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So many big thick books to review, so little time!

I buy more comics than is probably healthy, and usually I like to review the trade paperbacks and graphic novels I buy only if I think not a lot of people are reviewing them elsewhere.  That means I never talk about the Ultimate Spider-Man trades (even though the latest one sucked – what’s up with that?) but might review something you may have missed.  Such as these books below!  So, without further ado, in roughly the order in which I read them (although I’m saving Bone for last), let’s go!

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Kickback, written and drawn by David Lloyd, “the creator [sic] of V for Vendetta,” as the cover tells us, published by Dark Horse, cost to the consumer: $12.95.

Lloyd is a strange bird.  On the one hand, he seems to have great ideas.  On the other hand, he struggles to turn those ideas into good stories.  It’s the difference, I suppose, between being a writer and writing some things down.  Lloyd is not a writer, and his work suffers because of it.

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Case in point: Kickback, about a dirty cop who develops a conscience.  This book is apparently somewhat old and was originally published in France, but it comes to us ignorant Yankees and we can judge it in the only language that matters – English!  On the surface, this is nothing spectacular – the “dirty cop who develops a conscience” is a stock character from fiction, but in the hands of a good writer, you can make something out of it.  Lloyd, however, isn’t a terribly good writer, and although there are some interesting moments in Kickback, as a whole it fails to dazzle.  Joe Canelli, his main character, discovers that the police in Franklin City are into a whole lot more than just taking petty bribes – they’re into drug deals and murder, and he decides he can’t take it anymore.  When the cops slaughter a rival gang and Canelli finds the only witness, he makes a stand.  The crooked cops find him in an old house out in the country and try to shoot it out with him, but it’s a set-up – they’re being filmed by a reporter eager for a big story.  It’s all very cinematic, the lone hero against the bad guys – Assault on Precinct 13 comes to mind, but with fewer bodies – and it all works out the way you think it will.

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That’s the problem with Kickback.  Despite some nice moments when we find out about Canelli’s past and why he feels that making a stand, finally, is necessary, there’s nothing here that is terribly unique or even, unfortunately, interesting.  Lloyd’s art is solid as usual, but it can’t overcome a tepid story that hits all the beats we’re expecting it to.  It’s frustrating, because this is the kind of story that, although we’ve seen it before, offers a lot of possibilities, but Lloyd doesn’t go with any of them.  Because Canelli, who is really the only character who could have saved the book, is not all that unique, he can’t carry the book someplace better.  He remains a stock character in a stock story.  It’s too bad.

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Teenagers from Mars, written by Rick Spears and drawn by Rob G, published by Gigantic Graphic Novels, cost to the consumer: $19.95.

This was the darling of the indie set not long ago, and although I am behind the curve here, I figure there have to be some people who haven’t bought it yet, right?  That’s who I’m here for!

I’m not exactly sure what to make of Teenagers from Mars.  I enjoyed reading it, but upon reflection, it’s not all that good.  It has plenty of interesting moments, but the overall story is just … well, it’s dumb.  How, say you?  I’m damned glad you asked!

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First, we have Macon.  Macon works at the Mall-Mart in the town of Mars (see, they’re not actually alien teenagers, they just live in a town called Mars, but the title is really a metaphor, because the adults think they’re aliens – it’s clever, get it?).  Macon gets into a spot of trouble because he sells a comic to a 13-year-old whose mother is, shockingly, crazy.  As in “How dare you sell my child a comic book that is going to warp his mind, you pervert!” kind of crazy.  The manager apologizes for Macon’s idiocy and then tells Macon to pull the comics off the rack.  Macon tells him that he won’t do it, so he gets fired.  He tells the manager to fuck off, and then, for quite literally no reason whatsoever, throws a punch at him.  He gets his clock cleaned but good.  Meanwhile, a girl – Madison Lee – who is just such a cute little Goth, assaults some guy in the same store because the guy was looking up her skirt.  She, of course, is escorted from the store, but her eyes meet Macon’s, and it’s love at first sight!

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I don’t know about you, but I hated Macon already.  Yes, I know he’s supposed to be standing up for injustice by refusing to cave to the censors, but I still hated him.  This will be a problem throughout the book, as Spears and G (how does one refer to Rob G?) attempt to make Macon and Madison the heroes of the oppressed, while I just keep thinking they’re tools.  Events start to spiral out of control.  Max, whose mother freaked out on Macon, is digging up graves with his friends, which of course makes the townspeople go all nutty.  His father secretly digs comics himself but he’s too emasculated to tell his wife to shut it.  Meanwhile, Macon and Madison, after a night of partying, vandalize the Mall-Mart, leaving graffiti that reads “Comic Book Liberation Army.”  Oh, dear.  I wonder how the uptight adults in town will react to this?

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Well, shit spirals out of control.  Pretty soon, the only comic book store in town has to close, and there’s a real-live Nazi book burning in the center of town!  Macon becomes a celebrity, because of course the stupid adults think there’s a real-live Comic Book Liberation Army!  He and Madison fight, make up, have wild monkey sex, and then the fascists take Macon’s only copy of his latest zombie comic book.  Then it’s on, motherfuckers!  He and Madison break into the courthouse with the help of Macon’s hippie lawyer (he has a pony tail and smokes weed in the elevator!) and they terrorize the fascists for a while, shoving a gavel into the mayor’s ass and spray-painting CBLA everywhere.  For two teenagers, they’re remarkably adept terrorists.  Oh, okay, freedom fighters.  Then they Bonnie-and-Clyde it out of town and hit the open road!

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I may sound cynical, and I am, a little.  Like I said, this is an enjoyable enough reading experience, helped by G’s very good art.  It’s just that’s it’s so predictable.  Wow, the adults are all crazy and conservative?  Wow, the only “good adults” are the guy who’s married to the crazy bitch, the owner of the comic book store, and the pot-smoking lawyer?  Wow, all teenagers are super-cool and fight the system?  You don’t say!

