Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Star Wars Legacy Vol. 7 - Storm

Written by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Art by Jan Duursema, Omar Francia, and Dan Parsons

I'm starting to worry that all of my reviews for this series are going to be completely interchangeable, as the book is so consistently impressive, that I find it hard to say many new things about each subsequent volume that I read.

The seventh book in this series checks in on three (or four, if the state of Darth Krayt and the Sith count as their own story, instead of being a part of Cade Skywalker's) running stories in separate chapters.  I much prefer this approach to having each individual chapter check in on each separate story for a couple of reasons.  First, it allows for time to pass in Cade's story, which is the main one, and it allows the different series artists to work on their own set of characters and settings.

This book opens with a story set on Dac, the homeworld of the Mon Calamari, who are currently being hunted to extermination by Krayt's Empire.  A group of resistance fighters are working with an Imperial Knight, and their story features some amazing design work by regular fill-in artist Omar Francia.  One of the appeals to me of the Star Wars series as a kid was the diversity and ingenuity of ship design (before I realized more stuff meant more toys), and so I thought the underwater AT-AT Swimmer was very cool indeed.

The second story checks in on the new partnership between the Alliance and Roan Fel's Imperial Forces.  The writing in this story is among Ostrander's best, as the two sides test the other.  The final story brings us back to Cade and his crew, none of whom are in a particularly positive place right now.

This series continually amazes me in its ability to like a Star Wars comic.  I'm really happy to hear that the title is not canceled after issue 50, but is merely getting rebranded, and that Ostrander and Duursema are staying with it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #33

A year or two ago, I read Nicholson Baker's wonderful book Double Fold, which was about 'Libraries and the Assault on Paper', as the text beneath the title calls it.  In this book, Baker rails against recent library practice of disposing of tons of old and historic newspapers, replacing them with commercial (poorly) made microfiche, citing storage and space requirements.  Baker himself now owns a large collection of almost full early runs of such celebrated and wonderful papers as Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.  The descriptions that Baker furnished of large broad-sheet papers with detailed diagrams and loving illustrations, not to mention legendary comics sections, made me envious of people living in an earlier time.  We now live in a time of great newspaper poverty, as dailies suffer from endless cut-backs and diminished readership.

Into this dismal scene comes the 33rd issue of McSweeney's, Dave Egger's literary quarterly.  For this issue, Egger's et. al. constructed the San Fransisco Panorama, a one-time old-school newspaper of gigantic proportions.  The paper is a week-end edition, including two supplemental magazines, various sections, a generous and lovely comics section, and even a fold-up paper toy rocket ship.  The entire paper comes off as a labour of love and an almost forgotten sense of American journalistic craftsmanship.  It took me just about forever to read this thing.

The list of contributors to this thing is as impressive as the span of topics discussed and reported upon.  There is Baker himself (writing about paper mills in Maine); William T. Vollmann discussing mining issues in Imperial, an area about which he is most definitely an expert; Jesse Nathan on the marijuana growers of Mendocino; and J. Malcolm Garcia reporting from Afghanistan. 

San Francisco is the main topic of the paper, with various articles examining the state of the city and its inhabitants.  There is an eight-page section devoted to the new Bay Bridge, and all of the problems associated with that project, which features stunning illustrations and makes good use of the large-size format of the pages (this thing is much wider than today's newspapers).  The Sports, Food, and Arts sections represent the Bay Area a great deal.  There are also tons of human interest articles and interesting charts throughout.

The two magazines are very impressive.  The Panorama Magazine is modeled after the New York Times Magazine, with many long-form articles, some of which I've already reviewed.  Were this a weekly or monthly magazine, I would gladly subscribe.  The Panorama Book Review Supplemental was also very impressive, containing some great short stories from authors such as Roddy Doyle and George Saunders, as well as an interesting conversation between Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz.  The book reviews were wonderful in their variety, and I liked the way each review reproduced the first page of the book so potential readers could sample its style.

Of course, I wouldn't be me if I didn't say something about the comics section.  Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Michael Kupperman, Gene Luen Yang, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Erik Larsen (!!), and many others contributed, and it was a very nice little compilation.  

It's a shame that this project is not to be repeated.  I doubt very much that there is a market anywhere in the world for a regular paper like this, and that is all of our loss.  Reading this allows you to imagine a time when people were very well informed (and not just up on the celebrities), and also had the leisure to read the damn things.  This is a truly unique and impressive work of art.

The Executor

Written by Jon Evans
Art by Andrea Mutti

I'm of two minds when it comes to this graphic novel.  The Executor is about an ex-NHL goon who retired early due to a knee injury.  He gets a phone call telling him that his old high-school girlfriend had died, and that she unexpectedly named him the executor of her estate, which forces him to return to Elora New York, the small town where he grew up, and where he is still seen by many as a local hero.

