Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Rabbi's Cat

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Rabbi's Cat (Pantheon, 2007).

I've noticed so many glowing reviews of The Rabbi's Cat by the French cartoonist Joann Sfar that I finally started looking out for a copy, finding a discounted one in one of Nashville's Great Escape locations earlier in the summer. I didn't know anything about it, but I'm mercurial enough that sometimes a little critical praise is enough to make me want to check something out sight otherwise unseen, but, y'know, as cheaply as possible.

At any rate, I found a completely delightful little story set in prewar French Algeria, where an elderly rabbi lives with his lovely daughter Zlabya, and one weird-looking, truth-telling cat, who gains the power of speech after eating a parakeet and stealing its ability to talk. The cat immediately makes a nuisance of itself, upsetting the household to the point that the rabbi has to question whether it might not be a good idea for the cat to have a bar mitzvah after all.

Over the course of the three stories reprinted here - they originally appeared in the 48-page annual "albums" common to France - the cat gains and loses his speech, debates the importance of family and culture with a lion, and accompanies Zlabya and her father on Zlabya's honeymoon trip to Paris to meet her new in-laws. This ill-timed trip coincides with Shabbat, and the rabbi's inability and refusal to spend any money for a hotel room.

I enjoyed the heck out of all three stories. I love Sfar's style, with so much expression and humor wrought from minimal linework. The story's extremely witty, with the grouchy rabbi suggesting offense can be taken from everybody's well-meaning actions. It's hugely charming from start to finish. There are two further Rabbi's Cat stories. These are available in a second compiled edition for the US market, and I'll have to track that down soon. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Rubber Band

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Rubber Band (Farrar & Rinehart, 1936).

Bantam has begun reissuing the Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout in omnibus editions, two a book. This is the first one I've needed to pick up, as The Rubber Band, the third Wolfe novel, was absent from my wife's large collection. It's a terrific story in which Wolfe declines to investigate an office robbery, as the most likely suspect of the crime is embroiled in a more unusual case. About fifty years previously, an English nobleman had promised half his wealth to some fellows in the Old West if they got him out of a certain lynching, and the most likely suspect of the office robbery just happens to be the daughter of one of those fellows, and is trying to hit the nobleman up for the old debt while he's in New York. Things get more complicated when one of the fellows who flew in for the meeting ends up dead just after leaving Wolfe's office.

It's a fun read, and it has Inspector Cramer and a host of other city officials yelling on Wolfe's doorstep, which is always a delight. I haven't a great deal more to say than that; three novels in and I haven't been even remotely disappointed yet.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! More Comics of Fletcher Hanks (Fantagraphics, 2009).

Let's keep it simple, shall we? You see this panel here?

The whole book's like this. Every page. It's a nutty thing of beauty. You must buy it.

Oh, you want more? Okay. The follow-up to 2007's I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, this compiles every remaining known Fletcher Hanks comic from the 1939-41 period when he was in the business and there was a perceived market for the thrilling adventures of lumberjacks and space wizards. It's edited, again, by Paul Karasik and while the more completely insane adventures made it into part one, there are still more than enough examples here of gory punishments, fifth columnists, black market timber dealers, bizarre chants, brows furrowed in fury, floating vaults, transmitting belts, Saturnian castles and science so unbelievably whacked that the creators of freaking Buck Rogers were probably reacting against Hanks with their comparatively realistic and down-to-earth take on physics.

More than twelve pages of this and your eyeballs hurt. Every story is downright demented. You must buy it. Understand me?

O Jerusalem

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of O Jerusalem (Bantam, 1999).

This one was a bit of a challenge. After four novels in her series of revisionist Sherlock Holmes stories, Laurie King elected to use the fifth to plug an old plot hole in the first, throwing off and disappointing any reader who was hoping to see the characters grow and progress. Back in that first novel (reviewed here), Holmes and his protege Mary Russell are forced to flee England after their unseen foe proves, with a bomb attack, that she's one step ahead of them. The narrative then skips forward, noting that it was many months before they could return, and that Mycroft Holmes had found a job for them in British-occupied Palestine, among other travels.

