Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Books Worth a Look XIV

These are the books I read in April 2003.

Betty Boop's Sunday Best by Max Fleischer (Kitchen Sink, 1995)
Collecting the complete color comics from 1934-1936, this volume even includes the earliest strips featuring actress Helen Kane, the Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl. While Fleischer dropped the Kane conceit relatively quickly, the strip's Hollywood elements continued. Despite the Koko the Clown "Out of the Inkwell" anomaly, the storyline is relatively continuous, portraying page-long parables touching on fashion faux pas, affectionate appraisals, the foibles of fandom, liberated women, and challenging children. The recurring characters of the director, Aunt Tilly, Hunky, and Bubby contribute some consistency, but for the most part, the strip's cameo characters -- including Betty's many love interests, pretty boys all -- are relatively interchangeable. Bill Blackbeard's introductory essay adds some valuable cultural context to what might otherwise be mistaken as a one-joke wonder or Hollywood licensing deal, making the book a solid source of comic strip history.
Pages: 112. Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

Cambridge by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco (Arcadia, 1999)
While the more specific editions in Arcadia's Images of America series -- "The Great Boston Fire of 1872" is a fine example -- are quite good, thge more general volumes are somewhat shallow given their scope. This edition takes on the entire city of Cambridge, illuminating images of historic homes, churches and chapels, as well as some of Cambridge's neighborhoods -- including Harvard Square, Central Square, and Cambridgeport. Sammarco also covers some notable Cantabrigians, transportation trends, and the roles universities played in the town's development. While the book does include a lot of long-lost landmarks, if Arcadia can publish an entire book about Harvard football or the Jimmy Fund, why not one about Central Square or Cambridgeport itself?
Pages: 128. Days to read: 2. Rating: Fair.

Cathedral Child by Lea Hernandez (Cyberosia, 2003)
Originally to be published by the now-defunct and much-missed comics publisher Eclipse, later released as part of Image Comics' "no-line," and now reprinted in one volume by Somerville-based Cyberosia, Cathedral Child is a manga-styled missive that'd reputedly the first volume in a sequence called Texas Steampunk. While there are some steampunk elements present -- a sentient cathedral that communicates via pipe organ -- I found the comic to be slightly scattered. Part lifelong romance, part mystery, and part political powerplay, the story's ideas are important, but the sequence suffers from unclear characterization and too twisted a narrative thread. Hernandez's Author's Notes are helpful, but a comic shouldn't need footnotes to be forthright. That said, the vision is viable. It's the execution that could have been cleaner.
Pages: 112. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Chewing on Tinfoil by Joe Ollman (Insomniac Press, 2002)
Joe's artwork isn't really my cup of tea, but the writing represented by the nine pieces collected here is quite impressive. Blending personal, almost semi-autobiographical stories ("Death Wears Inexpensive Loafers" and "C.O.P.S.") with mythic fables ("God"), the range of storytelling is quite wide. "Giant Strawberry Funland" stands out with its tale of family, love, hate, and responsibility. "God" is a silly bit of spiritual selfishness. "Cake" is a wonderful office mate update of an urban legend probably based on fact. And two pieces -- "Like Something Akin to the Sistine Chapel, but with Cows..." and "Fire Sale" -- really impressed me with their character studies and slice-of-life snapshots. Joe's drawing grew on me as the book progressed, and I'm sure his style will continue to gel as his writing -- which is already quite good -- continues to grow in maturity and motivation.
Pages: 155. Days to read: 3. Rating: Fair.

Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)
It's always interesting to read someone's work after you've met them and spent some time talking about other topics. Jim's novel is very much a reflection and projection of his personality and interests. The anarchist former managing editor of Adbusters crams a lot of political, cultural, and scientific concepts into this novel, which is a good companion read to the work of Cory Doctorow. Everyone in Silico isn't hard sf -- but that doesn't mean that it's soft or easy. Jim's ideas of homegrown genetic engineering, subcultural self-organization, street-level marketing, and the economics and experience of a digital afterlife are fascinating and forward thinking. Down to details such as the tattoo that, when scanned, dials an encrypted phone number, Everyone in Silico's dystopian future is deftly and effectively outlined as the multilayered plot unfolds.
Pages: 241. Days to read: 27. Rating: Excellent.

The Great Boston Fire of 1872 by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco (Arcadia, 1997)
Part of the consistently impressive Images of America series, this volume documents the commercial evolution of downtown Boston, an evolution that was perhaps hastened by the blaze, as well as the events that contributed to the fire's severity. The photographs capture lost residential neighborhoods that are now dominated by the city's financial district, and many long-gone landmarks are preserved for posterity in its pages. Some of the most effective images include lithographs of the fire itself and photographs of the aftermath and damage. While the staged shots of businessmen posing in front of their former workplaces strike me as somewhat odd, there's enough unadulterated wrack and ruin that the sheer devastation is carried across. What would the city be like today if the fire hadn't happened? What if downtown's slate hadn't been scraped clean by flame?
Pages: 128. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Maximortal by Rick Veitch (King Hell, 1996)
Originally published as a seven-issue series by Stephen Bissette's company Tundra, this postmodern take on mythic superheroes has been overlooked by many folks in lieu of story cycles auch as the Watchmen and Miracleman. Veitch's approach, while much darker and desperate, is well worth reading. Representing a Superman-like alien and a clueless and confused -- but caring -- Kent-like victims family, Veitch's origin story is more dire and dangerous. His inclusion of such historical and literary figures as Sherlock Holmes, Siegel and Shuster, Robert Oppenheimer, and Albert Einstein adds a layer of neo-fictional nuance but slightly confuses matters. In the end, it is the Carlos Castenada-inspired character El Guano who plays a role in the Maximortal's momentary taming. Veitch's Afterword further explodes the icon of Nietzsche's Superman. It's not quite Cavalier and Clay, but the Maximortal deserves further attention and analysis.
Pages: 190. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Overbite by Dave Cooper (Fantagraphics, 2003)
Ostensibly the sixth issue of Cooper's comic book Weasel, this beautifully produced coffee table book of "drawings and paintings of mostly pillowy girls" also served as the catalog for the Overbite show at Tin Man Alley in Philadelphia. Featuring an introduction by David Cross, the book collects more than 60 oil on canvas and multimedia pieces produced in 2002. The book is one of the most lovely comic-related art books I've ever seen, and Cooper's status as a fine artist as well as a cartoonist is ably secured. His concept of what is beautiful and erotic is extremely intriguing and clever, and the lush -- and luscious -- paintings comprising this volume are sweet eye candy indeed. Amazing yet slightly disturbing. Good girl art gone bad?
Pages: 48. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Revolt of the Masscult by Chris Lehmann (Prickly Paradigm, 2003)
Similar to the Open Pamphlet Series, the Prickly Paradigm batch of booklets is a worthy group of lefty intellectual and political texts. This volume, written by deputy editor of the Washington Post Book World and contributor to the Baffler Lehmann, looks at the lapses of mass culture. Lehmann contends that mass culture is a construct that is inadequately captured by the pop culture palliatives. Analyzing and critiquing relatively recent activities of Jonathan Franzen, Oprah Winfrey, and David Eggers, Lehmann suggests that popular advocacy of masscult productions does more harm than good. But despite his namedropping of such sociologists and cultural critics as Dwight Macdonald, Edward Shils, and Herbert Gans, the slim book's almost 80 pages don't give Lehmann the room necessary to fully state his case -- as indicated by his doubtful dismissal of Henry Jenkins. Regardless, Lehmann's look at popcult promotion and partnerships is cause for consideration.
Pages: 79. Days to read: 7. Rating: Good.

Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby (Bay Books, 2003)
These 21 stories written by the associate fiction editor of 3rd Bed paint an amazingly pristine portrait of a world much like that envisioned by Ben Marcus. These lost histories of a fractured future flabbergasted by population control, food bans ("Joy of Eating" is a standout story.), sound-based weaponry, languishing and lamentable love, the use of air as a sound- and memory-recording medium (similar to Marcus' use of water, this idea is used to best effect in "Home Recordings."), family life, living phones, and other aspects of Derby's densely developed world. I am such a big fan of this new school of literary, postmodern sf. I don't know if Derby or Marcus consider themselves sf authors, but they're not too far afield from the new wave fabulists. Wonderful.
Pages: 196. Days to read: 4. Rating: Excellent.

No comments: