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REVIEW: Contagion

REVIEW: Contagion

In 2011, I watched Contagion and found it a gripping thriller with an all-star cast–Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, and Gwyneth Paltrow–then promptly stopped thinking about it. I was, though, reminded of it in 2021 when the global pandemic became a reality.

And yet, Warner Home Entertainment skipped the obvious 10th anniversary in favor of finally releasing the 4K Ultra HD edition. It’s a stunning disc and well worth your attention.

From director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns, we have a now-eerily familiar situation that a weary world is hardly prepared for. As the camera casually pans across the empty spaces and we see only masked faces, it feels more like memory than fiction. We can admire how accurately they projected what a modern pandemic might be like and you would have thought more people would have paid attention back then and made us all better prepared for what is now clearly the inevitable.

PR executive Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), returns from Asia, and brings with her a disease that was already spreading. A flashback at the end shows how it all innocently started with…a bat. Her husband, Damon, is the character we follow through the various lot threads as the world rapidly spirals out of control. Dr. Leonora Orantes, Cotillard’s WHO epidemiologist, comes from Europe to study the disease and her outsider status rubs people the wrong way and also is discordant with the rest of the narrative.

We’re far enough away from our real-world life-changing circumstances to once again watch the film, but with fresh eyes and knowing nods of the head. Overall, it’s a compelling story with many strong performances.

The studio’s 2160p/HDR10 transfer is superb and an improvement over the previous Blu-ray edition. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is fine, although can’t keep up with the visual. Not that most of us would notice.

The release offers just the 4K and a Digital HD code, repackaging the 2012 special features while adding nothing new, which is a missed opportunity.  For the record, these include The Reality of Contagion (11:00), The Contagion Detectives (5:00), and How a Virus Changes the World (2:00).

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

We are all haunted by history, one way or another. For some, it’s personal; for others, it’s public. After the 20th century we had, for all too many it’s both, intertwined.

Tessa Hulls is in her thirties, the second child of two first-generation immigrants to the US, brought up in a tiny Northern California town where she and her brother were  the only people at all like them. Her mother Rose is mixed-race, born in tumultuous 1950 Shanghai to a Swiss diplomat who had already run back home before the birth and a Chinese journalist, Sun Yi, who thought she could weather any storm.

Hulls tells the story of all three women, over the last hundred years, in Feeding Ghosts , a magnificent, impressive first graphic novel all about the ways Tessa and Rose, and Sun Yi before them, are haunted by history.

Hulls is the one telling the story, and that frames it all: she has those core American concerns of “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” Making it more complicated, she’s here exploring her Chinese identity as the daughter of two generations of Chinese women who had children with European men, and as someone raised in America entirely in the English language.

One more thing: one very big thing. Sun Yi was moderately famous: she escaped China for Hong Kong in the late 1950s, when Rose was a child, and wrote a scandalous memoir of her life under the Communist upheavals of the previous decade. She got her daughter, Rose, accepted into a very highly regarded boarding school in Hong Kong, despite not really having the money to pay for it. And then she mentally collapsed. Sun Yi spent the next two decades in and out of mental hospitals and was eventually cared for by her daughter in America starting in 1977, when Rose was 27. Rose spent her teen years in that boarding school, alternately worrying about her mother’s care and being molded to be part of an internationalist elite. And then Rose fled to America, first for college, then for a brief nomadic freedom that her daughter would eventually emulate.

Let me pull that all together: Tessa Hulls, whom a lot of Americans would cruelly call “one-quarter Chinese,” grew up in a town with no other Chinese people. Just a mother, quirky and specific and tightly controlled, the kind of mother who has Rules for everything that are rarely said explicitly, never explained, seemingly arbitrary, and core to her concept of the world. And a grandmother, trapped in her own head, scribbling every day as if she was eternally re-writing that famous memoir, and speaking only the smallest bits of broken English. That mother and grandmother spoke a different language together – I think mostly the dialect of Shanghai – which they never taught Tessa. “Chinese” was that language, that mysterious past, the symbol for all that was hidden and frightening and different for Hulls growing up.

Hulls has a lot to get through in Feeding Ghosts: a lot of family history and related world history, a lot of nuance and cultural detail that she learned as she was researching her family’s past. She tells it all mostly in sequence, after a brief prologue, but “Tessa Hulls” is present throughout, our narrator and filter, the voice telling us how she learned the story almost as much as she tells the story itself. This is a story unearthed and told, not something pretending to be purely dry and factual. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s primarily about Tessa’s journey, how she decided to figure out this tangled knot of her family history, to do it with her mother as much as possible, to reconcile the two of them and try to come to a place here they could better meet and understand each other.

