of money for a while, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him when he cheats on yet another wife and runs through all of his money again.

Speaking of which, Lugosi was married and divorced four times – I don’t remember if the book gets into #3 much; there’s several decades of turmoil in his private life to get through here – and clearly was chasing a lot of other women for a long, long time. The book mentions the chasing without dramatizing much of it, besides the reason for one of his divorces, but the reader gets the sense that Lugosi was always on the make until nearly the end of his life.

Lugosi does what it aims to do: tell the story of a quirky, interesting life, hitting the moments that the people who really care will want to see – especially covering all of Lugosi’s late work with Ed Wood, the often-proclaimed worst filmmaker in the world. Lugosi’s life doesn’t make much of a story, and it’s not really uplifting, since he was a grandiose horndog who mostly made crappy horror movies and died half-forgotten, but Shadmi tells it truly and honestly, which is all anyone can do.

If you want a comics biography of Bela Lugosi, I don’t see that you could expect anything more comprehensive, fair, and thoughtful than this one.

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

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

I’ve mentioned the short story “Snow, Glass, Apples” before – it’s both one of Neil Gaiman’s best, most pointed short pieces and one of the most successful of the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling-inspired burst of revisionist fairy tales from the early 1990s. (I see that my memory was slightly false – I thought it originally appeared in one of the “Red As Blood” anthologies, but it was a standalone chapbook and then reprinted in the 1995 Datlow/Windling annual.)

As so often with successful things, it’s part of different clusters – all those anthologies of nasty fairy tales, first, and then more recently an odd program that seems to be trying to turn every one of Gaiman’s best stories into individual graphic novels. (See How to Talk to Girls at Parties  and Troll Bridge ; I’m pretty sure there have been several others that I missed.)

So, in 2019, Colleen Doran adapted “Snow, Glass, Apples” (the short story) into the standalone graphic novel Snow, Glass, Apples  – which is what I’ve just read. Like most of the “Neil Gaiman Library” and similar projects (the Coraline  adaptation, the two-volume Graveyard Book  adaptation.) that I’ve seen, it’s a very respectful adaptation, using as many of Gaiman’s original words as possible and just illustrating them rather than attempting to transform the prose story into something new.

Which, somewhat ironically, is the opposite of how Gaiman works when he adapts things – he’s always been deeply transformative – but he’s a Big Deal and his fans want Pure Gaiman, so I assume his editors and publishers know exactly what they’re doing.

Snow, Glass, Apples is thus pretty much exactly the short story, or at least very large chunks of the prose of that story (which is pretty short to begin with), illustrated in a detailed, mostly Art Nouveau style by Doran, on mostly flowing, panel-less pages full of gorgeous, evocative art. If you know the story, this is it, literalized and illustrated by Doran. If you don’t know the story, this is nearly as good a way to discover it. (I’m enough of a purist to insist on that “nearly” – the original precise prose is better.)

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

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 1 by Manu Larcenet

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 1 by Manu Larcenet

I may have this wrong, but here goes: Ordinary Victories is a series of four somewhat autobiographical bande dessinees by French cartoonist Manu Larcenet, originally published in French from 2003-2008 and published in two omnibuses in English soon afterward. The current English-language editions are back to being published individually, and seem to only be available in electronic formats. Their main character is a photojournalist named Marco Louis, and in the course of this first book he meets a woman, Emilie, who has a longer-term relationship with. (I also saw the second omnibus way back when, and wrote about it for ComicMix.)

At almost the same time – as in, starting the previous year, 2002, and putting out five volumes through 2008 – Larcenet also started a more specifically autobiographical series of books, Back to Basics, which he did with Jean-Yves Ferri. (See my posts on Back to Basics volumes one and two .) Basics features “Manu”, who looks almost exactly like “Marco” in Victories, but who is actually a cartoonist. Manu’s partner, “Mariette,” also bears a very close resemblance to “Emilie.”

I have the very strong suspicion that Victories is only very slightly less autobiographical than Basics, though it’s in a much more serious mode: this is more of a soul-searching “what should I do with my life” kind of story, while Basics is a lighter “moments from our crazy life out in a goofy rural town” story. I also think that Victories is largely about the years before Basics: they don’t tell the same story, or tell it in the same way, but, together, they tell two phases of Larcenet’s life.

So all that was in my head as I read this first book of Ordinary Victories : wondering how much of Manu is in Marco, and how much of Marco I could retroactively read into the Manu of Basics. But they are separate projects, in different genres: they may show complementary views of one life (or, maybe, they really don’t, and I’ve misunderstood), but they are still each their own things.

