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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Black Paths, by David B.

David B. is one of my favorite cartoonists: His lush drawings brim over with bold design work, mythological references, and symbolic energy. Epileptic, his account of growing up with a brother who suffered from grand mal seizures and his family's attempts to cope with the situation, remains one of the finest non-fiction graphic novels I've ever read. My French is very poor, but back when I had access to French-language comics I would buy anything with his name on it, just to luxuriate in his imagery, even when my understanding of his verbal nuances was lacking.

Black Paths is a fictionalized account of the Free State of Fiume after the First World War, told mostly through the eyes of Lauriano, a young writer who suffers from his experiences in WWI, and Mina, a French cabaret singer. The book is utterly beautiful: B.'s artwork sings with the addition of color (most of his earlier work I'd encountered was in black and white only), and--as usual for him but unusually for most cartoonists--there are many passages where impressionistic images and non-standard design and layout create beautifully dream-like moments.

However, the ins and outs of political intrigue have never held much appeal to me, and such matters are the meat of this book. Perhaps I simply wasn't in the right mood when I read it, but I could never seem to connect with the narrative in a meaningful way. I am convinced that the fault lies with me, not with the cartoonist, though. One day I'll give this book another chance, which it deserves. It's a bravura exercise in cartooning, but on a subject matter I couldn't seem to relate to. This time.

Black Paths
by David B.
Self Made Hero, 2011
ISBN-10: 190683833X
ISBN-13: 978-1906838331
128 pages, $24.95

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Spider-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.

The reason this book exists is the very reason that so many people find it hard to "get" superhero comics. Briefly? There's another "Marvel Universe"* outside the regular one with all the heroes you probably know (from the movies if nowhere else**). This "Ultimate universe" has the same heroes, mostly, although with sometimes subtle, other times profound differences. Perhaps the biggest difference is that "Ultimate" Spider-Man--a youthful Peter Parker--died. In the Ultimate universe, at least so far, dead means dead (unlike the regular Marvel Universe, where people die and come back to life over and over, like clockwork). But before too long, Miles Morales, a thirteen-year-old mixed-race youth, gained spider-powers and assumed the mantle of Spider-Man. These two universes existed side-by-side on the comics store shelves for a dozen years, but until Spider-Men, there had never been a cross-over story bringing them together.

If you're confused, you probably don't read superhero comics all that regularly. And therefore, Spider-Men might not be the book for you to start with. Writer Brian Michael Bendis (who's scribed Ultimate Spider-Man from day one) does his best to set the stage(s) for this event: we get a very clear idea of who Peter Parker is, and a somewhat less-clear but still revealing portrait of Miles Morales. The first chapter opens with a several-page monologue by Peter/Spider-Man about why he loves New York City; once Peter gets transported to the Ultimate universe and Miles shows up, we see how the young hero is slowly fitting into the super-fabric of his own version of the city.

But the heart of the book--and I do mean heart--lies in the meeting, mid-point in the narrative, between "our" Peter Parker and the Ultimate versions of Peter's Aunt May May and Gwen Stacy (who, in our universe, was Peter's girlfriend until she was killed at the hands of the Green Goblin, in one of the most momentous story lines in the character's history--a death which haunts him only second to that of his Uncle Ben). Clearly, beyond the hook of the first cross-over between these universes, what writer Bendis is most interested in is these characters.

At first, May and Gwen--like everyone else--chides this adult Spider-Man for dressing up in the dead Parker's costume (his identity having been revealed to the world at his death). Once Peter unmasks and, predictably, May faints at the knowledge that her beloved nephew (at least a version of him) is alive and in her life again, the three characters have a lengthy conversation, which moves from tentative outreach and regret to gradual acceptance and, eventually, a kind of joy.

It's pure soap opera. But then, that's really what superhero comics are, when they work well. The costumes and powers and fights are part of the genre, of course, but the serial nature of superhero comic book storytelling has relied on the emotional histrionics of soap opera since at least the birth of the so-called Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four began the trend, but Lee and artist Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man arguably perfected the formula. Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man artist Sara Pichelli show a lot of comfort working in larger-than-life, character-based psychodrama here.

Pichelli's artwork is lean and clean and very much what good super-hero comic art looks like now, with detailed environments and some very nicely exaggerated spider-poses on our eponymous heroes. But if anything, her depiction of facial expressions is a bit restrained--which would be fine in a literary slice-of-life comic, but super-soap gives you a license to kick up the histrionics. Still, that's a small quibble. I prefer my cartooning a bit more expressive and abstracted (see: Ditko and Kirby again), but as contemporary superhero art goes, this is fine stuff. Layouts are varied but always readable, moving the story forward without much in the way of flashy distractions.

I haven't talked much about the plot or the villain here. But really, beyond the fact that Spider-Man goes to the Ultimate Universe*** and meets not only his replacement but also several other heroes, the plot's incidental to the character interactions. If you haven't read many superhero comics--particularly Spider-Man comics--the character stakes might not mean all that much to you. (Again, serial storytelling means that you get to know these characters in depth; a small verbal aside here can feel freighted with import if you've followed the characters beforehand.) But for regular Spider-Man readers, Spider-Men provides a dose of emotion and a bit of wonder. And Peter's mysterious discovery at the very end ensures that there will be more where this story came from, in some other fashion.

*Actually, there are an infinite number of them, but I'm trying to keep this simple...

