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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Light

By Rob Cham

Publisher: Lion Forge (October 11, 2016)

Hardcover 108 pages

Finished 9/26/2017

Amazon Listing



    A short and sweet graphic novel about a hero who descends from the light to the land of black, finds a companion, and quests for five glowing gems in the realm beneath. It is one of those rare graphic novel which are completely silent, apart from a few sound effects, “yoink” and so forth, no words are used.
    The graphics in this case are all the more important. Each page is one complete panel, creating a mosaic effect. The light represents the upper world and our hero is clad as such. The upper world has almost too much light. Scenes of it are depicted in purely black and white. It isn’t until we descend into the darkness that we get variations of color against a black backdrop.
 
    The use color in the underworld are what makes the book stand out. Beautiful explosions of color against the dark. The faint outlines of rocks in purple melding into indigo, then orange and red, defining how close to a light source the object it. Plus the wide variety of bizarre and interesting monsters.
    As to what happens. The gems are reunited into a large pearl or opal, rendered in white. That actions seems to have fundamentally changed the nature of the dwellers in dark, or at least, their perception of our hero. Former enemies become friends, vicious monsters are docile or easily cowed. The orb then is brought to the surface and restores color to the world above. There is an excellent scene of it rippling across the planet’s surface.
    The silent graphic novel is a rare thing, but the first of them dates back to the origins of comics as a medium. In fact the original wood block carving novels of Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward date back to the 1910s and 20s, well before the the comic medium exploded across America. While these stories are more humanistic, rather than the outlandish exploits of Superman, they are no less explosive and impactful. Reading this book makes me want to go back to those old masters and give them another gaze.
 

 
 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Stranger

by Albert Camus (translated by Mathew Ward, introduction by Peter Dunwoodie)

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1993)

Hardcover 153 pages

Finished 9/25/2017

Amazon Listing



    “He said the truth was that I didn’t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men’s hearts, was within my reach. ‘Of course,’ he added, ‘we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not within his power to acquire.’”
Originally published in French in 1942 under the name L’√Čtranger, (which can also be translated as The Outsider). It is the breakthrough novel of Albert Camus, a nihilistic text in the absurdist tradition, about a bland man who commits a murder and his subsequent incarceration and trial. Considered by many to be a masterpiece, to me it did not live up to the large amount of hype attached to it. The main character is an unpleasant man who feels nothing, merely trudging through life, without joy or passion.
One of the protagonist’s main problems is that he constantly answers truthfully to any direct questions about his feelings. Like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, he cannot recognize the danger he puts himself in by not lying or at least pretending to conform to society’s norms. Unlike the Russian character however, our anti-hero is not open hearted and good. He is in fact a sociopath who sees no need to conceal himself, who has not learned the art of faking emotion. This is what makes him The Stranger, he doesn’t know the rules of the game. 
Author Alfred Camus
    He is devoid of anything but the idea on continuing through life. He takes no pleasure in it, has no love. He agrees to things, like his engagement, simply because it was there to do. He wants nothing. His time in prison complements his flat personality, his lack of emotional connectivity. It is almost a non-existence, with the constant regulations, isolation, and one day bleeding into the next. He is a character that it is impossible to feel any pathos for. It is almost as difficult to truly hate him. The murder he commits is an accident and apart from that, he commits no evil against others.  
    His lack of emotion is ultimately his undoing. It is interesting that during his trial he is condemned more for his treatment of his mother (he places her in an old age home) and the lack of remorse at her funeral, than the actual murder. His execution by the state is more of a cleansing of the hive from those who are different than an act of justice. It is a warning to us all, the nail who sticks out gets hammered down. 
Cover of the book's first printing