Shortly upon arriving in town, he begins to expect that the girl's death wasn't an accident, and he begins digging around for some facts.  Elora is a typical small upstate New York town, with a Mohawk Reserve on its border.  It seems that the ex-girlfriend was dating a member of the band, and was helping the tribe with some land claims thing (which is never elucidated upon).  As Joe, our hero, distributes her meager funds to her inheritors, he meets with Dia, a local Mohawk crime boss who lives in a guarded estate on Reserve property, and apparently smuggles stuff to and from Canada.  Dia had a little brother who was killed a long time ago, and Joe seems to know something about it.

From there, the book becomes quite intriguing, as Joe's secrets are cast into new light by other information, and the plot thickens to involve a missing man accused of kidnapping his daughter, a pedophile ring, an abandoned mine, and years of lying.  It's maybe more than the book can support, and there are many places where the writing feels illogical or the pacing is off.

Not helping matters is the art of Andrea Mutti.  He's very good at drawing figures, but I often found his storytelling to be a little confusing and unclear.  I know that Vertigo is increasingly relying on artists from Italy to draw their books (I always assume it's an economic thing), but I think that Mutti should have perhaps spent a little more time researching or referencing the things he's drawing.  The hockey players appear to be playing with field hockey sticks at times, and there's a scene where much is made about how good a pumpkin pie is, yet the pie shown has a layer of crust on top.  These are all minor quibbles, but they were enough to toss me out of the story a couple of times.

Still, this is a decent read.  I found that I got pretty absorbed in the story, and didn't want to stop reading until I knew the ending.  This is Evans's first comic from what I can tell, and it's always good to see a local writer get some attention.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

by Joe Kubert

There was a point early into this book where I feared I'd made a mistake in starting to read it.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me - I love war comics, often feel the lack of good comics set in the Vietnam War, and I have the utmost respect for Joe Kubert.  What could go wrong?

The problem is that the book looks just like the cover.  Kubert didn't exactly finish his pencils, eschewed a panel grid in favour of having two or three illustrations spread across the page, and decided to print the book on the same grey paper you see on the cover.  All of that I could get past, except I found the writing at the beginning to be painfully amateurish, as he tried (not too hard) to establish some of the characters that made up Special Forces team A-313, without explaining much context for their mission, which at the beginning, involved training and supporting a variety of local forces in a remote outpost near the Cambodian border.

Now, I'm very willing to cut someone with Kubert's street cred a ton of slack, and I'm quite glad I did.  After the men of A-313 get transferred to Dong Xoai, and get their name changed to A-342 (does this have significance?  It gets mentioned a lot), the book seriously picks up.  Basically, these guys are in a poorly-defended base, filled with ARVN, Saigon 'Cowboy', Montagnard, and Cambodian forces.  They quickly realize that they face an invasion by VC and NVA forces, and rush to fortify their position.

When the attack comes, the book becomes pretty gripping, as Kubert shows time and again the resourcefulness and tenacity of the American forces (A-342 was joined by a small contingent of Seabees before the attack).

This book is based on the actual events that took place in Dong Xoai, and when one reads the lengthy notes and accounting of the battle provided by the surviving Marines (which takes up like 20 pages of minutely detailed writing), it becomes hard to see where things are fictionalized, aside from the changed names of our heroes.  Instead, Kubert has created a serious and accurate piece of war history, and his book stands as a strong testament to the bravery of the men involved.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with this book.  Was the battle at Dong Xoai important to anyone beyond the men who were there?  Was this an important turning point in the war, or a watershed moment that led to stronger US involvement in Vietnam?  I feel like I could have really used a little more context to put these events in perspective.  Don't get me wrong, the battle makes a very good story; the historian in me needs more guidance in interpreting its importance.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cape Verde

by Super Chron Flight Brothers

To people who complain about the lack of innovation in hip-hop these days, the first group I would hold up as a counter-example is the Super Chron Flight Brothers.  This group, consisting of rappers billy woods and Priviledge, consistently push themselves to find new flows, or to rap over increasingly experimental beats.

On this twenty-song album, they work with their usual producers, Bond, Willie Green, and Nasa (only one track), and their sound has not so much improved or matured, as become more rich.

The album is peppered with TV clips and samples that fall into a few broad categories - 80s TV, infomercials (I'm pretty sure that's Vince, the SlapChop guy I hear on the third track), and post-Obama racial pride gone wrong ("The minute Obama became president?  I got the right to do the Hell I want to," proclaims a teenage girl who goes on to describe her activities in group sex and fighting on 'Strangers With Candy'). 