**Although the Marvel movies often conflate the "original" and "ultimate" versions of these heroes...

***Where everyone talks in a mixed-case typeface, unlike the all-caps "regular" universe. No, there's no particular reason I placed this footnote in this sentence; I just wanted to shoehorn in a font-nerd reference somewhere...

by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785165339
ISBN-13: 978-0785165330
128 pages, $24.99

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Tangles, by Sarah Leavitt

This is a very brave book. In Tangles, Sarah Leavitt recounts how her family lived with, dealt with, and was changed by her mother Midge's early-onset Alzheimer's (she began showing symptoms at only 52 years of age). We see an entire family coming to terms with this terrible illness, all in different ways, yet always out of love. It's not a guidebook for how to deal with Alzheimer's (how could it be?), but it is a record of what can be done, what might be done, and (only a couple of times) what perhaps shouldn't be done.

Tangles is simply awash in tiny details, thanks to Leavitt's coping mechanism of recording, in words and pictures, hundreds (thousands?) of observations of--and quotations from--her rapidly changing mother. The book's first-person narration of these tiny details seems to beg the question, Was this person who talked to broccoli still the mother who raised my sisters and I, the woman so engaged in education, the wife so loving and loved? The answer seems to be "Yes and no," of course. There's still a core of the Midge that we're introduced to in the book's preliminary, historical sections, but there's also a new person, one who sings to herself (no longer with her sisters) while being bathed or who writes ungrammatical notes to her daughter.

As a cartoonist, Leavitt draws in an unadorned, highly simple--even simplistic--style. I at first thought the style too simple but eventually recognized it as direct and honest. The book is a chronicle of Leavitt's feelings and impressions as much as it is a record of specific events, and I think a more highly rendered style would only serve to fetishize the events and overpower her impressions.

The book's large, square pages are generally constructed of five tiers of gutterless panels, leading to a dense reading experience; a lot happens on each page, and Sarah, our narrator, is often at a loss in trying to make sense of it all. How can you make sense of that which so often, by definition, is nonsensical? Such as the note from Midge to Leavitt's partner Donimo, which Leavitt reproduces, isolated in the corner of an otherwise blank page: "Love to Donimo / Hope you like Bmdows. / See you soon / family is / The whole / eags to see you / from Midge" (page 69).

The book is peppered with such large, nearly empty pages, falling in between some of the short, dense chapters. They often highlight quotations from Midge, or simple, striking moments: Actions divorced from time and context, much like Midge's perception of the world around her. Because it is so honest, Tangles is sometimes not an easy book to read. But it is a powerful one.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
by Sarah Leavitt
Skyhorse Publishing, 2012
ISBN-10: 1616086394
ISBN-13: 978-1616086398
128 pages, $14.95

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: Moby Dick (Cozy Classics) by Jack & Holman Wang


Cozy Classics: Moby Dick
by Jack & Holman Wang
Simply Read Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1927018110
ISBN-13: 978-1927018118
24 pages, $9.95

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Daredevil by Mark Waid vols 1 & 2, by Waid, Rivera, Martin, Rios, Kano, Pham et al.

I haven't read a new Daredevil comic book in many years, but I've heard enough about them to know that the character had been put through the wringer time and again, and that the title was known for being psychologically dark. Daredevil's secret identity as blind lawyer Matt Murdock had been made public (more than once?); he had become crime lord of New York (I think); he had been replaced by The Black Panther. In other words, typical high-impact superhero soap opera, though even grittier and more morally ambiguous than most.

But when Marvel Comics re-launched the title (yet again!) in 2011, it was announced that the character was headed in a new direction--or, should I say "old," for this new series, under writer Mark Waid, would be a return to the character's "lighthearted acrobat" roots, albeit one that would somehow not wipe away the character's more recent dark developments. Intrigued, I picked up the first two collected volumes from the library. What I found was a solid superhero comic, often visually innovative, which did indeed rekindle the sense of adventure and fun I recall from my own childhood reading of the character.

The gist of writer Waid's approach is that Murdock has survived being put through hell, and his coping mechanism is to treat life as a laugh (mostly--he is still a lawyer and crime-fighter, after all). While his secret identity was made public, the public's reaction to news is fickle, so while some people still believe that Murdock is Daredevil, others are unsure. Matt sometimes wears an "I'm Not Daredevil" shirt to deflect suspicion (though why that wouldn't just reconfirm said suspicion isn't exactly clear). His reputation makes it difficult for any clients he or his partner Foggy Nelson represent to get a fair trial, so he comes up with a new tactic: Their law firm will take on clients whom no one will represent and then coach them how to act as their own counsel, thereby allowing them to go to court without the distraction of all the "Daredevil" innuendos that follow Murdock wherever he goes. It's a narrative conceit that is as clever as it is utterly ridiculous; thankfully there's enough super-action that we don't see too, too many of these cases.

The artwork is in keeping with this lighter narrative approach. Particularly in the case of artist Paolo Rivera, we get characters composed of clean lines (if often a bit stiff in the staging) and innovative, almost bouncy page layouts. There are some new tricks to represent Daredevil's "radar sense" (often red contour lines over black backgrounds, as well as tiny inset panels which draw our attention to small details, highlighting Murdock's own heightened view of the world) as well. Even Rivera's cover to the first collection (which was also the cover to the first new issue) plays with how Daredevil exists in a world without vision: everything in the background environment is composed of words, representing how his brain "molds" objects out of sound. Examples: birds are built out of the words "flap flap flap," a water tower out of "glug gurgle drip drop," exhaust out of "hsssss." And Daredevil holds one of his billy clubs directly in front of his eyes, emphasizing for the reader the character's sightlessness.

The stories also work thematically with the character's attributes, pitting him against adversaries like Klaw (a being composed of solidified sound) and the nearly blind Mole Man--both, I think, for the first time. He also teams up with Spider-Man (a character with whom he has a long history) and hooks up with The Black Cat (a morally grey acrobat herself). And the macguffin of the OmegaDrive (a quantum hard drive containing information on several crime families and syndicates) ensures that Daredevil is never far from a tussle with any one of Marvel's many mafia surrogates.

