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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Providence, Act 1

by Alan Moore (writer) & Jacen Burrows (artist)

Publisher: Avatar Press, First Edition (May 3, 2016)

Hardcover, 160 pages

Finished 5/18/2018

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          This is part one of Alan Moore’s love letter to H. P. Lovecraft, but it’s not the greatest story ever penned. In fact, it’s rather bland. If it wasn’t for the fact that a big name like Alan Moore is attached, the series probably would have been canceled. While I sincerely wanted to like this story, I walked away with a meh feeling. I think this was a tale that would’ve been better told as a prose novel.
          Perhaps it has something to do with the art.  It is competent, but not artistic. It is there doing a fine job of predicting what it needs to, but the action lies flat. There is no energy, no life, to the portraiture. It feels churned out, almost paint by numbers. Well, not that bad, but it certainly lacks a spark. If they wanted to catch the drabness of a cold New England autumn day, they did so. Unfortunately, it detracts rather than adds to the story.

          Now I’m not saying the story is particularly bad, it’s just not particularly good. It follows a reporter looking into the various deaths and events surrounding a book, Sous Le Monde, and leads him to strange places and odd people. This volume contains only the first four of twelve issues, so not much is set up. If you are unfamiliar with H. P. Lovecraft’s work then you will miss a lot of references. And if you are, you might just want to go back and reread him instead of this volume.
Apparently, the author spent a lot of time researching the material that went into this book, pulling events, places, and people right from the pages of history, but it doesn’t really show in this volume. For those who remember, he did the same thing with his Jack the Ripper book, From Hell, but the research aspect was much more evident in the story. I feel that how much time he spent on it was a publicity stunt.

          This first edition was further hyped by the fact that the publisher announced that it would only be printing 6,666 copies (Oooooo spooky. It’s like the antichrist with one more 6). I bought this copy years ago, but never got around to reading it until today. When I rechecked the price, I nearly choked. Do not get ripped off buying this volume, unless you desperately want it. Wait for the collected edition. While the publisher claims that it won’t be happening until sometime in the far future, in reality all we have to do it wait for them to have one bad quarter and watch it come out in a hurry.
           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Acme Novelty Library #20

by Chris Ware

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (November 9, 2010).

Hardcover, 72 pages

Finished 5/16/2018

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Anyone who is even remotely interested in independent comics must be, at least peripherally aware of the Acme Novelty Library. It is the brainchild of Chris Ware, an artist without parallel. It can honestly be said that no one puts together comics like he does. The attention to detail and physical construction of the comic is immaculate. Each panel portrays a depth of feeling and loneliness. Each is poignant and sublime. Taken together it is an overall work of human suffering and loss. 

Like all of Ware’s stories, this is not a triumph of the human spirit. It is a story of the weariness of life, of one man continuing to trundle through the world despite loss after loss. The protagonist, Jordan (or Jason) Lint is not a likeable person, in fact he would usually be the heavy, the antagonist, of most normal stories. He is a bully, a cheat, a white collar criminal, but he is also human. He has genuine love beyond himself and his story is the struggle in his soul between good and evil- this is often personified when he calls himself Jason (evil) or Jordan (good), and when Lint is clad in either blue (good) or red (red). Unfortunately, evil seems to triumph mostly in Lint’s tale.
Despite an unpleasant main character, we see his entire life unfold and see the forces shaping Jordan Lint into the terrible person he was to become. He hate him, we sympathize with him, we are sorry to see him go. All in it all, it was a life. No more, no less.


            For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Cyber Asylum

by Brian Barr

Publisher: Brian Barr Books (April, 2018)

Softcover, 28 pages

Finished 5/14/2018

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          “And, just as he planned, he was breaking out of this facility easy enough. His body was even stronger than when he entered the asylum, as he spent his waking hours doing nothing but conditioning, bodybuilding, and sprinting around the yard. It took little time to clear one hallway, then another stairwell, all while Ichiro’s memory was on point. He knew the facility in and out, knew where the deactivated cyborg guards would be sprawled out on the floor since they were stopped in their redundant sounds. All of the humans were out that night, recovering from a long day while preparing for tomorrow.”
          Once again, Brian Barr has turned out a superb cyberpunk story in the classic tradition. As I’ve written before, cyberpunk works at its best when it is asking question about the nature of reality and life. What makes someone alive. And if something is a copy of a copy of a copy does that final copy have an identity or life of its own? If you say no, then you must consider how our own identity is created through the combination of DNA and learned behavior. Are we not just inconsistent copies of those who came before?

