Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: CDB! and CDC? by William Steig

One of my favorite books when I was a child was CDB! by William Steig. It was full of black and white drawings, each captioned by a series of letters which, when read aloud, would sound like a phrase or sentence: for example, "CDB!" translates into "See the bee!" Some were pretty straightforward, but some were trickier; the simple, narrative illustrations helped you to decode the captions.

I remember finding the book on a bottom shelf of my neighborhood library. I seem to recall feeling vaguely uneasy about checking it out, as if the book was for "littler kids" than I was (even though I was still very young, myself). After all, I was already reading full sentences, and here was a book that only used letters, not even real words! But I was still fascinated with it, and I've remembered it ever since.

Several months ago, I was amazed to discover that Steig also created a sequel, CDC? I hadn't known about it, but that is probably because it wasn't published until 1984, when I was a high school senior. I requested both books from the library, curious to see what they would be like now, four decades after I first read CDB!

My first shock came with the appearance of the pages. Steig added watercolor to CDB! in 2000, and to CDC? in 2003. So the stark, diagrammatic pictures in my memory here were a bit softer and more gentle. And some of the deciphering was probably just as challenging now as it was when I was a child. I didn't recall there being complex "words," but here they were, especially with names, such as "L-X-&-R." And letters can sometimes sound like different words: S can be either "is" or "yes," depending on context.

Both books are very similar, although CDC?, apart form being about 20 pages longer than its predecessor, contains more grown-up characters, situations, and vocabulary. In one instance, a middle-aged man with a pipe sits and looks at another man, bearded and wild-eyed, who holds bits of a broken chair in his hands. The caption? "M I B-N 2 V-M-N?"

Each book contains, on its final page, an "answer key." I only really needed it once, for an instance in CDC?: what in the world could "D-P" stand for? Turns out it means "dippy." (The slangier the coinages, the more difficult they become to decipher.)

I had a lot of fun re-encountering a childhood friend and meeting its sibling after all this time. They weren't "beneath" me at all. S X-L-R-8-10!

by William Steig
Aladdin, 2003
ISBN-10: 0689857063
ISBN-13: 978-0689857065
48 pages, $7.99

by William Steig
Square Fish, 2008
ISBN-10: 0312380127
ISBN-13: 978-0312380120
64 pages, $8.99

Review: Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo

A very personal account of the successful attempt to map the genome of a Neanderthal, humanity's closest evolutionary link. Svante Pääbo, the project's lead researcher, necessarily mixes autobiography with procedural descriptions, with his history as a scientist and as a person informing and guiding his quest for what appears at first an impossible goal.

What the non-scientist reader (i.e., me) takes away from this book is a much clearer understanding of the ins and outs of the scientific method. Occasionally Pääbo comes upon a valuable insight through sudden inspiration, but much more often, insight arrives only through teamwork, and only after much trial and error (with a big emphasis on the error). Success in this massive and complex project came only after years of painstaking group effort, characterized by mysteries to solve, blind alleys to back out of, assumptions to re-consider, and techniques to continually refine or, sometimes, abandon.

While my eyes did glaze over at times when the science got extremely detailed, those occasions were few, and probably not Pääbo's fault - even the hard science here is presented carefully and clearly, and I found myself understanding a lot more of the specifics than I had assumed I might. (I soon learned not to bother checking the endnotes, as they consist almost entirely of journal article title references - essential for readers who wish to track the intricacies of each new research development, but they contain no real discursive content. The meat of the book is in the text itself.)

Pääbo does an admirable job of communicating both the substance and the struggle of science; politics and personalities mix with publishing and perseverance. In Neanderthal Man we learn about both an evolutionary cousin and what it takes to do successful science.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
by Svante Pääbo

Basic Books, 2014
288 pages, $27.99
ISBN-10: 0465020836
ISBN-13: 978-0465020836

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo,
with a Blueberry Hill Lager from Samuel Adams.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Great War, by Joe Sacco, with an essay by Adam Hochschild

With The Great War - July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, An Illustrated Panorama, comics journalist Joe Sacco has created a single, 24-foot-long gatefold image which re-creates the events of this day of battle across time and space. Surrounded by two hard covers, the gatefold image comes in a slipcase which also includes a booklet with an author's note and annotations by Sacco, as well as an essay ("July 1, 1916") by historian Adam Hochschild.