Lyrically, woods and Edge are as incredible as always.  They extend their verses long beyond the standard 8 or 16 bars, letting their material determine song length.  They are not as literary here as they have been in the past, but their lines are highly intelligent and usually need a couple of listens in order to catch every nuance.  The focus on this album is on how media-saturated we are, as they call out TV Republicans and bad hiphop.

The SCF Brothers are joined by long-standing allies like Zesto, MarQ Sekt, Vordul Mega, and HiCoup.  Less familiar collaborators include Masai Bey, Lord Superb, Pastense, Bigg Jus, and Johnny Voltik.  The liner notes are filled with notes from woods, Bond, and Green, explaining some of the work from behind the scenes on the album.

This is one of the best hip-hop albums of the summer.  Recommended.

A Box of Matches

by Nicholson Baker

When you're in the mood for a quick, introspective novel after reading a gigantic, excessive non-fiction book, there's nobody better to turn to than Nicholson Baker.

A Box of Matches is a pretty typical Baker book.  Emmett, the narrator, gets up early every morning, makes a cup of coffee in the dark, and then lights a fire in his fireplace.  While he enjoys the fire, his mind wanders.  That's it, on the surface.  There is no plot.  Some stuff happens, like Emmett gets a cold, but the appeal of this book is the sameness of the chapter structure (each chapter opens with 'Good morning, it's _:__ a.m.').

What makes this book a novel, rather than a collection of writing exercises, is that our understanding of Emmett as a character accretes with each new section.  He has a wife, two children, a cat, and a duck.  The duck probably gets the largest chunk of the narrative devoted to it, aside from Emmett thinking about himself.  Baker has gifted his character with a very good life.

Of course, it's not hard to read a book like this without viewing the protagonist as a stand-in for the author.  Baker, like Emmett, is married with kids, has a thick beard, and an amazing ability to focus on the smallest things in life and imbue them with great significance.  This is Baker's greatest strength as an author, and I lost track of the number of times I smiled in recognition of something that, Proust-like, he digs up from memory.

What are some of these Bakersian topics?  The way thermometers feel in your mouth.  Picking up underwear with your feet.  The sideways flame that comes from a newly-lit match.  Peeing in the dark.  The feeling of washing dishes.  The list continues.

This is a quiet little novel, and it served as the perfect tonic for the lack of good fiction in my life lately.  Recommended.

Lucifer Vol. 9: Crux

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Marc Hempel, Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, and Ronald Wimberly

I started reading this book feeling a little bored with Lucifer in general.  I didn't enjoy volume 8 with the same degree that I did the earlier books, and didn't really feel like reading this.  I'm glad I stuck with it though, because this volume returns the book to the high quality of the beginning of the series.

This volume jumps around a fair deal.  The first story (with art by Marc Hempel, an artist we don't see enough of these days) is set in Hell, and has Christopher Rudd serving in a messianic role.  In fact, the story ends with him in a new, elevated station in Hell.

From there, we get to the main storyline of the book - the return of Lilith, as seen at the end of Volume 7.  We learn where she's been for the last few millennia, as she starts to plot against Heaven.  She's not happy with Mazikeen, for whom things go bad quickly.  Between these chapters is a story where Elaine Belloc, absorbing Michael's abilities, creates her own universe, and then tries to watch over it.  As well, we see more of Jill Presto, who is again pregnant from the Basanos.

There is definitely a feeling throughout this book that the story is coming to its close (two more volumes remain), and Carey is slowly ratcheting up the level of suspense and weight of events.  The strength of this book lies in its supporting characters - Elaine, Jill, and of course Mazikeen, and so the fact that Lucifer barely appears in this book is not a problem.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Battlefields #9

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Russ Braun

Battlefields has done a great job of satisfying my cravings for a regular dose of war comics, and so I'm sorry to see this second volume finish.

With this issue, Ennis concludes the story arc he began with the first Battlefields mini-series, The Night Witches, which focuses on (now) Captain Anna Kharkova, a female Russian pilot during the Second World War.  With this issue, Anna is put in charge of a group of six new female pilots, who have only barely been trained to fly.  She grounds them, but while she is on a mission, a new political officer arrives at the airbase and sends them out.  Anna and the Colonel (who she has been getting very close to) now must fly out and try to find them.

Ennis shows what things were like for the Soviet army quite effectively.  The most frequent Soviet technique in the war was to try to overwhelm a better trained and equipped force with sheer numbers, the only real asset the Soviets had.  This led to some brutal battles and massive amounts of losses.  The psychological toll of such a thing is shown here.

What I have enjoyed most about the Battlefields series is that Ennis has taken the time to examine some lesser-known aspects of the Second World War, and has enriched my knowledge of that time while providing some very impressive stories.  I sincerely hope there is a Volume 3 in the works.