All in all, these are solid, well-crafted superhero stories, light-hearted (usually) but not light-weight.

Daredevil by Mark Waid vol. 1
by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785152385
ISBN-13: 978-0785152385
152 pages, $15.99

Daredevil by Mark Waid vol. 2
by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Emma Rios, Kano, Khoi Pham et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785152407
ISBN-13: 978-0785152408
136 pages, $15.99

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, ed. Jeff Burger

I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in 1985 at Soldier Field in Chicago (I had won the tickets from a radio call-in contest), the second year (second year!) of the Born in the U.S.A. tour. The stage was in the football field's end zone, and in my memory, my friend from high school Jim and I were standing on about the 20-yard line at the stage-end of the field, although now I can't believe we actually managed to get anywhere near that close. Wherever we were standing (standing, for three-plus hours), I could see things pretty well, given my height and the presence of huge video screens. Even though by that point the band was playing ten of the new album's twelve songs, eschewing some older classics (where oh where was "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"?), it was still an amazing, life-enriching show for me, and for the probably 60,000 other people in attendance.

1985. 60,000 people.

Here's Springsteen in an unpublished interview from 1974, eleven years prior:
Usually we won't play anyplace over three thousand [people]--that's the highest we want to do. We don't want to get any bigger. And that's even too big....
P[aul] W[illiams]: But then there's The Who. They announce they're playing Madison Square Garden and it sells out in an hour. So I guess they'd have to book a week, a whole week.
BS: You gotta do that. And if you get that big, you gotta realize that some people who wanna see you ain't gonna see you. I'm not in that position and I don't know if I'll ever be in that position. All I know is those big coliseums ain't where it's supposed to be. There's always something else going on all over the room....
PW: I guess people go for the event.
BS: What happens is you go to those places and it turns into something else that it ain't. It becomes an event. It's hard to play. That's where everybody is playing, though, I don't know how they do it. I don't know what people expect you to do in a place like that. Especially our band--it would be impossible to reach out there the way we try to do. Forget it! (pages 34-35)
But Bruce and the band not only fairly soon managed "the impossible"; they became the undisputed, three-hour-plus masters of it, and have remained there for close to four decades.

In Springsteen on Springsteen, editor Jeff Burger allows us to see how Bruce was able to develop from a pretty inarticulate but hungry young artist into one of rock's elder statesmen and most eloquent spokespersons. Burger has gathered interviews, speeches, and more, ranging from a profile from 1973 to Springsteen's keynote address to the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2012. (The book is also peppered with "Bruce Bits," snippets of other interviews that touch on ideas not covered in the full-length pieces.) I've read several books about Springsteen in the past couple of years (most recently Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin), and each have their strengths, but this one does a wonderful job of demonstrating Springsteen's ever-evolving sense of himself as an artist.

His early interviews reveal an incredibly prodigious songwriter who was nevertheless very cautious--even guarded--when it came to how much of his music he presented his music to the public. Later in life, though, he began opening his vaults, beginning with the four-disc set Tracks (1998). There was evidence of this shift in perspective a few years before that, though, such as in this Guitar World interview with Neil Strauss in 1995:
Certainly, I go back and realize that there are many outtakes that should have been released at different times. I still wish I'd put more records out, and maybe I could have. But I made records very purposefully, with very specific ideas of them being about  and representing certain things. That probably caused me to be overly cautious about what I released and what I didn't. I certainly feel a lot more freedom now. (page 200)
It becomes clear when reading the earlier pieces that the feeling of freedom he felt in the 90s came for him only after consciously and meticulously shaping his early career along specific thematic lines.

And for a performer who's now known for his political activism, appearing on behalf of politicians like John Kerry and Barack Obama, he was for a long time reticent to espouse any overtly political rhetoric, although his populist sympathies generally weren't hard to spot in his lyrics. Even in the 1990s, an invitation from then-President Bill Clinton wasn't enough to tempt him, as David Corn inquired in a Mother Jones interview (1996):
DC: The White House wanted you to drop by today, but you chose not to.
BS: What ears this man has! [Laughs.] I don't know what to say. In my opinion, the artist has to keep his distance. (page 217)
Springsteen seems to have avoided many sorts of temptation. Unlike just about every other rock or pop musician you can think of, he never fell prey to the dangers of chemical addiction. Indeed, several early reviews make a point to mention his tea-totaling ways. By the 1990s, though, interviewers occasionally set the set the scene for their pieces with tales of Springsteen offering to share some beer or Jack Daniels, drinks which the performer then barely touches (if at all) for the duration of the interview. Gavin Martin, from the New Musical Express, brought up the subject of drugs in 1996, and Springsteen replied:
I've had a funny experience in that I didn't so any drugs; I've never done any drugs. It's not about having any moral point of view about drugs whatsoever--I know nothing about them.... I didn't trust myself into putting myself that far out of control. I had a fear of my own internal life....
 I was 'round very many people who did many drugs and I can't particularly say I liked any of them when they were stoned or high, for the most part. Either they were being a pain in the ass or incomprehensible. That's my experience--so it didn't interest me.
Also, at a very young age, I became very focused on music and experienced a certain sort of ecstasy, actually, through playing. It was just something I loved doing. (page 225)
One of the strengths of this book is that editor Burger didn't just collect old interviews; he also contacted the interviewers and asked for any background stories or years-later comments they might have. One good example is the introduction to Springsteen's Advocate interview with editor-in-chief Judy Weider (1996). In comments to Burger, Weider placed Bruce's rhetoric in a specific political and personal context:
"Probably the most significant contribution made by Bruce in the interview (aside from revealing his own struggle with how he'd really feel if one of his own children turned out to be gay) came when e discussed marriage for LGBTs. It is important to remember that this was 1996; I had the heads of our own gay organizations cautioning me not to push for marriage. 'Civil unions are enough for now. People are not ready.' It drove me nuts. But Bruce not only understood that was an equal-rights issue, he pushed for gays and lesbians not to settle for less in this interview. His clarity and passion gave me extra backbone for my own ongoing fight over the years: '[Marriage] makes you a part of the social fabric. You get your license; you do all of the rituals.... [It's] a part of your place in society and in some way part of society's acceptance of you.'
"No one has said it better in my view," Wieder concluded. "The world is catching up to Bruce even now." (pages 234-235)
Again, these later pieces demonstrate a sense eloquence that simply wasn't there in the early days. I recall reading a Rolling Stone interview back in 1984 or 1985 (not included in this book) and wondering more than once how someone who could write lyrics with such directness, power, and beauty could so often speak so hesitantly. How could the man whose poetry I admired be so, well, inarticulate so often? This was before I began doing some writing and public speaking myself, before I learned that my own best self came not through extemporaneous speech but through carefully considered and crafted prose. Revision is the key to good writing, and Springsteen has always been a notorious reviser of his lyrics.

As we see over the course of this collection, Springsteen took revision in all forms seriously, and eventually got to the place where he spoke to reporters not hesitantly but thoughtfully and reflectively, with all of the care and craft his lyrics exhibited. Nick Hornby introduced his Observer Music Monthly interview in 2005 in part by noting:
[Springsteen's] answers came in unbroken yet carefully considered streams. He is one of the few artists I've met who is able to talk cogently about what he does without sounding either arrogant or defensively self-deprecating. (page 313)
In an interview with the actor Ed Norton in 2010, Springsteen channels a filmmaker to give one of the best examples I've read of a description of an artist: "Martin Scorsese said the artist's job is you're trying to get the audience to care about your obsessions" (page 354). And later that year on Australian television with interviewer Ian "Molly" Meldrum, he positioned himself as a particular kind of artist: a storyteller.
If you look at the role of storytellers in communities going back to the beginning of time, they played a very functional role in assisting the community and making sense of experience, of the world around them, charting parts of their lives, getting through parts of their lives. I was interested in the eternal role of storyteller and songwriter and how I was gonna perform that function best. (page 369)
The Bruce Springsteen of 1974, at least the public speaker, never mentioned ideas like this. But did he think things like this? The Springsteen of 2010 says he did. Can we gainsay him that? For an artist whose first two albums especially delighted in the play and sound of words, his interviews--his honest, raw declarations "for the record"--took quite a long time to catch up and become lyrical in and of themselves. Perhaps he needed to hone not just his song-craft but his larger word-craft over time. The young Springsteen's speech strikes us as a bit crude and unfinished; the elder man speaks in sharp-edged, purely forged prose.

Springsteen on Springsteen not only traces the career of a songwriter; it chronicles the development of a thinker. As the imagery in his songs became more direct, more focused on the real world than on flights of verbal fancy and epics of escape, Springsteen's inner life blossomed to the point that his everyday speech could speak of hopes and dreams, of aspirations and heartache, with a beauty and a power and a poetry all its own.  In assembling these interviews spanning nearly four decades, Jeff Burger helps us to build a complex, evolving portrait of a performer, of a human being who grew into being the boss of his own mind.

Springsteen on Springsteen:
Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters
ed. Jeff Burger
Chicago Review Press, 2013
ISBN-10: 161374434X
ISBN-13: 978-1613744345
428 pages, $27.95

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: Bluebird, by Bob Staake

Bluebird, the new wordless picturebook by Bob Staake, is, quite simply, gorgeous. It tells the relatively simple story of a lonely New York City boy who meets and has his life changed by a bluebird. It's a tale of sadness, friendship, loss, and renewal, presented in comics-style, multi-panel pages colored primarily in blues, greys, and white.

Staake's geometric style ("rendered," as the indicia informs us, "in Adobe Photoshop") seems at first glance as if it might be cold; but, as anyone familiar with his other books or his illustration work for The New Yorker and elsewhere already knows, his spheres and boxes and cones are capable of conveying and creating deeply emotional scenes, from the little boy's downcast eyes and defeated posture in the book's beginning; to the wonder of the city's architecture, both grand and mundane; to the threatening moments in the woods of the park; to the freedom and exhilaration of the skies. Rarely have such simple shapes seemed so full of life.

Wordless (or "silent") books of course rarely have no words at all; while these pages don't offer narration or dialogue, we can still see words on signs or on classroom blackboards. And Staake's backgrounds are always worth exploring. Young eyes will have a lot to take in once they've devoured the main plot. I particularly liked the poster on the classroom wall which hearkens back to Staake's dedication in the front of the book.

The publication design here is elegant. Picturebooks often provide immersive book experiences like this for their young readers, and Bluebird is no different: The story actually begins on the front cover, where we meet the bluebird and then follow its flight across the city over the course of the front endpapers and then the indicia and title pages.

At turns melancholic and joyous, but always lyrical, Bob Staake's Bluebird belongs on the bookshelf of every child who's ever felt alone in or confused by the world around them--which is to say, of course, all children, current and former.

by Bob Staake
Schwartz & Wade, 2013
ISBN-10: 0375870377
ISBN-13: 978-0375870378
40 pages, $17.99

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Review: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers

A complicated book about complicated people.

In Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, author Robert Sellers gives us the lives of four of the UK's greatest actors and wildest partiers of the twentieth century. Not their complete biographies, of course (the book is far too brief to encompass four lives completely). After brief childhood histories, Sellers dives into the meat of his book: Stories of drinking, carousing, and general craziness, fueled nearly entirely by alcohol (and occasionally controlled substances). The tales do cover each man's entire career, so we can say that you get at least their mini-biographies along the way, though seen through alcohol-tinted lenses.

The stories are by turns hilarious, outrageous, and, ultimately, more than a bit sad. One by one, the tales can incite peals of laughter or exclamations of "How could anyone possibly do that?" Stories of drinking binges that last not just for nights but for days; lives lived without keys, leading to being stopped by the police for breaking into one's own home through the window; interviews with journalists that are, in point-of-fact, imbibing contests. Just flipping through the photograph section leads to amazement:
[Richard] Burton was crippled by ill health later in life. In fact, during one operation surgeons were astonished to discover that Burton's entire spinal column was coated with crystallised alcohol.
[beneath a photo of Oliver Reed balancing horizontally on a bar, supported only by his hands] Reed celebrates knocking back 126 pints of beer in just 24 hours--about 12 minutes per pint.
[Richard] Harris often had no recollection of his hellraising. One morning, he was bemused to find stitches in his face, totally unaware that he'd wrecked a restaurant the night before.
In Paris shooting What's New Pussycat?, [Peter] O'Toole saw two policemen attacking a prostitute and later took revenge by duffing up a totally innocent gendarme.
However, after 280 pages of this behavior--actually, well before then--the novelty and shock value wear off, and one begins to weary of wasted potential. Undoubtedly, each actor gave some momentous, never-to-be-equaled performances on stage and screen; but just as often, if not moreso their performances were marred by impairments, sometimes disgracefully so. And pity the women who married them (except, perhaps, Elizabeth Taylor, who seems to have been at least Burton's equal in temperament and impairment, if not his better) and their children, who so often lived learning more about their fathers from the news than from their daily influence.

The book contains hundreds of tales of outrageous behavior, both public and private. I only thought to track down one of them: Peter O'Toole's infamous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, in which he comes on stage riding a camel. It's on Youtube for your viewing pleasure:

Sellers' version follows the same general shape of the actual event, but it also contains (as Huckleberry Finn would call them) some "stretchers," with certain elements elaborated on and others invented for more dramatic effect. I'm not sure if the changes are due to faulty memory on Sellers' part or a desire to make the event even more outrageous than it already was; but if this single fact-check can turn up errors, it leads me to wonder how much of the other material in the book has also been "enhanced." Don't get me wrong: Even if only 50% of the stories in the book happened as actually depicted, the book's title would be more than fully justified. It is just disappointing to realize that a "non-fiction" book exhibits a loose grasp of its own contents.

Ultimately, one takes away from Hellraisers a renewed appreciation for what these four actors managed to accomplish on and off the screen, as well as regret for what might also have been if only their behavior hadn't been quite so hellacious. Or did the greatness of their art necessarily depend on habitual insanity? And if so, was the chaos that behavior caused to their relationships worth it in order for the rest of us to experience their art? These questions, unfortunately, are not ones that Hellraisers is equipped to answer.

(PS: The author's prose suffers from perhaps the worst case of "British comma aversion" I have ever encountered. Note to authors and their editors: Commas are necessary for direct address and the appositive, but their misuse can lead to run-on sentences verging on parody.)

Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of
Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed
by Robert Sellers
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780312553999
286 pp, $25.99

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Henry & Glenn Forever, by Igloo Tornado

What is Henry & Glenn Forever? If, like me, you've been living under a rock since 2010, you might need an introduction. The one from the book itself ought to do:

Henry [Rollins] and Glenn [Danzig] are very good "friends."
They are also "room mates."
Daryl [Hall] and John [Oates] live next door.
They are satanists.

That's all you need to know.

Sounds like the set-up for an in-your-face, sure-to-offend exercise in excess, right? Well, think again, because the best adjective I can come up with for H+G=4EVA (apart from "hilarious") is "charming." In casting these hard rock/metal icons as gay lovers, the cartoonists of Igloo Tornado (a collective consisting of Tom Neely, Gin Stevens, Scot Nobles, and Levon Jihania) chose--wisely--to focus not on stereotypical "gay" tropes but, instead, to focus on the idea of "lovers." Thus, for example, we get several pages from Glenn's diary filled with his feelings of insecurity about his relationship with Henry:
i yelled at Henry the other day because he never does the dishes and i always end up being the one who cleans up after him. i wanna help him because he's so busy getting ready for his tour, but i'm so overwhelmed...
It's not all sadness and regret, however. The book is comprised of one-page comics and drawings, from diary entries and postcards, to single-panel gag cartoons, to repetitive headshots of the couple, with Henry saying something enigmatic and Glenn always--always--agreeing with him. My favorite comic, perhaps, consists of a conversation about painting the bathroom black: Glenn is brushing his teeth, and Henry's taking a bubble bath. Sheer domesticity. There are also running gags about Glenn's fixation with werewolves, and about the couple's missing dog that Seussian satanists Daryl & John may or may not know something about.

Silly, simple and a bit surreal, but never really exploitative, Henry & Glenn Forever nevertheless manages to convey more genuine emotion than many other "serious" graphic novels I've read. But it also includes a scene with all four main characters jamming to "Kiss On My List." Sublime, meet ridiculous.

