Monday, September 1, 2014

Nymphomation


                        It astonishes me that Jeff Noon has flown under the radar in this country for this long. His bizarre mix of post-cyberpunk, bio-punk, and hallucinatory fantasy is certainly unconventional in places, but in a genre fiction market where we've obsessed over victorian fantasy, zombies, vampires, and gritty medieval political fantasy for far too long, a voice like Noon's could be a breath of fresh air. If, that was, it wasn't drowned out by louder, more well-known voices. With his work, Jeff Noon creates brightly-colored and unsettlingly dark worlds that just border on assaulting the senses with colors, smells, sounds, and tastes. He layers these on top of bizarre crime stories about things that don't exist yet, like an illegal trade in hallucinogenic dimension-bending feathers or trying to hack a national lottery using black magic and unorthodox math. The result is a disorienting mix of weird visuals, strange plotlines, and despicable characters that comes together in something incredibly readable. 

                      And Nymphomation is easily the most accessible of his books, barring his tripped-out short story collection Pixel Juice, a strange mix of experimental stories. Its lack of jargon, more sympathetic cast, focused plot, and a more conventional, grounded approach to plotting than his free-associative works like Vurt and Pollen. But more than being just "most accessible", it's a well-written introduction to one of genre fiction's most criminally underrated authors. It's an odd look at cyber-culture that barely sets foot online. And, above all else, it is brilliant. It's twisted, unsettling in places, and flat-out wrong at times, but I've never read nothing else like it. 

More, as always, below.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

100 Bullets

     


          As many of you may have guessed, I'm a huge fan of crime epics. Most of my consumption is in the form of TV-- I'm a huge fan of The Wire due to its tight writing and its handling of characters, for example, and Boardwalk Empire for the same reason-- but I like the books and comics that deal with the form as well. A good, gritty crime story with a lot of characters and conflicting motivations slamming together at high speeds over a longer period of time than usual and I am hooked. Similarly, a good mystery with a slight edge that could be weirder than normal is another thing I'm a sucker for. 

             And a crime epic, as a form, is a much different animal than its mythological cousin. Where a mythological epic follows a group of people or a single faction in the overall events, a crime epic is a lot more overarching. The characters involved can be criminals, police officers, independent operators, or just about anywhere on the spectrum. Similarly, the crime epic's events don't always have to be as closely related. The idea in a crime epic is to show that everything has ripples and effects that move outward from the central premise, a series of wide-ranging and often tiny events that have huge consequences later on. While it can sometimes follow a central group, it prefers to examine all the elements of crime in various ways until it leads to a climax that, more often than not, is a question rather than a conclusive answer. 

            100 Bullets is, in this mode, fairly by-the-numbers. It examines criminals, cops, the upper class, the lower class, and everywhere in between. But the book's brilliant execution, bizarre underground-comics art style, and tight-as-a-drum writing push it above and beyond the usual crime books, a slowly-unfolding and sometimes grisly story of power and responsibility that is so markedly American and darkly, scathingly funny at points that it's well worth a read, and even a re-read. It's a story of what happens when power corrupts, and it deserves your attention*.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucifer

     
   

       I'm going to be honest, the first time I ever heard of Mike Carey was through his Felix Castor series of supernatural procedurals. Even then, I heard about the novels through an Amazon review that (like all Amazon reivews) vanished up its own ass in disparaging Richard Kadrey's exquisite Sandman Slim while singing his praises. It didn't give me a good impression of the Felix Castor books or their fans. I hadn't even heard that he'd written comics until two years later, when I suddenly discovered that in the vast recesses of my various collections, I happened to have a copy of the critically-acclaimed Hellblazer story All His Engines*, which, despite being bleak and nihilistic (and if you have a problem with bleak nihilism, don't read Hellblazer because unless it's written by Neil Gaiman and thus drunk and stoned off its ass**, this is all Hellblazer is.) was optimistic and very well-written. And then I'd heard he'd written an entire series about Lucifer, one of my favorite characters in Sandman due to his immensely sympathetic nature and status not as a villain, not as a hero, but as a character who could easily be each.

