September 11th, 2010

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TRoOB: Air

A number of good miniseries have ended in the past few weeks. All have been "graphic novels" in the true sense: not just appendages to ongoing comics, but well-contained stories in their own right, and all are quite good. So it's time once again to pull out The Review of Obscure Books, and talk about stuff worth reading. First up is Air, written by G. Willow Wilson with art by M. K. Perker, published by Vertigo.

Wilson first made her mark a couple of years ago with the graphic novel Cairo, and it established her style: magical realism (realistic fantasy?) centered on slightly messed-up but sympathetic female protagonists, in a modern world that turns out to have wonders lurking beyond darkened doorways. The style sounds like urban fantasy, in the way that a third of the SCA can be described as, "y'know, he's got glasses, a beard and a ponytail". But it has neither the self-important darkness that one strand of urban fantasy affects, nor the obsession with the usual fantasy tropes of vampires, werewolves and elves. She instead draws from a broader palette, mixing ancient mythologies with her own wild imagination and a slightly melancholy but generally optimistic outlook.

Cairo was built on the mythologies of the Middle East, ranging from ancient Egypt through Islam. Air, by contrast, uses the mythologies of the modern world, and specifically the little-considered mystique of the most modern of devices: the airplane. Our heroine is Blythe, a stewardess with just one small problem: she has a paralyzing fear of heights. That turns out to be the least complicated part of her life, though, as she gradually learns the secret history of the 20th century: a story where the mundane art of traveling through the air is just part of the quest to understand the ancient Mayan secrets of how to bend space and time. Blythe learns the art of the Hyperpract, and along the way wends her way into so many time paradoxes it would make even JMS' head hurt.

It's a delightful story, and every bit as much a romance as an adventure, as her life increasingly intertwines with the mysterious Zayn, and they slowly learn everything about each other. Lighter in tone than the average Vertigo story (while there are dangerous excursions, one never gets that sort of overwhelming gloom that is fashionable nowadays), it manages to pull in figures ranging from Jules Verne (whose history of Blythe's life winds up a significant MacGuffin) to Amelia Earhart (one of the great Hyperpracts) as significant characters.

The story was told as a mid-length maxiseries (24 issues -- and when did that become just "mid-length"?), and I assume that it is being released as collections. It's not quite as strong as Cairo, simply because the story is necessarily not as tight, but it's a fun read with some genuinely new fantasy ideas. Too much of fantasy has become sterile, recycling and remixing the same ideas over and over; Wilson is one of those authors who is breaking new ground and exploring in the best fantasy traditions. I give it a strong B+: good stuff from an up-and-coming writer who I plan on following.
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TRoOB: Electric Ant

Philip K. Dick has been a mighty force in science fiction for decades, albeit an odd one. His primary mark has been on movies that bear the names and some of the ideas (if not, usually, the actual stories) of his novels, but relatively few people have actually read the originals. A major change to that has been the adaptation that Boom! Studios is currently doing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book from which Blade Runner was adapted. If you aren't following that, it's highly recommended: a full-length word-for-word adaptation of the novel, which turns out to be far deeper (and IMO significantly better) than the movie. But for today, let's talk about David Mack's adaptation of the short story Electric Ant, recently published by Marvel.

Electric Ant is set in much the same playground as DADoES -- indeed, there are hints that it might be the same world -- but takes a very different slant. Whereas the famous novel is about a human detective hunting androids, Electric Ant focuses on a concept that lurks in the background of that and Blade Runner. Our hero, Garson Poole, is the successful CEO of a company in the mid-future: he is successful, he has a beautiful girlfriend, and life is good. Until the day he gets into an accident, and discovers that he is actually an "electricant", a sophisticated but somewhat obsolete android.

The five-issue story is entirely about him exploring his own identity. He searches for why he was built and who controls him, and begins to muck with his own innards -- especially once he realizes that he has circuits that were designed to prevent him from realizing what he was, altering his perceptions of reality. Deciding that this is no longer tolerable, he starts to screw around with the circuitry that interprets that reality for his brain. And at that point, things start to get *very* weird.

Make no mistake: this story is strange, trippy, mystical stuff that makes DADoES (or any popularization of Dick's work) look downright down-to-earth by comparison. The hard SF fan is likely to throw it across the room at one of the points where the logic simply goes off at right angles to normal reality. But if you're a fan of the sort of mystical SF that reached its pinnacle in the 70s, this is pretty neat: no-holds-barred Dick, seriously examining questions that Descartes only began to scratch at. It's a tight little graphic novel, and worth reading if you want to bend your brain a bit...
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TRoOB: Ex Machina

A *serious* modern maxi-series is genuinely long. When the term was first coined, it meant a story that was, OMG, a full twelve issues, but ever since Cerebus ended that's looked a bit pathetic. Nowadays, graphic novels are often novels, every bit as long and complex as a modern 500-page book. 100 Bullets ran (as I had expected) 100 issues; Lucifer ran 75. Ex Machina, like Y: The Last Man, clocks in at 50 issues, which seems to be about the length needed to write a seriously complicated tale. Ex Machina was published by Wildstorm, but it's right up there with the best of Vertigo: a well-conceived, deeply structured novel that knows where it is going from the first page.