Hull’s pages are organic, specific, inky. She uses swirling white outlines on a black background as a visual element regularly – the pull of all of those ghosts, if you want to be reductive – to open and close chapters, and more subtly in the backgrounds of fraught moments.

One of the hallmarks of a great big book is that it leaves you wanting to know more. I was enthralled by the stories of young Sun Yi and Rose, and how Tessa learned what they did and what it meant. (The latter is the more important thing, in an ancient, rule-bound, formalistic society like China – maybe even more so in a time of such transition and upheaval as the early Communist years.) But I felt that she was less forthcoming about her own youth. This is very much a story of these three women, but I wondered about other figures: Hulls’s father is almost entirely absent, signposted as a British man with a thicker accent than Rose and seen only a handful of times. And Tessa’s brother, just one year older, growing up in this same house and environment, is even less present – did he feel any of these pressures? Or was this so much a matrilineal thing, tied into those cultural assumptions of what men and women do, that he was able to “be American” in ways more closed to Tessa?

But that’s not the story Hulls is telling. And every story casts shadows: the story that-is dimly showing flickers of other stories that could have been, or might yet be. The brightest, most brilliant stories cast the clearest shadows – that may be why I wonder so much about Hull’s father and brother; they’re dark, mysterious shadows just outside the circle of these three women, brilliantly illuminated and seen in depth.

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

Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith!

Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith!

Sometimes there’s a creator whose work you like, and you keep checking to see if they have anything new, and they just don’t. For a decade or two. You’re pretty sure they’re still out there, and you hope they’re doing something fun and interesting. You may have the secret hope, most famously centered around J.D. Salinger, that the creator is just piling up lots of Good Stuff, kept unpublished for idiosyncratic reasons, and you will eventually get to see all of that on some glorious future day.

Michael T. Gilbert is one of those, for me. I liked his Mr. Monster stories both in the ’80s, with goofy, near-parody humor/horror style, and in the ’90s, when he retooled in a more serious mode for an “Origins” series. And I gather he’s had some random Mr. Monster stories since then, but nothing regular. I keep hoping there will be a book, since I mostly read books these days, but that seems unlikely. (I gather most of Gilbert’s comics work for the last two decades has been scripting Disney comics for European publishers – nice work if you can get it, but apparently completely unseen in his own homeland.)

But I did just see Michael T. Gilbert’s The Complete Wraith! , which collects the major work he did before Mr. Monster, in the late ’70s. And I’ll take what I can get.

Wraith is an anthropomorphic version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, created as such to be a feature in the all-anthropomorphic anthology series Quack! in 1976. Quack! had six issues, with eight Wraith stories, over the next two years, and there was one more Wraith story in a 1982 solo Gilbert comic – add in a new comics introduction featuring Mr. Monster, some explanatory text-and-photo pieces between the stories, and extensive story notes from Gilbert, and you have this book. It’s designed well, and showcases what does seem to be the entirely complete Wraith: it’s a model of what a book like this should be.

On the story side, Gilbert is very clearly aping Eisner, in story structure, twists, ironic reversals, and even cast. That’s not a bad model, since Eisner’s Spirit was a lot more ambitious than it might look, and Gilbert is always entertaining here, even if not all of the stories make full use of the Eisnerian materials.

Gilbert was already experimenting with washes and Craftint and other texture and background effects that I can’t really describe adequately – I’m no artist, or a serious scholar of comics art. But his pages, even at the very beginning of this book, were carefully constructed, from panel layout to art tools to textures, and towards the middle of the book, it begins to look pretty much the same as Gilbert’s mature Mr. Monster style. (And, aside from the first story, which is pretty thin, the storytelling holds up as well, too – they’re short kicker stories about a dog adventurer in an Eisnerian world, admittedly, but they do good work within that tight structure.)

This is a fun ’70s exercise, collecting energetic work from a then-young creator working out some of his influences and seeing how different kinds of stories can work on paper for him. It’s not a lost classic, and the tone is pretty different from both Mr. Monster eras, for anyone looking for more of that. Oh, and he gets testy if you call him “Wrath,” which I expect a lot of readers did. With that in mind, this is a lot of fun, presented in a well-made package.