So O Jerusalem is the story of that job, and it's a real slog to get through. I can understand why King wished to come back to it. The fourth book in her series, The Moor, vividly brings the location to life, so that it is as much a character in the story as any human, and King's lingering discussion of topography and history is as entrancing as the most satisfying backstory and character development. She clearly had developed the talent, over the course of her nineties work, to attempt the same here, with endless, detailed focus on the desert sands, the cities they visit, and the difficulties in Russell adapting to the Holy Land's culture.

Yet it doesn't work for me, not at all. You may chalk this up to personal disinterest in the region or my deficiencies as a prose reader if you like, but to be honest, the "leaving the country" material in The Beekeeper's Apprentice was easily the only skippable section of that novel for me, and in the short space of a few months between reading Apprentice and this, I had entirely forgotten that Holmes and Russell had left England at all. As a character piece, hiding Mary Russell under shoe polish and spectacles and posing as a quiet and unassuming man lost its luster almost instantly, and as an adventure story, the hundred-odd pages of running in circles, our heroes "tested" by their minders in the Holy Land before being trusted to meet the local spymaster who needs them to uncover and foil an assassination scheme, are agonizing. After a day's reading, I realized that I still had no idea what the plot of this novel was, and became frustrated and bored as King lingered on one set piece after another, looking for any kind of narrative thread to link them.

All of this compounds the basic problem going into the book in the first place. In each of the previous four novels in the series, King was able to surprise and blindside me with a new development of the characters and their relationship, and these "reveals," the understanding that what will come next, are part of the thrill of reading the stories in the first place. That's a testament to King's skill at making believable, engaging characters and more than just another dry Holmes pastiche. But we already know going in what will come next for Holmes and Russell going in to O Jerusalem: they'll go back to England and finish that more interesting adventure. Even to somebody who's begun this series, I can't recommend this book at all. I've certainly no interest in trying it again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken (Drawn & Quarterly, 1996).

Since I've been known to rave about Seth's wonderful comics and book designs around these parts, I figured I should probably look into some of his earlier material. It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken was originally published in the 1990s, serialized in his occasionally-appearing comic Palookaville, and it's been whispering "buy me" for years. I finally picked up a copy in Toronto on my honeymoon earlier this summer; it sort of cries out to be bought in Canada.

It's a quasi-autobiography in which Seth lets a promising relationship with a cute student fall apart while he's focussed on an archaeological quest for an obscure gag cartoonist called Kalo. None of this really happened in the real world the way it's portrayed here - there never was a Kalo, neither in the pages of The New Yorker nor anywhere else - but it doesn't really matter. It strikes me as entirely possible that Seth's consuming desire to investigate fictional histories of might-have-beens like Kalo, Wimbledon Green and George Sprott could have cost him a present-day relationship or two over the years.

It's very interesting to see how Seth's style has developed over the years. His lines are thinner, and his anatomy is off, but the gorgeous, muted, single-color approach and his use of lengthy montages of establishing shots are present early on. It's a vibrant, sad and lovely work, and I'm glad I finally bought a copy. Recommended for older readers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted (DC/Vertigo, 2009).

Every few years, I think the lawyers at DC Comics have a minor freakout regarding trademark protection, and realize they're about to lose some characters unless they use them. If the characters are more known for sorcery than spandex, they'll let some writer pitch an idea and publish the result under their Vertigo imprint. So for the last twentyish years, the magic users of the DC Universe have all been isolated in one little ghetto where they won't bother the mainstream continuity much.