                            And, well, it was brilliant. The characters, even the villains, have at least some kind of motivation that's understandable. It weaves together several stories, and actually surprised me when I thought they were going to end poorly. Which isn't to say that there's a lot of winning-- it's a series about Satan, after all, his winning would mean some very odd things about existence and God-- but there are enough wins that it doesn't wind up in crushing despair. The series structures itself as a very odd epic poem, with the start of the arc being the creation of a new world, and the end being, well, I'm not going to spoil that in the opening paragraphs. Rest assured, you should read Lucifer. But why? Well, read on...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sandman

                 

       When I decided I was going to review The Sandman, I realized that I'd kind of set myself up for a fall. 

                          It's an incredibly well-known series. You can't really get past that. Every time Neil Gaiman, the book's head writer and creator, even mentions the words "Sandman" and "movie" in the same sentence, the internet blows up with eighty thinkpieces and articles on speculation* about it because it is that well known and that beloved. This is the series that put Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, among others, on the mainstream map. It's the series that gave DC Comics both their depiction of Death and one of the better sex-ed PSAs I've ever read. It is the only comic book ever to win the World Fantasy Award for "Best Short Story" (They changed the rules after "A Midsummer Night's Dream", a standalone about Morpheus and Shakespeare, won. The dicks). Most of the things that could be said about Sandman have already been said in countless introductions, essays, reviews, and of course college essays that people wrote purely for the purpose of being able to read graphic novels to up their grades in English courses**.

                          It's also a work with a huge fanbase, so if I get anything wrong, I feel like I'm under the gun a little. It's kind of the reviewer's curse-- if you love something they love or hate something they hate, then they applaud you for it and say you're doing the right thing. If it's the other way around, well...

Heaven help you.

                          So I suppose I'll start out with this: The Sandman, conceived by Neil Gaiman, isn't one of the best graphic novels I've read, or one of the best works of fantasy I've read, but it's one of the best mythological tragedies I have ever read, and I'll give it that accolade willingly and with great fervor. With The Sandman, Gaiman and his team of writers proved that where most were able to play with existing mythologies and build off of them, they could create new ones. Complex ones. Ones that then spun, as all good mythologies and epics do, into other works and whose elements popped up in regular comics. While this was mainly in the form of Death as a breakout character that now happily occupies most DC Comics universes, and The Dreaming (the land everyone visits when they go to sleep, ruled by Morpheus, the titular Sandman) making it into more "mainstream" comics, it's still significant. On top of that, it's well worth the read. Why? Read on...


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Preacher

   
       
         
                           The first time I'd ever heard of Preacher, I didn't know what to think. It was described to me as "A preacher, his gun-toting ex-girlfriend, and an alcoholic Irish vampire set out to find an absent God". That didn't exactly light a fire under me to read it, no matter how highly it was praised by The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for that year, nor how it was doing in the numerous comics publications that got the word out about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's lurid and highly mature American heroic epic (very well, despite the backlash Garth Ennis now enjoys for writing lurid and highly mature works). It just sounded kind of...well, not quite my thing. So I let it go until two years later the brilliant minds of Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum brought it up in their well worth the read webcomic Unshelved. Then, because I'd had multiple sources confirm that yes, this was worth reading, I fired up the Inter-Library Loan client at Maplewood Library, and...

                          ...promptly looked at the sheer number of books and trades and side-stories, and promptly ordered Sandman, because at least I knew where to begin with that. It wasn't until years later where, jaded into apathy by Joss Whedon's utterly depressing run on Astonishing X-Men, I wandered into a comic book store looking for a pre-screening ticket to Grindhouse and decided (being completely flat-out skint) to talk comics with the guy at the counter while my friends browsed around the store. When he mentioned Preacher, I said something dismissive about that I didn't really feel like reading about a minister, only for him to jump in with "with the Voice Of God! He's a preacher with the voice of God!" And now that I knew that, the comic became intriguing. I wondered how anyone could get sixty-eight issues out of a preacher with the voice of God travelling around to find his creator when He abandoned the throne. So I looked into it, and what I found...

