A Day In The Stacks (Review Pile Redux)
Picking up where we left off last time, going through the pile of great books I’ve acquired over the last few weeks…
Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose.
The blurb: Child’s journey over the wall changes her life forever when she meets the Porcelain Maker. Set within a world that’s a magical echo of our own, PORCELAIN is the story of Child, an urchin, who leaves behind the cold streets of a snowy city when she climbs the high wall into the Porcelain Maker’s garden.
What I Thought: I thought it was one of the best books I’ve seen this year. It blew me out of my chair with its exquisite craft; I gather that Porcelain is the first outing for Improper Books, and if the books that follow are as amazing as this one it’s going to be an imprint to watch. Both Benjamin Read’s script and Chris Wildgoose’s extraordinary artwork were just a delight.
Here is a full disclosure– Improper’s managing editor Matt Gibbs sent a PDF with an offer to mail an actual review copy of the book if I wanted one, and I sent a note back saying that I understood that small press runs on a shoestring, a PDF is fine, and he sent a note replying, no, really, it would be fine if I wanted a genuine book to look at.
Well, by that time, I’d had a chance to sit down and read the story, and so I shot another note back saying yes, actually, I would like a real book after all. In my defense, though, it wasn’t because I’m a salivating greedhead collector. It’s because I want to talk to the librarians and English department heads at the schools where I teach about getting this book into their curriculum. Because I know my students would love this, and because it’s that good.
So what’s it about? Pretty much what the blurb says. A street kid known only as “Child” climbs the wizard’s wall on a dare…
And is confronted by the owner of the estate… the Porcelain Maker, and his collection of almost-living porcelain automatons.
Child’s wit and daring charms the old guy into letting her stay on with him, and the bulk of the book is about their developing relationship. It’s utterly and completely endearing.
But it is a Gothic. There’s tragedy in the past that colors the present, a terrible secret the Porcelain Maker is hiding, and a certain part of the estate that Child must never, ever visit…
I won’t spoil it, though I daresay readers will not be terribly shocked at how things go. Porcelain is drawing pretty heavily on a classic tradition. There are echoes of Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, The Secret Garden… it’s not a daringly innovative plot or anything, but what sells it is the emotional reality that grounds everything. You absolutely believe in both the Porcelain Maker and Child, and a lot of that isn’t the script– it’s Wildgoose’s terrifically subtle art. The way he leads your eye with the panel layouts, and the way he renders faces and facial expressions, just left me awed.
Honestly, this is the kind of young-adult adventure thing I wish the bigger U.S. publishers were doing. I love superheroes as much as anyone and more than most but I miss the diversity of genre we used to have in American comic books. This is exactly the kind of book I’m talking about when I occasionally use this space to suggest that U.S. comics publishers are idiots for ignoring the huge young-adult reading audience that fuels book sales for everything from Harry Potter to Twilight to Tamora Pierce’s novels. There’s no reason in the world DC and Marvel couldn’t be doing stuff like this and I know for a fact that there are lots of really talented pros out there with stories as good as this they’re longing to tell. Paul Pope getting snooted on Kamandi is just the latest in a long line, believe me.
I hope Porcelain goes HUGE for Improper Books, because it deserves to. Thanks again to Mr. Gibbs for his generosity– I felt extra-guilty when I realized he was shipping from the U.K. and had to deal with Customs and international rates and so on, and I’m going to do my damnedest to see if we can’t sell some books for him at school. In the meantime, you all should check it out.
Tales of the Batman: Archie Goodwin by Archie Goodwin and various artists.
The blurb: Archie Goodwin was one of the most respected writers and editors in comics, starting with his long run on Warren Publishing’s series CREEPY and EERIE. At the end of the 1960s, he moved to Marvel Comics, where he wrote runs on IRON MAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. In the 1970s, Goodwin created the legendary MANHUNTER spy series with artist Walter Simonson, along with several memorable BATMAN stories, then took on newspaper comic strips including SECRET AGENT X-9 and STAR WARS. With Simonson, he adapted the hit movies ALIEN and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND into comics. He was the founding editor of Marvel’s EPIC line, including the magazine EPIC ILLUSTRATED. Now, for the first time, the Batman stories from legendary comics writer Archie Goodwin are all collected together in one volume. Included are stories from DETECTIVE COMICS #437, 438 and 440-443, DETECTIVE COMICS ANNUAL #3, SHOWCASE ’95 #11, BATMAN BLACK AND WHITE #1 and #4, BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #132-136, and BATMAN: NIGHT CRIES.