Don't get me wrong, Matt Wagner does this sort of thing better than just about anybody, and if you've got a little background in the universe that Neil Gaiman built in The Sandman and The Books of Magic, then nothing here will be lost on you. "Disenchanted" collects the first ten issues of Madame Xanadu, five two-part stories, at the incredibly nice price of $13. In it, we learn about the centuries-old conflict between the titular character, a Tarot-reading sorceress who was called Nimue in Arthurian times, and the Phantom Stranger, a moody weirdo who might, or might not, be the Wandering Jew that spat at Christ and has been acting as an agent of unknown forces ever since. (And who doesn't make half as much sense as when Jim Aparo draws him in a turtleneck punching somebody, but that's neither here nor there.)

Xanadu and the Stranger meet up in the English forest, in Kublai Khan, in the Reign of Terror, in Whitechapel and finally in New York in the thirties, each time getting Xanadu increasingly aggravated with the Stranger's obstinate refusal to explain his place in this thousand-year narrative. Gaiman's Death shows up, as does Kirby's Demon and Zatara the sorcerer and the Spectre, much as you might expect.

In fact, absolutely nothing happens here that's very surprising at all. The stories are as good as you might expect from Wagner, and the artwork by Amy Reeder Hadley is quite good, but it is a stubbornly inconsequential book, ending with the stage finally set for Madame Xanadu to become the Greenwich village fortune teller that she was when she was first introduced in comics thirty years ago, and, presumably, start some new adventures in the eleventh issue of her new Vertigo title. All this backstory is pleasant enough, but had I known that was all I'd be getting in volume one, I would have waited for volume two to start reading. It's a shame that Wagner and Hadley didn't actually start with Madame Xanadu's adventures in the present day, and save these little histories for interludes between the modern adventures. Recommended for Sandman fans.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (Abrams ComicArts, 2009).

This book just screams "labor of love." Obviously ages in the making, Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle have assembled a terrific biography of Harvey Kurtzman, the great American humorist behind Mad and Humbug and so many other hilarious comics and magazines (including the short-lived Trump, the collected edition of which, wouldyabelieveit, has been postponed again, to the spring of 2010). It's another great hardcover presentation from the good folk at Abrams ComicArts, full of illustrative examples and commentary by the authors, as they retell the story of Kurtzman's life and career.

I never really know how to review a biography, so I'll just say that there's a heck of a lot of information in here that's new to me, and it's presented in such a vibrant and fun way that it will make any reader want to know even more about Kurtzman's work. For me, it's definitely Help, a magazine that I desperately want to learn more about and see more from, and this book only made me frustrated because it's not presently available.

But while Goodman Beaver might, to my mind, be underrepresented, it's more than matched by the overwhelming amount of material for Little Annie Fanny's twenty-six year run. And while here at the Boookshelf, the collected edition of that comic proved that a little Annie goes a long way, the look behind the scenes here is pretty fascinating, including a breakdown of one page's development across several overlays of tracing paper, and the book's real highlight: a never-before-printed episode which Playboy had turned down.

While the inclusion of so much Annie material registers this as a book for older readers, it's certainly one that anybody curious about Kurtzman or Mad should check out. It's definitely on my shortlist for book of the year, and strongly recommended.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Get Your War On

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Get Your War On (Soft Skull, 2008).

Some weeks back, I found myself pleased to read over Peter Bagge's recent Everybody is Stupid Except for Me, and considered how odd it felt to be reading political opinions with which I rarely agree, but enjoying their presentation so much. What then, to make of David Rees's webcomic Get Your War On, a viewpoint I agree with entirely, presented in a repetitive, obnoxious and shrill way that just left me exhausted and bored?

I think it was the critic Eleanor Ringel, reviewing Oliver Stone's JFK, who likened that experience to being trapped on a long airline flight with a grassy-knoller who just will not shut up. I was reminded of that constantly on this very long slog through dense word balloons and constant bad language. Every "character," and I use that term loosely, is incredibly well-read, and a remarkable wordsmith, able to drop lengthy, sarcastic bon mots into every conversation.

