Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo & David Ryder Prangley (2009) E

Date Read: 6.19.09
Book From: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo and David Ryder Prangley,  is a profoundly silly vampire comic featuring two medieval lads who masquerade as princes of the night in order to sex (and rob) the ladies. Pretty good plan, huh?

The concept is good enough to deserve a longer treatment, at least in my opinion, but here it sets up a pleasurably nonsensical plot involving midnight mandrake-digging expeditions, voluptuous ladies in white gowns, and dialogue like “Take that, harlot.”

Gullo’s characters are distinctively gaunt and elegant, and while his stylized anatomy can make for stiff posing, his characters’ hilarious facial expressions often sell the punchlines of the sardonic jokes – something I also find to be the case with My Life in Blue, his first webcomic. (Vampire Deluxe! also happens to be set in Gullo’s mythical Eastern European homeland, Baritaria, the subject of his second webcomic, Baritarian Boy.)

Eeeeeeeeehhhhhh

All in all, I had me some good times with Vampire Deluxe! – it’s a quick and marvellously fun read for any fan of Gothic goofiness. (If you like Young Frankenstein, try…)

Go to:
Lawrence Gullo: bio and author page
My Life in Blue
Baritarian Boy

The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Gee (2007) E

Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

Go to:

Sophie Gee

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (1995) E

Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

Go to:

Karen Cushman

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Book Two, by Chris Hastings & Kent Archer (2008) E

Date Read: 6.12.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is an ongoing webcomic about a doctor who is also a ninja; duh. Chris Hastings writes and draws, and Kent Archer inks. They used to be roommates, and you can kind of tell.

In the second volume of the Doctor’s adventures, Dutch action star and sworn ninja nemesis Frans Rayner has captured the Doctor’s loyal teen sidekick, Gordito, and will stop at nothing to destroy the Doctor and claim Gordito’s magnificent and authoritative mustache as his own. Meanwhile, a mysterious drug has hit the streets, endowing common hoodlums with ninja powers. Can Dr. McNinja D.A.R.E. to resist ninja drugs and violence? Will he be able to protect Ben Franklin’s clone from harm in a high-speed motorcycle chase? Will his gorilla assistant Betty ever be able to eat her hot dogs in peace?

It’s a tricky affair to read this on a train, or anywhere else public. First there’s the business of trying to hide the pages of neckbeards and ninja showdowns from seatmates and the people across the row from you; then you have to try not to keep hooting maniacally and out loud. Granted, you do have to have a pretty random and absurd sense of humor to enjoy Dr. McNinja, which relies on non sequiturs, preposterous plot twists, occasional nerd references, and a universe of characters who take themselves way too seriously – if you couldn’t tell from the summary.

Luckily, I am well-endowed in the random-sense-of-humor department, and get a huge kick out of every volume, although I also tend to feel slightly stupider afterwards. (By contrast, my brother read a few panels and preemptively declared, “This sounded awesome, but it’s stupid.” His loss.) The fact that Chris Hastings’ art tends to be kind of shaky – it reminds me of the illustrations that you’d see in a high school newspaper – actually adds to the comic’s humor. Disproportionate facial features, rather lumpen anatomy, and physically implausible poses just seem right.

I would recommend Dr. McNinja as being great for de-stressing. My own roommate and I read the first volume during some of our darkest academic hours this past school year, and still get way too much of a kick out of shouting, “FROZEN SHAMROCKS KEEP HITTING MY FACE.”

Dr. McNinja can be read for free online, or purchased in printed volumes – which replicate the original comics’ alt texts – via Raptor Bandit Industries.

Go to:
Chris Hastings

Harley and Ivy, by Paul Dini, Bruce Timms, et al. (2007) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The DC collection Harley and Ivy (writing by Paul Dini & Judd Winick, art by Bruce Timms, Joe Chiodo, Shane Glines) collects three pretty mindlessly entertaining Batman story arcs starring villainesses Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, all based on episodes from Batman the animated series, though kicked up with darker touches and sexual innuendo. In “The Bet,” Harley makes a bet that Ivy can’t win a kiss from every man in Arkham Asylum, only to have the bet backfire on her when her main man, the Joker, joins the list of kiss-ees. In “Love on the Lam” (which was so unmemorable that I couldn’t even remember it without a little boost from Amazon), Harley once again attempts to get back into the Joker’s good graces by pulling off a heist of her own, enlisting Ivy’s help to do so. In “Harley and Ivy,” the gals pack off to South America in order to recover a specimen of a rare zombie root central to Ivy’s newest plan for world domination. From there, they make their way to Hollywood, where they begin filming a big-budget, diamond-studded movie glorifying their own escapades. Catfights, shower scenes, and gay lumberjack encounters ensue.

Overall, very silly and rife with absolutely shameless fanservice. The stories themselves are hardly memorable and simply retread Harley and Ivy’s well-established character dynamics (bubbly and annoying vs. sultry and sarcastic), but the fluid, expressive art, either by Timms himself or styled after his work on the series, and madcap humor make for a fun, quick read. If you’re a Harley/Ivy fan (as both Kakaner and I are), this is worth a look, so long as you’re not expecting masterful storytelling or anything. This is one of those books that makes you laugh so hard your brain hurts, with you feeling slightly the worse for it afterwards.

Go to:

Paul Dini
Bruce Timms

Paper as art

Matias Costa for The New York Times

“In Spain, Paper Too Beautiful to Use” (New York Times)

Lovely little article about the tradition of fine, handmade papers in Spain, particularly the work of the artisan/artist Montse Buxó i Marsá – since of course paperies, bookbinding, and printing all go hand-in-hand.

The article is fascinating to me for a number of reasons.  I love to see anyone who still takes the time and effort to make commonly utilitarian items beautiful (and it’s a shame that the article doesn’t have more photographs). The mass production of items like paper and books means, of course, that access to them has become universalized, but it also means that for the most part, we stop seeing them as individual, potentially artistic items. This is what I was trying to get at, in a highly vague way, in my review of Anna : the distinction between owning “a book” – a singular object – and “a copy of a book.”

In contemporary times, I think we tend to think of a text as an abstract thing that we access through the means of printed words on a page, or through a Word document, or an e-book, or a Kindle. That is, the potential conduits to the actual text are infinite and functionally interchangeable. Compare this with the Middle Ages, when the biggest commissioned “print run” of a major text at one time would be about four, and single, richly decorated volumes would be given as prestigious gifts and left behind as specific bequests in wills; privately owned books were often kept in chests along with the family silver and other valuables.

I love the Printing Revolution and just about everything about it, and I have plenty of tattered, hideous mass market paperbacks that I adore in spite of their mass-market-paperbackiness. In many ways, it’s awesome that books are so widely available that many people don’t think twice about throwing an old copy out, as cringeworthy as some of us may find it. Bottom line, though, I think that beautiful, carefully made books represent a rare unity of tactile, visual, and mental (and occasionally spiritual) pleasure*, and one that’s too rarely considered and appreciated.

*This could be interpreted to explain our “book porn” category, but really, we didn’t think about that one that hard… we’re just easily amused.

Anna, by Isaac Marion and Sarah Musi (2008) E

Date Read: 2.2.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book anna

Anna is the wistful tale of a young ghost who falls in love with a human boy. When I first stumbled upon Isaac Marion‘s short fiction online, it was one of the stories that most enchanted both Kakaner and me. In 2008, Marion self-published a 50-edition print run of Anna, with illustrations by Sarah Musi.

I love the size and feel of the book, especially the old-fashioned font and heavily textured, off-white paper cover. There’s something very individual-feeling about self-published books, and with their slight imperfections, you somehow you get more of a sense of the author, and of the effort that went into making the book. Instead of it being A Copy of a Book, it’s A Book, if that makes any sense.

Musi’s ink illustrations are delicate, charming, and perfectly suit the feel of the story with their elegant, expressive minimalism. Her elongated forms, fine linework, and use of negative space struck me as being faintly Gorey-esque. The story unfolds simply and gracefully, with quiet gravity. The details of Anna’s existence as a ghost are particularly captivating: my favorite moment of the story might be when she sinks into a mountain, seeking the comfort of its solidity.

As of July 2009, about 25 copies of Anna are still available for sale on Marion’s site. You can also see previews of the text and art at the same link. I treasure my copy, so if you’re at all tempted, I would buy one while you still can.

Go to:

Isaac Marion
Isaac Marion’s fiction online
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion [E]
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion  [K]

The Great Cambridge-Boston bookshop tour

In May of 2008, Kakaner and I undertook an epic walking tour of Cambridge and Boston bookshops – our goal was to walk from Central to Harvard Square and stop at every bookstore along the way, all in one morning and afternoon.

Our first stop was the Cambridge Salvation Army bookstore, where, if I recall correctly, Kakaner bought one paperback – but for the life of me I can’t recall what. The books were musty and disorganized, but the prices are incredible.

Continue reading The Great Cambridge-Boston bookshop tour

FreakAngels, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (2008-200*)

FreakAngels is an ongoing sci-fi/steampunk comic by Warren Ellis, syndicated online for free in weekly, six-page installments. It was begun in February of 2008, and I’ve been following it since then (I think I first saw it publicized on Coilhouse, my favorite blog). It follows the adventures of a group of young psychics who’ve dubbed themselves the FreakAngels, and hold down a corner in a Thames-inundated London.

It’s variously a futuristic survival story and a character-based drama, with a cast of somewhat cliché (one of the characters is basically a clone of Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; unsurprisingly, she seems to be the fan favorite) but likable protagonists. The cool, clean art, by Paul Duffield and a team of colorists, tends to be shaky anatomically speaking – noodle fingers are frequently in evidence – but the characters are attractively drawn and the backgrounds are very satisfyingly detailed, especially when it comes to architecture. If some of the FreakAngels’ outfits (and hair colors) are somewhat improbable given their living circumstances… can’t have steampunk without fun clothes. It’s also clear that Ellis has put a good amount of thought into his characters’ survival strategies, so it’s fun to see their efforts at scavenging and rebuilding society via a mix of past and present technology – steampower and solar panels have both come into play.

All in all, FreakAngels will probably appeal to fans of Firefly and similar tales of scrappy, foul-mouthed, hyper-competent, and-therefore-you-must-love-us families thrown together by circumstance. (I personally have mixed feelings about that particular formula as perfected/beaten to death by Joss Whedon, but clearly am susceptible to the charm anyway.)

I suspect I might be hooked in part because of the method of delivery – getting my FreakAngels story kick is a fun way to start a Friday. Print collections are also being issued as the comic goes on.

Go to:
Warren Ellis