NEW PROSE BOOKS

NEW BOOKS
Written by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

A few prose books from the major publishers have come through the inbox recently. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

I’ve long been aware of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, but this was my first encounter with his Isabel Dalhousie series of novels. THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS (Pantheon) is the ninth to feature the character, and that made me a bit nervous going into the book. However, to my surprise, McCall Smith does a fantastic job of introducing the character for new readers, setting up her life, her supporting cast, and her job in gentle, clear fashion. A philosopher by trade, she dabbles in being an amateur sleuth. In CLOUDS she is approached to help recover a stolen painting, mixing herself into the odd family dynamic of the victim. She also must deal with a number of small personal issues, as well. The prose here is absolutely lovely; McCall Smith has a gift for description that activates the senses and keeps them occupied. But the book is also rather light on actual story or plot. Nothing quite gets resolved as much as you would like it to. Perhaps that’s a nod to the open-endedness of Isabel’s chosen profession of philosopher, and if so that’s clever. That doesn’t make the ending any better or more satisfying, though.

Victoria Roberts is best known for her cartoons, as her work has been appearing in THE NEW YORKER for over twenty years. However, she branches out a bit with the illustrated novel AFTER THE FALL (W.W. Norton). The story is one of whimsy and wit; a family loses its entire fortune overnight, the next morning suddenly finding itself out of its penthouse and instead living scattered throughout Central Park, their belongings and their bodies relocated there overnight. Roberts embraces the absurdity of the instantaneous change in their lives and makes the most of it, weaving in multiple plotlines, crazier characters, and enough strange moments to launch a couple more books along the way. She executes the book in exquisite fashion, her illustrations and her words working together brilliantly, creating a crazy world that the reader can believe in and immediately develop an interest in. There never quite seems to be a point to it all, but suddenly, at the very end, Roberts hits you with the truth of her story and it sinks right down to your heart.

I still don’t quite know what to make of Mark Danielewski’s THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD (Pantheon). A story told by five different speakers, the book executes an unusual form of visual poetry. The plot deals with a mysterious storyteller who explains that he has a “fifty year sword” – a sword whose damage is not apparent until the 50th year of life of the person who has been cut by it. It won’t spoil things to say that the sword gets used and there are unfortunate results. But the tale is almost secondary, really; the star here is the presentation. The illustrations have actually been stitched, not drawn or painted. The tellers are set apart by the quotation marks that have been stitched in various colors. Their lines are intermingled with one another in a way that would do e.e. cummings proud. One of the struggles I had with the book was that the bells and whistles do tend to overwhelm the actual story at its core. It is an impressively ambitious work, no question about it. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have had it given the reader more opportunity to put focus into it.



ROSS-SOLARSKI

ROSS/VIDEO GAME ART
Written, Drawn, and Edited by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Comics and graphic novels have never looked better than they do these days. Thanks to better printing, a wider variety of colors, and more talented artists having interest in joining the field, we are in something of a renaissance age when it comes to ye olde funny books.

Mind you, this doesn’t always mean that the stories are better or that the storytelling is better. Just that the final product has a polish and a visual verve that old newsprint comics never had a chance to deliver. However, these older comics did have giants like Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert drawing them, and frankly, there aren’t a lot of talents in the business these days who aren’t just building off of what the legends started.

I was thinking about this stuff as a couple of new books crossed my desk for review. The first one was the paperback edition of ROUGH JUSTICE: THE DC COMICS SKETCHES OF ALEX ROSS (Pantheon). Ross is really the true patron saint of the painted comics movement, a man who took a niche area of comics art and exploded it into an astonishing mainstream popularity. His breakout success was MARVELS, but far more of his work has come from DC, including KINGDOM COME, JUSTICE, and an enormous number of covers. Thus, in this book, you get precisely what I was discussing above: a book that could not have really existed until now. We needed better printing, more colors, better paper in order to show of Ross’ talents to their fullest potential. The book itself does an excellent job if diving into Ross’ artistic process, showing everything from layouts, test sketches, and finished product. You also discover – and see from the artist’s own words – the influences on his work that the legends had. The book and its material are a fascinating mixture of homage and honest-to-god coolness. Definitely a potential holiday gift for the sophisticated fan in your life.

But I was far more surprised as I read through DRAWING BASICS AND VIDEO GAME ART by Chris Solarski (Watson-Guptill). I almost have difficulty categorizing this book; on one hand, it is very much a “how-to” volume, showing the reader how to master basic, classic art techniques, while on the other hand it reads like something of a plea. Solarski is fighting a battle here, trying to prove to the world that video games are an art form unto themselves and should be treated and respected as such. Not always an easy fight; a couple of years ago, film critic Roger Ebert picked a fight on the internet by saying that they weren’t art and incurred the wrath of ten thousand fanboys. Solarski’s methodology here is to show us the artistic techniques that every artist should know, and then he transposes them to the realm of video games to show how they should be used to create a far more artful gaming experience. For the most part, he’s successful in using logic and trying to make his point with examples. Will that convince the naysayers? Who knows? But if I were an artist planning to do video game work, I’d have a copy of this on my shelf.

Two books that approach the beauty of modern comic and video game art from very different directions. What’s your take?


NEW GRAPHIC NOVELS

NEW GRAPHIC NOVELS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Three new extremely high profile releases, two of which are still a couple of months away from hitting shelves…

It’s been two years since writer/artist Charles Burns delivered the first piece of his new graphic novel series X’ED OUT. I’d been wondering when we would finally get a follow-up, and the answer is this October in the form of THE HIVE (Pantheon. What’s it about? Well… that’s going to vary according to personal opinion. What I can tell you is this: THE HIVE is a tour-de-force of psychedelic storytelling, an astonishing piece of graphic literature that combines strange characters, even stranger situations and locales, and multi-leveled narratives in a way you have never seen before on the page. Burns’ work is utterly unique, and he has no fear about experimenting and trying to engage the reader in new ways. Perhaps his greatest gift is finding a way to make you find empathy for people and things that you would normally find off-putting or disgusting. Burns is one of the few talents who stands above the medium, and deservedly so. Easily one of the finest works you’ll see this year.

Comics’ classic cartooning couple, Aline and Robert Crumb, now have an omnibus-style book of their work with the publication this October of DRAWN TOGETHER (W.W. Norton). DRAWN TOGETHER features material pulled together from forty years of the duo’s partnership, and it offers plenty of insight into how they work, live, and eventually raise a daughter together. It isn’t always for the squeamish; there’s a level of brutal honesty on an emotional and sexual level that some readers will not be comfortable with. But it does make for an interesting archaeological document in how it takes you through different styles and eras and illuminates the alt-comix movement. Married couples in comics have come a long way; now it’s fairly common. But back in 1972 it was a big deal, and DRAWN TOGETHER will show you why.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden offer up the second in their comics how-to series with MASTERING COMICS (First Second). Following DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES, this “Comics 201” textbook takes you to a more advanced level, covering topics like narrative tools, making minicomics, lettering, and self-publishing. As with the first book, every chapter here is incredibly thorough; heavy with detail, and loaded with exercises for the student to tackle. If you’re new to the comics field, you’ll learn something here. If you’re a veteran in the field- you’ll learn something here. If you want to learn to color and don’t realize there are multiple ways and techniques to do it, you need this book. If you want to learn the difference between making webcomics and comics for print, you need this book. An absolutely indispensible book for learning the craft.



UNTERZAKHN-UNITE

UNTERZAKHN/UNITE
Written and Drawn by Leela Corman
Published by Schocken Books
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by SpazDog Press


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Taking a look at a couple of new graphic novels…

UNTERZAKHN is a powerhouse effort by writer/artist Leela Corman, and one that will stick in readers’ memories for a while once they put the book down. Set in the early 20th century, we meet sisters Esther and Fanya as they navigate immigrant life in New York City. As they get older, their lives take wildly divergent paths- Fanya goes to work for a woman who performs abortions, and Esther takes on a new name while dancing burlesque and working as a prostitute. Yet as different as their lives seem to be, the two sisters live parallel existences in ways they could never guess. Everything here is really excellent- Corman’s character work captivates, the dialogue has an authentic ring to it, and she makes you believe in and understand who these two women are. The art is just detailed enough to immerse you in the world, letting you truly feel like you’re back a hundred years and seeing what life was really like for people. If it sounds like the book isn’t a bundle of laughs, you’re right- what humor is here is outweighed by tragedy. But happy endings weren’t exactly the norm back then. I have the feeling that next December, when I start whipping up a top ten list, this book will require some more discussion.

