Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Strange Tales

Strange Tales Strange Tales by Becky Cloonan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a child, my primary exposure to comics came from the Marvel stockpile with a sprinkling of DC, Archie, and Richie Rich. Being an Air Force brat living overseas for many of my prime being-brainwashed-by-comics years, I had access to The Stars and Stripes bookstore on base, and not much else. It was only as a teenager that I became aware of such things as independent and/or underground comics. For years, I was forced to "make mine Marvel".

Now, that's not a bad thing. I really enjoyed Thor, Conan, and anything with Silver Surfer in it. Even after I returned to the states, I collected Defenders for quite some time and even had a subscription to the Star Wars comics and (dare I admit it) The Dazzler. Mom bought me the latter, though I think she was way more enamored of the sparkly mutant songstress than I was, but, hey, it was thoughtful of her. Thanks, Mom!

But like any good thing, familiarity breeds contempt. By the time I was in my middle teen years, I was thoroughly burned out on Marvel and comics in general. I "graduated" to more adult-oriented publications like Epic Illustrated and Heavy Metal. For a long time I didn't seriously read comics at all.

Well, as you can see by my previous reviews, I've jumped back in the game and enjoy several titles, most notably Fatale and The Manhattan Projects.

So what ever happened to Marvel? Let's see, I burned out about the time Secret Wars was tying up. Then I came back to Marvel via the silver screen and discover that the franchise, from the movie side, anyway, has been ripped in twain. So, until contracts change, I won't be seeing Silver Surfer alongside Doctor Strange anytime soon. And that makes me sad. I just haven't had the heart to "make mine Marvel" again.

So what is the most natural thing to do with your idols after your idols have lost their holiness?

Mock them. Mercilessly.

And that's what Strange Tales does. It's as if Marvel got drunk and decided to give permission to a bunch of independent comic writers and artists to abuse their characters and storylines in whatever way they saw fit.

And, boy, did they! From the dark side of Peter Parker's supposed "super powers" to a domestically challenged Bruce Banner/Hulk as a Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde of the singles dating scene (I'm not kidding), the artists herein have stretched, chopped, boiled, and burned Marvel's sacred cows with shameless abandon. Imagine if Stan Lee had hired The Onion's staff in some bizarre alternate universe and you get the idea.

Not all of the stories worked for me. One was so abstract as to be incomprehensible. A couple were downright uninspired. But when they hit the nail, they do it with a resounding boom!

My favorite of the bunch was Tony Millionaire's Iron Man. This all-too-short strip harks back to the comic art and comedy of the early 20th-Century, falling halfway between homage and outright ridicule of both Marvel's Iron Man and the comics that preceded him.

If you're a Marvel purist who takes him- or herself too seriously, you're gonna hate this . . .

. . . and that's why I liked it. Not enough to make me get back into Marvel, but enough to justify keeping my distance. Gone are the days of Marvel and DC dominance. And I say, good riddance.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary ObsessionThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I had a penchant for spending time in the rare manuscripts rooms at both BYU and University of Wisconsin-Madison. While my studies in African History did require me to spend time there to peruse books for research, I enjoyed taking time to thumb through (with gloved hands, of course) everything from medieval manuscripts to pioneer journals to (my favorite) the entire selection of Yellow Book Quarterly, which had nothing at all to do with my research. But hey, I paid tuition (still am, thank you student loans), so I figured I could go in and read what I liked, so long as I left things undamaged and unsoiled by my grubby hands (hence the gloves). But I never once thought of stealing any of these books. Part of it was my conscience (I consider myself an honest person and I hate, hate, hate people who lie a lot), and part of it was security measures put in place to discourage temptation and crimes of opportunity. Now, having done a little writing myself, I know how much work goes into writing a book, let alone the outrageous consumption of time and materials that must have gone into books in the early modern era. Old books are treasures. They should be kept that way: safe and secure.

But there are people out there who will steal such books, usually, I am told, to resell them for profit.

But John Gilkey was is not such a man.

The title The Man Who Loved Books too Much would lead you to believe that Gilkey bought rare books with other people's credit card information because . . . well, he loved them. But the author shows that Gilkey stole rare books because he loved himself too much.

A few reviewers have rated this book poorly because they find Gilkey's acts reprehensible. Yes, they are. The man is a selfish slouch with a sense of entitlement that would give Ronald Reagan heart attacks. But I rate books solely on the book and whether or not it was successful. And here, I have to say . . . "meh".

Bartlett is a journalist. I'll admit to not having a very high opinion of most journalists (especially since I ran for local political office years ago and saw, firsthand, how they distort people's words to suit their own need for "the story"), but I thought I'd give her the benefit of the doubt. The whole schtick of the book - book thief, book detective, literary obsession - seemed very interesting.

And it was . . . until Bartlett decided to put herself in the book. I found the story of the book thief and his pursuit compelling reading. I was fascinated by the internal workings of the rare book industry.

But then . . . well, Allison, things got weird between us. You started wondering if you could get into the thief's head and went on and on about your involvement with the case. You forgot that there needs to be some element of objectivity in a journalistic piece and you questioned this very simple assumption. You did a layman's psychological self-examination of yourself and laid it all out for the reader. Only this reader didn't want it. The story was enough in itself. I loved the story. I don't know if the editor applied pressure, thinking it would sell more books or if you just needed the filler or what, exactly. But sometimes it's best to quit while your still ahead. Or, better yet, quit before you inadvertently shine the spotlight on yourself.


View all my reviews

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Lost Boy

The Lost BoyThe Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a huge fan of the game "Capture the Flag". I played a few times as a young man, but as an adult, I've become an aficionado. This is the result of several campouts as a leader of youth through BSA or being the leader of my church's youth group. I've played it dozens of times in a wide variety of areas. There's something thrilling about this game, especially if it's played over a wide expanse of forest. One tactic that I've used successfully involves teasing out the opposing players and noting their limits. While they might send out a couple of runners to go after your flag, chances are that there are at least a few of the opposing team who will stay close, but not too close, to their flag, tied by an invisible tether to its location. Once you work around and "pull" the opposing players out as far as they're willing to go, you can determine the whereabouts of their flag. You "pull" by intentionally exposing your position without being caught. The key is dropping hints that you are around, but not directly showing yourself. Rocks and sticks are best for this, if you have a good throwing arm. Or shaking a tree when you are certain you are out of the opposing team's direct line of sight tends to draw their attention. Throughout the course of several games, however, there will be times when you are seen and may be caught in the very act of deception. Sometimes you can still salvage the game, but you usually have to pull back and start approaching the enemy from a different angle. Once your cover is blown, your entire plan of attack can be ruined.

And this speaks to my only strong complaint about "The Lost Boy," by Greg Ruth. The artwork is amazing, the plot is stronger than many I've seen in graphic novels, and the characterization, for the most part, is good to great (more on that later). My biggest problem with the book is that Ruth plays his hand a little too strongly in a couple of places. Had he done so only once, I think this would be a strong contender for a five-star rating. But the mistake is made in a couple of places: foreshadowing becomes over-exposure, and the reader can easily guess key elements of how this is going to end up. Too easily. Toning down the foreshadowing would have done a great deal to push this graphic novel to near-perfection.

Back in the 1950s, a boy, Walt, disappears from a small town. In the present day, another boy, Nate, discovers an old tape player under the floorboards of his bedroom after he moves with his family into town. Nate listens to the tapes, which are narrated by Walt, so many decades ago, and begins to discover that Walt had learned of a fae world beyond the mundane in which dog-riding crickets and talking dolls are the norm. Nate's neighbor, Tabitha, seems to know something about this world, as well. The two of them team up to solve the mystery of where Walt disappeared and find themselves embroiled in events that will have consequences for far more than them or the small town in which they live. As the story progresses, we are introduced to more and more characters and slowly, a picture emerges of several factions vying for control of The Key, which will assure dominance in both the fae world and in the mundane world. Ruth does a masterful job of slowly introducing the different character's motives and intentions, but, in doing so, lets foreshadowing show a bit too much about future plot twists. In fact, what should have been a major plot twist is telegraphed far too plainly (and too early) by a conversation between the talking doll Tom Button and Haloran, an older man who serves as Walt's, then Nate and Tabitha's, guide to the other world.

All of the characters are strong and unique. None of them "bleed" into the others, as I've seen in too many graphic novels. I found the characters of Walt, Tabitha, and Baron Tick to be the most compelling and interesting. My one complaint is with Haloran, who becomes a sort of flawed messiah figure who knows his place in the worlds, but is not always sure how to act in them. While interesting, I felt that Haloran was flat, maybe a bit rushed. There are some deep, poignant moments, but the long stretches of silence, which were probably meant to imply an aloof wisdom, end up reading as a simple omission on the part of the writer.

Besides its flaws, "The Lost Boy" is a graphic novel that deserves your attention. It's not perfect, but it might have been. And the ending leaves the door open for possible future volumes, which I will watch for with keen interest.

It was a close game, this time. Maybe next time, Ruth will lure me out enough to sneak up, then rush in to capture the flag.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Free Books. Not E-books, but Real, Physical Books!

The publisher of my novel, Heraclix & Pomp, Resurrection House Publishing, is offering the opportunity to win a free book if you sign up for their mailing list. As one who HATES being on mailing lists, I can assure you that the intrusions are infrequent and always entertaining! And, in this case, you stand a decent chance of winning a Resurrection House book, even mine, if you so choose! Not an e-book, mind you, but a real life physical book. I think, in the case of Heraclix & Pomp, he'll be giving out the hardcover version. Here is the notice that was sent out by owner Mark Teppo. Please feel free to reblog/reshare/retweet to your heart's content. You'll find the mailing list sign up spot toward the bottom of the left column on the website (linked above). Enjoy and good luck!

"Let's fudge a bit and call this our six month anniversary. It's closer to seven actually, and we're five months away from the release of Chimpanzee, but the story is better if we call April 1st our six month anniversary. Halfway through our first year and halfway to our first new book. This seems like a milestone.  And actually, we just hit a nice round number on the mailing list, so double milestone. AND our new employee started today. TRIPLE MILESTONE. 

We should celebrate. Here's how we're going to do that: for every ten new subscribers to the mailing list, we'll pull one of their names at random and offer them a free book. It can be any existing Underland Press title or any of the four titles we've got planned for this fall. AND for every ten new subscribers we get, I'll pull a name from the existing subscriber list (in blocks of ten) and offer that person a free book as well. If we DOUBLE the existing mailing list in the month of April, I'll start over on the early adopters list again and give everyone another chance at a free book. Tell your friends! Let's grow that mailing list.

Welcome to April, my dear early enthusiasts. If this is a roller coaster ride, we're about to hit the top and start hurtling our way down the other side. Buckle up!"