Don't get me wrong; I agree with damn near every sentiment that Rees expressed in this book. Indeed, I wish we had more writers and cartoonists with his anger and drive working in the public eye during Bush's presidency, but it's just endless bellowing in what ends up as a boring monotone.

And it just goes on and on, for 256 eyeball-bludgeoning pages. Eventually, the red ink will overwhelm your eyes so much that you'll see the clip art on the walls on the walls of your house and the insides of your eyelids. This is said to be the complete archive of Rees's strip, and if that's true, I appreciate the effort to get it right, even if for some reason it lacks page numbers. But it doesn't matter how much I agree with Rees about the right-wing's descent into insanity and hysteria over the first half of this decade, much like a twelve-hour director's cut of Fahrenheit 911, this is just not an experience that I ever want to have again. Not recommended.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Swallowing the Earth

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Swallowing the Earth (DMP, 2009).

Slowly but surely, American audiences are getting a better, broader view of Osamu Tezuka's remarkable body of comics work. Over the past twelve months, Vertical has been releasing two of his well-known series, Dororo (across three volumes) and Black Jack (five of a planned seventeen available). In June, another publisher, Digital Manga Press, released their first Tezuka collection. It's an omnibus edition of Swallowing the Earth, a serial I had not known of until they announced it. It originally appeared in a fifteen-month run in the pages of Big Comic in 1968-69, and apparently marked Tezuka's first attempt at storytelling for older readers. The result is a sprawling, wild and very satisfying 500-page read.

Our principal hero in this story is a guy named Gohonmatsu Seki, a blue-collar lug who can consume his weight in liquor, and isn't happy unless he's doing so, and who has no time or patience for ladies. Twenty-five years earlier, during the war, his father and a fellow soldier named Adachigahara crossed paths with an impossibly beautiful woman called Zephyrus. When this voluptuous beauty queen shows up in Japan not having aged a day, Adachigahara, now a successful business tycoon, enlists the younger Seki to investigate her.

What Gohonmatsu uncovers is a massive international conspiracy with a number of look-alikes of Zephyrus, working from a base of operations somewhere in the South Pacific, on an island home to the ruins of the ancient civilization of Moo. The story lurches oddly from one set piece to another, incorporating everything from strange factories in the American southwest to wince-inducingly dated depictions of booga-booga natives on lost islands. Gohonmatsu, a lowbrow everyman uncomfortably thrown into the James Bond role, is incredibly out of his depth, but his adventures are so bizarre and so captivating that readers will be swept along with him.

I just had a ball reading this, and can't imagine how much fun it must have been to watch it unfold in Big Comic, when any month could bring readers a group of new characters in a new setting, wondering how it will relate to the main story. There are wild subplots and fascinating diversions and it's just incredibly easy to get completely sucked in to this story. Swallowing the Earth was not on my list of top five most wanted Tezuka comics, but I'm very glad that DMP released it, and I hope it's successful enough for them to bring us some more from his library before too long. Recommended for teens and older.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Judge Dredd: Heavy Metal Dredd

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Dredd: Heavy Metal Dredd (Rebellion, 2009)

In April, Rebellion released the collected edition of Heavy Metal Dredd, with all twenty blood-spattered episodes of this early nineties series. It's not really essential. There have only been a pair of Rebellion books in the last five years which I would advise readers skip on account of production issues. This is the first one I'd advise readers skip on account of it being completely awful.

Basically, around the time of Judgement on Gotham and Simon Bisley's brief turn in the limelight, the European metal mag Rock Power got together with Fleetway and commissioned a few Dredd episodes by Wagner, Alan Grant and Bisley. These were Dredd one-offs with the volume turned up to twelve; overcharged, simplistic, hyper-violent stories of motorcycle maniacs, testosterone-fueled beatings and over-the-top exit wounds. There's nothing subtle about them, and they're entirely subplot-free. They were designed for thirteen year-old meatheads and filled their gore-and-leather remit with abandon.