    I have never been a fan of the flat deconstructionist style of writing- though whether this is deconstructionist is a matter for debate, the author claims it be of the absurdist style. But to me the absurdist tradition is proto-deconstructionist. One naturally became the other. The novel was a great influence on the writers of this genre (Raymond Federman for example), hence it’s constant laudation over the decades. There was a time when I did enjoy it, having read so much I was keen to grab onto something new to quell my book lust, but have since grown cold towards the genre. The banality of it, the simplicity, almost comes across as a lack of effort. While not an entirely fair assessment, the text being in first person, the style reflects the mental state of the protagonist, but it still makes for a somewhat simple read.
    It has always been a bauble for the literati to masturbate over and feel superior to the unsophisticated masses who prefer emotional substance in their reading material. I’m aware that the book was a breath of fresh air in 1947. The writing is miles away from the heavily florid descriptions and overly dramatic characters popular at the time. It was very timely. It was something new for the hungry young writers to rally behind. In retrospect it is somewhat passe. I’m aware that last statement is tantamount to literary heresy to say the volume has no dust jacket, but the book, while still readable, has been done to death. To many imitations, good imitations, have been created in its wake. 
Poster for the 1976 Italian film adaptation of the novel

    I think part of my blah attitude is that I am reading it for the first time after a long career of catering to my reading addiction, and this book has been touted for years as a masterpiece. It is consistently placed in top 100 book lists, many of my old college professors raved about it. It had just always slipped through the cracks before now. So I was expecting something else, something new. The build up and expectations in my mind might have been too great. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not the writing achievement I was lead to believe it would be.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Turmoil in the Toybox

by Phil Phillips

Publisher: Starburst Publishers; 3rd Printing edition (September 1990)

Softcover 191 pages

Finished 9/20/2017

Amazon Listing 



    “After extensive research Christian Life Research  and other experts have concluded that Dungeons and Dragons is not a game. Instead they claim that it is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, and divination.”
    Looks like I’ve been playing a different game.
    An unintentionally hysterical book on the Occult terrors lurking in the toy boxes of American children. This was originally written in the 80s and revolves around most of the toy lines I grew up playing. And while I did become a Satanist, I doubt it was because I once picked up a Cabbage Patch Kid.
    Make no mistake, this is not really a full sized book. Ostensibly it is 191 pages, but seventeen of those are the gallery filled with pictures of toys which you already know how to visualize, ten of those are footnotes, and the font size is extra large. I will get something out of the way, to the author's credit he doesn’t claim the problems with the toy industry is due to a Satanic cabal as did many of his brethren. He is more focused on occult influence from humanist and eastern religions, but his worries are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. 
The face of evil
    Pastor Phil Phillips (No to be confused with the singer of the same name, the one who gave us “Sea of Love”) was an evangelical missionary. That is one who roams around in revival tents and so forth, with no permanent flock to call his own. In order to make an impact, give himself some distinction, he decided to “bravely” go after the toy industry (not any specific company mind you- don’t want to get sued) for inserting occultism into their daily lives. Currently he’s running a non-profit in Texas, called God Loves Kids.
    The author has a shaky idea of what should be considered occult. He never fully explains it, either because he doesn’t know, or perhaps it was more effective as an ill-defined catch-all term for non-Christian. Or should I say non-evangelical fundamentalist Christian, which is its own thing. This was written during a time when there was a big anti-Catholic push in the fundamentalist community. The pope was the antichrist and spreading the word of Satan. Anything not part of foot-washing baptist dogma was suspect, which is why you have doom peddlers like the author lumping Buddhism, Judaism, Wicca, Satanism, and Hinduism into the same evil lump. I suppose, though, from his perspective it is.
    The author does make some good points about parenting. Rather, he parrots some good points. Much of the useful information here is cited from other sources, which I will give him credit for. He has done research and does not plagiarize. Though much of what he has to say is common sense. Pay attention to what your kids are watching on television, limit the amount they watch each day, make sure they are eating healthy. Howver, as most of the toy lines he mentions here Rainbow Bright, He-Man, Crystar, etc are dead franchises, which tends to lessen the impact of his message. 
 
Glamor shots of author Phil Phillips
    He saves special venom for Masters of the Universe and Dungeons and Dragons. Apart from the supposed occult angle, was use of cartoons to push toys. This was a hot button issue at the time, and He-Man was the first cartoon and toy line to be produced simultaneously. After their massive success, nearly all  new toys and cartoon followed the same pattern. He rails against this as a brainwashing of children to be mindless consumer drones, and so on. The occult angle is specious. Skeletor had a staff with a ram’s skull on it, a sign of evil. This offended our author even though the character is clearly the series main villain. He-Man is the most powerful man in the universe, when that should be "Je-Sus".
    He then goes on to bash various other toys and cartoon. He does state that while the toy may appear to be harmless, they in conjunction with the cartoon may call up occult practices. My Little Pony is evil because, “the unicorn is a symbol of the antichrist.” In this case he’s getting his occultism mixed up. He writes, “the New Age, also known as the Golden Age, is referred to as the Age of Aquarius or the Eon of Horus.” Now this perhaps a little esoteric but New Age has nothing to do with the Eon of Horus. The latter is part of the philosophy of the Thelemites, the religion promoted by Aleister Crowley and associates. Lumping them together as if they are the same thing demonstrates a lack of understanding on the author. While there may be some similarities, there is a significant enough difference in my mind.  Care Bears, G.I.Joe, E.T., Star Wars toys and so on are attacked next. Basically anything you enjoyed as a child was evil in some manner and that's why you're such a horrible person.
    The purpose behind this occult influence is prompt the kid to act out occult practices with the toys, while the child is under the impression that they are just playing. The toy acting as an occult avatar or surrogate for the helpless child. Then the child will supplant the toy and perform the evil rituals or rites or what have you themselves (the specifics are unclear), allowing them to be seduced into the homosexual lifestyle, abortion parties, and general evil. 
Seducers of the innocent.
    The condemnation of Dungeons and Dragons (which my parents briefly fell for) centers around the same hoary old chestnuts anyone who played tabletop RPGs in the 80s will be familiar with. Most of it is typified by the quote at the beginning of this review. RPGs are Satanic, they teach occult practices and evil magic, they cause the loss of a personal ego into a paper homunculus, etc. The author only mentions D&D by name, but I assume his ire extends to all other RPGs as well, though he more than likely doesn’t know what they are. 
       I’ve heard all of this before. It sent me back to a frustrating time when I had to patiently explain to my parents how bullshit it all is. They didn’t believe me, but I eventually wore them down until they shut up about it.  "The book says", "The book says" was their mantra, as if the printed word couldn't be a lie. Guess what, it can and does!
    In general this book takes a lot of material gathered by other groups on toys, films, and cartoons in the 80s and puts a paranoid fundamentalist spin on it. As I wrote above, the fact that most of these cartoons and toys are now defunct, and that those who played with them are all adults, shines a bright light on how crazy these suppositions are.It's fun for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Boxers

by Gene Luen Yang & Lark Pien

Publisher: First Second; 1st edition (September 10, 2013)

Softcover 336 pages

Finished 9/18/2017

Amazon Listing



    A companion novel to Saints which depicts the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion in China around the turn of the previous century. Here we have the fictionalized beginnings of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist with a group of men who begin essentially a philosophical fitness club which then combined with a defensive organization, The Big Sword Society, into a violent political movement. 

    As the protagonist in the previous novel, the main character, Bao, is spiritually led by a historical figure. In this case it was Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, for whom the entire country is named after. Through his training Bao develops a ritual which allows the practitioner to become possessed with the spirit of a god and defeat the foreign invaders. This is similar to what the actual Boxers believed, they also felt that their rituals would protect them from bullets and other weapons, similar to the Native American Ghost Dancer uprising in the later 19th Century. Of course, they were eventually proved wrong. The Boxer Rebellion was brutally crushed. European influence would not be extinguished from the country until after World War II with the Communist takeover under Mao Zedong.
    The Boxer Rebellion was essentially a populist uprising, that gathered support from various Chinese government and military officials along the way, but ultimately ended in disaster. Most of that due to the superior force of arms wielded by the European forces. Nine times out of ten, the side with the better gun wins.
This is a tragic tale and ends painfully. The author’s simplistic line style, adds to the childlike enthusiasm of the rural peasants who thought they could root out the foreign devils. As they continue on, some die, some leave, some become monsters. The blood tide rises and our hero begins making harsher and more violent decisions, which ultimately lead to his own death.
Author Gene Luen Yang
This is not to say that the protagonist isn’t a sympathetic character. He believes in his cause. He wishes to preserve his culture and rejects what he sees as an evil foreign influence trying to destroy all that he holds sacred. Some may question his methods of expelling it, but he was in fact responding to the methods used against himself and his fellow villagers. An eye for an eye.
This tale is more spiritual than factual, but the author does include an impressive bibliography at the end for those who are interested in reading more on Chinese Culture and the Boxer rebellion. I have ordered several of them and look forward to eventually reading and reviewing them. 
French political cartoon on the European carving up of China