Some local Arizona folks have joined together for UNITE AND TAKE OVER, an anthology featuring short stories inspired by the music of The Smiths. Much like other efforts dealing with Tori Amos, Belle & Sebastian, and Bob Dylan, the creative teams have been granted a lot of latitude in interpreting the work for the page. What this means isn’t really any different than what you get from most anthologies: a mixed bag of results. Some of the work here is really very good, and really catches the eye- Sterling Gates’ “William It Was Really Nothing” is as good as any piece that I’ve read in an anthology of this type. But some of the work is not yet ready for primetime, even in the alt-comix arena. Perhaps the strongest aspect here is in the book’s conceptualization and design- UNITE looks a lot better than most small press collections tend to. SpazDog has made rumbles that they’re going to continue doing more books in this vein, and as they do, the artistic talent level should continue to improve, as well as the overall execution. I’ll be watching and rooting for them.


AISLE SEAT 2.0.68

AISLE SEAT 2.0.68: TEN FOR 2011


By Marc Mason

Even though it seems like it, I have not read every graphic novel released in the past year. So it would be foolish, not to mention arrogant, to put together a “ten best” list. What I can do, however, is give you a list of ten outstanding books and point you in their direction. With this list, I can at least guarantee you a reading experience that is more than worth your time and money. Oh, and I will, at least, name a “book of the year.” Again, this is all my opinion- and I am more than happy to argue with you!

DAYTRIPPER (DC/Vertigo) collects the award-winning miniseries under one cover. Writer/artist/wonder twin combo Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba had long been proving how amazing they are, but DAYTRIPPER represented a leap even further forward into greatness.

ANYA’S GHOST (First Second) by writer/artist Vera Brosgol was the most stunning rookie debut that I saw this year. By turns humorous and flat-out frightening, this was also the best book for teen girls that I read this year as well.

LITTLE NOTHINGS VOL. 4 (NBM) is another amazing installment in writer/artist Lewis Trondheim’s art blog. I consider Trondheim to be the great living comics creator in the world right now, and this book shows him at the height of his powers.

THOR BY WALT SIMONSON OMNIBUS (Marvel) is not only an outstanding book, but also a potential murder weapon. This 1200 page beast collects the defining run on the character by the character’s defining creator. Great stories, great art, don’t drop it on your foot.

LEVEL UP (First Second) by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Thien Pham captures the angst of young adulthood perfectly, throws in an interesting conceit involving the nature of spirituality and death, and also tickles the funny bone a bit. Yang is a force to be reckoned with.

SIXTH GUN VOL. 1-2 (Oni Press) is the cream of the crop when it comes to Western horror right now. Exciting stories, great characters… writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt have sucked me into their world in a genre I tend to ignore. I read the first two trades back-to-back, not able to put them down.

RASL VOL. 3 (Cartoon Books) propels writer/artist Jeff Smith’s latest epic into the stratosphere. Sexy, action-packed, inventive… and he makes you think about what’s going on. The over-sized trade paperbacks allow the gorgeous art to breathe. One volume to go, and I can’t wait.

CHEW OMNIVORE EDITION 2 (Image Comics) won the Eisner for Best Continuing Series, and it isn’t hard to see why. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory are telling one of the most complex stories on the stands, and the book rewards you at every turn for paying attention. Funny, romantic, sick, and twisted. Brilliant.

ASTRONAUT ACADEMY (First Second) by writer/artist Dave Roman was the best all-ages book I read this year. Period. I have managed to give away both of my copies and need a new one. Great stories, great characters, great art, clever payoffs… there is nothing here to not love.

And… my book of the year:

HABIBI (Pantheon) by writer/artist Craig Thompson. It had been seven long years since Thompson had released new work, but it was worth the wait. Staggering in scope and ambition, this massive book (700 pages) delivers page after page of art that your eyes can get lost in. The love story at its core is warm, yet also horribly tragic, and while many will quibble with aspects of the tale focused on religion and culture (and I would agree with some of those quibbles) you cannot deny the sheer power that the book carries in its pages. Thompson carries you to someplace new and different, asking for your trust in his pen and ink, and if you give it to him, the rewards are grand.