Unknown Soldier #23

Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Alberto Ponticelli

Now that I've read this, there are only two issues of Unknown Soldier remaining, and that makes me sad.  This book has been amazing since it started, and it's going to be a shame to not be able to pick it up each month.

With this issue, Moses is no longer Moses.  Instead, he's back to being Subject 9, and he's back to working for the CIA (or so they think).  He insists that, if he's going to work with them, they must bring Jack Lee Howl out of retirement to be his handler.  He is, of course, working a different plan, and it's not long before Moses/9 and Howl are on the run.

Most significantly, this issue has Moses/9 meet up with Sera, Moses's wife.  This is a scene that has been a long time coming, and Dysart works it perfectly, interspersing what's happening with scenes from their relationship together.

Now, with two issues left, Moses/Subject 9 is heading into the bush to attempt to kill Joseph Kony, while the flashback sequences that have been book-ending recent issues move towards revealing just what the original Unknown Soldier said to Subject 9 the first time they met.

Oh - if, like it has with me, this book has piqued your interest in Uganda, there's a terrific article in the new issue of Harper's about how right wing evangelical Christians in the US have influenced the Ugandan government into considering a bill that makes homosexuality a capital offense.

On the Prison Highway

by Ian Frazier

Since I was little, I've found myself drawn to abandoned places.  It's hard for me to drive past run-down and empty houses on the highway, without wanting to explore.  I would love to go to a place like Detroit, just to climb through some of the buildings there, except fear for my safety keeps me from doing it.  As a teen, my friends and I frequently explored a closed brickworks and quarry (since revitalized as a farmer's market and green-living experiment).

So, there's a lot I can relate to in Ian Frazier's latest article on his journeys in Siberia (there was a two-part article published about a year ago), this time specifically hunting for abandoned lagers, or what we would refer to in the West as Gulags.

He does come across one, and his descriptions of it are lovely, sad, and very evocative of a horrible period of Russian history.  He follows his experience with a description of the growing popularity or nostalgia for Stalin among modern Russians, a strange phenomenon.

What I think attracts me to the idea of traveling through sites like the one he found, is that they are not sanitized through the act of historical interpretation.  He imagines the site turned into a museum, but I feel like that would cause me to lose all interest in it.  I have no desire to visit a place like Auschwitz, Choeung Ek, or that church in Rwanda with all the skulls, as they have been put on display, no matter how much they were also left in their original state.  But to wander through an abandoned lager, covered in snow, and with no one around, one would feel the weight of the history of the place in a much more visceral way.  I envy Frazier the experience.

Apparently, he has a book being released soon about these trips.  I should probably check that out.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wolfskin: Hundredth Dream #4

Written by Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer
Art by Gianluca Pagliarani

I only just realized that this was a six-issue mini-series.  Many of these Ellis/Avatar series have trained me to expect between three and five issues for a series, and with the last issue, I figured there could only be enough story for one more at most, until I read this chapter.

The Wolfskin and his crew are still fighting mechanical beast-like things in the Northern barbarian lands - this time a large flying device that drops balls of flame.  They fight it.

That's about it for plot, but Ellis and Wolfer manage to work in some decent character moments - I especially like the Wolfskin's approach to solving problems, and the scene where the Noi scientist begins to doubt his usefulness.

The real star of this issue is Pagliarani, who gets to design any number of cool medieval machines, and a huge city/device that resides inside a volcano.  This is a pretty simple comic, but it's quite pleasurable.

Seu Jorge and Almaz

by Seu Jorge and Almaz

This might very well be my favourite album of this summer. 

Seu Jorge is a Brazilian singer and actor (he had a role in City of God, one of my favourite movies, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which he provided the soundtrack for) with a deep, golden voice, whose timbre reminds me a little of mid-90s Leonard Cohen in its mellifluousness.

The album is made up of twelve tracks, only some of which have vocals.  The sound is a jazz/rock hybrid, which has been tempered in the Brazilian sun.  I believe most of the songs are original compositions (not being too familiar with the Brazilian standards), but Jorge does cover Roy Ayer's 'Everybody Loves the Sunshine' (best track on the disk), and Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You'.

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Ghost Projekt #4

Written by Joe Harris
Art by Steve Rolston

This issue is probably the best of the series so far, and that's saying a lot as this has been an excellent comic.  In this issue, we have a ghostly, rampaging Tartar (see the cover), the benefits of being friends with an ethereal girl, and a wicked use of hypnosis. 

When this story started (even despite the name), I saw it as a biological weapons, post-Cold War thriller, and that's what it is, but it has integrated the supernatural quite effectively.

Rolston's art has been terrific throughout this series.  He's become a little less cartoonish in his approach, and it works very well here.  He's always done well with scenes that are focused on people, but his action scenes in this book are incredible.  Recommended.