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Everyone in this book is a stereotype, and it’s vexing.  If I may, I’d like to get all political for a moment (T. will enjoy this).  I don’t like George Bush.  I think he’s bad for the country.  I think his policies and beliefs encourage censorship as a way to stamp out “bad things” as defined by him and his narrow-minded cabal.  However, we’re fighting a war in which we can’t be certain who the bad guys even are (as evidenced by the terror cell in London, which included “normal” European white people), and nothing close to as bad as this has happened in the country.  You may say, “Well, it’s coming,” but that’s bullshit.  Spears and G cite the Mike Diana case to back up their story, but that case was so obscure and so unique that it happened years before this story was published and that’s the best the creators could do.  Yes, the case is horrible, and yes, it’s censorship, but nobody is forcing comic book proprietors out of business and burning books for selling superhero comics.  Except, of course, the crazy locals in Mars.  It’s just that this is Spears’ and G’s vision of sticking it to the Man, and when you’re writing a polemic, subtleties tend to fall by the wayside.  This is liberal wish-fulfillment in every sense of the word.  Macon and Madison share some interesting moments, and their relationship feels real, but everything else that happens to them and the other characters is straight out of cliché-ville.

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I want to read this as parody, because then it would be funny.  I can’t, however, and I don’t think it was intended as such.  It’s just goddamned earnest that I very much doubt if Spears and G wanted us to see it as satire.  That’s kind of a shame, because a very few winks at the audience would let us know that we’re not supposed to take this all very seriously.  Is this satire and I’m just to stupid to get it?  Explain, please!

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I’m probably being much meaner on this than I should be.  I’m an adult, and I used to teach the very kinds of kids that Macon and Madison are.  Therefore, I’m less inclined to see them as heroes, but I’m also less inclined to freak out if they (gasp!) read a comic book.  I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: the art goes a long way to making this enjoyable, and if you just zip through it without thinking about it too much, the story is enjoyable as well.  It’s when you think about it that it all falls apart.

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Renfield: A Tale of Madness, written by Gary Reed and drawn by Galen Showman, published originally by Caliber Comics, but coming soon from Image/Desperado, at a cost to the consumer of: Well, that’s a good question.  Mine arrived mysteriously in the mail.

The fine folk at Desperado sent this to me (at least that’s what the return address said), but I wonder if Gary Reed had something to do with it, because I know he’s read the blog.  It came with a nice letter and a CD-ROM (which I’m scared to run, because I live in fear of the Blue Screen of Death coming back to my computer, but I’ll get to it one of these days), and if you’re interested in more Renfield goodness, go here.

Ah, but is it any good, say you?  Hmmm.  Yes.  It is good.  However, it could be better, and therefore, it disappoints me.  I know that a reviewer should only judge the book based on what’s there, and not what could be there, but that’s why I break all the rules, damn it!

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The story is basic enough – it tells the Dracula story from Renfield’s point of view.  This twist sustains the book through most of it, and it’s a very nice take on the entire affair, as Renfield is the character in the actual novel we know the least (I read Dracula years ago, so forgive me if there’s a section in which we learn everything about Renfield; I don’t think there is).  By focusing on this character, Reed and Showman are able to add something to the original mythos, even though they have to sacrifice some of the plot points that explain the story a bit better.  That’s fine, because we are able to get the gist of it, and a person who hasn’t read the novel can easily figure out what’s going on.  I do miss Harker’s account of his journey through Transylvania, though.

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The prologue, unfortunately, is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, as we meet Renfield standing on a soapbox quoting Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (he manages to finish, too, which is impressive).  Why is it “unfortunate” that this is the most fascinating part of the book?  Because, as far as I can tell (and I have no interest in leafing through the novel), it’s not in the book.  I admire Reed for making Renfield’s time in Purfleet Asylum hew closely to the novel, to the point where I have no idea what he made up and what he lifted from Stoker, but I was disappointed that we didn’t find out more about what made Renfield tick.  When we meet him, he is already in thrall to Dracula, and I wanted to know why he allowed himself to be dominated by the vampire, and, in fact, how Dracula knew of him.  The arc of his character once he enters the asylum and Dracula begins to influence him is done very well, and his struggle for redemption, although a bit clichéd (it’s all about a woman, naturally), is gripping to read.  Renfield is a man who has given up everything to the devil, and then he discovers that the devil lies to him.  It’s not the most original theme in the world, but Reed does well with it.

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Showman’s art is also very nice (dare I say Bolland-esque at times?) – moody and Gothic at times, hallucinatory at others, and horrific when it needs to be, but always grounded in the reality of late nineteenth-century England.  The captain’s account of the voyage of the Demeter, graphically rendered, is much creepier than in the novel, and Lucy’s gradual transformation is chilling.  Again, it’s unfortunate nothing of Transylvania nor the final showdown with Dracula is shown, but that is the limitation of the idea.  The only problem I had, actually, was with the count himself.  He looks far too much like a cheesy 1970s porn star, especially in the final confrontation with Renfield, to be taken seriously, and if you can’t take Dracula seriously, the entire book suffers.  It’s not the biggest problem in the world, but it’s an issue.  I’m not sure how Showman could have made him look better – I definitely would have lost the mustache/beard ring around his mouth.  But that’s just me.

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Renfield is a nifty little horror comic that relies on atmosphere and gathering tension rather than gore, as all good horror comics should.  We know what’s going to happen, because even if we haven’t read the book (which is surprisingly dull, even though it’s an interesting literary experiment), we’ve probably seen some movie based upon it (I recommend Nosferatu, which is really weird), so the surprises in the narrative aren’t coming from the plot.  We’re looking for character development and how Renfield will get out of this situation he got himself into, and for the most part, we’re satisfied, because the characters have been well developed and act pretty much as they should.  Like I said, the big disappointment is not knowing anything about Renfield before he went nuts and sold his soul.  That, I believe, would have pushed this from being an interesting comic to being a great comic.

Renfield is being re-released by Image this November.  It’s certainly worth a look.

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Journey into Mohawk Country, written and drawn by George O’Connor, adapted from the journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, published by First Second Books, cost to the consumer: $17.95.

This book forms part of the first wave of graphic novels by First Second, one which also includes American Born Chinese (which I’ll get to), and I like the idea behind doing this – it’s kind of like what Larry Young has done, and he seems to be making it work.  I got this because I love history and I find early American history (pre-Revolution) fascinating as well.  This book tells the story of van den Bogaert, who trekked deep into northern New York from Fort Orange (Albany) in 1634-35 to conclude a trade treaty with the Oneida Indians.  It’s a rather unique book in that regard, because we rarely read much about the Dutch in New York and their contributions to American culture, and I was looking forward to reading this.