Marco is around thirty. He’s had a solid career, on the dangerous and unpleasant side of taking pictures professionally, but is on an extended break from it. He’s been seeing the same therapist for years, and thinks he’s “better” enough to stop now. But he’s starting to have panic attacks, for no obvious reason. This is the story of how he starts to move on from that moment – perhaps even more, he has to get to a point where he wants to move on. He has to see something in the future that he wants to change for, to move on from smoking “Big Fat Joints!” with his brother and thinking about how he used to work as a photographer.

Along the way, Victories is mostly a slice-of-life story. Marco sees his brother and his parents, he meets and starts dating Emilie, and he semi-regularly runs into an older man who lives near his new rural cottage. I’m not sure at all if this “rural” is the same “rural” as the Ravenelles of Basics – this could be two different ways of looking at basically the same move, or two stages of getting further away from the bustle of the big city. Or, again, they could be two different stories doing different things with some of the same material from Larcenet’s life.

By the end of Victories, Marco finally is ready to move out of his comfortable box. I won’t say why, or how – the way to learn that is to read the book. But he does it, and he does it in an interesting, believable way, and we the readers want to see Marco succeed: maybe not go back to being a photojournalist, but to find something to do with the rest of his life. And I plan to see how that plays out in the next book, and, probably, to re-read the back half of the series again a decade later to find out how Marco ends up and see how that all hangs together once I’ve started from the right place.

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

REVIEW: Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1, Volume 1

REVIEW: Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1, Volume 1

Star Trek has endured since 1966 largely in part to the creators refusing to speak down to their audiences. Whereas “The Cage”, the first pilot shot in 1964, was deemed “too cerebral” by NBC execs, the show that made it on air rarely stopped being thought-provoking. When the three season mission ended, its next iteration was on Saturday morning television, where, once again, the writers and production team refused to dumb things down.

The best that the universe first imagined by Gene Roddenberry does for the viewer is present allegories and mine the human condition, optimistically seeking the best way for humanity to act. Its positive message was a balm in the turbulent 1960s and has been needed ever since.

That explains why the latest entry, Star Trek: Prodigy is so good, as it furthers the human adventure through a fresh assortment of alien characters. Designed for younger audiences, it arrived in fall of 2021 on Paramount+ before airing on Nickelodeon, ensuring it reached the widest youthful audience possible. And for the first time, their technical consultant was focused more on STEM education than scientific accuracy (there was that, too).

Paramount Home Entertainment today is releasing Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1, Volume 1, the first ten episodes.  Normally, I object to splitting seasons into halves like this, seeing it as a cash grab. However, creatively, the series, given a two-season commitment, was designed into four ten-episode arcs, so this works.

The basic premise begins in the faraway Delta Quadrant where we meet six people trapped on the Tars Lemora prison colony. Overseeing the prisoners is The Diviner (John Noble), a tyrant if ever we’ve seen one. Things get rolling when he dispatches the robot Drednok (Jimmi Simpson) after the escaped Medusan Zero (Angus Imrie). Before long, another prisoner Dal (Brett Gray) gets to escape, encounters the Diviner’s daughter Gwyn (Ella Purnell), and we’re off. The search for Zero leads to a rock slide that reveals the long-buried Federation starship Protostar. Before long, Dal, Gwyn, Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), a Brikar; Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas), a Tellarite; and Murf, a Mellanoid slime worm, are aboard the ship, activate its engines and rocket off the world, with the Diviner’s forces in pursuit.

They don’t know one another, and no one understands how to operate the alien starship until they activate the ship’s training hologram, which is a recreation of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). Over the course of the first arc, they get to bond, learn how to operate the ship, and rocket ever closer to Federation space.

The stories are never less than imaginative with nice doses of action, drama, and humor, maintaining far better pacing than the overly frenetic other kids’ series Star Trek: Lower Decks. In the hands of series creators Kevin and Dan Hageman, they are abetted by writers Julie and Shawna Benson, Diandra Pendleton-Thompson, Chad Quandt, Aaron Waltke, Lisa Shoop Boyd, Nikhil Jayaram, Erin McNamara, and Keith Sweet.

Trek fans certainly will welcome the cameo appearances from beloved characters, from Spock (Leonard Nimoy in archival footage) to Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). When the real Vice Admiral Janeway turns up, there’s cause for rejoicing. The rest of the vocal cast is strong, with excellent work from Noble, Gray, and Purnell. Recurring vocal artists Jason Alexander (a major Trek fan), Billy Campbell, Ronny Cox, and Daveed Diggs keep things engaging.

The series is set in 2383, five years after Janeway’s Voyager safely returned from the Delta Quadrant and we’re told the show will reflect the galactic events of the era, so we’re just before the Romulan attack that burned Mars.