Scalped #40

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera

It's never hard to guess what I'm going to write when there's a new issue of Scalped, and that's because this book is consistently amazing.

This issue is the second in the 'Unwanted' arc, and it opens like the last issue did, with a scene at an abortion clinic.  What we learn in this one is that Gina Bad Horse, Dash's mother, had had an abortion when Dash was quite young.  From there, the book looks in on most of the central cast.

Red Crow meets with Wade, Dash's father, who has returned to the Rez.  The meeting stays civil, but only barely so, as it becomes clear the amount of resentment the two men harbor for each other, the root of which appears to be Gina.  Carol is now staying at Granny's house, and we get a glimpse of the domestic chaos there.  It's nice to see Dino again (he's a character I have a huge soft spot for), and gratifying to see that he's taking increased care of his daughter.  Carol is on a methadone program, and seems to be in a better place than she was last issue.

Dash, meanwhile, is handcuffed in a sweat lodge, in what appears to be an attempt to detox him.  Shunka is sitting vigil nearby, but it's not clear who is behind this effort - if Shunka is working of his own initiative, or if this is being done at Red Crow's behest.

This arc, 'Unwanted', seems to be really focusing on the parenting skills of our cast.  Wade all but accuses Red Crow of wishing that Dash was his, and that helps to explain some of the complexity in their relationship.  And, at the heart of everything once again, are Dash's unresolved feelings towards his mother.  Aaron is creating a masterpiece here.

Jonah Hex: No Way Back

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Tony DeZuniga

I'm pretty sure that, had someone not decided to make a Jonah Hex movie (which is a pretty odd decision, all things considered), this graphic novel would not exist.  I imagine that the same thinking that currently has Marvel pumping out something like six Thor books a month was at work here - the belief that throngs of people would leave the Jonah Hex movie and head directly to their closest comic store (or large, soulless chain book store), and demand as much Hex as they can get their hands on.  And, of course, the excellent run of trades collecting Palmiotti and Gray's excellent monthly series wouldn't be enough, so they needed to get a new hardcover out there.

Does that ever work?  I'd be curious to hear from retailers about this phenomenon, and if flooding the market with new material attracts new customers or just confuses them into beating a hasty retreat.

Anyway, the book deserves to be examined on its own merits, and not just as an example of a questionable business practice.  Because it's a good book.  But then, of course it is.  Palmiotti and Gray consistently do good work with Jonah Hex (although I think they've had more off-months than on lately), and the art is by Tony DeZuniga, a DC legend.  The story involves Hex's mother, who had abandoned him as a small child, and the quest for revenge of El Papagayo, the always-funny Mexican villain who rides after Hex with a parrot on his arm.  DeZuniga's art is the same as always - terrific, if a little too scratchy in places.

I liked the book, but can't help but think that it would have worked just as well as a three-part arc on the regular series.  There was no real reason for this to get a hardcover treatment, aside from the movie.  But, if you like Jonah Hex, this is a great example of what the book is like when it is at its best.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Build & Destroy

by Black Spade

Black Spade's To Serve With Love was a great album when it came out a couple of years ago, and it's good to hear some new stuff from this talented rapper/producer/sometime singer.  This mixtape is eighteen tracks deep, and over seventy minutes long, which would usually  be way too much for me, but in this instance, the length is perfect.

Spade has a very nice, very chill, post-Dilla quality to his work.  He handles most of the production himself (under the name stoneyrock), but there are also beats from Dorthy Ashby, J. Davey, and Ced No.  This being a mixtape, he's able to sample The Beatles and Stevie Wonder with impunity.  There are guest appearances from Coultrain, and a few people I've never heard of before.

My favourite track on here has to be 'Fall in Love', where Black Spade sings over the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson instrumentation of Dilla's classic beat.  It's a bit of a mash-up as well, with the lyrics coming off the first album.

The aesthetic of the mixtape is best understood on 'The Cool Out', which keeps referring to itself as "the cool out song".  This is a great summer mixtape.

Burma Chronicles

by Guy Delisle

It's nice to finally finish Guy Delisle's unofficial trilogy of memoirs set in dictatorships (the first two books are Pyongyang and Shenzhen), with this book set primarily in Rangoon, but named for the entire country (unless you prefer to call it Myanmar).

Similarly to the first two books, Delisle spends a stretch of time in this country that is less than available to Westerners.  The difference this time around is that he is accompanied by his wife Nadège, and his infant son Louis, and this time he is not there for his work, but for his wife's.  She is a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which was hoping at the time to be able to open up avenues for treatment for some of Burma's indigent and discriminated against minorities, in areas of unrest.

