Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

I suppose one of the most wonderful things about browsing through old bookstores is that every one of them has a thing or two which is whispering your name, hoping you will find it. I found a used copy of Ken Sparling's wonderful debut novel Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall in this fashion. It was only three dollars at a shop across from Manuel's Tavern that I had not visited in literally twenty years, and which I had forgotten existed.

I also think, and I'm not sure why I think this but I do, that if you luck your way into a really nice find like this without paying very much money for it, then the least you can do is tell as many people as you can what you found. Maybe some royalties will trickle their way back to the author if enough people are listening.

Over the last few years, outside of detective fiction, the prose I've enjoyed the most has been experimental pieces like this. It's a very minimalist book, with the story of the narrator's life given in fragments and fractured anecdotes. It's not a book about plot, but character. The hints that the fictional Ken gives us in his very short stories and the casual conversations all suggest the enormous stress of his marriage, and his desire to be a better dad. Something's not going right, and I don't believe we ever learn what. I was fascinated by my attempts to decipher what has been going wrong with Ken, and wondering whether we were building towards an explanation. I found his rhythmic writing style very captivating, watching the repetition and progression of simple sentences fall into place.

I read the book over two sessions. It took me only a couple of hours, and I may not have found the payoff I was looking for, but the time was well-spent. I can certainly recommend this book to anybody who enjoys prose a little off the regular path.

(There's not a lot about Sparling's career and works online, but I did enjoy this profile at Quill & Quire. Check it out!)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sinister Dexter: Eurocrash

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Sinister Dexter: Eurocrash (volume 4) (Rebellion, 2009).

Having spoken of 2001's episodes of Sinister Dexter in recent installments of Thrillpowered Thursday, let's dive back into the duo's recent past and the new collected edition of "Eurocrash." Like "I Say Hello," this is a straight-up Sin Dex classic. The collection starts with a couple of short stories and then dives right in to the exceptional, epic-length storyline in which crime queenpin Demi Octavo's hold over her city slips out from under her, leading to blood in the streets. By the time it's over, the balance of power in Downlode is changed forever, and Sinister and Dexter go their separate ways, each determined to ferret out the mysterious parties behind the carnage, and to never see each other again.

Which makes it incredibly hard to understand why, when you turn the page, the deadly duo are working together as a team.

Rebellion's line of reprints is easily the best in the industry right now. They do a laudable job 49 times out of 50, picking great material and presenting it in a standout format, on glossy paper, with matte-finish covers and typically some very nice extras. Well, their skimpy little creator biography paragraphs could use a little work, but otherwise it's a terrific reprint line. That's what makes this book so darned hard to understand. For some utterly baffling reason, the collection skips over twenty-four freaking episodes of the series.

As screw-ups go, this one ranks up there. The whole phase of the series when it was retitled Downlode Tales is excised, as well as two one-offs that ran alongside Eurocrash's earliest episodes and set up characters who would reappear within the bigger epic. What you got in those 24 episodes, apart from some very nice artwork by Simon Davis, Greg Staples and Chris Weston, among others, were some critical continuing subplots, the return of Billie Octavo and the deaths of several major recurring players, including both Bunkum and Nervous Rex. Oh yeah, and the whole point, the whole payoff, of the vengeful promises of the last two pages of "Eurocrash." At least Monty Python gave us a "scene missing" screen; this book just hopes you're not reading very closely.

I've never said this about a Rebellion book before, but this is one to avoid. Do not buy this book. They should pulp every copy they can get their hands on and issue a second edition with "Lone Shark," "The Ass Kickers," "Scrubbers" and "The Whack Pack" following Eurocrash. The fifth Sin Dex collection should have "City on Fire" and "Lock and 'Lode" and then the four stories which conclude this book: "Exit Wounds," "Observations," "Mission to Mangapore" and "Life Behind Bars," and probably a couple of other episodes after them. Otherwise, neither this nor the next book are worth purchasing. Speaking as a huge fan of the publisher and a pretty big fan of Sin Dex, I wish I didn't have to say that.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Harvey Comics Classics Volume 5: The Harvey Girls

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Harvey Comics Classics Volume 5: The Harvey Girls (Dark Horse, 2009).