          In this story, we have an inmate at a cyber-asylum, a famous artist. In the asylum a person is placed into a tank and their mind is whisked to cyberspace to work on their disorders in peace, away from the soul sucking world and the people in it. The protagonist is in his so long that his body is on the verge of total decay. He must make a decision then whether to escape with another inmate and be downloaded into an artificial body or die. As you might guess, that’s not much a choice. The story in an intriguing sci-fi tale, and I would recommend to everyone with an interest in the genre.

             For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Collected Neil the Horse

By Katherine Collins (formerly Arn Saba), Trina Robbins (Introduction)

Publisher: Conundrum Press (Octover 2017)

Softcover 328 pages

Finished 5/13/2018

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           I feel like I’ve always known Neil the Horse. I’ve never read it before, I may have seen a few issues back in comic shops back in the day, but I’ve literally never read a line. Yet somehow, it is as warm and familiar as slipping on an old pair of slippers. A feeling of nostalgia surrounds me on every page, and somehow I get a comforting feeling for things past, even if all the material is new to me.
This is because the influences that shape Neil the Horse come from early childhood (from everyone’s childhood at this point). They are bright spangly cartoons (half in black and white, half in color) that danced about in the 1930s. The old ones from early Disney or Fleischer studios , Betty Boop, early Popeye the Sailor, Koko the Clown, all of which often had music to pad up the experience. These early visions of a cartoon universe gave birth the Neil the Horse and his companions. The entire book is an ode, a love letter, to the masters of the past, which obviously infected the author’s imagination.
While the subject matter and style may not be unique, it is very different from any comic I’ve seen out there. The author constantly plays with form and mediums. Sometimes it’s a straight up comic, other times it’s a prose story with illustrations. Often there are cut out sections for old fashion dress-up paper dolls, and sheet music for the numerous songs presented in the stories.
This volume contains all fifteen issues of the series’ run, plus a number of inked strips originally appearing in several alternative Canadian newspapers and magazines. The main characters are the happy go-lucky Neil the Horse, whose defining feature is that he’s not too bright and loves bananas; Soapy, a cynical, cigar-chomping cat; and Mam'selle PoupĂ©e (French for doll), a life sized wooden doll come to life through unexplored means. Orignally published by Aardvark-Vanaheim the home of Cerebus. While there is no crossover with the antihero aardvark, there is with another old fashioned indie charter, Omaha the Cat Dancer- The sexualized cat character, whose comic was essentially an anthropomorphized soap opera.
Author Katherine Collins
These are static characters placed in different time periods as is needed by the story. If you’re looking for some world building, or a mythology this is not the book for you. This doesn’t mean the stories are bad, on the contrary, but remember this is simply light hearted fare. Wonderful, whimsical, and silly.
A few of the stories don’t work. Some of the illustrations lack polish, the framing indicates an amateur on the verge of becoming a professional. The black and white often hamper the frivolity of the comic. I don’t often say this, but color would have really helped to sell the magical nature of the world. There’s something about a rainbow done in greyscale that is so depressing. And musical numbers do not translate well at all to a comic medium.  
One final note. Neil the Horse is one of the few independents to jump mediums. In the 90s a series of radio plays was made by the author using the cast of the comic. Apparently, it had rave reviews. Now they are all available on Youtube. The first of them is included below.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Faceache: The First Hundred Scrunges

by Ken Reid (Introduction by Alan Moore) 

Publisher: Rebellion (November 30, 2017)

Hardcover, 122 pages 

Finished 5/6/2018

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A collection of humorous one panel cartoons from the 1970s which appeared in the kid’s comic magazine Jet (later on known as Jet and Buster), whose protagonist is the aforementioned Faceache. In the original he goes by a different name, Ricky Rubberneck, but like many ideas in pilot episodes, it was soon discarded, and afterwards everyone (even his own father) referred to him as Faceache.
The main character gained his moniker (I assume it’s not his Christian name) by his bizarre ability to reshape his face and parts of his skeletal structure to create different bizarre shapes and slightly change his height. Think of a bratty Mr. Fantastic and you have a decent idea (Fantastic Four meets The Infancy Gospel of Thomas). Page after page he gets into ridiculous situations, mostly moneymaking schemes, that require him to “scrunge” his face up in a grotesque manner. Most of them come to bad end for our hero and he ends up shot at, beat up, set on fire, chased by mobs, and so on. Only to start it all over again next week.

This is fun book, drawn and inked by a master craftsman. One who knows how to draw an odd face, and keep the action flowing. Comic drawing and timing has almost become an extinct talent in the art field. So few of this type are produced anymore, and those who do it, don’t have the background (yet!) to draw physical comedy on the level of Ken Reid. Therefore, I’m very glad this volume was put out. As the target audience at the time was probably around the 13-year-old mark, I appreciated it on a technical level, rather than the actual content. Nostalgia would probably help here in appreciation of the material. I could easily see someone, reliving part of their past gazing at the old cartoons.