Delisle is basically along for the ride in this book, sticking around first a guest house and then a rented home borrowed from the project leader, looking after Louis.  This also means he has much more time to explore, and we are treated to his observations and thoughts on life in Rangoon under the military junta.  And it seems like Rangoon is a pretty strange place.  There is a high degree of government control, although it's quite subtle and much of it escapes notice.

Delisle ends up doing a number of touristic things - trying to see the home where Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated dissident has been confined for decades, taking part in a monastic retreat, and visiting various ex-pat institutions to hang out.  He also tries to get to know his neighbours, and runs an animation class for a few interested locals.

The book is filled with his usual humour and sometime bumbling awkwardness, and is quite charming throughout.  The book is divided into short strips that never last more than a few pages, but which, when read as a whole, provide a detailed mosaic of life in one of the least understood countries on the planet (at least to Western readers).

Monday, August 23, 2010


by William T. Vollmann

I have considered Vollmann to be my favourite writer for a very long time (I've been reading his books since I was in high school), and I've read every book he's written (with the exception of his newest, Kissing the Mask, which is on my bookshelf).  Having finished Imperial, his massive book on Imperial County, and the area surrounding it, including the Mexicali Valley in Mexico, I'm beginning to fear that our relationship is becoming an abusive one.

Imperial (the book) is 1306 pages long, although the main body of the text only takes up 1125 pages (Vollmann likes his notes), and it is frequently painfully repetitive.  Vollmann is the type of author who, if he interviews seven people about say the price of water in rural Mexicali, will include all seven interviews, instead of summarizing or aggregating, even though all seven people say just about the exact same thing.

The problem is, Vollmann is frequently a brilliant writer, and makes it worth the reader's while to wade through the duller portions of the book, hunting for the sections that confirm his talent and genius.

This book is as sprawling as the geography he describes.  He covers (exhaustively) the history of the region, but this is not just a history book.  He also goes to great lengths to portray the current state of Imperial, and meets with and interviews people from every station in life, although his sympathies and love remain with the people of Mexican descent, whether they work illegally in America or subsist in Southside (ie. Mexico).

The closest thing to a thesis statement I ever found in the book came on page 528, when he wrote "When I began to study the history of this period my mind remained unbiased by knowledge.  All I knew was that somehow Imperial county had altered from being one of the richest bits of farmland in the United States to the poorest county in California, and I couldn't fathom how."  Of course, the whole region is desert reclaimed by damning the Colorado River, and finding ways to bring and keep water in the area.

The book is at its best when Vollmann is in Southside.  There is an excellent section that involve him searching for tunnels in Mexicali that had been built and inhabited by Chinese migrants.  This involves page after page of investigation and pleading, before his is finally able to gain entry into some of the extant tunnels, and while they hold little more than Al Capone's famous tunnels did, this part of the book is fascinating.  Also memorable is the section where Vollmann attempts to gain entry into some of the maquiladoras that fill Mexicali, as he looks to confirm rumours of sexual harassment and mistreatment of poor Mexican girls.  These two sections, joined by a smaller segment on narcocorridos (ballads that lionize the actions of drug traffickers) are the most Vollmannesque, as is an early part of the book where he decides to raft down the New River to confirm reports of its feculence.  In that instance, he developed a number of skin infections.

It's hard to figure out how to classify Vollmann's non-fiction writing.  This book could work as a pretty straight-forward sociological history of the region, but for the fact that he will frequently include similes such as "as clean as a fifteen year-old Mexican whore", which I'm sure make academics incredibly unlikely to ever quote from him at length.  Similarly, there is a part of the book that runs close to one hundred pages in which he mourns the death of his relationship with an unnamed woman.  Frequent readers of Vollmann's oeuvre are used to things like this, but it must be quite off-putting to a casual reader (imagine if James Agee filled some of 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' by whining about getting dumped).

In the final analysis, this book is about the death of optimism and perhaps the American Dream in its far south.  The people that Vollmann interviews and profiles from the contemporary period feel beat down, and are happiest when life is simply 'tranquil'.  The pioneer spirit that he describes at length in people like Wilber Clark has left the region, and things are not looking good.  At the heart of this book lies Vollmann's love for this area and its people, as if his own personal optimism could prop up the whole area.

I enjoyed reading this book, but I'm damn happy I've finished it.  I rather wish Vollmann would return to writing novels (ideally, I want him to finish his Seven Dreams books - they are among the best books I've ever read), but no matter how much he pushes, I know I'll always return to read his next book.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Scott Prilgrim Vs. The World

Directed by Edgar Wright

I went in to this movie with very high expectations - I felt like the bar was going to be high for this project from the start, and hearing lots of positive reviews and good word of mouth for the last week only heightened my anticipation, and I'm very happy to say that I was not disappointed.