The package includes two Blu-ray discs and four collectible cards. The 1080p high definition transfer is excellent, preserving the rich colors of the universe and all the CGI wonderment. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is up to the challenge of recreating the fine music, familiar sound effects, and dialogue. There are multiple special features which are all worth a peek, notably The Kobayashi Maru and The Prime Directive. Other features include The Tradition, The Protostar Pack, Gadgets & Gear, and The Protostar.

The show is quite fun to watch and the computer animation gives the entire series a unique look and feel, without losing that Star Trek feel. If you haven’t caught the show by now, this is your chance.

REVIEW: Mimosa

REVIEW: Mimosa

By Archie Bongiovanni
Surely Books /272 pages/ $24.99

The world of graphic novels has expanded enough to accommodate material for every age, interest, and persuasion. It’s refreshing to see imprints arise to direct material to these specific audiences and one of the biggest splashes has come from Abrams; Surely Books, curated by Mariko Tamaki. In just year, the new line has commanded respect and praise for their releases.

The latest, coming in March, is Mimosa from Archie Bongiovanni. The writer/artist from Minneapolis has been contributing graphic literature since 2019 and has focused steadily on the queer world and the families formed.

What makes this story compelling is that it focuses on aging and remaining relevant as life moves on. We pick up on a quartet of friends who have been together for a decade, having found one another as waiters and staying together though meetups, breakups, and everything in between. But, as Chris nears 40, they feel disconnected from the queer sphere, struggling to make connections and find romance while co-parenting Pepper.

The others are not far behind as Alex continues to struggle to make it as a painter, Elise enters a risky inter-office romance, and Jo is a dome who also teaches at Queerrr Rock Camp. They meet for brunch, they have group chats and try to be there for one another, but it’s getting hard. One plan to improve their lives is to host Grind, a dance night for older members of the LBGTQ+ community and it becomes a success, but even that isn’t enough as personal issues intrude.

Bongiovanni leisurely takes us through their ups and downs, with the 40th birthday part looming in the distance. Until they get there, the four will argue, make up, ghost one another, and freak out when it’s least convenient. The nature of their friendships is put to the test and not everyone will remain connected by the time you reach the end.

As a cis-gender older white guy, I wasn’t sure if I would connect with anything here, but I get unrequited love, disastrous romances, and the struggles of raising a child. If any character comes up weak, its Pepper whose age is tough to pin down, coming across as very young at first and then a tween by the end. And as a teacher with more than a few LBGTQ+ students, I am conscious of their specific concerns. Bongiovanni does a fine job intertwining the storylines and showing us the depth of the relationships. The art is cruder than I like and minimal in its detail, but everything you need for comprehension is present. The black, white, and blue color scheme helps convey the melancholy and pain.

Some of the storytelling could have been condensed with entire pages given over to single images that don’t, in my opinion, need them. The pacing is causal enough to undercut some of the emotional impact of certain scenes.

The overall sense of community and the evolving nature of friendship and family is nicely explored as we get invested in the major characters and their own exes, coworkers, and new friends. Despite its raw sexual dialogue, this would be a fine read for teens entering this world.

Oddball by Sarah Andersen

Oddball by Sarah Andersen

So I kinda like Sarah Andersen’s cartoons, as discerning readers may have noticed [1]: she writes funny, she draws funny, and she has a quirky sensibility that means she tells goofy “I am an introvert” jokes that are familiar and relatable but not obvious. Just really good at the being-funny-in-public thing, with a distinct sensibility and viewpoint and art style.

Also, her books are short and breezy, which means they’re easy to pick up on a day when you feel like reading funny cartoons and not like diving into a whole thing of a graphic novel.

So: I think I’ve read all of her books in the past year, and am now caught up. (They’re all short, so it’s not like it was difficult in any way – and, again, each one is fun and breezy and funny.) Cryptid Club , which came out about a month ago, was the most recent, and I just caught up with the fourth collection of her main “series” Sarah’s Scribbles, Oddball .

This book is very much like the previous Sarah’s Scribbles collections – Adulthood Is a Myth, Big Mushy Happy Lump and Herding Cats – with a little over a hundred single-page comics about a cartoon version of Sarah doing her daily-life thing, presumably just that big more awkwardly and amusingly than the real Andersen does. If you like any of them, you’ll like all of them. If you can’t stand any of them – I could characterize why you don’t like them, but humor is a taste, so it could be any reason – then you’ll probably dislike them all.

This one is the Pandemic Book: it was published in 2021 (though there’s at least one cartoon with a looming “2022” in it, so I think it came out late in ’21 and some of it was done right near deadline) and some of it deals with the expected “I hate having to go out in public and see human beings, but now I am forbidden to do that and have mixed feelings” stuff. But that’s a minor strain – it’s mostly the same kind of jokes, focusing on the Sarah character, who as always I hope is a really exaggerated-for-effect version of Andersen herself. (If any of us were the ways we try to amusingly portray ourselves, the world would be even wackier than it is.)

Anyway. I like this. I think it’s funny, and that Andersen is a big talent. I’m excited to see her do more tightly-themed books like Fangs and Cryptid Club, since I think those will give her more runway to do more complex jokes (and even story-like things, if she wants to), but her core funny comics are still swell, too. This is a good book for a day when you just want a pick-me-up.

[1] Assuming you’ve seen my posts about (in reverse chronological order) Cryptid Club , Herding Cats , Big Mushy Happy Lump , Fangs , and/or Adulthood Is a Myth .

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

Colonel Weird: Cosmagog by Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook

Colonel Weird: Cosmagog by Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook

I have to admit: I continue to be amazed at just how much bread Jeff Lemire can spread with so little butter (in Bilbo’s phrase) over the course of his Black Hammer books. There’s a resolute insistence to never ever move beyond the initial setup of the story, even in this twelfth (!) collection.

Colonel Weird: Cosmagog , is, I guess, a single-character side story – looking at the previous book, Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy , I laid out a three-part structure for the books to date, but this one manages to create its own fourth category – but, more importantly, it’s a book in which absolutely nothing at all happens. [1]

Now, plenty of books can have nothing happening. Some can even have nothing happening for over a hundred pages. But doing that in a superhero story is something impressive. Cosmagog is entirely a story of Weird moping about in time and space until he remembers something we the reader always knew – but Lemire hopes we overlooked while reading this book – and then, because of that, he stops moping. 

Oh, we get moments that are new, since even Lemire can’t do without that. So we see Weird at various ages – kid Randy, crew-cut ’50s science hero, hippie ’70s counterculture hero, crazy burnout ’80s hero fighting Antigod, crazy burnout ??? hero as the “current-day” version – doing things, and he bounces among those versions of himself, semi-randomly, until there are enough pages to make this book (and, before that, the four individual issues that comprise it).

But nearly all of the things we see him do are either things we already know, like fighting Antigod or discovering the the Para-Zone. The new moments are either banal – kid Randy buys a soda! he gets bullied! – or implied by what we’ve already seen – hippie ’70s Weird floats in place and dispenses peace and love platitudes to his adoring hippie fans!

We could have seen what the hippie version did – surely he had some goofy villains, right? We could have seen how he burned out to be the wild-haired old man of the Event. We could have even gotten moments of the strong-thewed Weird reveling in his new Para-Powers to fight ’50s aliens. Weird has a lot of holes in his life-story; there’s room for a lot of stories.

But Lemire, in the Black Hammer books, seems to have an allergic reaction to stories: he avoids them whenever possible to instead pivot to showing the same few moments once again.

I’m still vague if Weird has come unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim or knows everything simultaneously like Dr. Manhattan: sometimes it feels like one, sometimes the other. Maybe it’s a Manhattan-esque cause with a Pilgrim-esque outcome; Weird is much more like the latter than the former, for one thing, no matter what he knows or how he knows it. Either way, he’s a deeply passive character from the get-go: he does very little in the best of times, and is hugely confused by all of it all of the time.

Again, making what is basically a senile old man the hero of a superhero comic is a bold strategy, and I have to appreciate that, even as I have to admit it’s not actually a good idea.

Tyler Crook draws all of that cleanly, all of those familiar remixed moments with all of those varying versions of Weird, in a bright style that makes each Weird distinct – I could swear I can even tell the difference between crazy-fighting-Antigod Weird and crazy-post-Farm Weird, which is a trick. His style is subtly different for each one: science-hero Weird often has Tintin-esque dot eyes, for example. From the credit, he seems to be responsible for the entire visual presentation: art and color and letters; it’s all him. He gets all the kudos for that; his visual storytelling is excellent here.

I don’t know why anyone would want to make this story, other than “Dark Horse is willing to pay me for another four-issue Black Hammer series; maybe I can redo the same thing one more time.” It is utterly unnecessary, and the end is faintly insulting to the reader. (Either you saw it coming, and the book is pointless, or you didn’t, and you feel attacked by such a simple trick.)

But it exists, and even further Black Hammer books exist, and my guess is that they continue to spiral ever tighter and tighter into the same few moments. And, as long as I can keep getting them from libraries, I will keep poking at them, because I find this bizarrely fascinating.

[1] Admittedly, plot has been thinner on the ground in the main Black Hammer series than one would expect, since the very beginning. If you’re interested, the first book was (of course) Secret Origins .

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

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The multi-talented Ty Templeton wrote a Christmas song this year, and since it’s Christmas Eve, you get to hear it. Put this into your musical rotation tonight, enjoy, and have a safe and Merry Christmas!