What I Thought: Well, regular readers probably already know what I thought– this is my desert island Batman book. If I was going to be stranded somewhere and could only take ONE Bat-collection, this would be it. It reprints almost all of what I’ve said is my favorite comic-book run of all time– the new stuff, anyway. That means classics like “Ghost Mountain Midnight,” one of my favorite art jobs from Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano, and “Judgement Day,” my first encounter with the art of Howard Chaykin…
And the famous Goodwin/Alex Toth story, “Death Flies the Haunted Sky,” and…sigh… the entirety of the Goodwin-Simonson MANHUNTER.
Now, that by itself would be enough for me. But since this book purports to include, I believe, every Goodwin-scripted Bat-story ever done, there are quite a few more. It has both the great stories Goodwin did for BATMAN BLACK AND WHITE… and the Eisner-winning “Heroes,” with Gary Gianni, is even more gorgeous than I remember.
And it also reprints Night Cries, the graphic novel Goodwin did with Scott Hampton.
Plus a couple of one-offs scattered in between all those. Some of them, like the Showcase ’95 reprint, were even new to me.
I’ve been mostly talking about the art, because Archie Goodwin was, perhaps, the most reliably good writer in comics. His stories were marvels of tight plotting and concise characterization…. he knew how to give you enough that you were never lost, but also how to pull back and let the art do the work. He understood mystery stories and how they work. Every editor that ever worked with him swore that Goodwin was a genius writer who was good at everything, and I agree. You can’t lose with any story in here.
There is one caveat with this book, though. It reprints the five-part “Siege” that Goodwin did with Marshall Rogers for Legends of the Dark Knight.
Now, that’s a great story, and DC kind of had to include it; you can’t publish “the complete Archie Goodwin Batman” and leave it out. But DC also included it in their hardcover Marshall Rogers Batman collection. Yeah, the one in this same series of hardcovers spotlighting particular creators. So if you get both books, you’re looking at over a hundred pages of overlap between the two.
For me it’s not a problem, because I’m a story guy– ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when I get a comic, it’s based on the writing. I appreciate well-done comics art, I certainly can tell good from bad, but it’s not my primary motivation for purchasing something. So I skipped the Rogers hardcover because I have those stories here in other collections. The Steve Englehart stuff is here in Strange Apparitions and Dark Detective…
…and the outliers, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” and “Ticket to Tragedy,” the two Batman collaborations Rogers did with Denny O’Neil, are included in the first edition of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and Batman in The Seventies, respectively.
All four of which I already had here. (I also had the original edition of Night Cries and the collected Manhunter, and those went to a couple of lucky summer school Cartooning students. The one that got Manhunter… actually, that’s an interesting school story I might write up here one of these days.)
…sorry, digressing. My point is just that my Marshall Rogers collected edition Bat-needs are covered, and for me the hardcover would be superfluous. I don’t really care about the Calculator serial Rogers did with Bob Rozakis, and that would be the only material I don’t have in a book here somewhere. But several of those other collections are out of print, and really pricey to pick up used. The Rogers book might be a better deal for you. I report, you decide.
But as far as I’m concerned, I’m just happy to have this one finally arrive. It wasn’t a review copy– but I did get it for half-price because I pre-ordered it a year ago. I included it today’s column mostly because it gave me an excuse to rave about it and post all that cool art.
The Scarlet Jaguar by Win Scott Eckert.
The blurb: When we last saw Patricia Wildman, daughter of Doc Wildman, the bronze champion of justice, six months had passed since the main events of The Evil in Pemberley House. She and her associate Parker, an ex-Scotland Yard Inspector, had set up Empire State Investigations at her Pemberley House estate—and she just received a mysterious phone call from her supposedly late father . . .
Several months later, Pat receives a visitor, a young girl named Emma Ponsonby, whose father, a British diplomat to a small Central American country, has been kidnapped by the Scarlet Jaguar. Pat, following in her father’s footsteps of righting wrongs and assisting those in need, agrees to help, but before they can set off on their quest the Scarlet Jaguar sends a gruesome warning.
Undeterred, the investigation takes Pat, Parker, and their young charge from Pemberley House in the Derbyshire countryside . . . To New York, where they battle agents of the Scarlet Jaguar and meet Pat’s old friend, the icy, pale-skinned beauty Helen Benson, who agrees to join them on their quest . . . To the small nation of Xibum, where the Scarlet Jaguar’s reign of uncanny assassinations threatens to expand to the rest of Central America—and beyond!
Now, it’s a race against time deep in the wilds of the Central American jungle, as Pat Wildman and her crew search for Emma’s father, and confront the Scarlet Jaguar’s weird power to eliminate his enemies from afar, marked only by a wisp of crimson smoke—smoke resembling nothing so much as the head of a blood-red screaming jaguar. But who—or what—is the Scarlet Jaguar? A power-mad dictator determined to reclaim power? A revolutionary movement bent on taking over the country, and the rest of Central America?
Or a front for something even more sinister . . .?
What I Thought: Full disclosure time again; I’ve corresponded off-and-on with the book’s author, Win Scott Eckert, for years, and consider him a friend. I’ve plugged his Wold Newton Universe site here any number of times. My rule about friends’ books is that if I like them, I’ll go ahead and give them a push in this space, and if I don’t, I will maintain a discreet silence.
As it happens, I liked this one a lot. This isn’t a review copy, either, but one I bought myself– but I bought it because it’s the sequel to a book Win did send me for review a few years back that I quite enjoyed, The Evil In Pemberley House, and I wanted to let people know that he’d finally done the follow-up book he’d talked to me about doing, back when I did the original column about it. Moreover, I wanted to let those people know that The Scarlet Jaguar is really good– I much prefer it to the first Patricia Wildman book, to be honest. Pemberley House was more of an erotic psychological thriller– which is an interesting thing to try with a character like Doc Savage’s daughter once, but it would be an odd thing to hang a series on. The Scarlet Jaguar is much more of a straight-out adventure, which I think is more appropriate for a tale about Doc Savage’s daughter as well as being more in Win’s wheelhouse as a writer. Certainly, it’s more in mine as a pulp fan. There’s lots of Wold Newton-related Easter Eggs for the alert reader, but they’re never obtrusive or annoying. If you like Doc Savage, you’ll like this.
The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell.
The blurb: The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a full-color illustrated look at Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech, the bloody battle of the Civil War that prompted it, and how they led to a defining point in the history of America. Most of us can recall “Four score and seven years ago,” but much of what we know about Abraham Lincoln’s oration has been forgotten after high school. Using Lincoln’s words as a keystone, and drawing from first-person accounts, The Gettysburg Address shows us the events through the eyes of those who lived through the events of the War, from soldiers to slaves. Writer Jonathan Hennessey and illustrator Aaron McConnell illuminate history with vibrant, detailed graphics and captions that deliver a fresh understanding of this vital speech.
What I Thought: This is another one that I want to take to school and lobby for inclusion in the curriculum, because it’s terrific. I was a little dubious when I got it in the mail, because the title suggests that it’s some sort of illustrated edition of the Gettysburg Address. Which isn’t terribly long. But I’m always on the prowl for interesting graphic novels that can work in the classroom, because I know that even the most reluctant young reader can be lured to look at a comic, even some dull historical thing about a Civil War speech.
This book is not that. Instead, it’s a wonderful graphic novel explaining the events that led to the Gettysburg Address and why that was such a turning point in the Civil War.
Not only did I think this would be a great classroom tool, but I enjoyed it myself, just as a book. The collaboration between writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell works really well here– especially considering the issues it’s presenting and the enormously complex task they’ve assigned themselves. The book is a seductively easy read and really hard to put down once you start.
I’m going to see if I can’t talk my bosses at the Seattle school district into picking up a few more, but in the meantime, I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone, comics fan or not.
World War Z – The Art of the Film by Titan Books.
The blurb: World War Z is the eagerly awaited film starring Brad Pitt. The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop a pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to annihilate humanity itself.
World War Z: The Art of the Film is the official illustrated companion to the movie, and features a wealth of stunning production art, design sketches and storyboards, alongside the full shooting script.
What I Thought: This is yet another of the beautiful coffee-table art books Titan seems to be doing a lot of lately… but this one has a twist. Unlike the others they’ve sent me like The Art of the Croods or whatever, this isn’t really a behind-the-scenes book at all, though there is a fair amount of production detail and so on. But the bulk of this book is the actual screenplay, profusely illustrated with photos and production drawings.
As such, it really works more like a graphic novel, which is perfect for me– I don’t really have any interest in seeing the movie the book is about, but I enjoyed reading this a great deal.
And the nice thing is, these tie-in books have such a short shelf life that you can already pick it up remaindered for cheap, if you’ve a mind to. Worth a look, especially if you like zombie-apocalypse stuff. For once it’s nice to be able to say a Titan art book is NOT just for hardcore fans of the property, because the production values on these are always first-rate and I often feel the exquisite presentation is wasted on something that’s not worth such lavish attention. It’s a pleasure to report that this particular book is entertaining just on its own merits.
And that’s the lot. Thanks to everyone who sent stuff; I really did try to get to everything people sent, and if I didn’t, it’s because some publishers sent more than one book and I was trying for equal time among the companies that sent books. (It’s also probably because the book in question got buried somewhere here in the office and I couldn’t find it.) But sooner or later– embarrassingly, it’s usually later– but I really do try to get to everyone.
See you next week.