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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

book-ratqueens-violet

Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

book-ratqueens-17

Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.4.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I began Gerald Morris’ series of Arthurian retellings (collectively called The Squires’ Tales and The Knights’ Tales) back when they first started coming out in the late ’90’s/early 2000’s. I remember starting with The Savage Damsel & the Dwarf in the yellow-lit, air-conditioned cool of the nearest public library when I was 16ish, and shortly thereafter hunched crosslegged in sticky summer weather over the pages of The Squire’s Tale. In a few weeks I’d read all the way up to Parsifal’s Page. Swift, witty, musing, and surprisingly gentle in moral tone despite their sharp humor and the grim fates that befall many characters, Morris’ novels fell in closely alongside my love of Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction, and of C. S. Lewis.

Almost 10 years later, I finally started catching up again with the series, and was delighted to find that Morris’ humanity as a storyteller registers even more deeply with me as an older reader. As my friend E. put it, the series is wonderful in embracing and illustrating “all kinds of different ways of being.”

The previous novels had as their protagonists fairly common YA types, though warmly realized: a half-fey squire navigating both mundane & otherworldly affairs, a whip-witted anti-damsel, and a Eustace Scrubb-ish prig who of course discovers valiance & humility under duress.

By contrast, Sir Dinadan’s major interests in life begin with drifting peacefully alone in the forest, and end with peacefully music-making (again, preferably alone) in the forest. I can’t recall another YA novel (suggestions welcome!) whose main character was so centrally concerned with solitude, and – crucially – was allowed to remain that way. Most children’s literature has social aims: the protagonists negotiate relationships (friends, family, romances), and struggle to assume positions of greater social responsibility.

Dinadan does indeed venture forth and meet all sorts of people, befriending some and looking askance at others. And, as Sir Tristan’s younger brother, he is dragged again and again towards the center of that most outrageously tragic of romances. But what he sees of Tristan & Iseult’s violent folly ultimately leads him to affirm his sense of sufficiency in himself and his art – even though his friendship with another “savage damsel,” as skeptic-minded as Dinadan, presents a tantalizing romantic charge throughout.

Without trivializing the essential tragedy of the violence and human wastefulness of Tristan & Iseult’s tale, Sir Dinadan affirms those who prefer to live small, live quietly and inwardly. I laughed often while reading, and closed the book feeling both heartened and melancholy. I plan to revisit Sir Dinadan often, especially since his quietness, skepticism, and steadfast unconcern with dramatic involvement reminded me of a very dear mentor of mine, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. In Dinadan, Morris combines elements both of the fool and the hermit: capable of moving in society, he evenly judges the people and hierarchies he encounters there, but ultimately, contentedly, remains a man apart.

Go to:
Gerald Morris: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.14.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I’ve been doing some thinking this spring about figuring out reviewing practices, or a mindset, that don’t have me regularly consuming 3+ hours for writing and headscratching that I meant to have done in one, doesn’t give me hives, and generally achieves a higher fun/stress ratio. We’ll see how this goes.

Saga Vol. 1Oh Saga! Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is so much fun that I can only assume that if you like fun, you will like Saga. It seems like Vaughan set out to create an X-rated Star Wars in comics – galloping galactic conflict in an expansive science-fantasy universe, plus some very colorful violence, and equally colorful sexytimes wherever characters seem like they might want or need to have ’em. But its immense irreverence has me reaching for Firefly as the easiest comparison.

However, the humor feels less strained to me than Firefly‘s. (The ticking of Joss Whedon’s brain behind the goings-on, working at being quirky or heartrending or whatever, is often too loud to me.) This is helped along by how boundlessly, weightlessly, beautifully weird the universe of Saga is.

Alanna and Marko are Romeo-and-Juliet runaway soldiers and new parents – much of the emotional weight of the comic rests in the anxieties of parenthood; the star-crossing romance seems forgettable by comparison. Their getaway ship is an enormous tree powered by personal sacrifices. Their babysitter and guide is a bisected ghost-girl (whose choice in headgear and allover pinkness reminded me of Runaways‘ Molly). Their pursuers include a TV-headed robot prince who just wants to get home to his recently pregnant wife, and a taciturn uber-mercenary with relationship hangups and a puma-sized, lie-detecting hairless cat. And given that all of the characters, even those that only appear for a few panels, are believably animated by a cantankerous, stubborn humanity, none of this feels like a burden of whimsy on the reader’s patience; I moved to greet each new surprise with incredulous laughter, and greedy eyes.

Fiona Staples (check out her sketchblog here) paints lushly, lushly, with a palette heavily reminiscent of the cool, dreamy neons of, naturally, 1970’s sci-fi – the soulkillingly garish bordello planet where The Will (aforementioned mercenary) makes a detour put me in mind of Bespin’s Cloud City, on acid.