This is exactly what a comics adaption should be.  The story remained faithful to the comics, while effectively condensing Bryan Lee O'Malley's sprawling plot, and preserving the unique aesthetic he crafted for the books.  The plot is familiar - Scott dates Knives; Scott meets Ramona; Scott dumps Knives; Scott has to fight Ramona's Seven Evil Exes, but there is enough difference to the film that it never becomes too predictable or boring for someone who has already read the story.

The cute visual tricks help make the movie stand out.  Sound effects appear on the screen, and the video game homages work better in the film than they did on paper.  There are some very cool CGI tricks, but they never overwhelm the story the way they do in most blockbuster movies.

The movie is cast perfectly.  Michael Cera does a great Scott, but I found that Mary Elizabeth Winstead was perfect as Ramona Flowers.  She managed the aloofness and indescribable cool of Ramona wonderfully.  The other supporting characters were chosen well, especially Alison Pill as Kim Pine, Johnny Simmons as Young Neil, and Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, the source of many of the best laughs in the movie.

One aspect of the film that I particularly loved was the way in which it portrayed Toronto as a magical, beautiful city.  The scenes in places like the steps to Casa Loma, or along the streets where everyone seemed to live (the Annex?) looked fantastic, and it's always cool to see places you've been hanging out all your life up on the screen.

Out of necessity, the movie does cut a number of scenes from the book, and so things felt a lot more rushed than I would have expected.  The quick succession of battles with evil exes didn't give Scott and Ramona much time to really bond, and so I missed seeing many of my favourite moments from the comics in the movies.  I also felt that Envy Adam's character arc was cut short, but I understand why that had to be the case.

Anthony Lane, writing in the New Yorker, suggested that the movie might be as 'vaporous' as the word 'love' that Knives exhales in Scott's direction, but I don't agree.  I expect that this movie will find a solid life for itself on DVD and Blu-Ray, as it is the type of movie that may have a small audience, but I imagine they will be a dedicated one.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dog With a Rope

Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno

I'm rather late in finding my way to Quantic, but have so far enjoyed both projects that I've bought, and figured this one would be a safe purchase.

On this album, Quantic has worked to bring the rhythms and musical traditions of Colombia, his home for the last little while, in contact with the music of the Caribbean, notably Jamaica, Trinidad, and Cuba.  What results is a very lovely album, a sort of Cuban South American dub.

In the liner notes, Quantic goes to great length to explain the provenance of each musician and how they got involved in the project (more and more, I'm noticing how much people like to write about this stuff in their liner notes), and since I am not familiar with any of the names, it doesn't matter to me much at all.

What does matter is that this is an album that can be listened to on its own, or left on as beautiful background music.  Most tracks are instrumental, but some feature vocals.  Very nice stuff.

The Bronx Kill

Written by Peter Milligan
Art by James Romberger

Now this is exactly what I was expecting when the Vertigo Crime line launched.  Bronx Kill is a perfect example of a crime comics graphic novel.  It's intelligent, suspenseful, very well-paced, and has a couple of surprises.

The book stars Martin Keane, the only son in a family with at least four generations of service in the New York Police Department.  The book opens with scenes of Martin's great grandfather getting murdered in the Bronx Kill, the wasteland surrounding the stream that separates the Bronx from Manhattan, and then jumps to young Martin being told about it by his father.  At that point, Martin realizes that he will never become a cop, and instead grows up to be a second-rate novelist.

Early in the book, Martin marries Erin, an artist and school teacher, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Martin's grandmother, who mysteriously disappeared, abandoning Martin's father.  There is plenty of animosity and disappointment between Martin and his Dad, and his wife's constant curiosity about the family history does not help things much.

After receiving scathing reviews of his second novel (Martin Amis was particularly cruel), Martin is lost for a while, before he starts to get a notion from his wife's queries that leads him to Ireland for four months of research.  Shortly after his return, Erin goes missing one night, and Martin is plunged into a world of suspicion and distrust.

Milligan handles Martin's decent beautifully, as he starts to crack up under media scrutiny and police suspicion.  He eventually becomes the main suspect in the case.  Strangely, all of these problems make it easier for him to write, and Milligan keeps cutting from the comic to pages of his first draft.  It's easy for the reader to make connections between Martin's family history and that of Michael Furey, his protagonist.

The art, by Romberger, works well with the story, and I find the format of these books - the thick hard covers with the pulpy newsprint inside, to be irresistible. This is a really good comic.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Written by Ana Matronic and Mr. Sheldon
Art by Dan Duncan and Mr. Sheldon

There are two stories in this issue of CBGB, of vastly differing styles and appeal to me.

The book opens with a story written by Ana Matronic, who is apparently in a band called the Scissor Sisters (should I know who they are?), and drawn in a style that seems like a cross between Becky Cloonan and early (ie. Shade the Changing Man era) Chris Bachalo.  In this story, the narrator is a writer with a bad case of writer's block, in 1970s New York.  Her only true release comes from attending shows at CBGB, and writing about them for the Village Voice.