Read my interview with Thompson here.

Looking over my list, I suppose I have a “publisher of the year” as well. First Second had another outstanding year- just another in a remarkable run as of late. I can’t remember the last time I read one of their books and felt “bleah” or “meh” about it. They don’t get a lot of play in the mainstream comics media, but that doesn’t matter- they just produce great books.


















METAMAUS

METAMAUS
By Art Spiegelman
Published by Pantheon


Reviewed by Marc Mason

What do you get for the classic graphic novel that has everything? METAMAUS is the answer, although I’m not sure how many people will have asked the question. The comics art form was rocked by the release of Art Spiegelman’s MAUS back in the 80s- no one had ever seen anything quite like it, and it displayed the power of sequential art to an audience that reached beyond comics shops. Based upon interviews the author had done with his father about living through the Holocaust, the book’s depiction of Jews as mice and Nazis as cats captured readers’ imaginations and gave them a new way of understanding and interpreting one of the most horrific events in the planet’s history. Spiegelman took home a Pulitzer prize for his work, and the notoriety of the book has stayed with him since. In a sense, METAMAUS is a way for him to work out some lingering questions, offer some answers to questions he has been getting for decades, and deal with personal issues surrounding it all in a public forum.

Certainly, the book is impressive. A large chunk of it consists of Spiegelman being interviewed by Professor Hillary Chute, and her questions do a nice job of leading the author into places where he can really spew his thoughts out and get emotions into the open. It also grants us an interesting historical look at the genesis of the work and the struggle to get it a major publisher- one fascinating two-page spread shows a number of rejection letters from publishers that didn’t get the work or that didn’t think they could sell it, a reminder that greatness takes its time in finding a place to appear.

The DVD attached to the book has the COMPLETE MAUS on it, along with the ability to access audio files of the author discussing particular pages, sketches of early drafts of the pages, and more. It’s an amazing package, one certainly worthy of awards consideration.

Yet, ironically, I have to wonder who the audience is for the book. MAUS isn’t exactly a “fun” book, nor is it something that inspires a great deal of re-reading. It sticks with you quite well on its own. People that own the book already don’t need the DVD, and those that do might find the amount of information contained here rather overwhelming. Thus, I can’t help but feel like the primary audience for this book is academics- professors teaching the work in their classes. That’s not exactly a large demo to target. That’s not a reflection on the work itself, which is extraordinary- but I see this collecting a lot of dust in comic shops.

CRAIG THOMPSON

Craig Thompson made a splash entering the comics scene with GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE, but it was the publication of BLANKETS that sent him into the stratosphere of A-list talent. Now, almost seven years after CARNET DE VOYAGE, he is back with a new graphic novel- HABIBI. I caught up with Craig this past July in San Diego, where we talked about the new work, his place in the industry, and comics as art objects. (Hat tip to Brooke Unverferth for transcription assistance.)


MM: This is Marc Mason here in the Comics Waiting Room. Today, I am with writer/artist extraordinaire Craig Thompson. Good morning.

CT: Good morning Marc!

MM: You are here at the Con because after a couple of years off, you’ve been working on a new magnum opus, HABIBI. Tell us a little bit about the story.

CT: Well it’s been more than a couple of years off. It’s actually been seven years since I’ve been in San Diego. But the book is coming out in September, too, so this is like the very tail end of the hiatus. I finished the book last September; it’s released in two months. It’s a 700-page Arabian Nights style fairy tale epic that also incorporates a lot of modern day environmental, political, and religious issues, and I also think it’s a dissection of sexual trauma. It follows two characters, Fidola and Pam, who are escaped childhood slaves. They struggle to survive in this sort of bleak desert landscape. And it’s a landscape of deserts and harems and palaces, but also industry and slums and very modern, industrial clutter.

MM: It sounds – it’s an intense work, obviously. And you’re working with some interesting and sort of darker themes here.