It is the story of Mitchell Hundred, a fairly ordinary civil engineer who, one day in the late 90's, finds what is clearly a small alien device. The Box flares just once and then burns out, but not before affecting him forever by giving him the power to control machines with his mind. Being a good American, he decides that he should do what anyone does with super powers: go off and become a costumed hero, The Great Machine. He builds himself a jetpack, winds up with a couple of sidekicks, tries hard and does some good. The problem is, this is the real world: he's the only super-being in it (apparently), and being a super-hero doesn't actually work very well in practice.

At this point, things go off on a tangent from both ordinary reality and super-hero practice, as Hundred mounts a successful run for Mayor of New York City, and that's what the book is mainly about. The super-powers almost seem like a pointless distraction at times -- much of the story is simply about a good, politically centrist guy who doesn't fit into any of the usual pigeonholes, trying to do the right thing in a very important job. Major storylines revolve around him trying to deal with everything from garbage strikes to gay rights. His history as The Great Machine always lurks in the background, and there are frequent flashbacks to his heroic (and sometimes embarassing) exploits, but the story is mostly set during his term as Mayor, from 2002 to 2006. (Pretty much every scene has a specific date, and it's pretty well-synchronized with real history.)

But the super-powers still lurk in the background, and remember that this is *not* a superhero comic. That has a clear implication: it's a science fiction story instead. The great mystery of the book is where the Box came from, and why it affected him as it did. Threads of that are entwined throughout, and gradually lead up to the fairly creepy climax that occupies most of the last ten issues or so. Suffice it to say, every power has its price.

This story isn't as uplifting as Air, nor as mystical as Electric Ant, but it's a serious hardcore science fiction story in the best tradition -- mixing the real world with one or two specific fantastic premises, and seeing what comes out. Mitchell Hundred is *not* a typical saintly superhero: he's a decent, slightly bull-headed ordinary guy who is plunged into the grey world of politics. He is faced with compromises every day, sometimes comes to regret them and sometimes makes decisions that will shock the reader, but remains broadly sympathetic by generally trying to do the right thing as best he can figure it out.

A smart, interesting novel: recommended to anyone with a taste for both SF and politics, who finds the cut-and-thrust difficulties of public life interesting. It's a character study of a good man, but illustrates that, even for someone who tries to do right, politics is a lot more difficult than super-villains...
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TRoOB: daytripper

Okay, now we get to the meat of it. This morning, I got to the third issue of the ten-issue story daytripper, and realized I was going to need to read the rest and write a review at the end of the day. (Which got me off my duff and dealing with my backlog of stories to review.)

The thing is, I always focus on the writing. Good comic book art is important, but for me the writing comes first. So I hadn't paid all that much attention to the brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba before. Oh, sure, they were the artists on Casanova, one of my all-time favorite comics, but I'd ascribed my fondness for that book to Matt Fraction, who is another of those great young writers. Surely, the artists didn't have *that* much to do with the story's greatness?

Sometimes I'm dumb.

daytripper (which just finished from Vertigo) is... well, you know how a great story makes you feel? The fascination that won't let you stop reading, but every few pages you almost feel like you're going to break into tears? Not because of manipulative writing or simple pathos, but because it is getting so deeply under your skin in the way it deals with the universal realities? This is one of those.

(I will confess, I had to pause and read an issue of Anita Blake and suchlike from time to time, just to calm myself down.)

Our hero is Bras de Olivia Domingos. He's from Brazil (as, I believe, are the writer/artists), and at the beginning of the story he is 32 years old. He's gently in love, suffering under the fame of His Father the Author, but getting by. He is working at the newspaper writing obits, but he knows that that is a job rather than a career. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

Next issue, he is 21, reveling in youth and life, finding love in Salvador, knowing that his entire life is ahead of him. And at the end of the issue, he gets killed.

It sounds grisly, but it's far from that. This is a meditation on love, family and why we live. And the deaths? Well, the book says it best:
"Life is like a book, son. And every book has an end. No matter how much you like that book, you will get to the last page, and it will end."
Death is omnipresent in the story, but in the end, not something to be feared.

The story bounces around Bras' life: he is 11 this issue, 42 the next, 33 the one after that. There is nothing random to it, though: little nuances and throwaway lines turn into the focus of subsequent issues, and the structure is subtle but pervasive. It's a rich biography of a life that is normal yet full of joy and melancholy.

I have to admit, I can't do this one justice -- anything I can say is trite compared to the story itself. It's fantasy, but more in the sense of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than anything you usually find in comics: beautiful, affecting and so *real* it hurts.

Probably the best comic of the year, certainly the best since Phonogram. I won't be underestimating the brothers again (it's unclear how Moon and Ba split the work, and I don't much care), and I *strongly* recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out. I expect to pick up several copies for friends...