These were reprinted in England in the Judge Dredd Megazine and proved popular enough to warrant commissioning a few more episodes. Most of these were written by John Smith and painted by the likes of Colin MacNeil or John Hicklenton, who contributed this collected edition's new cover.

Rebellion does deserve some points for making this a very solid collection on its own merits. It does include all the stories in their original order, with good reproduction, full credits and an introduction by Hicklenton. However, there's very little wit or humor anywhere in these dingbat stories, and there's no reason for anybody other than completists to pick up this book. That Rebellion released this instead of a complete Stainless Steel Rat is a huge shame.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Showcase Presents Bat Lash

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Showcase Presents Bat Lash (DC, 2009).

I was looking forward to this book for several reasons. For starters, I hadn't read a single page that's been reprinted in it before. I was familiar with the character of Bat Lash, a Western dandy of a gunslinger, from some appearances he'd made in some of DC's other cowboy comics in the early 1980s. I enjoyed at least the concept of a flower-loving drifter who repeatedly gets caught up in violent skirmishes in crowded saloons, but never saw his original appearances.

Much later on, I learned the character was co-created by the great Sergio Aragonés and drawn by the great Nick Cardy, and DC has finally reprinted all of his original adventures in one handy Showcase Presents volume, and it's a cracker. I've always enjoyed Cardy's work, but there are some pages in here which knocked me on my socks. Most memorable is a great splash page where the camera is above a crowd of kids scampering around the roof rafters looking down on a big mob of people below them with their guns drawn on Bat Lash, and it's just a marvel to see such a vibrant, original composition in what could have been a much more humdrum drawing.

Most of the stories are co-written by Aragonés and Denny O'Neil, and they're all incredibly entertaining. Bat Lash is, at his core, a hippie a hundred years early. He just moseys from place to place playing cards, picking flowers and romancing the ladies, not wanting to get into trouble but finding astonishing amounts of it. He's not too far removed from Maverick, which remains, more than half a century later, one of the nine or ten best shows ever made for American TV, so I think that's a good comparison to make. It's got that same sense of subversion, putting a protagonist in play who really doesn't want to do anything heroic, but acts out of self-interest and a rascally desire to undercut authority.

Bat Lash was not a hit back in the sixties. The character first appeared in an issue of the original Showcase anthology before getting his own series, which only lasted seven issues and was canceled in 1969. This collection reprints all eight, along with two later appearances. One of these was a 1978 story that appeared in a later anthology series, written by O'Neil, and another was a three-part adventure scripted by Len Wein that appeared as a backup feature across three issues of Jonah Hex in 1981. Even without Aragonés and Cardy, these are still very good, entertaining stories.

The collection is one of two currently available in DC's Showcase Presents line which have gained the fan nickname "Skinny Showcases." Instead of the usual 500 pages for $17, these reprint about 250 pages for ten bucks. It's an ideal solution for characters like Bat Lash who don't have a great deal of material available for reprinting, but the stories are so darn good they deserve to be seen again. Honestly, the originals are clearly among the best comics that DC published in the 1960s, and so ten bucks is a pretty small price to pay to see them again. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Love to Love You Bradys

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Love to Love You Bradys (ECW, 2009).

How odd! I was just talking about Sid & Marty Krofft in my LiveJournal yesterday, as I tend to sometimes, and here I stumble upon this brand-new gigantic book about one of their best-remembered variety shows: the astonishing, appalling Brady Bunch Variety Hour. It's something else; this book is more than three hundred pages long. If you still have questions about the Kroffts' Brady variety show after this, even I am going to say that you've got too much time on your hands.

So I found this and immediately sat down to absorb all three hundred of its pages, and I cannot think of a pebble left undisturbed in the authors' quest for understanding just how one of television's biggest flops became such a flop. The book was written by Brady expert Ted Nichelson, along with actress Susan Olsen and Lisa Sutton, and they had on-the-record cooperation from pretty much everybody still living except Ann B. Davis, who really wanted nothing more to do with it.