CT: Yeah. There’s a French Algerian cartoonist who is dead now, Aristophane, First Second just put out one of his books, “Zabime”. But he worked on two big projects, and that’s one of them, and everyone describes it as sort of his heaven project. And then he did a book called “Demonic Stories,” “Demonique,” which is his hell project. I think on some level, “Blankets” might have been my heaven project and this is my hell project. And that said, it’s not all oppressive evil or anything, but it’s all darker than “Blankets.” It was sort of like diving into that dark space, and in hopes of breaking through to the other side.

MM: Well, that’s something I think is a commonality in your work. You don’t make work where it doesn’t have something to say. You have something to say each time you step up to the plate. Whether it was “Blankets” or “Chunky Rice” or even “Carnet De Voyage,” you have something to say, you have something on your mind. What got you to what you had on your mind to make “Habibi”?

CT: It’s a great question. Well, one, I agree with you that art has to be born of necessity. At least for me personally it has to come from some very sort of, like a primal and necessary space. And with this book I was practicing, on one level, American guilt or sort of, like a sort of an understanding of feeling like a passive participant in like an imperialistic culture, and then trying to figure out how what we do sort of feeds off the poor. Or, you know, I don’t know. Even being middle-class now, there’s a sense that everything we do, everything we consume, feeds off someone else. Rich doesn’t exist without poor. I think that was something I was processing. I was definitely processing male guilt too, on a personal level. You know, without giving away spoilers and without getting too personal, I mean, it’s just something – I grew up – like the sexual trauma of some people I was really close to growing up really shaped my own perceptions of sexuality. So I was processing that in almost a therapy sort of way through the writing.

MM: Very interesting. Something else that you do in your work, is that you’re not afraid to take us somewhere else. You’re not afraid to take that American audience and show them the world. Where does that come from, from an artistic point of view? Is that something deliberate that you’re doing?

CT: Well, when I was a kid, I always drew for escape. And I actually recently went home to Wisconsin, I grew up in this really rural town, and every time I’m there, I actually found a stash of childhood drawings that I didn’t destroy, but I drew prolifically as a child. And I recognize that I was like a troubled, trapped little kid, and this was my escape to create huge fantasy escapes on paper. But as I’ve matured, I guess, art has become more about ways of understanding and exploring the world, and kind of the opposite of escape – well it’s still escape, but it’s also about expanding my own experience to new horizons, or to new worlds. You know, I travel and stuff, and experiences from my travels of going to developing nations, and like Morocco, Vietnam and parts of rural China, and each one of those trips really like, sort of destroys you, and then you have to piece everything back together when you get back to your old home. It’s like there’s more culture shock coming home. For me, that’s one thing I’m practicing, the culture shock of returning home.

MM: You said you drew a lot as a kid. What kind of stuff did you draw?

CT: Typical boyhood fantasies of spaceships, race cars, Dungeons & Dragons, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters. I recycled every single pop culture thing, I mean, it’s like San Diego Comic Con on paper. All of that.

MM: What’s interesting about that to me is that I think if we were to go around to Artists’ Alley here and talk to people, a lot of people would have similar stories, and they continued drawing similar stories, but you, on the other hand, you went a different direction. You went in a more personalized direction, you went in a more emotional direction. I find that fascinating that you took that branched path.

CT: Yeah, it might be partly because I broke away from comics for a short spell. I had read comics since I was a little kid, but my biggest superheroes phase was junior high when I was at my most awkward and probably most desperately grasping for some sort of like, I mean, I was probably processing early sexuality, conflicting ideas of masculinity or something. But then by the time I reached high school, I kind of like gave up comics for a while because I wanted to be cool, and my version of coolness was of just being a scrawny skateboarder kid, and that was sort of the place I dwelled in for a few years. And when I rediscovered comics, I was coming from sort of a punk rock place. It was that whole 90’s, sort of DIY, post grunge, sort of new attitude about comics, and zines and mini-comics. It was all about DIY. Making it yourself, resisting the man. So that’s where my rediscovery was born out of.

MM: And at this point in your career, a Craig Thompson book is something of an event. When there’s a new Craig Thompson book, the industry sits up and takes notice. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about your place in the industry?