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Unfortunately, it has a huge problem that makes it impossible to recommend.  I’ll get to that soon enough.  First, I want to focus on what works in the book.  O’Connor’s art is rather cartoonish, which struck me at first as being inappropriate to the subject matter, but as I got used to it, the more interesting it became.  His three European characters – van den Bogaert, Jeronimus la Croex, and Willem Tomassen – are constrasted nicely and I hope intentionally with the many Indians they meet.  On the one hand, they are distinctive in their appearances – with very few exceptions, Arenias the chief of the Oneida being one, the Indians all look pretty much alike.  We can tell if they are old or young, but other than that, they are all similar.  This choice by O’Connor is interesting, because I’m not sure what to make of it.  Is it laziness (I doubt it) or is he trying to make a point about the relative numbers at that time of Indians and Europeans in the New World?  Are the Indians similar because there are so many of them?  I’m not sure.  On the other hand, van den Bogaert and his traveling companions might be individualized, but they are also buffoons, first hiking upcountry with their unwieldy boots on and never actually relinquishing their armor, although they do change shoes.  The Indians are constantly giving them sympathetic and pitying looks, as a grown-up gives a child when the child encounters something they can’t puzzle out.  The Indians in this story are the mature civilization, and the Dutch are the ones who are lost.  It’s a nice contrast to the way we usually see the European-Native American dynamic played out - even in movies that are hugely sympathetic to the natives, there’s always that “march of progress” theme that lets us know the white people are eventually going to wipe them out.  In this book, there is very little that portends a conquest by the Europeans of this vast land.  It’s virgin territory, and anyone reading this book who didn’t know the rest of the story could be forgiven if they think that the Europeans wouldn’t last long.  O’Connor’s art goes a long way toward evoking this feeling of Indian superiority (and by superiority I don’t mean that the Indians are “better,” just that they’re more numerous and better established), despite the odd choice of making them all look the same.  The entire book takes place in Mohawk Country, and we never see any Dutch civilization beyond the second page.  We do, however, see the many villages of the Indians and the complex social structure they had developed, and althoug van den Bogaert and his companions try to fit in, it’s obvious they have no idea how to react to this culture.  It’s this cultural exchange that is the best part of the book, and a large part of it comes from O’Connor’s art.  He has added some ironic touches to the art that reflect the Europeans’ sense of superiority to the Indians even when the journal doesn’t imply that.  The two cultures can’t understand each other, but they make the effort, and we see this in the art.

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However, the art is only part of the book, and in the narrative, Journey into Mohawk Country breaks down.  I don’t want to say it breaks down entirely, but enough that although there are many admirable things in the book, as a whole it fails.  The problem is that van den Bogaert is a dreadfully dull narrator.  His journey is wholly a trade junket, and he goes over the terms with the Indians in minute and boring detail.  When they are traveling, his story plods along like the travelers themselves, with overly tedious descriptions and very little embellishment.  This is, after all, a journal, and is not meant to be a gripping story, but so little happened to van den Bogaert and his two friends on their journeys that one wonders why O’Connor chose to adapt it in the first place.  Seriously – his life is never threatened, he doesn’t hook up with a comely native lass (although there are a few times when he wants to), he doesn’t get trapped in a snowstorm and have to eat his own toes to survive – he hikes north, meets a lot of natives, concludes treaties with them, sees how they live, and returns to Fort Orange.  Sure, some of the Indians are surly and yell at him, but they’re usually either joking around or easily placated.  It’s a frustrating read, because we keep waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever does.  By the time van den Bogaert returns after six weeks in the north, we simply wonder, “Is that it?”  Yes, that’s it.

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There is one brief moment of interest in van den Bogaert’s journey, and that, I have to believe, was inserted by O’Connor.  Van den Bogaert can’t sleep one evening toward the end of his travels, and he wanders into the woods.  He sees a shirtless Indian who waves goodbye to him and then points behind him.  The forest opens up and he is almost swallowed by a brilliant white light as the trees become what appear to be skyscrapers around him.  This short vision of the future, which is unnerving in a way not unlike Sir William Gull’s vision in From Hell, is the only time we get any sense that this story is going somewhere, and showing us what was lost when the Europeans started to arrive in numbers.  Other than that, it’s somewhat dull, and that’s a shame.

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As a historical document, this is somewhat interesting.  It shows a time and a place in American history that not many people know about and is now gone forever, and therefore has some value.  Van den Bogaert’s journal is dull, but O’Connor brings it to life nicely through his illustrations.  As a good narrative, however, it falls short.

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American Born Chinese, written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang, published by First Second Books, cost to the consumer: $16.95.

Some people who read this blog know that my daughter has a traumatic brain injury.  I never thought much about small biases in life, being myself a middle-class white man and therefore never experiencing any sort of prejudice except the jealousy of all you losers who weren’t born privileged like me!  But then, not long ago, I was watching Friends, and the episode where Monica and Rachel are babysitting Ross’s son for the first time came on.  Monica accidentally bangs Ben’s head on a wooden beam and freaks out.  Ross comes home and finds out from Rachel that Monica did it.  When he speaks to Monica, he mentions that Ben used to know his alphabet, but now letters are just dropping out, plus he’s walking funny, like one leg is moving faster than the other.  She, of course, freaks out again before she finds out he’s joking.  It’s innocuous enough, I suppose, but watching it now, I think, “What a horrible thing – to joke about your child having some kind of mental problem because of an accident.”  I think of my daughter, who is four years old and can’t walk on her own and can barely talk, and I don’t really get mad at the writers of Friends, I just feel sad that they mined a very real and very sad facet of life – when children are handicapped in some way – for humor.

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This is a kind of roundabout way to say that although I have no experience with prejudice, I understand the insidious way that it permeates our society, until we’re not even sure what is and what isn’t offensive.  I don’t want to go all politically correct on people – the Farrelly Brothers can make movies with mentally challenged people in them all they want – but Gene Luen Yang, the writer of American Born Chinese, is less concerned with the obnoxious forms of racism and more interested in the small forms of prejudice and how often, we don’t even realize that something might be offensive to people and belittle them.  He also makes a wonderful point without beating us over the head with it that this small racism is far more evil, because it gets under the skin of the person and changes their very personality, because they act differently in order to escape the harsh words.  It’s this pointed commentary that holds American Born Chinese together, and makes it a very good book.