                  What I found blew me away. I have yet to encounter something like Preacher before or since-- a loud, brazen assault on the senses; a tale of a world gone mad in the absence of its creator, and the bluntest solution to the problem of theodicy I have ever seen. And yet...there's a softness to it. A humanity. These are people trying their hardest to put the world back together in spite of forces literally beyond their control. And for this reason-- as well as others-- it is one of the best comics I've ever read before or since. And I will defend it beyond reason and sense, tooth and nail, because of this. It's nasty, insane, brutal, lurid, and at the same time incredibly touching in its own way. It's vulgar, but with a heart. And I love it. Read this. Or try to. It'll probably be too graphic and sick for most people, but if you can see past this, there is a book with a lot of heart and a lot of heavy subjects in here. 

More, as always, below.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Prelude to Epics Month

              When I came up with the idea of devoting an entire month to comics holding true to the epic form, as with any major project that would allow a person of distinction to read comics at work, I had to set out certain rules for myself. Not just any comic can count as an epic. In fact, many don't. And while some of the longer titles are certainly operatic and massive in scope (Hi, DC), I chose not to do them because the open-ended nature of many comics leaves a lot up in the air. While I could review stories in each comic, and explore the form that way, I'd feel like I was just doing a single chapter of The Iliad and calling it a day. No, I wanted to get deep. Comprehensive. Get some dirt under my fingernails (figuratively). 

               So as part of the project, I did some research. I had to make sure I was using the word "epic" right, and not in another wrong way, especially as these days there have been some fast and loose uses of the word "epic" to mean "something that is awesome or imbued with powers beyond the regular forms". So I had two criteria I had to come up with to judge if these comics fit the mold I was looking for, and if they counted as an epic. And also to determine what series I would use or even be able to use. This may sound like overthinking a little, but I wanted this to be special, since I'm essentially devoting three to four weeks to me reading graphic novels as opposed to doing more with books. I know that this is sort of my "soapbox", mostly for lack of outside input, but I am the kind of cultured man-about-town who believes that even on the internet, one should have standards*.  More, as always, below.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gravity's Rainbow



"A Screaming comes across the sky..."
- First line

"What?"
- Richard M. Nixon

           It has been an age that I have been locked in mortal combat with this book. I first discovered it when my dad told me about it, and that if I could read it and understand it, I would be able to prove myself in most intellectual arenas against people who do the New York Times crossword in pen. Because he spoke so highly of the book, I took it out of the library one summer in my precocious youth and sat down on the back porch (because in those days we still had a back porch, before sad and upsetting circumstances forced us to do without) and began to read.

           Moments later, and about fifty pages in, I stopped and went, "Why this is simply a World War II novel written in dense and confusing language!" And closed the book, resolving never to pick it up again. This, combined with my earlier attempts to read V. at the local public pool (an attempt which may have been sadly colored by sitting in gum as I read at the local public pool), convinced me Thomas Pynchon was a complete waste of time. I believed I'd tried, seen through him, and that was all there was to it. I didn't need to read any more. I didn't need to know any more. I could safely write him off and never have to read any more ever again. 

               Except...then, on the advice of the usually sage and slightly whacked Steve Jackson Games, who listed The Crying of Lot 49 in their influences in the back of the manual for Illuminati*, I checked out Lot 49, and it was amazing. I still didn't think I was ready for Gravity's Rainbow, and maybe it was just the time that I read it, which was around the same time I'd read Naked Lunch and several other books of conspiracy lit written on drugs, but it was enough to make me turn around. I actually tried reading Gravity's Rainbow again in 2011, but sadly between looming overdue fees and the schedule for my then-budding book blog, I was unable to actually get very far. 

               But finally, after years of false starts and bizarre interruptions, I can finally say that I have read Gravity's Rainbow. And it is one of the greatest, if not the greatest work of American literature, and an all-time favorite of mine. While I cannot recommend this book to everyone, I believe that everyone should at least give it a try, as there is literally nothing else like it. It's a huge, dense, bizarre musical comedy-fantasy-science fiction-thriller that in the end is about absolutely everything, while not actually being about absolutely everything. As I have said twice before with books this month, literally the only thing you have to lose is time, so do yourself a favor. At the very least, it'll be interesting. At the most, it might open you up to some interesting thoughts that you may not have had. But either way, all you'll waste is your time.

More, as always, below.