Henry & Glenn Forever
by Igloo Tornado
Cantankerous Titles, 2010
ISBN-10: 1934620939
ISBN-13: 978-1934620939
64 pages, $6.00

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text, by Alan Bartram

A visual feast, Alan Bartram's Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text gathers examples of early 20th-century poetic experiments in typography and layout/design. Bartram provides introductory essays for each chapter: "French Precursors: Liberating the Poetic Form"; "Marinetti and Friends: Recreating Everything Anew"; "Artist-Poets in Russia: Illustration + Words"; "Dada: Illogic and Chance, Perhaps"; "Lacerba: A Tumultuous Assembly"; "L'Italia Futurista: Experiences of War, and Birdsong"; and "The Revolutionaries." I love typography, but my literary training was in British and American literature, so most of these movements and texts were new to me. All were revelatory.

The original texts are primarily in Italian, French, Flemish, German, and Russian, so it's not possible for a primarily monolingual reader like me (I have only a smattering of French and German) to pick up on all of the subtleties of presentation and meaning-making on display here, but Bartram does a good job of glossing each example and pointing out many of the elements at play ("play" often being literally accurate). From poems to playscripts to "advertisements," the examples here cover a wide range of topics and styles.

A quick Google image search for "futurist typography" will give you some idea of the range of texts contained in this book, and the freedom from constraint they embody. It's interesting to note that when these tests were created, in the pre-computer era, often the typesetters themselves were--by practical necessity--making aesthetic choices on behalf of those artist-poets who did not typeset their own works. There is "intent" (always a difficult concept) and there is "execution": Somewhere beyond lies poetry.

Although the link isn't made explicitly here, it seems to me that the spiritual descendents of these Imagist and Dadaist texts are to be found in the Punk/DIY/zine cultures of the 1970s to roughly the 1990s (and of course, beyond). Now I'm curious to read up on those movements to see if anyone was specifically drawing inspiration from the earlier examples represented in Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text.

Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text
by Alan Bartram
Yale University Press, 2005
ISBN-10: 030011432X
ISBN-13: 978-0300114324
160 pages, $55.00

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: The Hypo - The Melancholic Young Lincoln, by Noah Van Sciver

We're so used to seeing Lincoln portrayed as a magisterial president, that we (or at least I) have trouble thinking about him as a person in development, as a youth struggling, as all youth must, to discover who he is. In The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah Van Sciver gives us a fine portrait of that Lincoln-in-process by focusing on his private, internal struggles. "The Hypo" (Lincoln's term for his sometimes crippling depression) debilitates him, causing doubt and fear to sometimes rule his life. It's a portrait that any sufferer of depression will recognize.

Van Sciver's drawing is assured and highly detailed (backgrounds and environments are often rendered quite specifically, really grounding the story in its time and place), while remaining a bit "cartoony" - his is an engaging, highly readable style. My one complaint, visually, is that early on, Lincoln and his randy roommate, Joshua Speed, look so much alike that sometimes in conversation I became confused as to who was who.

Narratively, you can't help but empathize with young Lincoln in his struggles - his love life is a shambles, for example, although the book's happy ending reveals that he eventually (if perhaps only temporarily) overcame some of "The Hypo."

I understand the desire to focus on the details of Lincoln's personal life over those of his his professional career, but unfortunately this strategy at times makes for some confusing moments. References that other characters make in passing to Lincoln's growing political influence seem to come out of nowhere. I mean, of course we all know that Abraham Lincoln had a political career, but the Lincoln of The Hypo doesn't quite seem capable of sustaining one. We get a few small glimpses, but they're nowhere nearly as finely developed as are the more intimate moments in the young man's life. I would have appreciated a bit of a broader focus on Lincoln's life and work over the course of The Hypo - I can only imagine that in Van Sciver's hands, Lincoln's professional struggles would become as fascinating as his personal ones surely are here.

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln
by Noah Van Sciver
Fantagraphics, 2012
ISBN-10: 1606996193
ISBN-13: 978-1606996195
192 pages, $24.99

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman

I've loved the fairy tales as collected by the Brothers Grimm for many, many years, and I found Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to be one of the best-written fantasy series I've ever read (for younger readers or no), so I was predisposed to enjoy his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. I was not disappointed. Pullman begins by providing a short but informative introduction to the book, placing the tales into context for readers unfamiliar with the Grimm brothers' nationalistic project from two hundred years ago. He then offers his new translations of fifty of the Grimms' stories, each followed by a brief afterword explaining that tale's history and analogues as well as what, if any, changes he made to the source material at his disposal.

I was surprised at how straightforward his versions of the tales themselves are; there is little trace of his authorial voice here. However, Pullman is a fan of storytelling, not just of telling stories, and his respect for the tradition behind the tales accounts for his minimal presence here. In some of his afterwords he breaks free a bit and talks about how one might have "improved" a tale in this way or that in a literary sense, but how that generally wouldn't be appropriate because, with rare exceptions, none of these tales were very "literary" to begin with. He does make some changes or add material occasionally to a few of the tales, but these are generally created by importing elements from another, analogous version of the tale, a process well in keeping with tradition.

In fact, as Pullman makes clear to readers unfamiliar with the tales' history, the Grimms themselves often changed the tales quite a bit from the versions received from their sources. In addition, they modified tales from edition to edition of their books, usually removing the more disturbing elements to make them more child-friendly as the years passed.

My only complaint with this book? I wish Pullman's afterwords were longer. I realize that the tales themselves are meant to be the main draw here, but I love reading Pullman's thoughts on the craft of storytelling.