Hmmmm. It's very difficult to nail down exactly what's wrong with this collection. There's a lot that's wrong with the whole series, frankly. Across five volumes, Dark Horse has reprinted close to 2400 pages of classic Harvey Comics, but the whole enterprise has been two or three steps away from an ideal bookshelf collection. It's a case where the best, most honest intentions of editor Leslie Cabarga and essayist Jerry Beck have run smack into reality's ugly wall: these weren't the best comics in the world, and Harvey Entertainment's incredibly poor service of their trademarks over the last twenty years has meant an uphill climb for Dark Horse to sell anything with these characters' names on them.

The result, for the fifth and final volume in the series, is incredibly disappointing. To be fair, after two pretty good collections (Casper the Ghost and Richie Rich), the rot set in with the third book, spotlighting Hot Stuff. I struggled through that collection last year and couldn't even finish half of it. It was so monotonous and dull that neither of my kids could enjoy it, either. Then came a fourth volume, spotlighting the baffling Baby Huey, a character that extensive anecdotal questioning has proved that nobody on the planet would admit to ever liking. I never read a Baby Huey comic in my life before the release of that book. I decided as a kid that the character looked stupid and went on with my business of having Shogun Warriors knock over dinosaurs with flying fists. A thumb through the Dark Horse release last year suggested that my seven year-old self had been right all along.

The problem is this: the Little Audrey, Little Dot and Little Lotta stories which all share space in this last 480-page book are mostly a lot more fun than anything in the Hot Stuff or Baby Huey books. I'm not saying these are high art, or even the best kiddie funnybooks around, but I was mostly entertained looking through this collection. Any one of the three characters could have headlined a far more entertaining book than either the Hot Stuff or the Baby Huey one. But after those two collections seemed to flop - anecdotally, I know of one comic shop that did not order volume five at all after poor sales of the previous two - Dark Horse really didn't seem to put a lot of muscle behind the marketing of this book.

After all, while "extensive" - you know I'm kidding when I talk like this, right? - research has turned up absolutely no fans of Baby Huey whatsoever, the same research has turned up absolutely nobody on the planet who admits to even having heard of Little Dot before our friends at Mr. Kitty turned our attention to this oversight. Clearly, the planet has been missing out. Despite her two decade run in comics, Harvey has done such a godawful job keeping their characters in the public eye that she and all of her hundreds of weird uncles and aunts have been completely forgotten. That's not how it should be: the comics are pretty fun distractions, and they went over far better with my daughter than the turgid Hot Stuff. Somebody should have spent the last thirty years putting out Little Dot reprints and toys keeping this character hot, so that a $20 480-page collection of 1950s Little Dot comics would have been a foregone conclusion.

But in this market, I don't see how Dark Horse could justify such a book, especially if the rumored low sales of the third and fourth collections are true.

Honestly, I found a lot to like in most of these stories. Occasionally, the fanciful comedy involving animals was pretty eye-rolling. At one point, a fisherman lands a sawfish, who is very grumpy and runs around the boat using his tailfin like feet, much like those godawful Walter Lantz cartoons that used to waste precious afternoon minutes on UHF channels while you were waiting for something good to come on. There's a lot more of that in this book than you'd like, as befits 1950s kiddie comics with their ancestry in Paramount theatre cartoons. On the other hand, there's plenty of Audrey waging war against boys trying to keep her out of their clubhouse, and Lotta accidentally using her superhuman strength to bring office picnics and travelling carnies down around her ears, and it's mostly really good stuff that every parent should pick up. If you've got kids between five and ten, buy an extra copy for them to beat up and love, because this is a terrific set of stories for younguns, and an extremely good value for money.

As archival material goes, however, it is very far from ideal. I appreciate Dark Horse and Cabarga making the effort, but I do feel that a better book, and indeed a better series, eluded us. Recommended with the understanding that, if you're even half as nitpicky and easily frustrated as me, you won't stop thinking about how much better some alternate universe's Harvey series turned out. It's kind of tough to enjoy funnybooks when you're Monday-morning quarterbacking everything.

Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (volume 8) (Rebellion, 2009).

The eighth Nikolai Dante collection was released a few months ago. This compiles all of the episodes that originally appeared in 2000 AD # 1518-1580 - 31 in total, all written by Robbie Morrison, with art by Simon Fraser and John Burns.