What all's in this book? Every avenue that good television reference books pave is followed, from the show's origins to network interference to behind-the-scenes photos of every stage of its production. There are twenty pages about the troupe of synchronized swimmers, reproductions of the costume designs and discussions of the program's parodies on The Simpsons and That 70s Show. Even the pre-titles sequence of a third season Gilmore Girls, in which Lorelai and Rory are watching an episode, is transcribed and discussed. The only thing it doesn't have is a sampling of Rip Taylor's confetti falling out from the pages as you try to read it.

Despite its detailed, specialist nature, the book is a breezy, anecdotal read, full of showbiz dirt and gossip, but done very professionally. It's a lavishly designed collection, full of color photos and a million miles removed from the cheapo cash-ins that used to litter the "Film & TV" shelves at Borders. It's right up to date, too. Farrah Fawcett had guest-starred in one episode, and her death, just nine weeks ago, is referenced in the text.

I used to be incredibly interested in the production minutiae of television, and have shelves full of TV reference books. Offhand, I can think of about six that are about as good as this one. If you've got any interest in the Kroffts or the Bradys or TV production or 1970s pop culture, this is a must-have.

Fin Fang Four Return!

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Fin Fang Four Return! (Marvel, 2009).

Hey, have I mentioned how Roger Langridge is one of my favorite comic artists? I have? Several times? Well, let me mention it again. Fin Fang Four is an occasional project he and his former Doctor Who collaborator Scott Gray have released for Marvel, in which four former threats to humanity have been shrunk to more manageable size and get menial jobs in New York City. On those rare occasions that new installments arrive, they are the best thing that Marvel Comics releases these days.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Marvel released these silly and fun giant monster comics, in which the human race was faced with doom at the hands of beasties like Gorgilla, or Googam, the son of Goom. These were later incorporated into the company's superhero universe - I believe that they further aped the Godzilla concept by even giving them all their own "Monster Island" - but more often than not, they were wheeled out whenever it was necessary to protect the trademarks.

In the Fin Fang Four continuity, Gorgilla, Googam, the robot Elektro and the Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom have all been shrunk by Reed Richards and the courts have ordered them to do community service. They have group therapy with Marvel's resident shrink, Doc Samson, and when they're not parking cars, they're scheming to get adopted by pop stars who collect orphans. And poor Elektro, mistaken for somebody else with the same name, finds out what becomes of D-list criminals from Spider-Man comics...

The Fin Fang Four books are just terrific. They're really funny reads which play with the sillier concepts of both modern pop culture and with the rules of the Marvel Universe. I know Langridge has a Muppets comic due every month now, but hopefully he'll have enough spare time to work a little on the side with these characters, and we'll see them again before too much longer. I certainly recommend you ask your local comic shop about getting a copy of this. Marvel needs to get the word that more lighthearted, fun books like this are what we'd like to see!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cover Her Face

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Cover Her Face (Faber & Faber, 1962).

I can tell before I start writing that this will be less of a review than a "where I'm at" note. With a little more reading time available to me these days, I've decided to tackle a few more novels, and am rotating between Laurie King, Rex Stout and P.D. James, in their original publication order, and will resume Dorothy Sayers after I finish King's series of Holmes and Russell books.

Unlike Stout and King, I am pretty familiar with P.D. James already. I read all of her books, up through A Certain Justice, several years ago, and I think she's a simply amazing writer. I believe that Sayers' Gaudy Night is the best novel of the twentieth century; A Taste for Death by James is my runner-up, so I'm looking forward to digging into that one again soon. Bizarrely, that would be one of the two James novels, apart from the newer ones I need to buy, that I do not seem to have on my bookshelves currently. I can't think who borrowed that from me.