           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Stairway of Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America

by Patrick McGreevy

Publisher: State University of New York Press; Reprint edition (July 2nd, 2005).

Hardcover, 309 pages

Finished 5/3/2018

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“For many, Lockport clearly functioned as a symbol of art, a futuristic emblem of the amazing things being accomplished by human ingenuity. This was clear in the rhetoric surrounding the canal’s opening celebration, and we have already seen a number of travelers’ accounts that equate Lockport with art. Caroline Gilman wrote that ‘here, the great Erie Canal has defied nature and used it like a toy.’”

Much was said in the early 19th century of the little city that became known as Lockport. Once upon a time it was a bustling city, full of trade and industry. Now it is sinkhole of human trash and indolence. The once great aspirations and artifacts of their proud ancestors have been allowed to decay and rot away in a whirlwind of human waste, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The current population, a direct product of chemical abuse and inbreeding, are like Lovecraft characters from The Shadow over Innsmouth, barely recognizable as human and unable to communicate beyond one syllable words. And I should know, my mother is from there. I have a host of bizarre cousins, running about with deformities, nibbling like rats on the corner of papers, and infesting this ghost of greatness.

One of the locks in the city.
The development of the city Lockport is tied, like all of Western New York, to the construction of the Erie Canal. In fact, you might say that the entirety of that state, up to the present day was fundamentally shaped by this monumental construction. Both physically and ethnically, as many of the laboring races (primarily Irish and Welsh) settled down in the places created by the canal. The city of Lockport itself was founded around the creation a double row of locks (one set for raising and the other for lowering) on the waterway. For those who don’t know, a water lock is a method of raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on the canal. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber in which the water level can be added to or removed from. This allows a boat to be moved up and down treacherous drops.

Essentially there isn’t much to this story. Not much drama, just men planning an audacious project, on which the city was one stop. The author lets a lot of other people’s work do the heavy lifting for him, and then stretches out the material as far as he could. The last fifty pages of text (not the appendixes) could easily be jettisoned. The reality is that there wasn’t much to talk about. Even the two workers riots just didn’t have enough documentation to add more beyond the fact that they occurred.
Opening of the Erie Canal

The author tries to hard to dredge up some social justice relevancy in his findings. It’s obvious he’s grasping desperately around looking from some emotional racial foothold on which he can make a grand statement. But he can’t find it, so he makes a lot of little snide remarks about the kind acts that other’s performed back during the time of the construction, implying that they could’ve done more. Overall, it comes across as a lazy work on a topic of minor interest (even the locals of the city didn’t care enough to buy the book).

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A. I. High

by Brian Barr

Published: Brian Barr Books (March 1st, 2018)

Softcover, 26 pages

Finished 5/1/2018

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 “The sensations Spacix produced were nothing like Shinobu knew from past drug experiences. Cannabis programs made his inner motors hum and gave his circuits a “light” feeling, as if her were soaring above the clouds. Mushroom chips brought funny hallucinations and colors to his fiberoptic vision. Cocaine replications gave his motherboard an intense sense of energy, and he could study for hours with it, as well as with the Adderall programs he tried. Each e-drug gave its own effect, and all of them intrigued Shinobu, made him want to indulge more.”
The one thing which has always drawn me to cyberpunk stories is, at its best, the genre is an examination of what it means to be human, what defines humanity, and what is the line between sentience and programming. Back in the middle of the previous century, it was considered necessary for all literature (at least those which were to be taken seriously) to reflect on what was called “the human condition”. Then post-modernism came along and erased all that, playing as they did with all manner of conventions. The idea of “the human condition” was old hat. Except in the realm of sci-fi.
Author Brian Barr

Which brings us this story, number 3 in the Nihon Cyberpunk series, by emerging sci-fi writer Brian Barr. Here we see a the development of cyborgs as essentially comfort animals for those humans who have experienced loss, or in the case of our main character, who could not have children. In our protagonist, the nature of the cyborg’ simulation of actual human male adolescent characteristics is so accurate that he begins having teenage angst and experiments with e-drugs- the registered sensations of actual drug users broken down into code. As the protagonist takes the drug though, we wonder, is he actually enjoying it or is he simply running through a designated program of code. From that, we begin to question whether our own actions and predispositions are much different from this cyborg boy. In the old days, the Calvinists called this predestination, today we call it programming.

As is suggested by the tragic ending to this tale, how much of our lives is controlled by invisible forces beyond our control? How much of our lives can we really shape? How much are we just deluding ourselves?

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.