CM: Strange. I mean, “Blankets” I created in a vacuum. I didn’t have much of a fan base then and I never expected anyone to see the book, so I think the reason it’s taken me longer is because I’ve had greater self-consciousness, or self – yeah, I’m much more self-conscious about it. So, I mean, now that it’s happening, now I’m ready. Now it can roll. But I don’t know…and I also don’t see myself in that way necessarily. I do want my books to be events, because they are events to create, but I just feel grateful to be part of the medium and to be, to have peers now who are my greatest inspiration. Like Joe Sacco, you know- actually, Maurice Sendak, I recently befriended him. People like that. People like Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes. Everyone that I grew up idolizing. The fact that I can brush shoulders with them now is like probably the biggest honor.

MM: Do you feel artistically free at this point? Do you feel like “I can pretty much do what I want to do and I’m good with it?”

CT: Yes and no. Yeah, I think I’ve always made that a priority to do what I want to do and hope that the financial things fall into place, and I’m still in that same place. I mean, I don’t know if financially I’ll be fine in six months or a year. I’m not set in that sort of way. But I kind of disregard that. I’ve always disregarded…I’m like, well, this is the book I want to do, it might take longer, if I have to figure out ways to pay the bills, but it’s still the book I want to do.

MM: Are you already thinking about what’s next, or are you focused on getting this in front of people and talking to them about it?

CT: Both. I’m sure that this is pretty much going to consume all of my time for the next six months, for the promotion. Then, the touring. That’s how it was with “Blankets” – I toured for six months straight with “Blankets” – which might be the longest cartoonist’s a book tour ever. It was international, though. So, touring is going to consume a lot of time. But there are three new books I want to – I’m desperate to start on. And so I’m looking forward to that little stretch where I can kind of hole up in my studio again and get started on new work. And this time around, rather than focusing on one gigantic epic, I want to work on some other projects, and a handful of them simultaneously.

MM: Will we see anything like a gallery showing of any of the art for “Habibi”?

CT: There’s a good chance. There are a lot of galleries who have tapped me already. I might be holding out for the right one. It always makes me…I don’t know, I’m uncomfortable with gallery shows a lot of times. I don’t like breaking up the work. I always think of the book. I mean, I’m into mass produced art, mass art. I think of the book as the art piece. I don’t think about one image, one page, isolated on its own, some sort of gallery, really, it doesn’t’ do it justice. But, I don’t know. I did go to the Crumb exhibit. I don’t know if you had a chance to see that in any city…in Portland, at the Portland Art Museum, for a long time, maybe five months, so I got to go a couple of times. And to get to see his Genesis book, like every single page lined up? It was pretty amazing. And it would be insane and it probably won’t happen that there will be an opportunity to display all of “Habibi” together, but it’s pretty amazing when you can see a comic book in its entirety on display, a graphic novel.

MM: Fascinating. Craig, thank you for taking some time to talk with us today!

X’ED OUT

X’ED OUT
Written and Drawn by Charles Burns
Published by Pantheon Books

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Doug wakes up in the middle of the night to a particularly strange sight: Inky, the pet cat he long thought was dead, is staring at him through a hole in the brick wall of his bedroom. Throwing on his robe and slippers, Doug gives chase and finds himself in a strange world full of lizard creatures, strange rituals, and the creepiest eggs he’s ever seen or tasted. But is it real? There’s another Doug leading a wildly different existence. He’s a photography student, doing a project with Polaroids that leads him to a new relationship that will take over and define his life.

Whish life is real? Are they both?

Charles Burns isn’t about to tell you. Not yet, anyway.

X’ED OUT returns Burns to shelves with his first major project since the completion of his magnum opus, BLACK HOLE, and it’s certainly what you’d expect from him. Non-linear storytelling, disturbing imagery, disaffected youth, broken families, twisted sci-fi underpinnings… there isn’t a single moment when you don’t feel the creator challenging the reader. The book is one big dare, really: a dare to let loose of the easy habits that traditional comics breed in readers. Burns dares you to give him control, stop guessing, and just let him take you where he wants to go with the story. But you have to have the courage to do so.