I was also missing the very first Adam Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, which was written in 1962, so I popped over to the Prado and shelled out for one of these stupidly expensive new "prestige" paperbacks just so I could start reading it the following morning, instead of waiting a few days and finding a sensibly-priced copy somewhere else. I'm kind of stubborn that way, and I always end up kicking myself over it. I'll tell you what's more obnoxious than paying a premium price for a paperback: getting one whose cover folds up and stays that way the very first time you open it. Or more obnoxious than that: getting one whose typesetters and copy editors consistently misspell Dalgliesh's name every single time it appears in the text, reversing the i and e. The next James novel on my shelf is a decades-old edition that still has the $1.50 price tag from Waldenbooks on it, and it was produced with eleven times the care that this more expensive volume was.

At any rate, while time passes in Adam Dalgliesh's life and novels (fourteen, I believe), it can't pass at the same rate it's taken James to write them all. The character appears to be in his early forties in this novel, and yet he's still active as a Commander at Scotland Yard some forty-six years later in 2008. I found visualizing the action to be almost as amusing as enjoying the author's prose. Trying to place the actors in 1962, I found myself watching the action as though it was 425-line black-and-white videotape, and cast such actors as Jacqueline Hill and Ian Hendry among the players. Dalgliesh, of course, is Roy Marsden, who starred in those wonderful six-hour adaptations for Anglia TV in the 1980s. Eventually, though, I couldn't reconcile the 46-year timeline to the realities of life, and so I retrofitted the work to 1972 and by the end of the novel, everybody was wearing wide, Jason King neckties. This may clue you in to how comic books and teevee have rotted my brain for prose.

As for the novel itself, it is slight but still entertaining. One thing that makes James's novels stand out is the way that Dalgliesh is given the requisite quirks and traits of any of detective fiction's great heroes - he's a moody, brooding poet who never got over the death of his wife and infant son just a few hours after the baby's birth - but James never lets Dalgliesh's personality and character overwhelm the narrative. In any Sayers story - in fact, in almost any work of detective fiction that is part of a series - I believe that we read because the characterization or the narration is so very entertaining. Yet in a James novel, Dalgliesh is rarely the central figure. She keeps the focus very much on the individuals who become suspects, and plays with their fraying, unraveling lives in the wake of a murder. Dalgliesh himself never dominates the story, and stays mostly on the edges, and we frequently see the suspects learn that he has already been to some place or other and questioned somebody before they got there.

Cover Her Face takes too long to finish its climax. There's far too much of an adherence to the Agatha Christie school of rounding up all the suspects for the drawing room conclusion, and less of an honest depiction of how the police really would operate in a procedural like this. I believe that several of the author's early novels fall into this trap; James had not yet found the voice that would make her books after 1971 or thereabouts so incredibly vivid and real. In short, it's a very flawed debut, and honestly, not altogether promising. There are very good moments in this, tremendously good ones in fact, and some excellent characters, but honestly, I'd recommend that anybody coming to James start with Shroud for a Nightingale instead of beginning chronologically, so you can get a better feel of what she's capable of creating.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Requiem - Vampire Knight: Resurrection

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Requiem - Vampire Knight: Resurrection (Heavy Metal, 2009).

I spent years raising an eyebrow about this title, and boy, was I ever wrong. Requiem: Vampire Knight is a series of annual 48-page stories that Pat Mills scripts for a French publisher. Eight episodes, of a projected twelve, have been published. It's fully painted by Oliver Ledroit, and, translated into English, it appears annually in the pages of Heavy Metal, which I'd like to not set off alarm bells, but the magazine's presented far more terrible comics than good ones over the years. Plus, y'understand, I kinda got bored of vampires a really long time ago.

Still, the Guv'nor has written enough great comics to pique my curiosity when I saw a collected edition of this in Diamond's catalog a few months back, so I figured it was worth a try, and I'm very glad I did. Apparently, Mills began putting Requiem together during a frustrating period away from 2000 AD, where he and then-editor Andy Diggle locked horns over multiple issues, and the break clearly did everybody a world of good, because this is a terrific comic.