Technically, Sacco's image is a tour de force, utilizing shifting perspectives to create the illusion of a single image while also presenting a chronological narrative of the battle's stages. The amount of detail Sacco includes is staggering, including scores--no, hundreds!--of soldiers, and mazes of trenches that seem to go on for miles. Explosions, debris, and devastation abound, and the passage of time allows us to contrast the idyllic pre-battle landscape to the horrific aftermath.

I was intellectually impressed by Sacco's artistic achievement, but it is only Hochschild's essay that really devastates on an emotional level. I already knew that the First World War, that horribly mis-named "War to End All Wars," was a ridiculous waste of human life,;but Hochschild's essay covering the myriad details of this particular battle--the blindly hubristic plans, the utterly devastating results--really drives the point home in ways that not even Sacco's massively detailed panorama can achieve.

The artwork is stunning technically, but without Sacco's annotations and Hochschild's essay, I'm not sure how affecting the end result would be. Actually, I do, and the answer is that it would appeal a lot to my eyes and brain, but much less so to my heart. Sacco's image needed to be a part of this complete package; the panorama alone, impressive as it is, is not enough to drive home the point Sacco strives for. Which he himself acknowledges in his introduction:
Making this illustration wordless made it impossible for me to provide context or add explanations. I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths. ("On the Great War," Author's Note, p. 2)
Design-wise, The Great War is an impressive package, even if the panorama itself is an unwieldy read (but how could it not be, unless it were mounted along a wall?). One bravura touch it how the book begins and ends. The first image on what would normally be the front endpaper is a close-up drawing by Sacco of the famous Lord Kitchener WWI recruitment poster, followed by the title page; the rest of the book is the panorama itself, which extends all the way to what would normally be the back endpaper. In that final portion of the image, we see soldiers digging and filling graves. So the design leads us rhetorically from heavily romanticized recruitment to the devastating, utter finality of death. The end.

Make war no more!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Service Interruption: Use Alternate Route

It's been a few months since I've posted a review here, but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading and reviewing books! It's just that I've been podcasting instead of typing. Many weeks ago I was invited by Derek Royal to sit in for "an episode or two" of The Comics Alternative ("Two guys with PhDs talking about comics!") while his regular co-host Andy Kunka was unavailable. Well, "one or two" episodes soon multiplied, and now, even though Andy is now back in the fold, the Two Guys have invited me to be a permanent addition to the show.

So, to keep up with my verbal comics reviews, along with the interviews that I help conduct with artists and writers, you can follow the Comics Alternative updates I post at my other blog, Comics Research and Such. Or, just subscribe to the Comics Alternative podcast!

And I haven't forgotten about this blog. I have a few non-comics books waiting to be reviewed right now, and I plan to get those up here sooner rather than later.

Happy reading!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey (a parody), by Camaren Subhiyah and Kyle Hilton

It's an intriguing idea for a mash-up: Take the severely reserved characters of the incredibly popular Downton Abbey ITV (and PBS) television series, and re-imagine their story (already tinged with political overtones), changing many of those characters to secret agents. Seems like a can't-miss premise for wacky genre fun, right? And it almost is.

While it's primarily the working-class characters who get to be secret agents, the upper-class characters are almost invariably portrayed as superficial simpletons (Richard Crawhill, Earl of Granville, being the most ridiculous of the ridiculous here). This characterization helps sell the class-conscious narrative, of course, although the parody does descend to some very silly depths. For instance, the inheritance question lying at the center of Downton Abbey here gets an additional wrinkle: if the Crawhills' pregnant dog Sweetsie has a male pup, he will inherit Devonton, and then Lady Margaret won't need to marry Cousin Martin after all. And so on.