Indeed, on first read, I felt… nothing. I was dismissive of the book and tossed it aside. The next day, I picked it up and read it again, and as I did, I felt it beginning to take hold of me. A couple of days after that, I gave it a third read, and I realized when I was done that Burns had me. I was fascinated by the world he had created here. I was locked in to see where it was going, and I wasn’t sweating over trying to anticipate his moves.

Forget 96-part crossovers- what truly makes for an “event comic” is when a master storyteller brings new work to the shelves. This over-sized hardcover assures that Burns’ return livens up the final quarter of 2010 in ways that Marvel and DC could never dream of. Highly recommended.


HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE
Written by Charles Yu
Published by Pantheon

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Time travel- a subject that’s full of pitfalls and paradoxes. In a future and universe where time travel is common, people are consistently trying to do the one thing they cannot: travel into the past and change it. When that happens, equipment fails, and time technician Charles Yu is called in to make repairs. Accompanied by his dog, which has been retconned out of existence, and his operating system, TAMMY, he does what he can to get those travelers back on the “road” with an understanding of their actions. But it turns out that Charles is hiding a few secrets of his own as he attempts to spend virtually every moment of his life in his own time machine. His mother is voluntarily living the same hour of her life over and over again. His father is missing, and Yu wants little more than to find him somewhere or somewhen in the universe. And Charles is about to meet himself in the time stream and potentially do something which cannot be repaired: commit the most bizarre version of suicide ever recorded.

LIVE SAFELY is the debut novel from the real-life Charles Yu, and it is certainly one of the most challenging and unusual pieces I’ve read in quite some time. The surface areas of the novel reside squarely in the science fiction arena, as the fictional Yu travels throughout a multiverse in space and time dealing with advanced technology and species, just as the title of the book suggests. Yet at its inner core, this novel is a simple family story, the story of a son awash in life-long regret about disappointing a father he didn’t know or understand until it was too late. Take away the glossy trappings of the genre and you have a thematic element that virtually every reader can understand.

But Yu doesn’t always make it easy to get past those trappings. There is a bunch of stuff here on the tech and the nature of realities and in how time really works to feed a philosopher’s brain. There are pages of equations and charts that attempt to “explain” something of the proof of concept for living in the minor universe where fictional Yu explores his fate, but as the story progresses they begin to feel extraneous, as though the writer isn’t quite trusting his audience to stay onboard with the emotional journey of the character.

That’s really the only serious error on writer Yu’s part. The first third of the book, almost literally nothing happens- it has no genuine plot or movement for the fictional Yu, yet what the author has created through those pages is captivating enough to carry the reader all the way through to the end. Really, as a reader, that’s what you want- a book that engages the mind and the heart in satisfying measures. Perhaps the writer was concerned that he had written a book that would go over the heads of many of the literature lovers that would be drawn to this work.

He need not have worried- HOW TO LIFE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE delivers the goods all the way to the end, and for discerning readers- the ones Yu needs to worry about most- it is a most satisfying journey, indeed.

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS
Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi
Published by Pantheon Comics

Coming off of PERSEPOLIS 1&2 and EMBROIDERIES, I was interested to see what direction Satrapi would take with her next project. Those memoirs were not only remarkably distinct in their tone and voice, they also had a feeling of history that is rare in sequential art. As it turns out, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS is quite different than her earlier work, and that turns out to be a very good thing. This wonderful look at one man’s final week on Earth delivers an emotional and visceral punch that sticks with the reader.

CWP is the story of Nasser Ali, Satrapi’s great-uncle. He was one of Iran’s most celebrated tar players, a figure of great respect. But after his instrument is broken, his spirit begins a downward spiral, and he takes to his bed willing himself towards death. As eight days pass, we learn, through a flashback and flash-forward structure interspersed with the visits his family makes (or don’t make, for that matter) what really lies at the heart of his pain and wish to die. And the case begins to build, both for and against, whether or not this man has reason and cause to undertake this final journey.

Satrapi’s art has come a long way since PERSEPOLIS, gaining some grace and fluidity that was not there before. She has also grown in her mastery and use of shadow and negative space, giving her pages more emotional depth and pathos than her earlier works. In short, this is an excellent work, demonstrating that the author will continue to be a force on the graphic novel scene for some time to come. She looks to just be getting started in figuring out just how good she’s going to be.

Marc Mason