Maybe the old reviewing circuits are needing a little juice, because I can't come up with much better of a reason for anyone to own this other than "it's freaking Nikolai Dante, people, come on!" By this stage of the series, Dante is working as Tsar Vladimir's principal envoy and blunt instrument. We catch up with several cast members from previous installments, seeing what terrorism Dante's half-sister Lulu has been committing in the name of the Romanovs, crossing paths with his old criminal sparring partner the Countessa de Winter, and making a swath of new enemies while quietly working out some scheme of his own to get back at the tsar.

This set of episodes from what I term the fourth phase of the Dante epic (it is entering its fifth and probably final stage in current installments) is completely terrific. I think there are a few episodes where John Burns' painting is not as detailed as would be preferred, but his work on "The Tsar's Daughter," which looks into the strange death of Jena Makarov's mother many years previously, is truly remarkable. Simon Fraser is as fantastic as ever. He's teamed with colorist Gary Caldwell and the "Thieves' World" story, in particular, is vibrant and exciting. With the expected excellent reproduction from Rebellion, nice binding, gorgeous paper and matte cover, it's a far better-looking collection than practically anybody else in the industry. One of the best comics of the last decade in a package this gorgeous? Surely everybody is reading this, right?

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Danger Girl: Odd Jobs

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Danger Girl: Odd Jobs (DC/Wildstorm, 2005).

Danger Girl was a wonderful little idea for a one-off miniseries. I certainly enjoyed the original story (and reviewed its excellent little collected edition some years back), but man, this is not a concept that travels well. It's pretty much as pointless as sequels to National Treasure, only some part of me thinks that they did those, too.

Basically, after the original seven-part series, the creators put out periodic one-shots and shorter serials with the characters. This skinny paperback, out of print and priced extraordinarily high by Amazon sellers, collects three of these one-off stories, written by J. Scott Campbell and Andy Hartnell, with art by Art Adams, Joe Chiodo and Phil Noto.

Nothing happens in them. In the original series, there was a lovely tongue-in-cheek vibe, but also a genuine sense that the characters were up against impossible odds and a sense that the storyline actually mattered somewhat. These are frothy throw-aways, as deep as Scooby Doo. Phil Noto's artwork is certainly gorgeous, but when the characters are actively pointing out the similarities between their Hawaiian adventure and the one on The Brady Bunch, you're not even looking at good popcorn, but rather that stuff you get in vending machines.

I got my copy for three bucks from Great Escape in Nashville, but the darn book is out of print and priced at three figures by sellers on Amazon and eBay. Check it yourself by clicking the image. I'd get a seller's account and dump my copy for that price in a heartbeat, if the books on offer weren't just sitting there with no bids.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Thurber Carnival

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of The Thurber Carnival (Harper, 1945).

Isn't it strange and sad how James Thurber has been slowly slipping out of the public consciousness? I can recall in college having a stapled photocopy of all his "Male Approach" drawings, and could identify a friend or acquaintance who matched the behavior of each one of the cartoons in the set. And yet, a couple of months ago, I came across a much-loved and cared-for umpteenth edition of The Thurber Carnival and realized I had not thought about Thurber in years.

At one time, this book was probably a resident of most of the bookshelves in this country. Originally published in 1945, it's a large omnibus which compiled the entirety of the earlier My World and Welcome to It and selected essays and stories from six previous anthologies, along with some of his cartoons. The scattershot approach sort of makes you glad that publishers don't really assemble books in this fashion much anymore.

Of course, it's all wonderful stuff, with the quiet observations of people's public, and occasionally over-the-top behavior contrasting the actions they repress. Thurber was every bit the equal of America's greatest humorists, and I was really amused to consider that no matter how much our culture homogenizes, no matter how much we bury ourselves in technological geegaws, the middle-class male is much the same as he was seventy years ago. And dogs, well, they never change. This very funny book deserves to once again be a resident of most of the bookshelves in this country.

(What? You mean when you were in college, people didn't carry stapled photocopies of Thurber in their backpacks? How strange!)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Crogan's Vengeance

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Crogan's Vengeance (Oni, 2008).