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

REVIEW: Fall Through

REVIEW: Fall Through

Fall Through

By Nate Powell

Abrams ComicArts, 192 pages, $24.99

Artist Nate Powell gained international acclaim for his work on the March trilogy of graphic novels recounting the life and career of the much-missed John Lewis. However, he is more than just that; he’s an acclaimed writer/artist, as seen in the just-released Fall Through.

Powell is celebrating the punk aesthetic from the late 1970s and early 1980s, set somewhere between the Ramones and the arrival of the New Wave sound. It’s a narrow slice of music history since the beloved Ramones started in 1974, and New Wave may have first appeared with the Talking Heads in 1977, a year before part of this story is set. He traces the rise of Diamond Mine, a small quartet that struggles to get from gig to gig as they attempt to be Arkansas’ first punk band.

While that would have been interesting enough for a story, he layers on the fact that they have crafted a song that propels them through time and space to alternate realities and it then becomes a search for home. They arrive in 1994 and want to get back to 1978 without a pair of silver slippers in sight.While the marketing calls it “Love and Rockets meets Russian Doll”,  I call it needlessly confusing. Powell vividly presents the power of music, adding in a layer of lightning to accompany their thrashing. It’s a visually interesting story if the narrative doesn’t quite connect.Of the four characters, vocalist Diana is perhaps the best delineated. It’s her powerful song “Fall Through” that sends them everywhere. Interestingly, this isn’t her story, but it’s Jody, the band’s bassist, who emerges as the protagonist. With the encouragement of her father, she leaves home with her bass, and hooks up with the others, forming the group. Unfortunately, she’s not particularly well-defined, and the other members of the band, Napoleon and Steff, come across with barely acknowledged wants and needs. We get glimpses of what’s on her mind through her tour diary, which spaces six weeks for her, and years for everyone else.

I don’t mind a good circular story (I really enjoy Russian Doll), but visually, it’s hard to parse which reality we’re in or what time period. Had Powell stuck with the punk community the band encounters across the country and the power of music. This could have been a significantly stronger narrative.

REVIEW: Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar

REVIEW: Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar

Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar very much wants to be one of the plethora of low-budget 1970s knock offs of Star Wars riding the comet tail of that phenomenon. It’s just not bad enough to be lumped in with Bartle Beyond the Stars or the 3-D mess of Spacehunters. Nor is it good enough to be a thoughtful low-budget meditation on the soul. It falls in between and is quickly forgotten the moment you turn off the DVD of the 2022 release, out now from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Late in the 30th century, mankind has somehow managed to survive the contemporary mess we’ve made of ourselves and has even managed to find a way to preserve the human soul, reducing it to a blue goo. The catch is that it’s expensive, so only the top 1% of the 1% can afford it, although starship captain Kip Corman (Michael Paré), a scavenger eking out a living, won’t let that stop him. He’s recently lost his wife and wants her essence poured into an android. With his daughter Taylor (Sarah French), they search for credits and the legendary Deepstar, where his salvation awaits.

This quest occupies the bulk of the film, as any story adhering to the three-act structure demands, and here there are some interesting obstacles, such as pirate Dykstra (Olivier Gruner). They even encounter an interesting scientist, Jackie (Anahit Setian), who promises them the starship’s location in exchange for their protection.

Based on what we’re shown, the future is shinier but nowhere near as advanced as one would have hoped. The costumes and sets are okay while the CGI effects get the job done.

Paré was on the cusp of stardom in the 80s with features like the underrated Streets of Fire, and here, he’s an older but engaging leading man. The relationship between him and French show some genuine warmth. However, they’re stuck with mediocre dialogue from Joe Knetter and Garo Setian, with the latter directing in an adequate, if unimaginative, manner. The rest of the cast are less talented and without stronger material to work from, fill the screen, and keep things moving.

The film is available as a DVD only and comes with a fine 1080p digital transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. Neither are great, nor do they need to be given the content.

There are a reasonable number of Special Features including Commentary from director Garo Setian, screenwriter Joe Knetter, and stars Anahit Setian and Sarah French. Additionally, there are four Deleted Scenes (5:29), the inevitable Bloopers (4:15), and the Trailer (1:34).