For readers who only know their fairy tales from Disney or other modern popularizers, many of the stories here will be shocking in their brutality or darkness. But make no mistake; fairy- and folktales have always acknowledged the fact that life is harsh. Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm tales pays tribute to this fact in a very readable and enjoyable collection.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
by Philip Pullman
Viking, 2012
ISBN-10: 067002497X
ISBN-13: 978-0670024971
406 pages, $27.95

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

It's an unfortunate if oft-repeated scenario: An artist goes unrecognized in his or her lifetime, only to have their work discovered and fêted too late for acclaim or riches. Such is the story of Vivian Maier, who spent her formative years in France, then worked as a nanny for a series of families in the United States, mostly in the Chicago area (for a brief stint, she even worked for Phil Donahue). She always carried a camera, but she never allowed anyone to see her photographs, and by all accounts she lived an extremely private life. So, her genius was never known while she lived. Her work was only discovered when her belongings were auctioned off, and someone who won a container full of undeveloped film examined the contents and discovered Art.

I first learned of her work thanks to a Facebook friend posting a link to the trailer for an upcoming documentary about Maier's life and work. I'm so glad that I took the 2-1/2 minutes to watch that video:

Maier's life story is intriguing, yes, full of secrets and mysteries. But her photographs are magical in their honesty and beauty. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams provides a wonderful introduction to the artist and her art. After a brief biographical introduction, the bulk of the book is given over to chapters highlighting different aspects of her photography, beginning with snapshots from France and then delving into her chronicles of America in the 1950s and 1960s. (She continued photographing her surroundings well into the 1990s, apparently, and in color, too; but this book focuses on her '50s and '60s black-and-white work.)

She was not afraid to visit, regularly, the toughest, most run-down areas of Chicago, her young charges in tow, to photograph anyone she felt worthy of capturing. The humanity and dignity of her subjects, even those skid-row denizens whom most people might cross the street to avoid, come across vividly in her portraits. Some of these photos seem somewhat posed or at least contemplated, while others were obviously taken on the sly.

Amazingly, Maier almost never took multiple shots of the same subject (apart from the children in her care, and a series of pensive self-portraits, sometimes just of her own shadow): One carefully considered image was enough for her. And the results are stunning. The year 1968 was particularly pivotal for America, and indeed for Maier; there's a whole chapter devoted to her chronicles of that tumultuous time, with special attention paid to the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy. While I loved all of the images in the book, my favorites are the portraits in the chapter "Downtown" (pp. 206-241). Here are young people and old people; the rich, the poor, and the once-rich; characters all. These are only single portraits, but I feel as if I can see into these people's souls; the good and the sad are revealed in equal measure.

For all of the hundreds of images in this book, I realize that this collection only scratches the surface; I look forward to finding more of them to marvel at.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
CityFiles Press, 2012
ISBN-10: 0978545095
ISBN-13: 978-0978545093
288 pages, $60.00

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: 100 DIAGRAMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, by Scott Christianson

Scott Christianson's 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod will be a good book to spur curiosity: it's wide-ranging, both in historical focus (as the subtitle makes plain) and in terms of the types of diagrams it covers, from scientific discoveries (DNA Double Helix by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Odile Crick, 1953 [pages 190-191]) to information display techniques (Exploded-View Diagram, by Mariano Taccola, c. 1450 [pp. 70-71]) to theater design (The Castle of Perseverance, c. 1405-1425 [pp. 68-69]).

However, I'm sure that the title is entirely accurate. Did The Voynich Manuscript (c. 1404-1438, pp. 66-67), an illuminated manuscript written in a still-undecipherable code or invented language, really "change the world"? Did Leonardo da Vinci's unrealized plans for Helicopter and Flying Machine (c. 1493-1505, pp. 76-77)? They're fascinating documents, undoubtedly; but they don't really rise to the level of "world-changing," I don't think. 100 Diagrams and Concepts that are Really Quite Interesting would be a more appropriate title, but it's not as marketable.

For a book that celebrates the importance of visual representations, the book's own design is troubling. Each diagram is given its own two-page spread: One page for the diagram (and caption, although that caption is sometimes on the facing page), and one page for text. So far so good, but: Each text page begins with the title of the diagram, its author (if known), a one-sentence "highlight summary" of the object and its importance, and the date of the diagram; the paper is colored light grey rather than white. The date, in the upper corner of the page, and the highlight summary are printed in a grey that's only slightly darker than the background color of the page. The date is in a very large typeface, but the highlight summary, at perhaps 7-point size, is very hard to read without strong light (or, perhaps, a loupe). What's worse, the highlight summary usually repeats information in the longer essay on the page, which quite often is repeated yet again in the image caption. Thus, you often read the same information three times on the same two-page spread. No one could expect a lot of depth in a book like this - with only a few hundred words per essay, the book serves as an "intellectual sampler," encouraging further research - so repeating content so often in such a small space really seems like a misuse of precious informational real estate.

Still, the book reminded me of a lot of things I have always meant to read more about, and it introduced me to things I simply hadn't considered before (I had never thought about the importance of "Graded Sewing Patterns" [pp. 144-145] before, but Ebeneezer Butterick's 1863 invention made it easier for people [usually women] to make fashionable clothing for their families - no small feat!). As a pupu platter of interesting concepts, this book makes for a few diverting afternoons, and it just might encourage you to dig further and learn more about some of these fascinating - if not always world-changing - drawings.

100 Diagrams That Changed the World:
From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod
by Scott Christianson
Plume, 2012
ISBN-10: 0452298776
ISBN-13: 978-0452298774
224 pages, $25.00

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson and Madeleine L'Engle

My fifth grade teacher, Miss Wocher, read Madeline L'Engle's classic science-fiction children's novel A Wrinkle in Time to our class, one chapter each Friday afternoon. After a few weeks, I bought my own copy so that I could read along with her. It quickly became one of my favorite books; I was enchanted with its fantastic premise (a group of children travel through time and space, guided by three mysterious women, to rescue their father), its quirky characters, and L'Engle's overall way with words. (Although I was devastated when I looked up tesseract in my dictionary only to conclude that, apparently, she had made it up!) I never forgot the book, and, when I taught Children's Literature courses many years later, AWiT was always on my syllabus.

So I approached Hope Larson's adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, with no little trepidation, even though I had liked earlier work of Larson's that I had seen. Could this adaptation possibly compare to my experience with the original? (Even though, as I've written about before, hoping for absolute fidelity to an original work in an adaptation is a sucker's game.) However, my fears were for naught. Larson actually achieves a remarkable amount of fidelity to L'Engle's original novel, and the publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is to be commended for allowing Larson to produce a truly substantial adaptation: At just shy of 400 pages long(!), this book has the room few other adaptations are afforded to really slow down the storytelling and include the smaller, character-enhancing moments that almost always get sacrificed in adaptations for the sake of "just getting the plot across," usually as economically (i.e., briefly) as possible.

We get to see lead character Meg Murray's awkwardness, her hesitancy, her headstrong nature, and her bravery in full measure, and the other characters are also allowed to develop and to shine. For example, during the first and most difficult "tesser" (a sort of space/time dimensional warp), Meg's disconcerting reaction to the process is given about seven full pages to play out, really allowing the reader to experience her disorientation almost as fully as one does in reading the novel itself. If you haven't read many comics adaptations, you cannot imagine how refreshing this luxury of space is. Even most film adaptations of literary works must cut out more detail and texture than Larson needed to here.

The artwork, in black and white with blue tones, manages to be both straightforward and carefully delineated in equal measure. Larson's inkwork is lush and bold, appealingly simple and, yes, cute, but without ever seeming too cloyingly cartoonish. Larson is equally adept at depicting subtle character emotions and otherworldly dimensional realms. Some readers might find the more alien landscapes a bit thinly detailed in places, but I think this is very much in keeping with L'Engle's original book, which excels at creating feeling and mood over intricate technical descriptions. At these books' heart is the emotional arcs of the characters - especially that of Meg, a character with whom I identified a lot as a child - and not thick science-fiction detail.

Is reading the graphic novel the same experience as reading L'Engle's original? Of course not - but then, it's not meant to be. The original novel is still there to thrill and delight young readers. But Hope Larson's A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel is a more-than-worthy companion to L'Engle's classic book. It's a very assured and appealing work in its own right, one which offers readers a new and richly imagined version of a tale which has already endured for more than fifty years.

Madeleine L'Engle's
A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel
adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
ISBN-10: 0374386153
ISBN-13: 978-0374386153
392 pages, $19.99

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: X'ed Out and The Hive, by Charles Burns

I first learned of Charles Burns' work in the pages of the anthology RAW, and I've been seeking out his work wherever I could find it ever since. I was curious to see what would follow his magnum opus Black Hole (collected in 2008), as that book seemed to sum up the "Teen love/Horror" themes he'd been exploring for some time.

X'ed Out (2010) and The Hive (2012) are the first two parts of a new trilogy. Love and horror are still there, but they're both... even weirder than they were before. (Those of you already familiar with Burns' work will realize how much weight the word "weirder" carries in this context.) Doug, a young performance-poet ("Hi, I'm Nitwit, also known as Johnny 23") with an ailing father, falls in love with a Patti Smith-loving photographer who forces him to explore some of his family secrets. "Meanwhile" (in some way) in an alien landscape, a simplified version of Doug finds work caring for "future queens" of a hive (even procuring strange romance comic books for one of the women) while constantly being berated by his alien co-workers; his name in this world almost seems to be "Asshole," given the number of times he's called that. His one friend in this world, a homunculus-like grifter, is on his side but also seems untrustworthy. Oh, and there's body-horror everywhere.

It had been about year in between my reading of X'ed Out and The Hive; once I read The Hive, I had to go back and re-read them both in order to try and understand what's going on. I'm not sure I succeeded. Burns' storytelling here takes "non-linearity" to new heights; there are visual and verbal echoes between the two worlds on a number of levels, but two-thirds of the way through this tale, things have yet to come together. That's to be expected in a work like this, but it's still a frustrating experience to be in the middle of. Once the third volume comes out it will be easier (I hope!) to come to terms with the narrative.

Visually, the books are stunning. Burns has occasionally let his love for Hergé's Tintin shine through in his publication designs, but here their influence of informs every inch, from the European album format to the flat colors (amazing to see this much color work from Burns, after decades of mostly black-and-white work) to "alien" Doug's quiff of hair to the endpapers featuring scenes from the books. 

I always thought that black and white perfectly suited Burns' work, so I'm surprised at how much the color really adds to the storytelling here: some scenes play out in heavily-tinted monochrome; the pages of the alien romance comic books pulse with odd printing techniques; and there's a sublime juxtaposition of a green, buggish alien face scowling over a white dress shirt, with a loose necktie flailing in the breeze. What would normally be the half-title page in these books becomes an eighteen-panel page, with panels of two colors in different patterns from book one to book two. I can't help but expect that these patterns will ultimately be revealed to be meaningful once book three, Sugar Skull, is published (this year, I hope).

These books aren't for everyone, perhaps, but I can't wait for Sugar Skull - its answers and, I expect, its further mysteries. 

X'ed Out
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2010
ISBN-10: 0307379132
ISBN-13: 978-0307379139
56 pages, $19.95

The Hive
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2012
ISBN-10: 0307907880
ISBN-13: 978-0307907882
56 pages, $21.95