I've met the very talented Chris Schweizer a couple of times and he's such a fun, engaging guy that I was really looking forward to trying his stuff. I picked up a copy of Crogan's Vengeance, the first in a projected series of sixteen books charting the adventures of several members of a family who've lived far more exciting lives than you, from Chris at the Fluke mini-con in Athens, and enjoyed it thoroughly. This book presents a tale of piratical action of "Catfoot" Crogan. Later this year, Oni will publish Crogan's March, featuring a descendant's tale in the French Foreign Legion, and, unable to help myself, I've suggested he get to the hard-boiled detective story sooner rather than later.

A nicely-designed and packaged hardcover story, this is a perfect way to spend a long lunch hour, enjoying Crogan's unhappy time in the service of a numbskull, service which abruptly ends when pirates seize the ship and Crogan gets a place among their number, but makes dangerous enemies along the way. Schweizer's eye for research and details really helps sell this story. His loose style took a little getting used to, but I love his inking and all the intricate work in the backgrounds, really making this great fun to dig into and appreciate the artwork as much as the thrilling little story.

How much did I like this book? Well, some years back, I briefly dated this girl out in Madison who enjoys pirate adventures. She and I parted on terrible terms and have only communicated in sneers towards each other since, and yet when I read this a few weeks ago, I found myself wishing she would read it. It's that fun: an all-ages romp that I recommend for you, your kids, and even your arch-enemies, should you have any.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tales of Unusual Circumstance, The Losers and Stars and STRIPE volume two

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, reviews of three books I finished before I started rushing around and getting married and not having time to blog about them: Tales of Unusual Circumstance (self-published, 2008), Jack Kirby's The Losers (DC, 2009) and Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. volume two (DC, 2007).

I've met Joey a couple of times and have been very impressed by his cartooning chops. He's released several cute books of witty, all-ages-friendly material. This one collects several tales from earlier minicomics and anthologies. There are some recurring characters, such as a hapless romantic pig and a superhero who's afraid of girls, and one story features the "Late Night Gang" of little kid monsters (similar to Akira Toriyama's Cowa), who've since graduated to their own minicomic. It's rarely a kneeslapper, but Joey's mix of clever writing and design will certainly have you smiling while you read it. Good stuff, and recommended.

The story goes that Jack Kirby was never happy writing with other peoples' characters. What then to make of The Losers, a feature which teamed four C-List military men from the pages of DC's war comics, which is without argument one of the best war titles that publisher ever released? There's a lot of memory cheating when it comes to these titles; recent reissues of Sgt. Rock and Haunted Tank have shown all the creaks in books which have not aged well at all, but the little-known Losers is just hugely fun, with fabulous plotting, surprise twists, believable characters and the artist's commitment to do the job right, without the shortcuts and cliches that you often found in these books. Kirby was on the book for twelve issues, and every one is a complete gem, easily a match for and often superior to the material in my beloved Battle Picture Weekly. DC's new edition is an oversized color hardback, which comes highly recommended.

And then there's this...

I tried to like this book the second time around. When Stars and STRIPE was originally released, I was determined to like it, and for a late '90s superhero book, there is far worse out there. But this is forgettable flotsam, and I would have never traded my originals for a more durable and convenient paperback edition had my daughter not expressed an interest in it.

Honestly, volume two scores over its predecessor because none of the stories ever rush to an end so the characters can get to the next big DC Universe crossover, but it's still a navel-gazing exercise in continuity and the glorious heritage of superhero lineage, which is only important because the characters demand that be the case. What to make of a character's conveniently-unmentioned son from a previous marriage, who's come to town because he wants to be the next Star-Spangled Kid. Who wanted to be the first Star-Spangled Kid, honestly? Geoff Johns' obsession with this heritage issue is baffling since it would appear only he gets to decide who's worthy of carrying on these wholly unimportant legacies. If any other writer comes up with a new Wildcat or Polar Boy, Johns rips their arms off, but his own characters twinkle with the awesome responsibility of living up to a name that's only meaningful because the writer demands that it is.

That's the grouchy position of a jaded former fanboy, but having obtained this mess for my daughter, I can tell you that she says that she enjoyed it, but probably not much. "Was that how it ended?" she asked. "Yes, but I believe that Courtney's adventures go on in the JSA comic book, where she's a member. I can get you some of those, if you like." It took her less than two seconds to say "Naaaah, never mind." Make of that what you will.