Artist Kyle Hilton's character likenesses are usually spot-on, so much so that, except in rare instances, it really does look like you're "watching" a lost episode of the series. Alas, writer Camaren Subhiyah's script isn't content simply to mash-up two genres; instead, it adds strong science-fiction and fantasy aspects to the plot as well, involving elaborate pseudo-scientific gadgetry, the Philosopher's Stone, special mental and physical powers, and more. Oh, and Gates & Co. manage to avert the onset of World War I in the bargain.

It all just seems a bit too over-the-top. The SF aspects threaten to divert the plot too far from parody into, dare I say it, originality. I guess I was looking for something a bit more comfortable in this parody. Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey might have been better served by disguising its Downton-debt and simply telling its original story on its own merits. Although I wonder if it would have been published at all in that case...

Agent Gates and the Secret Adventures of Devonton Abbey (A Parody)
by Camaren Subhiyah and Kyle Hilton
Andrews McMeel 2013
ISBN-10: 1449434347
ISBN-13: 978-1449434342
128 pages, $14.99

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: FF vol. 2: The Supremor Seed, by Hickman, Tocchini, Epting, Kitson et al.

Collecting issues #6-11 of the first run of the title FF (which temporarily replaced Fantastic Four), this book continues a cosmic epic begun in who knows which other comics, Fantastic Four or otherwise. Briefly: The Future Foundation (the remnants of the Fantastic Four after the Human Torch has died, plus Spider-Man, plus Dragon-Man, plus Reed Richards' father, plus Reed and Sue's children, plus assorted other younger characters) team up with a bevy of their greatest villains (including Doctor Doom and several others) to stop renegade Reeds from different dimensions from taking over all of everything. At the same time, the Inhumans return from exile. And various mayhems ensue.

Growing up in the 1970s, I always loved the Fantastic Four - I benefited from being able to read the current issues of the title as well as much of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run thanks to the Marvel's Greatest Comics reprint title - and consequently I like to peek in every once in a while to see what's being done with the characters. FF vol. 2 has some interesting moments of characterization, but the plot intricacies rely too heavily on deep continuity knowledge which I don't possess, and which the book itself fails to provide; the Inhumans' storyline in particular is nearly impenetrable, even with an entire issue featuring just them, without a single appearance of the title team. Also, the switch in art styles more than midway through is jarring.

It's a shame, because I did like the book in places. But too much remains unsaid, relying either on previous plot knowledge or too heavily on the art to convey narrative nuances that simply aren't there without accompanying text. The story was, I'm sure, more rewarding to those weekly comics-shop readers who followed several titles as they were published, and who were therefore able to see connections only hinted at in these pages. FF vol 2 is a prime example of a "stand-alone" graphic novel that doesn't.

FF vol. 2: The Supremor Seed
By  Jonathan Hickman, Greg Tocchini, Steve Epting, Barry Kitson et al.
Marvel Comics, 2011
ISBN-10: 0785157697
ISBN-13: 978-0785157694
144 pages, $24.99

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: The Monsters' Monster, by Patrick McDonnell

Patrick McDonnell, the cartoonist behind the already-classic comic strip Mutts, has created a picturebook about monsters whose bad behaviors are very much like those of this book's potential audience. "Who could complain the loudest? Who could throw the most terrible tantrum? Who was the most miserable?" Their most fiendish plot of all involves creating another monster, one whom they hope will be the most terrifying of all. But this Monster (a chunky, cartoonified version of Boris Karloff's portrayal of the Frankenstein monster) has other ideas. I won't give it all away, but I will note that jelly donuts play a part.

McDonnell's artwork is, as always, loose and playful and highly expressive. Little two-headed Gloom 'n' Doom is especially hilarious to watch throughout. The text is clever and a bit sing-songy in places, perfect for reading aloud. And the book's gentle lesson will warm the heart of any little (or big) monster.

"Dank you," Patrick McDonnell.

The Monster's Monster
by Patrick McDonnell
Lttle, Brown, 2012
ISBN-10: 0316045470
ISBN-13: 978-0316045476
40 pages, $16.99