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Saints

By Gene Luen Yang

Publisher: First Second; First Edition edition (September 10, 2013)

Softcover 176 pages

Finished 9/15/2017

 Amazon Listing


    The first of a two part series taking place during the Boxer Rebellion in China between 1899 and 1901. I should say it culminates in the rebellion as we see the life of the protagonist from the age of eight. It is a wonderful piece of historical fiction. Strangely spiritual, it leaves you feeling that a great loss has occurred and I even felt upset over the tragedy of it all.
    The main character is a young Chinese girl whose family has refused to give a name to her. She is considered to be an evil omen, being the fourth female born of her mother. The number four in old Chinese culture was synonymous with death. Thus she is only referred to as Four-Girl, or Death-Girl. After being called a devil by her ancient grandfather, she vows to become one and inadvertently becomes drawn to Christianity. The religion was considered an anathema to many in rural China and a tool of the foreign Devils.

    She find acceptance in the Catholic mission and eventually, after being beaten by her family for her new faith, joins it full time. Eventually she chooses a name for herself from among the many female saints, as taking on a new name was symbolic of leaving your old life behind. This was not unusual in Catholic missionary work. Often the religion would gain a following and a foothold from the lower castes and disposed of a culture.

The text does not go into detail for the reasons behind the Boxer Rebellion (that will be covered more in the companion volume Boxers), but it was mainly in response to the foreign influence in China during that time. Many European governments had “spheres of influence” in the country where various power exercised judicial and trade powers. The aspect that touches our protagonist is the Boxers (or the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist- no doubt it loses something in the translation) violent rejection of the Christian religion, which had radiated out from the spheres of influence. 
Author Gene Leun Yang

If you’re looking for a happy happy Jesus ending this is not the book for you. Unknowingly our protagonist shrouds herself in martyrdom. She has vision of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, having long conversations with the Saint and vowing to follow in her footsteps. She perhaps doesn’t know the end of Joan’s story, only that she was warrior maid who led her country to victory.
She chooses the name Vibiana as her new Christian moniker because she likes how is sounds. Another sinister bit of foreshadowing, St. Vibiana was a third century Catholic virgin saint (also the patron saint of Los Angeles) martyred for her religion, though the specifics of her life and death have been lost to time. Our protagonist takes on a similar fate. She will not be remembered, but she dies for her faith, refusing the renounce it. In the end, she commits a completely selfless act that eventually saves the life of her murderer- who, incidentally, is the protagonist of the the next volume. 
 
Image of St. Vibiana

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

New York, Mon Amour

By: Jacques Tardi (artist on all, plus author on one), Bejamin Legrand (auhtor of Cockroach Killer), Dominique Grange (author of It's So Hard and Hung's Murder)

 Publisher: Fantagraphics; 1 edition (July 2, 2012)

Hardcover 82 pages

Finished 9/12/2017

Amazon Listing






    Collecting four graphic short stories from one of the most influential French artists. I have to assume that the title is ironic considering the New York City as depicted in these tales is anything but romantic. Taking place in the late 70s - early 80s, New York, with all of that era’s decaying infrastructure, grime, moral lapses, and crime. The City that Never Sleeps here is a cesspool and the art reflects that. Drawn in black and white, with various shades of grey, the art itself seems slimy, as if handling it could give you a tapeworm. This reflects the tenor of the stories perfectly. 