REVIEW: The End we Start From

REVIEW: The End we Start From

Climate change has become the Go To dystopia for stories these days, each with an apocalyptic feel, showing little hope for humanity. Paramount released the film adaptation of Megan Hunter’s novel The End We Start From, the latest such installment, in December. Now available for streaming rental, the film, starring Jodie Comer, explores the aftermath of such a climate incident.

Water rushes from the skies, flooding ensures, and soon towns and cut off and cities can’t cope. England is submerged (the rest of the world’s fate is left up in the air) and the Woman (Comer), finds herself giving birth without any of the usual medical support. When we first see her, she’s in a bathtub as the rains fall outside so there’s no escape. The graphic birth shows the stakes she  and her partner R (Joel Fry) face in not only their survival but of the infant.

Thankfully, they make it out of London and are briefly ensconced in his parent’s home in a village located on higher ground. But supply chains have been wrecked, food and tempers run short, and they find themselves separated.

What follows is a largely episodic film, directed by Mahalia Belo, from Alice Birch’s script, following Woman’s struggle to stay sheltered and keep the infant safe. Along the way, she finds O (Katherine Waterston), with her own two-month-old. They bond and work to survive together against increasingly bleak odds.

There is an almost monotonous pacing to the film, as we see man’s humanity toward fellow man, leavened here and there with genuine acts of kindness. Still, so much of the emotional weight is carried by Comer, who gives a strong performance There is conflict, but nothing she can’t seem to navigate so she’s not challenged and we’re left lulled.

We never get to know Woman, or her relationship with R. Her friendship with O is the warmest part of the narrative, set against gray skies and damp environs. She survives, which isn’t a spoiler, but the world she is left to raise her child in is a cautionary one.


REVIEW: Special Ops: Lioness

REVIEW: Special Ops: Lioness

Paramount+ was called, by some, the Star Trek channel when it first launched, but it rapidly was changed to the Taylor Sheridan channel, as his various series fuel their original programming slate. Thankfully, they are different and distinct, each with its own genre.

After conquering the modern and historic Western, he gave us the gritty Mayor of Kingstown and Sly Stallone’s Tulsa King. Then, this fall, came Special Ops: Lioness, an international espionage story that was (finally) female-centric.

The premise for the ten-episode show is based on a real CIA program, “Team Lioness,” from a Marine Corps program, “created to grant the Marine Corps closer access to women involved in potential terrorist plots,” according to Collider. The female Marines could search for potential female threats and form bonds in Iran and Afghanistan that their religious beliefs kept them apart from men.

Sheridan took things one step further, with the Lioness team actually embedding a Marine, Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), close to an Iranian daughter of their target, the moneyman behind Iran’s terrorist activities. Each team had a searcher and a guardian angel, with the latter being the hardened Joe (Zoe Saldaña), and her support troops.

There is a tense relationship between Manuelos, who had a hard life before enlisting, and Joe, who distances herself from her husband (David Anabele) and two daughters. Who watches the watcher? The ubiquitous Nicole Kidman fills that role back at Langley, and she reports to Morgan Freeman, so the cast is stellar.

The story traces Manuelos’ recruitment into the program and hurried training, and then we see her befriend the mark, Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), about to be married, bringing her elusive father into the public eye (and target scope of Manuelos’ rifle, they hope).

There are some digressions that feel like filler to stretch out the story and tension across the episodes. Still, the domestic and international stories are riveting, and Sheridan’s hallmark of never leaving his characters undamaged effectively continues here. Manuelos’s arc is the most compelling as she is pushed way beyond her comfort zone, forming a social and then romantic entanglement with Aaliyah.

The series may or may not be back for a second go, but Paramount Home Entertainment has released Special Ops: Lioness Season One in a three-disc Blu-ray package. No 4K or digital HD code, but each disc has special features.

The 1080p digital transfer is fine, if unspectacular, good for home viewing. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack is an equal match.

As for the features, on the first disc you get Behind the Story: Sacrificial Soldiers (7:21), The Beating (7:14), and Bruise Like a Fist (4:11). On disc two: The Choice of Failure (6:16), Truth Is the Shrewdest Lie (4:29), and The Lie Is the Truth (7:43); and on disc three: Wish the Fight Away (7:25) and Gone Is the Illusion of Order (7:30). There is also Embedded with Special Ops: Lioness (21:38), a behind-the-scenes exploration, Battle Forged Calm: Tactics & Training (9:02), and Inside the Series (19:00) with LaMonica Garrett, who plays Tucker, leading us through more background.

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.