Monday, January 06, 2003

Books Worth a Look X
These are the books I read in December 2002. I read about 180 books last year.

Ancient Joe: El Bizarron by C. Scott Morse (Dark Horse, 2002)
According to Morse's "Sources" essay included in this volume, this wide-ranging embrace of various myths, legends, and histories around the world centers on… love. Ancient Joe is a totemic every-hero who's been alive seemingly forever. This book, written and drawn between 1998 and 2002, collects several tales from the Ancient Joe mythos. Morse details Ancient Joe's acquisition of El Diablo's gold, a long-lost love, and his return to hell to find that love. It's an odd pairing -- Morse's quality artwork and an attempt at a Joseph Campbell-like cultural combination, as well as a sometimes shallow take on shared stories. I'm not convinced that the cartoony, carven Ancient Joe is the best protagonist for Morse's experimental exploration, but the stories as such are solid.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Beg the Question by Bob Fingerman (Fantagraphics, 2002)
Previously released as Fingerman's comic book Minimum Wage, this reworked, excellently crafted book is perhaps the best introduction to his work. At more than 225 pages, Beg the Question reads well as a novel, tracking the main character's illustration work, friendships, new relationship, move out of his old apartment, and impending marriage. While Fingerman's artwork can take awhile to get used to, the writing is amazing. This book had me firmly planted on the big blue couch from beginning to end. There are some wonderfully comic moments -- including a friend's "spouting brownage" on his sheets and a surprise realistic cameo by Fingerman, Dean Haspiel, and Ivan Brunetti. Despite some off-register pages, this is a beautiful and believable book.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Be Here Now by Ram Dass (Lama Foundation, 1971)
Originally issued as a self-published pamphlet, this volume is really three books in one. The first section details Richard Alpert's self-discovery and transformation into Ram Dass, touching on his work with Timothy Leary and Bhagwan Dass, as well as his experimentation with psychoactive drugs and ashtanga yoga. The second section makes up the bulk of the book, a seemingly hand-stamped and -drawn primer to Dass' original philosophy. The final third of the book, subtitled "Cook Book for a Sacred Life," addresses the practical application of Dass' spiritual path, including advice on sleep, diet, asanas, engagement, meditation, and establishing a zen center. The resource listing at the end of the book is a welcome next step away from this insightful guide to self-discovery.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Weathervane, 1977)
This special edition of Dickens' 1843 holiday tale is lavishly illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I try to reread this every Christmas, and every year, the book reveals something new. This year, I was struck by Scrooge's visit to the tempest-tossed lighthouse and the thieves' selling of his plundered belongings. It's a delightful book rich with warmth and care -- a perfect Christmas reminder.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