It starts in World War Two, where, in short order, a Nazi soldier named Heinrich learns that his girlfriend Rebecca is Jewish and then he gets shot dead with a bullet to the face. He wakes up on the planet Resurrection, where time flows backwards and morality is completely inverted. Here, evil gits like him have become vampires and are charged with acting as a police force of sorts, with an endless supply of willing victims, but constant intrusions into their order by new arrivals from throughout Earth's history and future. It's a world where archaeologists are charged with burying the past, and where the rulers of each social caste are, since time moves in reverse here, insane, hyperintelligent babies.

This book is absolutely bugnuts, and I mean that in the best possible way. About every eight pages, Mills ratchets up the stakes by adding crazy new concepts and characters, and giving the planet a wider, weirder scope than readers will be expecting going in. It probably wouldn't surprise anybody with a background in this kind of fiction to learn that Rebecca has reincarnated on Resurrection as well, and that the former lovers are now in opposition, but the nature of the Rebecca's new status as a ghoul is pretty stunning, particularly after we've met a trio of ghouls who steer flying pirate ships in air raids over major cities. The politics and infighting among the higher echelons of the vampires is truly fascinating stuff, and then we meet the giant, cybernetic werewolves...

The series has a pretty casual approach to violence and nudity which won't be to all readers' taste and marks this as a book for over-18s. That said, I'm very glad to finally have the chance to read Requiem, which certainly ranks among my favorite series by Mills. This English-language edition, published in the US by Heavy Metal, reprints the first three 48-page episodes in a 144-page book. Sadly, there are no additional features or background material presented; the annotations and supplementary information that Mills has provided for Rebellion and Titan are sorely missed here.

Sad to say, there seems to be a little publication confusion; it appears that Panini will also be releasing volumes this year, but each of these will only have two episodes per book, at 112 pages. I'd like to get that cleared up before folk start spending money on the wrong series. At any rate, this is highly recommended for older audiences, especially the ones like me who were a little skeptical!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Little Annie Fanny volume 2: 1970-1988

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Little Annie Fanny volume 2: 1970-1988 (Dark Horse, 2001).

Back in March, excited by the release of Fantagraphics' wonderful Humbug collection and the forthcoming Trump from Dark Horse, my interest in Harvey Kurtzman's work led me to pick up the second of two volumes of Little Annie Fanny, the strip that he and Will Elder did for Playboy from 1962-88. That it took me five months to finish the book might indicate what a chore it turned out to be.

Dark Horse's presentation of the strips is certainly lavish, with several pages of annotations and supplementary material which includes examples of pages from several stages of development, but the strips themselves were never meant to be read in this context. There's no continuity to speak of, nor running subplots. You get three pages of the hopelessly naive Annie being introduced to the latest stupid fad of the 1970s and she ends up naked, and then three more pages where the same thing happens at a disco, and then three more pages where the same thing happens at a spa, or at St. Tropez. Perhaps the earlier strips in the first volume might play with the format a little bit, but if you've read fifteen pages of this book, you've read the whole thing more than once.

That's not to say that Kurtzman and Elder weren't right to mock the lowlights of popular culture with the zeal that they did, but it's all done in such a monotone, bored voice and absolutely no depth. By the time the book wraps up with strips from 1988, it really feels like opportunities are being missed left and right. At the end, the strip was cut down to only two pages, and that wasn't nearly enough to have fun with the televangelist dumbos who were filling the newspapers with scandalous behavior back then, never mind all the great opportunities for stories from that decade that were missed entirely.

Suffice it to say that while Dark Horse deserves praise for doing such a good job archiving this, all you really need from Little Annie Fanny is a single installment. The July 1970 episode, about underground newspapers, is certainly the best in the collection, and you can probably find that issue of Playboy in your dad's attic somewhere for a lot cheaper than this book. Not recommended.