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Yang forms his tale with three different stories, all seemingly unconnected except for their obvious connection to China.  The fantastical story is about the Monkey King, who is a great god in the pantheon but who is uninvited to a dinner party in Heaven even though all the gods and goddesses and demons and spirits are there.  When he crashes the party, the guard blocks his way, and the Monkey King goes, well, apeshit and kills a bunch of guests.  The Heavenly Authorities attempt to discipline him for his actions, but he defeats them all, until he meets Tze-Yo-Tzuh, who created everything.  The Monkey King scoffs at this, but Tze-Yo-Tzuh is who he says he is, and he buries the Monkey King under a pile of stones, where he is trapped for 500 years.  How he gets out is part of his lesson, and eventually, it intersects the other two stories.

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The second story is about Jin Wang, a young boy who moves from Chinatown in San Francisco to the suburbs (we’re never told where).  Naturally, everyone treats him with scorn, and even his teacher calls him the wrong name (Jing Jang) and says he came all the way from China.  He has no friends until another Chinese boy, Wei-Chen Sun, arrives, but even then, their path to friendship is rocky.  As Jin Wang grows up, he must deal with this insidious racism, as people make cracks about him eating dogs and being a “chink.”  Of course, he falls in love with an All-American white girl, Amelia Harris, and his troubles only get worse.

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Finally, the third story is about Danny, a fine-looking white kid with, inexplicably, a ridiculously stereotypical Chinese cousin, whose name is Chin-Kee.  Every year Chin-Kee comes to visit his cousin and ruins his school life with his obnoxious and over-the-top “Chinese” behavior.  He is loud, rude, and exchanges his “r” for an “l” and vice versa (sample Chin-Kee dialogue: “Dis pletty Amellican girl wiff bountiful Amellican bosom must berong to cousin Da-nee!”)  This section of the book has a laugh track like a sitcom, which adds to the surreality of it all.  Danny, who’s sweet on Melanie, asks her out after Chin-Kee has been there a few days, and she rejects him, which prompts him to lash out at her and tell her that he’s nothing like Chin-Kee and he doesn’t even know how’s they’re related.  He then tells his friend on the basketball team that every year he has to switch schools because Chin-Kee ruins it for him.  He no longer knows what to do.

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Yang does an excellent job showing how people – not just Chinese – try to change to fit in, and how that only messes up your life.  The Monkey King, who is happy with his subjects on Flower-Fruit Mountain, returns from being insulted at the Heavenly Dinner Party and orders his subjects to wear shoes.  He suddenly notices the smell of monkey fur in his kingdom.  He masters the discipline of shape-shifting and changes his form so that he is closer to a man.  When he is trapped under the pile of rock, it is pointed out to him how easy it would be to escape, but he has to let go of his insecurities.

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Jin Wang’s story is the heart of the book, and here Yang does an excellent job showing how the Chinese try and sometimes fail to fit into American society.  Jin Wang tries to “Americanize,” and when Wei-Chen shows up speaking Chinese, Jin tells him, “You’re in America.  Speak English.”  Before Wei-Chen arrives, the only other Asian in the class is a Japanese girl, and once the rumors start that the two had been arranged to be married, he avoids her.  When Wei-Chen wants to be friends, Jin tells him he has friends, even though he doesn’t.  Jin is so desperate to escape the stereotype of being Asian that he rejects people who are kind to him simply because they are Asian.  When he gets a crush on Amelia, he styles his hair like a blond white boy at school, because he thinks she will have nothing to do with him if he is too “Asian.”  Wei-Chen is the polar opposite of Jin – he speaks poor English, dates Suzy Nakamura, the Japanese girl, boldly talks to Amelia on Jin’s behalf, and revels in both his Chinese heritage and his adopted American culture.  Jin can’t leave his Chinese past behind, even as he appears to be the more “Americanized” of the two.  When Greg, the blond white boy, tells him that he should probably stop dating Amelia because she needs to start thinking about who she’s hanging out with, Jin realizes that he can’t escape his heritage, as much as he wants to.  This leads him to make a decision with unusual consequences, which is where the three stories intersect in a very weird but fascinating way.  The final scene, with Jin and Wei-Chen both accepting their dual Chinese/American culture, is wonderfully subtle and is a nice coda to what Yang has been writing about throughout the book.

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This is a marvelous book that works very well in the comic book form, where we are accustomed to accepting fantastical monkeys and strange intersections of fate.  It’s grounded in situations that are universally familiar – the desire to fit in, to stay under the radar, to keep from embarrassment – which is why it’s not just a book about being Chinese, although it’s primarily concerned with that situation.  This is a very good book, and I highly recommend it.

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Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Niko Henrichon, published by DC/Vertigo, cost to the consumer: $19.99.

There’s a scene early in Pride of Baghdad that almost turned me completely off the book: a lion gets gang-raped.  By other lions.  Now, I’m no lion expert, but I bet Brian Vaughan isn’t either, and I wonder if lions actually rape other lions.  It has become such a cliché in comics, and it’s very weird to see it here, especially from such a good writer as Vaughan, and it’s somewhat disappointing.

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The lion in question, Safa, is one of the four lions at the Baghdad Zoo who are the stars of this very good graphic novel.  In fact, beside the lion-raping scene, this is a wonderful book.  On the first few pages, Zill, the male lion, sees American fighter jets flying over the city.  He and his pride – his old mate, Safa, his new mate, Noor, and his son, Ali – debate about whether it would be better to be free or remain in the zoo.  Noor is plotting an escape, and Safa thinks she is crazy for wanting to go back to the savannah.  It’s then that she flashes back to the gang-raping.  That’s why the wild is bad.  Not the ever-present threat of poachers.  Not drought.  Not starved hyenas getting uppity.  Gang-banging lions.  It’s just so bizarre!

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Vaughan never mentions the rape again, however, and very soon, the point is moot anyway, as the zoo is bombed and Safa makes enemies of the monkeys and is forced to leave the zoo with the other three lions.  This takes them on a trek through Baghdad to their destiny.

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This is, as I pointed out, a wonderful book.  Vaughan does a very nice job commenting on the war in Iraq without being terribly blatant about it.  In fact, you could make a case that he is for it or against it, depending on your reading and your own feelings.  Zill leads the group through a destroyed city, and they come across an aged turtle who complains about the humans and their obsessive desire for oil; tanks trundling through the forest; a dead human that they debate about eating; and a herd of horses standing around like a buffet.  They also end up in what is apparently Saddam’s palace, where they discover a chained lion who dies in front of them.  It’s interesting to see their reactions both to the dead human and the dead lion.  Zill thinks it’s okay to eat the human, but Safa, who originally wanted to stay in the zoo, reminds him that the “keepers” – as they call humans – were always kinds to them, and eating them is wrong.  Before Zill can take a bite, Noor discovers the horses.  When they enter the palace, Safa tries to explain away the dead lion by saying that even if keepers chained the lion, it wasn’t their keepers.  Noor tells her that those who would hold lions captives will always be tyrants, no matter how kind they appear.  Their debate is interrupted by another “pet” – a huge bear, who easily swats them around.  Before he can finish them, however, Zill arrives.

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The fight between bear and lion is the highlight of the book, as it is as brutal as you might expect.  In a book like this, laden with metaphors, one can see the bear and lion however you like, and the fact that Zill triumphs with some help can also be read however you like.  The fight comes near the end of the book, which is as moving and beautiful as anything we’ve seen in comics recently.  Vaughan has written a book that attempts to define what makes us free and how we can achieve it, and what it costs.  The lions gain freedom both early in the book and late in it.  Which freedom costs them more, and which is worth more?  It’s a powerful statement that manages to be extremely personal while embracing a universal truth as well.

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The art is magnificent too, as Henrichon evokes a war-torn city but manages to make it beautiful at the same time.  The lions are powerful and fierce, and Henrichon never shies away from the brutality of life as a lion.  It’s a gorgeous book and the ending, as well as being written nicely, is stunningly beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time.  It complements the story wonderfully and is at least as important to the power of the book as the writing.

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Pride of Baghdad is simply one of the best graphic novels of the year.  The rape scene notwithstanding, this is a book that will challenge you to think about what we are doing in Iraq and whether or not it’s worth it.  Vaughan doesn’t give us any easy answers, and he shows us that it’s possible to have multiple opinions about it.  It’s a difficult book, but a great one nonetheless.

And then there’s Bone.

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Bone, written and drawn by Jeff Smith, published by Cartoon Books, cost to the consumer: $39.95.

A month ago, when I took the comics blogaxy to task for not telling me how excellent Bone was, the comments were interesting.  David Akers said he couldn’t put his finger on why it was so good.  Lynxara wrote that it’s hard to describe.  moose n squirrel wrote that he usually goes with “Pogo meets Lord of the Rings,” but even that is inadequate.  The Dane made a good point that once you start talking about Bone, you want to talk about ALL of it, and nobody wants to ruin it for others.  All of these (and the other comments) make very good points, and now that I’ve read the whole thing, they make sense.  It’s very hard to talk about how good Bone is, because it’s such a coherent whole that if you start explaining the story, you will lead into the entire book and there be spoilers, and this is one book that deserves to be unspoiled for you when you sit down a read it, because it’s so much fun to discover what each page holds.

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I’ll try to convince you to buy it, however, without giving too much away.  Simply put, Bone is a masterpiece.  It’s the story of three creatures, Fone Bone (our hero), Phoney Bone (Phoncible P. Bone), and Smiley Bone.  The Bones (they’re cousins) have been run out of their home town, Boneville, and they end up in a strange valley where the people have their own problems.  They meet Thorn, a young girl for whom Fone Bone falls head over heels, her Gran’ma Ben, Lucius the innkeeper, Ted the Bug, and several other memorable characters.  Their arrival in the valley is important, as it seemingly spurs the evil denizens of the East, the Rat Creatures and their leader, the Lord of the Locusts, into action to reclaim the valley for their nefarious ends.  The Bones are quickly thrown into a war in which they often don’t know what’s going on, and they learn more and more about their friends and their enemies, and what they learn is not always pleasant, even the knowledge of their allies.

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This is an epic story, one that builds slowly and inexorably and always has something interesting on every page.  At first, it’s comedic – Phoney Bone is a smarmy con artist, always looking for a way to make money, while Smiley Bone often appears as the doofus of the group, and the Bones have adventures that can be categorized as, well, fun but apparently lacking in heft.  As the story progresses, however, the tone becomes a bit darker, even though Smith never allows the story to lose its charm and even its sense of humor.  We get a lot of surprises, such as who Thorn and Gran’ma Ben really are (which is foreshadowed well enough that we can guess it) and why the bad guys are so keen on getting their hands on Phoney Bone (for which there are also clues, but which is still a surprise).  As the war begins and progresses, the action picks up and stakes get higher, but there is still room for comic relief, such as the Bones’ escape from Roque Ja and the constant appearances of the two Rat Creatures who are always arguing about quiche.  Smith knows that he is dealing with heavy topics and grim death, so he remembers that despite this, Bone is a story about three friends who just want to get home.  We worry about the Bones even though we’re fairly certain nothing will happen to them, which is the mark of a good storyteller.

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Smith has done a fine job with creating believable characters, as well, so even though we’re thrust into a grand war involving lost kingdoms, Rat Creatures, locusts, dragons, and mountain lions, we never lose track of the relationships between the characters, what they mean to each other, and how they react to situations.  One of the best things about Bone is that the characters are so well done that when they do something, we believe that’s what they would do.  There are no missteps where we say, “That character just wouldn’t do that.”  A perfect example of this is Phoney Bone.  He is a con man, who is upset when he realizes the villagers in the valley don’t use cash but instead barter for what they need.  Throughout the book he is motivated by two things: his lust for money and his desire to get back to Boneville.  Even in the midst of war, he does not suddenly become noble, but continues to look out for opportunities to make money.  Late in the book, he is offered a chance to go home, but he doesn’t take it – again, not because he’s noble, but because he doesn’t want to leave his cousins behind.  Even this is not motivated by some inner nobility – one of the values Phoney has is a love of family, but he also enjoys verbally abusing Smiley and Fone, so if he leaves them, who will he yell at?  The same character traits can be seen in the first two Rat Creatures Fone Bone meets in the valley.  They remain vile Rat Creatures (“stupid, stupid rat creatures,” to use the phrase that often comes up when they are involved), and although they do their duty and try to kill the humans and the Bones, they’re still charming in a seedy way, especially when the one talks about making quiches out of everything they catch, something that annoys his partner to no end.  They’re the goofy yet lovable gay Rat Creature couple, always arguing about incidental things but always sticking by the other.

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I don’t want to say more about the book because, as has been pointed out, it’s tough to do without giving too much away.  I will say that Bone is the kind of book that anybody who can read will enjoy.  Younger kids can read it, despite its somewhat heavy ending, because it teaches a lot of good values about friendship, love, loyalty, and standing up for what you believe in.  It also has a grand feel to it, with lots of adventure and action, so it’s never boring.  It features some spooky moments, some creepy moments, and plenty of heart-wrenching moments, but Smith never lets it get too mushy or pathetic.  Adults can enjoy it for all those reasons as well, but also because, like moose pointed out, it has a Tolkien-esque scope to it, and adults can enjoy the various connections Smith makes between the characters and their actions, and can appreciate perhaps more than kids why the characters act the way they do.  Non-comics readers can enjoy this because it’s a complete story, it’s entertaining, and the panel breakdown is relatively simplistic (as I’ve mentioned, it takes some work for some people to read comics, but this is easy).  Smith’s art, which I’ve avoided mentioning, has a nice, naturalistic feel to it (except for the Bones, who incongruously remain simplistically rendered – I’m sure I could discuss the art decisions a lot more, but I won’t) that won’t scare anyone who’s not used to “comic book art” off.  It’s the kind of book I would have no problem reading to a kid as young as 7 or 8, but unlike a lot of “all-ages” books (yes, I’m looking at you, Owly), this is a joy to read no matter how old you are.  Do you like adventure, action, good characterization, excellent art, and morals that aren’t pushed on you but allow you discover them?  Then you’ll like Bone.

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Bone, unfortunately, points out one of the idiocies of comic book publishing.  It took Smith 13 years to finish this sucker.  Part of it was self-published, part of it was from Image – am I missing anything?  If I had bought this in the floppy form, I would have been a bit peeved that it took so long.  On the one hand, the gradual critical word-of-mouth that the book garnered throughout its long publishing career probably meant publishers were more willing to bring this monster edition out, plus the various hardcover color books that tell the story (you can buy the color ones, and I’d like to see one, but this book doesn’t necessarily need color – the black-and-white is full of details and subtleties), and that’s a good thing.  Jeff Smith can probably live off this sucker for the rest of his life.  However, I wonder if it might have been different if a publisher had just said, “Here’s a bunch of money – go write.”  He could have done this entire 1300-page epic in five years or so, and it could have been sold as one book.  Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference.  It’s interesting, though, that although it has gotten critical acclaim over the years, it’s never been a big seller or even that big a part of the zeitgeist, and it deserves to be.  My hope is that now that it’s complete and available in a few different formats, it will be recognized as not only a comics classic but a literary one as well.  There’s no reason why anyone who loves literature shouldn’t enjoy Bone.

But that’s just my rant.  If you are a fan of comics, you should read Bone.  There’s no excuse not to.  At 40 dollars for 1300+ pages (probably cheaper at Amazon or another online bookseller), it’s a fantastic value, and it’s a brilliant book to boot.  I guess you’re no longer on notice, comics blogaxy!

I apologize for the length of this post.  Just when I start reviewing one or two of the big books I recently purchased, another Wednesday goes by and I get another one (I just got another one today – but that’ll have to wait).  I’ll try to be quicker and more concise with these, keeping it to only a few books.  But let’s review:

Kickback – Nice art, disappointing story.  Not worth the money.

Teenagers From Mars – Very good art, relatively fun story, but I’m probably not the target audience, as every character feels stereotypical and I guess I’m too old to think all adults suck.  Entertaining, but probably not worth it unless you’re a bit younger than I am.

Renfield – Moody and eerie, with very nice art, but a bit disappointing because we don’t get more into what makes Renfield tick.  However, a good purchase if you’re a Dracula fan.

Journey into Mohawk Country – As a historical document, it’s well done, and the art does a nice job with, unfortunately, a dreadfully dull story.  Not worth the purchase.

American Born Chinese – A very good story weaving three tales of prejudice and yearning to belong in a foreign culture.  Funny and real, despite the fantastical trappings.  Definitely worth a look.

Pride of Baghdad – Once you get past the rape, this is a beautiful story of what it means to be free and what you need to do to get freedom.  Definitely worth it.

Bone – A classic.  Go buy it now.  NOW!

I hope this has been helpful.  Any thoughts?

29 Comments

Heathen that I am, I’m waiting for Scholastic to finish publishing Bone in color before reading it.

http://www.scholastic.com/bone/books.htm

Rad. I was wondering if Pride of Bagdad would be worth my time and dime. Because the way life works these days, I’ve had to give up on floppies altogether and have, for the last year, only been purchasing trades or graphic novels (with a sneak purchase of a monthly here or there). And I can’t even purchase as many of these bound editions as I’d like. So word of mouth has become invaluable to me!

I saw PoB on the shelf in Borders the other night but it was shrink-wrapped so I couldn’t even give it a cursory glance. I put it down without buying simply because my purchasing dollar is more valuable these days. Thanks for reviewing it!

p.s., I’m glad you enjoyed Bone. Despite one or two things that I would have liked to have seen done “better” (better being more to my taste), I really do think the book is one of the most stellar offerings of the medium. Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about colour – the colouring job is really not anything too special, generally too flat in its mood, and doesn’t really compare that favourably to the B&W. At least so far as I can see.

I just read American Born Chinese, and it is one of the best graphic novels (and I think the term is justified here) I’ve ever read.

It’s one of the too-few that I could recommend to a non-comics reader (along with such diverse fare as Concrete, Kyle Baker’s works, Berlin, Blankets, Pedro & Me, and Persepolis). Funny how I can’t sem to put the “great” comics of our time into people’s hands. There’s such overwhelming cynicism, and such a depressed tone in the works of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, et al, that I can’t see them appealing to most people I know.

Don’t worry about the length of your post- you’re helping me figure out how to spend the last of my birthday money! Bone sounds good.

Seriously, please start resizing the images before uploading them to this site! As I type this, they are still loading in my browser and I’m on a decent-ish connection at work. I feel really sorry for dialup users.

Kevin – I know they take a while. We’re working on it, I promise! It’s my fault, because I’m not as smart as Cronin is and haven’t figured out a better way to load pictures.

See, I have seen reviews for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE all over the blogosphere (or the blogosphere I frequent anyway), and the reviews have been uniformly glowing. Deservedly so, of course, but a book that you might want to consider reviewing is FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel. I’ve yet to see many comics blogs tackle that one, and I’d be interested to know how the more mainstream readers would react to it. Great stuff. I liked it even better than ABC, actually, but then Bechdel has been a fave o’mine for years and years now, so I could be biased.

Also, someone is now trying to ban Bechdel’s book in Missouri somewhere along with Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS, so the controversy is on!

and now, yo entirely misses the point of the post:

what’s the [sic] after creator for? That’s how “creator” is spelled.

Pride of Baghdad is truly excellent, even with the lionrape. Since we’re already fictionalizing the mentality of lions, who’s to say that’s not how they experience things? Would a lion understand what a poacher is, or know enough about weather and seasons to give voice to a drought? Or would it, as a beast, relate everything to food, sleep and sex?

Welcome to the congregation of Bone, new convert!

Yo – I just find it humorous that we’re supposed to believe that there’s only one creator of V for Vendetta – I thought they would have said co-creator, since there was a writer, even if he makes proclamations from northern England about how he wants nothing to do with it anymore. I was just surprised it extended beyond the movie. Technically, Lloyd is the co-creator, no matter what Crazy Bearded Man says.

The reason I didn’t like the lionrape was because Vaughan goes out of his way to let us know these lions AREN’T stand-ins for humans, they’re actual lions. I just don’t know if rape exists in lion society. If it does, I guess I could forgive it, but does it?

Greg:
If you’re using XP, this PowerToy is very handy. It’ll resize a batch of images to the size you want with a right-click.

Mac?
Try Photodrop.

Now get me a whiskey.

To know that, we’d have to ascertain if lions can give consent.

From what I’ve read, it seems that a single lioness can be impregnated by a multiple of male cats within a single episode of fertility (and lions can mate upwards of thrity times per day). So it doesn’t seem difficult to imagine that a given lioness might feel, well, put upon on a particular day. Whether she would consider the activities to be rape, however, sits upon the idea of consent. I suppose that in an imaginary story in which lions have motivations beyond the merely primal, there might be such a thing as consent amongst animals, but in real life, I’m not sure any of us are equipped to answer that with how little we know of the psychology and communication of the species.

oh, duh, now I get it. The co-creator angle never even occured to me. Thanks!

I’d second the recommendation of Fun Home as well. It really is a terrific work filled with great characters and an all-too rare tragicomic balance (although right now we’re spoiled with Little Miss Sunshine, too). It probably got under the radar of msot people becuase it’s published by Houghton Mufflin, who has been nowhere a name of merit like Pantheon or First Second when it comes to comics.

And I was kinda looking forward to Pride of Baghdad. *sigh*

Down the list:

Kickback: Didn’t read. But I have trouble with stuff translated from French. You ever read any of Trondheim’s stuff, Greg? It’s great, but I have trouble with it ’cause of translation.

Teenagers From Mars: (“see, they’re not actually alien teenagers, they just live in a town called Mars, but the title is really a metaphor, because the adults think they’re aliens – it’s clever, get it?). ”

Ooooohhhhh yeah. In my defense I read this REAL fast ’cause the library was closing and I lost my card.

Heh. I was either gonna buy “American Born Chinese” OR “Journey Into Mohawk Country.” I think you made up my mind for me.

“Pride of Baghad” was good. And I can’t STAND Y or Deux Ex Machina. Not, y’know, Gilbert Hernandez good, but damned solid all the way through. But I’m a sucker even for un-funny funny animals list.

Bone: Good review. I’da had trouble working my head around a book that big. I actually bought the whole thing in floppies, although it was on issue 20 or so when I started. I don’t think I’ve ever bought twenty issues in a row of any other comic, let alone sixty. Great book.

Peter: I assume you mean you’re no longer looking forward to it because of the lionrape. Don’t let that mess up the book for you, because, as I mentioned, it’s early on and is never referred to again!

“The scene where the lion fights the bear…

I think I’ll be picking the book up based on that. This is what comics are about people.

beats the hell (heh) out of any fight scene in [i]Infinite Crisis[/i], that’s for sure…

In Teenagers from Mars Stan the comic book shop owner and Stan the Lawyer are the same guy. He was in on the whole thing and was just acting like he was a Lawyer.

Really, Jacob? Whoops, that’s my bad. I’ll have to go back and check that. Sorry for the mistake, even though it doesn’t change my mind.

Glad to see you finished Bone, Greg. It really is an excellent book, as I said in my comments in the “on notice” thread. I think the book is getting recognized as much as ever, now that Scholastic is publishing it. If there’s any justice in the universe, it will find its place on the list of must-reads for schoolkids, along with How to Eat Fried Worms, the Ramona books, Encyclopedia Brown, and all those other classics.

As for Teenagers From Mars, I had heard nothing but praise for it, and was planning to read it at some point. Now you’ve made me seriously reconsider. I’ll have to see if I want to get it after all. Hmmm.

Even though you didn’t like Kickback, from your description and the art samples you provided, I think it looks great and really want to get it now. Weird. I guess I just really like David Lloyd.

I liked Pride of Baghdad a lot, and thought the political allegory was very interesting. It definitely gave me a lot to think about, although much of my thoughts are about trying to figure out the many possible interpretations of the symbolism. However, I don’t know if I agree that the lions (and other animals) aren’t supposed to be stand-ins for humans. I think they are definitely supposed to be animals, but they are still symbolic. In fact, that might be one place where the symbolism broke down for me. I know I was distracted when one of the lions shouted “Animals!” when it was shocked by some savagery (I’m trying not to spoil anything here). Aren’t the lions and everyone they interact with animals? It would have made more sense to me to say “savages” (maybe “hyenas”?). Oh well, it was still a very good book, and the art was absolutely beautiful. I would still recommend it.

Oh yeah, and I was going to say about Bone, I haven’t read through the color versions, but I have flipped through them to see what it looks like, and while it does look nice, I think I prefer it in the original black and white. I don’t know if that’s just because it’s how I originally read it, or if I found the b&w art to be more evocative. But either way is great. It still has that awesome Jeff Smith art and story!

I think the rape scene in PoB effectively conveyed the power dominance struggles that persisted in the Iraqi region in the pre-Saddam days.. or am I just looking into it too much?

I suppose it really matter one buys into the theories of certain sociobiologists making rape out to be a natural biological feature of power and dominance display. this is prime Darwinian action for the strong to survive in periods of lesser socialization and civilization. rape as a literary tool goes traces back to Spenser and many of the Greek myths… at this point in the game, it’s as “cliche” as murder.

As far as the narrative goes I don’t know if the rape was necessary to the story but I think animals are capable of it. I saw some nature documentary where a Tasmanian Devil cub tried to rape it’s own mother.

I’m pretty sure the the Lion gang rape isn’t accurate though. I doubt several male Lions would share a “mate.”

Yes it’s almost 6 AM and I’m discussing Lion Gang Rape…

Still I bought the book and it’s a great read. Good pick Greg.

And yes Bone rocks the Casbah. Sorry for not mentioning it ;)

Grant from what I’ve read, male lions will indeed share a mate – though I don’t know if we’d call this gang rape or, er, sharing a mate?

apparently there’s evidence of male packs of bottlenosed doplhins using forced coercion methods.. and supposedly these are some of the smartest mammals on the planet. it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility, about as plausible as oh say…. lions creating land bridges to cross surfaces?

rape scenes are designed to make us uncomortable. in this aspect I’d say BKV has succeeded.

I’ve seen housecats have sex, and it looks a lot like a rape scene from a movie/tv show. I assume that lions might be the same way.

Hi Greg, I don’t want to pick on you, but your comments on the Pride of Baghdad “rape” scene are really got under my skin. After condemning Vaughan’s scenario, you write, “Now, I’m no lion expert, but I bet Brian Vaughan isn’t either.” That’s true, but he is a writer, and — though, in fairness, I should add that I’m no expert — I bet he takes what he does pretty seriously.

You “bet” that Vaughan has about an equivilent amount of knowledge of the subject of his work as you, a non-expert, do. But why not “assume” the opposite:
That a writer who spends weeks or months or years on an artistic endeavor, a writer who makes his living doing it, cares about doing it well? That you might not have the same knowledge of a subject he elected to write about, and you made the much easier decision to read about?

And look! Vaughan said in an interview, “I spent weeks reading about the region, studying the history of Iraq, learning everything I could about lions…” (http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=82394).

Now, does that mean his story about talking lions was or wasn’t true to real-life lion behavior? I don’t know (and neither do you). But my point is just this: Take a look at book reviews in The New York Times, or The New York Review of Books, or the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post or LA Times or Time or Newsweek or The New Yorker or whatever quality journalistic organ you want. Some reviews will be positive, some will be negative. But all will have a degree of respect for the author that’s missing from your review.

Give that a try, and you’ll be a better critic.

Cheers,
Ben

Ben – I hope you’re still coming back to check this, because I wanted to respond to you and attempt to defend myself (however lamely that might be). But I wanted to get in touch with Vaughan first, and that took a couple of days. He did get back to me, though, and said he wanted the work to stand on its own, so he didn’t discuss the research that went into it, which is fine. He also said he read the review a while back and thought it was fine. That doesn’t dismiss your concerns with it, I just wanted to point it out.

I will point out that I don’t do this for a living. I spent 20 dollars for Pride of Baghdad, and much like unruly fans at football games who act boorishly, that entitles me to speak about it however I want to. But that’s not a defense, I just wanted to point it out – if someone wants to pay me to do this and gives me free stuff, I will be much more careful. If you look at the reviews I do when people DO send me free stuff, I am much less likely to be so flip about it, even if I don’t like it. All the reviewers you mentioned above work for august companies who probably get inundated with goodies because the creators want their opinion. I’m just pointing that out.

As for the research aspect, I have seen many, many writers – good ones – who fail in minor aspects of their research. They get the “big stuff” but miss some of the smaller things, and that’s okay. The rape feels like something Vaughan wanted to use no matter what, so although I have no idea if lions do that sort of thing, it feels like something he would have put in even if he found evidence they don’t. I obviously haven’t done research, but I have watched a lot of nature shows, and I’ve never heard of it. I went back and changed a bit of the wording of my objection, because it was a bit too snarky, but my original objection remains: I find it very difficult to believe that real lions would act this way. And again, I could certainly be wrong.

The final point is that I don’t care if real lions act this way. Ultimately, my objection to the scene is not whether it COULD happen because that’s what lions do, but rather, whether the scene SHOULD be included. I felt it was totally unnecessary for the story, especially because the point becomes moot in a few pages when the zoo is destroyed. Safa whines a bit about being in the “outside” world, but even her fears don’t really come up that much. Rape is such a loaded thing, even in the lion world, that this scene felt wrong when looked at in the context of the larger book. Since it’s a book about what freedom means, not what rape means (although rape is a way to take away someone’s freedom, I know), I thought Safa’s fears of the outside world could stem from something more directly related to Man and what he had done to her, not a few other lions.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As I mentioned to Vaughan, I am relatively new at this, and I’m feeling my way. I try not to be so obnoxious, but occasionally it slips through. If you read a lot of my stuff, I hope you’ll see it’s kind of rare that I get snotty about the creator instead of the actual work. It happens, but I’m trying to rein it in.

I’m waaaaay late to this, but I only just yesterday read Pride of Baghdad. Doubt anyone will ever even read this, but hey I feel compelled to add something.

I respectfully disagree about whether the rape scene felt wrong or not (well obviously, it was rape, so it felt wrong in that sense, but you get my meaning), but you’re certainly entitled to your opinion. However, you really lose me here:

“I thought Safa’s fears of the outside world could stem from something more directly related to Man and what he had done to her, not a few other lions.”

It’s not Safa’s fears of the outside world, it’s Safa’s fear of freedom itself. Men being the cause of the fear doesn’t have nearly the impact of other lions, because… given freedom, they’re capable of doing terrible things to each other.

Now, if you want to argue that it should’ve been a terrible thing of a non-sexual nature, that’s cool. But I definitely think it has to be another lion that leads to Safa’s fear. I just think that’s more appropriate to the questions raised in the book.

That’s a good point. Now I’ll have to go re-read the darned thing …

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