It's a very nice piece, and works as a great tribute to a very specific time and place. 

The second story, by Mr. Sheldon, is cute I guess, but completely not my thing.  This is a pretty cool comic though - I like that Boom is trying something so different from what they usually publish.

Fables #97

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, and Dan Green

Fables has returned after a skip month, and we finally get to the end of Rose Red's long conversation with her dead mother, as we see just how horribly she acted back in the Homelands, when she was living with Snow White and Prince Charming.  This part of the book is amusing, but it is when this bit ends, and Willingham returns to the main storyline, that things get pretty good.

Gepetto has a meeting with Stinky and Ozma, while Bigby worries about how long he can resist Mr. Dark's power, and Beauty feels a few kicks.  I feel like most of these plots have been left for too long, so I look forward to getting back to the main business at hand.

Sweets #2

by Kody Chamberlain

I picked up the first issue of Sweets on spec - it looked interesting, but I wasn't sure if I was going to stick with it.  I liked it enough to want to get the second issue, and now I'm hooked.

On the surface, Chamberlain is giving us a straight-up police procedural that reads like some of the best episodes of Homicide Life on the Street.  The two lead detectives on the 'Sweets' case - a string of murders connected through the pralines left by each victim's body - argue, grumble, and carry on like the frequently cantankerous cops on that much-missed TV show.

At the same time, Chamberlain continues to play with the comics form, giving us the odd page featuring the killer, always in black and white, and another short look into his childhood, drawn in a much more simplistic and primitive style.  On top of it all, the story is set in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hits, which will probably factor in to the end of the series.

This is a great example of a solid crime comic.  Anyone who enjoys Criminal should pick this up.

Air #24

Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by MK Perker

It's a shame that Air is ending, but at the same time, that a book like this can get a two-year run in today's market is impressive.  Air is one of those newer breed of Vertigo books, like Sweet Tooth or Northlanders, that is more concerned with exploring a notion than with telling a traditional, dark fantasy story.  It took risks, was never very popular (sales demonstrate this), and should be considered a complete success of intelligent storytelling.

I'm thankful that Wilson was given enough space to finish off her story, because an overly-rushed ending would have done a great disservice to what she had planned and so clearly mapped out.  In this conclusion, I feel like there may have been some corners cut - we never really do get a solid explanation of what Quetzalcoatl represented, and I would have loved to see more of Blythe's adventures in flying - but there was more than enough space to come to a satisfying conclusion.

This book started out being about the fear of flying (and not in an Erica Jong way - that came later).  Blythe, the stewardess, was technically afraid of falling more than falling, and the Etesian Front were a shadowy anti-terrorist network that wanted to make the skies safe for all Americans again.  It's interesting that this book morphed so quickly into what it really was - a comic about the power of symbols, and the story of Blythe's journey of self-actualization, as she took on the role of a hyperpract (the ability to fly through reinterpretation of maps and symbols).  At the beginning of the series, I didn't like Blythe that much, but now at the end, I feel like I'm going to miss her.

Wilson did a wonderful job on this book.  She invested a great deal of personality into her characters, demonstrated a novel approach to science fiction, and used the book to transmit some of her personal beliefs.  I especially liked the issues about Zayn and fundamentalism.  Perker was a great artist for this book, and was consistently excellent throughout the run.

I hope that Air is one of those Vertigo books that finds new life through trade sales, and that Wilson and Perker work together again soon.

Farscape #10

Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon and Keith RA DeCandido
Art by Will Sliney

I just recently re-watched the fourth season of Farscape, and followed that up with the Peacekeeper Wars, which served as a nice refresher on the state of the Farscape galaxy before reading this issue of the now very good Farscape comic.

In this issue, Chricton and Aeryn, along with the PK deserter Captain and her Lieutenant scout out the weapons that Commandant Grayza is preparing to sell to the Grennij, who are advance troops for a larger invasion force crossing an inter-dimensional divide. Later, the gang meets with Grayza, which always works well, as she must be an insanely fun character to write, so full of certainty and hubris.

As I've written a few times recently, this comic has gotten very good since it became an on-going series.  DeCandido has these characters down pat, and it's cool to see the way he and O'Bannon are working in the series' history to recent events.  A good example of that comes in this issue, where the commerce planet they visit is the same one that was visited in the very first episode of the show.

Most interesting to me is the way in which Aeryn is developing her own vision of what the Peacekeepers should be.  It's been clear that she never really accepted leaving the service, and now that she has discovered her spiritual side through studying the Books of Yemahl, it is nice to see her work to implement her vision.