    The first tale, Cockroach Killer, is the longest, taking up fifty of the eighty one pages. It is a paranoid tale, centering on an exterminator who may or may not have overheard details of a worldwide conspiracy, and who may or may not have ended up an unwilling assassin in that conspiracy’s  unfolding. It is a near hallucinatory tale and, like all good stories in this vein, it is open to interpretation.
    The next three are considerably shorter. It’s So Hard (no it’s not pornographic) deals with the trials of a hunchbacked man in the early 80s who otherwise looks like John Lennon. He spends his days in seclusion waiting for the day that the singer falls out of the public eye, so that he can live his life not being mistake for him.
    Manhattan deals with a depressed man who travels to the borough from France for unknown reasons. I think it was just an excuse for the author to draw the city as it features quite a lot of the old New York landscapes in the background. It is a simple tale, told well. 
Author and artist Jacques Tardi
    The last, Hung’s Murder, deals with a mother who comes to New York from a small village in Vietnam to track down and kill the marine who killed her son and raped her. It is an emotionally brutal tale and does end as you would expect.
Tardi’s work is inspirational, even if grimy. It simply is more proof that the French are always ahead of us in artistic forms. Not enough of this stuff gets translated into English. This is the reason I’m relearning the language, because of all of the great material I’m missing out on. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Legion of Regrettable Super-Villains: Oddball Criminals from Comic Book History

By Jon Morris

Publisher: Quirk Books (March 28, 2017)

Hardcover 256 pages

Finished 9/11/2017

Amazon Listing



       The sequel to the fun League of Regrettable Super-Heroes, this volumes delves into the insane and ridiculous villains faced by various superheroes over the decades. Quite frankly they could easily make two to three more volumes in this theme, as the number of super-villains must outnumber the superheroes by ten to one. It can’t be easy to have to come up with interesting and new villains over time. As the book points out eventually all of the cool animal names will be taken, leaving the dregs such as Preying Mantis Man and the Magpie.
    The book breaks down the villains into the three generally accepted eras of comic books: The Golden Age (1938-1949), the Silver Age (1950 - 1969), and the Modern Age (1970- Today). Though I think that comics have progress sufficiently to reasonably add a fourth age, perhaps being demarcated by the collapse of the Comics Code Authority or earlier (maybe the rise of the Vertigo imprint or the publication of Preacher). Certainly if you glimpse at a comic from 1970 it is miles away from anything put out today. Thus the modern age should be repackaged as the Bronze Age. 

    As you dig through the comics you can see through them the eventual rise of the twin comic giants, DC and Marvel. The first section has a wide variety of different publishers from Fawcett Comics, to Quality Comics, to MLJ (which eventually just became straight up Archie comics). By the time of the Modern Era it is almost exclusively DC and Marvel. Not that it really diminishes the fun of the book, bad villains have been produced in abundance in every era. Such is the way of things.
    One name that kept popping up in the list of creators of these villains was Otto Binder. He was one of the old school pioneers of comic writers up there with Will Eisner, C.C. Beck, and Bill Finger. He wrote 986 out of 1,743 golden age Captain Marvel stories (that’s Shazam to those not in the know), nearly half of them. Then he went on to work with nearly every other comic company over the next four decades, creating Kid Eternity and the concept of the Phantom Zone in Superman. Check out his wikipedia page for a full list of his credits which is impressive. 
Otto Binder

    My favorites of these groups had to be: The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, for of the Doom Patrol, whose powers are self evident;The Human Flying Fish, whose very specific skill set was foiled by Aquaman; Generic Man, from the short lived but still great DC title The Heckler; and Angar the Screamer, a latter day hippy whose powers caused him to give up all that peace and love bullshit.
The only flaw was that occasionally the author delves into garbage PC progressive argot while describing a few villians. Quite frankly I don’t need hear about “mansplaining” while reading up on some goofy character from over eighty years ago.  Still this happens in only two of the hundred and six entries in this book. Soenjoy. You’ll probably have more fun reading about these villains in this format than in their original stories.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Cerebus Vol 16: The Last Day

By Dave Sim & Gerhard

Publisher: Aardvark-Vanheim (March 31, 2004)