The Collected Omaha the Cat Dancer Vol. 1 by Reed Waller and Kate Worley (Fantagraphics, 1995)
Funny animal and anthropomorphic comics aren't really my bag, much less anthro comics that involve sex. But I have a couple of soft spots for the funny animals, including Arn Saba's Neil the Horse, Martin Wagner's Hepcats, and this historic furry book that's been on my radar as long as I've read comics. What I thought was your basic Eros-style furry porn is actually much more mature and complex. Parts commentary on the advent of blue laws in Minneapolis, mystery story, and softcore porn/love affair, Omaha has now risen in my estimation. The narrative has substance, the characters are multidimensional, and I'll have to give the next volume a shot.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life: A Collection of POV Columns by Mark Evanier (TwoMorrows, 2002)
Christopher Hitchens has stopped doing his column for The Nation. And Mark Evanier has stopped doing his column for the Comics Buyer's Guide. Funny thing, you rarely, if ever, see Hitchens and Evanier in the same place at the same time. Are they one and the same? You decide. Collecting columns that Evanier penned for CBG between 1994 and 2002, this book sheds light on the perspective of a true comics fan working within the comics industry. Evanier writes about alternate comics universes, his time working for Hanna-Barbera, the trials and tribulations of a comic book editor, shoplifting from the Cherokee Book Shop in LA, the LA Comic Book Club, William M. Gaines' role in the Comics Code controversy, his close friend Sergio Aragones, and other topics. Including several touching tributes to comics creators and co-conspirators, the book is as much a love letter as it is a look inside the industry.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 4: Mr. Sixties! by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics, 1997)
Collecting material created in 1966-67 for American Greeting Cards, as well as early issues of Yarrowstalks and Zap, this volume of the reprint series offers up some of Crumb's first truly underground comics. Also including pieces originally published in Underground Review, Cavalier, and the East Village Other, the book presents lushly colored, fully inked, and totally sketchy pieces that feature many of Crumb's iconic character. Snappy Bitts and Krazy Krax are here, as are Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Fritz the Cat, and Joey Tissue and the Dummies (band name alert!). The greeting card artwork is a welcome bit of ephemera, but republishing the Sad Book in full color was largely a waste of space.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Days of Love, Nights of War: Crimethink for Beginners by the CrimethInc. Workers' Collective (CrimethInc. Free Press, 2001)
The Atlanta-based CrimethInc. collective is one of the more impressive leftist- and Subgenius-inspired creative groups to emerge in the last few years. Between their columns in Maximum Rocknroll, Harbinger newspaper, and other micromedia activity (including this beautifully produced book), CrimethInc. is an impressively post-leftist and post-punk (in the truest sense of the term) non-organization. This book, then, is a primer to Crimethink. An A-Z sampler of sorts, the tome transmits CrimethInc.'s positions on anarchy, capitalistic culture, gender politics, the hypocrisy of history, image-driven ideologies, media manipulation, the politics of plagiarism, technology, and work. CrimethInc. practices what it preaches, critiquing while constructing. A how-to handbook for helping yourself.
Days to read: 30. Rating: Good.

The Files of Ms. Tree Vol. One: I, for an Eye, and Death Do Us Part by Max Collins and Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1984)
I suppose we can forgive Max Allan Collins his movie and TV tie-in novels. His mid-'80s two-color comics series and column for Asian Cult Cinema more than maintain his indie cred. Collecting material from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 and Ms. Tree's Thrilling Detective Adventures #1-3, this vintage volume showcases a long-gone gem of independent comics. Shades of a female Mack Bolan, Tree is a hard-boiled private investigator hot on the heels of a crime syndicate responsible for her husband's death. Full of references to pulp novels of the past, Ms. Tree is a rich read, and Beatty's Johnny Craig-like artwork is a joyful counterpoint to Collins' hard-boiled humor.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

The Files of Ms. Tree Vol. 3: The Mike Mist Case Book by Max Collins, Terry Beatty, and Gary Kato (Renegade Press, 1986)
Not as impressive or enjoyable as the first volume in the reprint series, this edition collects the Mike Mist Minute Mist-eries and Mist-related stories previously published in Ms. Tree. Equal parts Ms. Tree and Encyclopedia Brown, the pieces comprise one- and two-page self-sleuthing stories, as well as a longer story arches featuring Ms. Tree gleaned from Ms. Tree #9, the Ms. Tree Rock & Roll Summer Special, and Ms. Tree 3-D (reprinted here in black and white). While the longer stories are enjoyable, the Encyclopedia Brown-styled pieces fall flat.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (Easton Press, 1986)
Call me a chump, but I've signed up for Easton Press' Masterpieces of Science Fiction collection. The books are expensive, but the production is lovely, and each book comes with Collector's Notes that detail the edition's content and context. This 1972 novel was Asimov's first adult s-f novel since 1957, and it's curious that he occupied himself otherwise for 15 years. It's a solid novel split into three parts. In the first, a scientific discovery brings limitless energy and abundance to the world -- while endangering it. In the second, an alien society in a parallel universe grapples with the same discovery. And in the third, Asimov takes us to the moon, where the political and societal implications are even more intense. The book is good -- I read it in one sitting -- and I can only hope that future selections are as impressive.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1937)
Inspired by watching the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers with mom and dad over Christmas, I decided to reread the Hobbit. What a wonderful book! I remember it being more complex when I first read it in junior high, but it's a clear-cut linear heroic quest of a novel. Tolkien's descriptions of Smaug, Beorn, and the other fantastic denizens of Middle Earth are wonderful, and it's funny how offhand Bilbo's discovery of the ring is treated. I'll read this to my children when I'm a father.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Excellent.

The House at Maakies Corner by Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics, 2002)
Tony Millionaire, who once posed as Brian Ralph for a photo at a comicon -- and who wrote and drew these comic strips between 2000 and 2002 -- is brilliant. Chip Kidd, who designed this book, which reproduces one strip to an overlong page, is brilliant. Whoever chose the materials for the cover? Not brilliant. Every copy of this book I've seen has been prematurely scraped, indented, smudged, or otherwise damaged. Awful choice of library binding-like grey cover finish. The interiors, however, are breathtaking. Millionaire combines hyperreal period sketches of ships with the pottymouth laugh riot of Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby. Well read in alt.weeklies such as the Stranger, Maakies is even more impressive in bulk. Kudos.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Propaganda Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World 2nd edition by Nancy Snow (Open Media, 2002)
While I'm slightly doubtful that editor Greg Puggiero's tactic of padding the volumes that comprise the Open Media Pamphlet Series with lefty celeb commentary has merit -- this booklet alone includes an author's note, preface, foreword, and introduction that account for about a third of the text -- I'm glad to see a reprint of Snow's 1998 account of her time working for the United States Information Agency. Snow looks at the USIA's role in global propaganda efforts, analyzes the agency's history, and offers steps readers can take to improve media literacy and foreign relations. At the same time, Snow highlights a lot of fascinating ephemera: the Committee on Public Information's four-minute men, the complicity of Hollywood during World War I, tactics of propagandists, and the USIA's role in NAFTA.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Spirit Archives Vol. 1 by Will Eisner (DC, 2000)
Books like this make me wish I had more money. While Marvel has excelled at publishing inexpensive reprint collections, including the disappointingly black-and-white but still necessary Essential anthologies, DC has erred on the side of $50 full-color archival books. Granted, they're absolutely beautiful, especially this wonderfully colored collection of Spirit Sundays originally published between June 2 and Dec. 29, 1940. Marvel's color reproductions have always suffered, but this collection trumps the Smithsonian book in terms of how the Spirit should be reprinted. As I can afford them, I'll continue to buy them despite Eisner's regrettably -- and perhaps now apologetically -- racist depiction of Ebony.
Days to read: NA. Rating: Excellent.

Spunky Spot: A Tale of One Smart Fish by Suzanne Tate and James Melvin (Nags Head Art, 1989)
Fourth in Tate's nature series, this simple story about a spot fish who avoids the temptation of worms is a not-so-thinly veiled anti-drug message sponsored by Just Say No International. Tate's script is silly, and Melvin's art is amateurish, but it's impressive that the Outer Banks have spawned a regional children's press -- and that Tate has created 25 books as part of the nature series, complete with teaching guides.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Poor.

The UFO Silencers by Timothy Green Beckley (Inner Light, 1990)
This lower-cost samizdat edition of the renowned UFO researcher's expose of the men in black is a single-sided, photocopied volume that, at 160 pages, might be incomplete. Drawing heavily on first-person and secondary source accounts of encounters with these mysterious UFO conspirators who attempt to quash research of and communication about sightings, the book builds and builds on its primary case -- that men in black exist -- but fails to deliver any real conclusions or advice for dealing with the possible alien or government agents. The most notable aspect of the book is its insight on UFO culture, as Beckley mentions many of the major UFO researchers, periodicals, and organizations.
Days to read: 9. Rating: Fair.

Video Girl Ai Vol. 5: Spinoff by Masakazu Katsura (Viz, 2002)
While the manga seemed to have run its course with the end of the anime series' six episodes, this manga, which hasn’t been available even as fansubbed anime previously, adds several wrinkles. One, Ai's "master" sends another video girl, the vampiric Mai, to win over Yota and vanquish Ai. Meanwhile, the amnesiac Ai and Yota continue their flirtation while he's turn between Moemi, his longtime friend, and Nobuko, who's more than proved her love to the ever-fickle Yota.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Soundtrack: The Fall, "The Infotainment Scan"

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