Much of the imagery is clearly, simply meant to make the reader pause, and feel the uplift of wonder; I did plenty of that. Oh, those panels of the ship-tree drawing itself together to jet through space; oh, the towering beasties and haunted blue-green woods and luminous mountainscapes.

Alana reads her favorite romance novel

I am grateful that this comic exists, and am going quietly insane until the second trade comes out (July 2!).

Go to:
Brian K. Vaughan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various, Spring 2013

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always seem to crave ghost stories before bedtime. Here are some of the results of typing “ghost” into Tor’s rather friendly search engine.

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“A Ghost Story,” by Mark Twain (1888): Read the story online at Tor.com.

“I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its hazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.”

This takes a turn for the really goofy, predictably, given the author. An eerie nighttime haunting becomes a clamorous one becomes a slapstick-ridden, tragicomical one, as the initially stricken narrator helps his ghostly visitor realize that he’s the victim of several layers of misunderstanding and hoaxery. Alas!

For those who, like me, have ever dreamed with fond shivers of the eeriness of museums at night, one of the incidental images in this story is worthy of a story of its own, as the ghost is a tenant in a museum –

“I can have no rest, no peace, till they have given that poor body burial again. Now what was the most natural thing for me to do, to make men satisfy this wish? Terrify them into it! haunt the place where the body lay! So I haunted the museum night after night. I even got other spirits to help me. […] I felt that if I ever got a hearing I must succeed, for I had the most efficient company that perdition could furnish. Night after night we have shivered around through these mildewed halls, dragging chains, groaning, whispering, tramping up and down stairs…”

Glee! Any recommendations for haunted museum stories??

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“The Cairn in Slater Woods,” by Gina Rosati (2012): Read the story online at Tor.com.

“My recently deceased great-aunt Z’s house smells like cat crap, stale smoke, and retribution.”

“The Cairn in Slater Woods” is a basically old-fashioned teen ghost story, albeit updated with references to manga and smartphone apps. Its narrative predictability and black-and-white morality don’t undermine the fun of its scene-setting – the Slater family woods shadowed by an ancient burial cairn, and tree branches hung with dozens of empty glass bottles. But the best line in the story might simply be the opening one, with its sullen teenaged melodrama. This would have made a very nice episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark.

Go to:
Gina Rosati: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Summer 2012, and again this week
Read the comic online here.

The Story of the Bad Egg: cover image

“Once upon there lived a prince in a palace.

This morning the prince was in the twelve-acre pool. He had just received a call saying that the flood in Hampshire was not as serious at it had first seemed and had in fact done wonders for agriculture. The royal visit to share in the local suffering was thus cancelled and the prince had a blank in his calendar …”

… and that blank ends up being filled by an ill-tempered dragon, who in turn yields up four eventually voracious dragon children. The Story of the Bad Egg,” a 34-page comic by Swedish illustrator Emily Ryan, is very droll and a touch morbid. Its finely inked art is a fun mix of airy, geometric, and quietly kinetic (I like all the curves made in space when the characters go into motion), set off by visual gags and verbal irony polished to a gleam. And the “bad” egg, who is accidentally allowed to sate her appetite with books and promptly transforms into a stubby, walking representation of written knowledge, is one of the most lovable characters I’ve run into in a long while. (Watch out for the scene where she asks her foster father to chalk her pool cue for her.)

comic badegg

Go to:
Read “The Story of the Bad Egg” online

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Apologies for the utter deadness around here lately; Kakaner is fiendishly, horrendously, unspeakably busy with a very exciting new job, and I’ve been occupied trying to not get kicked out of wildly succeed in my graduate program.

But here’s another round of gender-subversive fun for fans of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and anyone whose interest was piqued by my review of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight: Katie O’Neill’s gently goofy and heartfelt new webcomic Princess Princess, in which a dashing princess errant is the one to rescue a tower-immured damsel.

“I have a sword, a unicorn, and kick-butt hair!” – Princess Amira

Princess Princess updates once weekly, and is predicted to run up to 30 or 40 pages. You can also find additional art and bonus comics over at its Tumblr.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.25.2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001)

Inevitable disclaimer: I was obsessed with the first three books of Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (and her two historical-fiction novels) in high school; haven’t read her since then. Also, this summary/review is spoilery.

“The Master of Rampling Gate” (1984), Rice’s only vampire short story, reads like an adolescent vampire’s dreams of an adolescent girl’s dreams of him (Twilight inverted?) – it’s a sentimental Gothic confection spun mostly of lissome sensuality and wish-fulfillment. Rice’s prose flows creamily (I use that word because I can’t help but remember Anthony Blanche’s indictment of Charles’ jungle paintings in Brideshead Revisited: “It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers…”), but there’s troublingly little depth to it. Maybe she was taking a break from the unrelenting moral horror that the VC protagonists wrangle with?

Young, idly wealthy Julie and Richard arrive in the country estate of Rampling Gate, having been commanded by their late father to tear it down “stone by stone,” but instead find themselves seduced by its quiet luxury and meditative, timeless solitude. A few gasps and midnight encounters later, Julie learns that the true master of Rampling is a mopy, beautiful vampire who dates to the Middle Ages and likes reading her fiction. (It must be true love!)

There’s a horrifying flashback to the plague years to explain why Rampling Gate, and the vampire, must remain – they serve as monument to the plague-devastated village that once stood there – but the story reverts so quickly to the couple’s delighted honeymoon-planning that the plague episode ends up reading as an ornament to the tragedy of the eternally lonely vampire, rather than a reflection on human misery and the awfulness of history.

The whole thing is especially creepy because Rice keeps on insisting that the chief attribute of both Julie and the vampire is their innocence, even when he’s lovingly showing her visions of them feasting together upon ladies in red-wallpapered bordellos – because she has to become his vampire mistress, natch. Hooray for eternally prolonged adolescence!

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Tina Rath’s “Miss Massingberd and the Vampire” (1986) is a crisply written, very Britishly humorous little story. As in the other story that I’ve read of Rath’s, “A Trick of the Dark” (review in this post), the vampire offers sensual escape from a buttoned-up life, here that of a schoolmistress whose evening encounter in a churchyard tweaks her life slightly out of the polite course of things. It’s a story that, like Miss Massingberd, seems to be smiling to itself.

Go to:
Stephen Jones: bio and works reviewed
Anne Rice: bio and works reviewed
Tina Rath: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.23.11
Book from: Personal collection

Bone: Out from BonevilleBone, Volume 1: Out From Boneville

“After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins – trusty Fone Bone, grasping Phoney Bone, and obliviously cheerful Smiley Bone – are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. Eventually, the cousins are reunited at a farmstead run by tough, cow-racing Gran’ma Ben and her spirited granddaughter, Thorn. But little do the Bones know, there are dark forces conspiring against them and their adventures are only just beginning…”

Late to the bandwagon as usual! I’d wanted to read the ever-popular Bone saga for years, and was lucky enough to find a slightly battered copy for half-off while comic-shopping recently. The first volume instantly brought me back to reading Asterix comics on the couch in second grade: Smith’s old-school art is fluidly expressive and filled with gentle slapstick and visual gags. (A recurring one: whenever he’s overcome by his crush on Thorn, Fone Bone’s mouth crumples up into a scribbled line, and he litters the area with trails of pink hearts.) It’s just comforting to read, sweet, funny, and expertly paced – a good old-fashioned adventure to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.

While I don’t feel too driven by the storyline yet (seems like war with the carrion-eating rat creatures lies ahead), I do love the oddness of the world: the way the seasons arrive with comically accelerated timing in the valley, talking katydid Ted and his giant cousin, the introduction of comics and paper currency (the latter with less success) to the valley inhabitants by the Bones. What exactly is the relationship between the valley and the external world, and what, really, are the Bones? I’m eager to see what comes along, especially if it involves more Gran’ma Ben thonking rat creatures.

And my favorite sequence of art: the evolution of Thorn’s facial expressions and hand gestures on this page (click for a close-up of the whole page).

Go to:
Jeff Smith: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.4.11
Story from: Read it online here

“… The owners of Harrowby Hall had done their utmost to rid themselves of the damp and dewy lady who rose up out of the best bedroom floor at midnight, but without avail. They had tried stopping the clock, so that the ghost would not know when it was midnight; but she made her appearance just the same, with that fearful miasmatic personality of hers, and there she would stand until everything about her was thoroughly saturated.”

“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” (1894) is one of the most hilariously prim ghost stories you’ll ever read, a sort of ghost story of manners:

“You are a witty man for your years,” said the ghost.

“Well, my humor is drier than yours ever will be,” returned the master.

“No doubt. I’m never dry. I am the Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, and dryness is a quality entirely beyond my wildest hope.”

It also makes itself an easy target for feminist readings – the ghost, a “sudden incursion of aqueous femininity” (!), repeatedly intrudes on the Harrowby masters’ cozy quarters with her indiscriminately sloshy woes… (Aligns well with Chinese ghost traditions, too – tsk tsk, so wet, not enough masculine principle.)

The twist introduced in the last paragraph ends the otherwise trifling story on a surprisingly sinister note. It’s a troubling moment that drags the faintly misogynistic tone of the story’s proceedings to the foreground, and leaves them hanging there for your consideration.

This version of the story online includes some charming illustrations, but lacks the final paragraph, without which the story is far less interesting.

Go to:
John Kendrick Bangs: bio and works reviewed

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