Softcover 260 pages

Finished 9/6/2017

Amazon Listing





    This is it! The last volume of Cerebus, collecting issues 289 - 300 of the stellar independent series. Cerebus was truly the first breakout independent title, the first comic to go 300 issues with the same writer and artist (I think the only one to come close would be the 190 issues of G.I. Joe written by Larry Hama- and that’s not including the artist). As you read from the volume to volume you can truly take in the growth of the artist. When Cerebus was good, it was the best. When it went downhill, it was still good (art wise) just not as much as it used to be. And while I lambasted the previous volume, I believe this one comes back on track.
    It opens with a forty page spread of a new revelation by Cerebus on the creation of the universe. Based on previous biblical text combined with scientific theory, it is a reworking of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. This may sound similar to what I was complaining about in the previous volume, but here he does the execution right. Script with illustration, rather than long blocks of text. The only flaw is the microscopic annotations at the bottom of each page. Which should have included them in the back of the volume along with all the others. Cerebus writes down this revelation and hides it, ala I, Claudius.
 
    It is many many years later, and the sanctuary the three wise guys created is not a fortress. A collective religious shrine, political powerhouse, with the various city states about all tied in a mutual defense pact. The world is on high alert. A new collective of feminist/pedophile/terrorist groups is threatening to destabilize civilization. It sounded farfetched then when it was written in 2004, but now it seems like a lot of these prediction have bloomed. He was called a religious nut and paranoid, but in the end Dave Sim seems to be right about what is coming.
It’s with a heavy heart that I watch our once vibrant antihero descend into decrepitude and senility. Cerebus is a wrinkled incontinent mess, his body on the verge of collapse. Mentally he is gone, his mind a garbage heap of old ideas and incongruent memories. Close to two hundred years old, his one obsession is to see his son again. Shep-Shep as he is called hasn’t been to see Cerebus in close to fifteen years, but the latter cannot remember why they parted.
He is Cerebus’s son with New Joanne, whom we meet at the end of Latter Days. She is the reporter who is talking with Cerebus about his ideas on the Torah and his past with the prophet Rick. She is in fact a dead ringer for Jaka, which is why Cerebus falls for her.
Shep-Shep
 
An interesting note about Shep-Shep is that his only resemblance to his father that is he has three toes. A subtle detail that I missed and had to read about it in the annotations. The reunion, as you can guess, is not a happy one. The Judge way back in issue 123 decreed that Cerebus would die, “alone, unmourned, and unloved” and he did not lie.
Shep-Shep is a creepy little shit, full of odd powers, and weird ideas. He has completely sided with his mother and they share an incestuous relationship. Apparently he is destined to be the inspiration for the Sphinx (or his bastard creations are). His purpose in visiting is to taunt his father about his beliefs and his collapsing religious foundation. The Muslims are coming. One of the interesting aspects here is that Shep-Shep’s mother, New Joanne, has inserted herself into Cerebus’s history, rewriting the events to give herself a prominent role. This is reminiscent of feminist rewriting of history to suit their political agendas. It reminds me of Erin Patria Margaret Pizzey, the woman who created the first domestic abuse shelter, but has since nearly been erased from history  because she rejected the Marxist ideology that most feminist organizations at the time projected.
After he leaves, Cerebus is in a rage. I will say this for our antihero, he dies with sword in hand, leaping from his bed. But the flesh is weak and he collapses dying alone on the floor. What comes next is a manner of some debate. The light opens, the spirit of Cerebus sees all of the figures from the past, friend and foe, with one exception. Rick is absent. The prophet and messianic figure for Cerebus's religion isn't present, which gives our antihero pause. He then runs, runs from the light. His spirit is yanked and that is that.
 
This was a quarter of a century long journey. A feat many jealous naysayers claimed would be impossible. The talent of the author cannot be denied, whether or not you agree with what he did with it. Cerebus lived hard and died hard, this was a true and fitting ending for him. An ending that should used a model for others. I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading this series and I cannot recommend strongly enough for everyone else to read it as well.
Oh and I forgot to mention that Cerebus once met the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles