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Fourth of July Weekend with the Review Pile

I’m happy to be a U.S. citizen and everything that goes with it. I’m as patriotic as anyone, really. But nevertheless, I have to own up… I loathe the Fourth of July. Always have.

As holidays go, this one just never has really done anything for me. We have no family barbecue to attend– the traditional Fourth of July menu’s not a lot different from what we live on most of the time, to be honest. As for the family gathering-celebration part of the equation… well, frankly, the thought of being in the middle of a group of my insane, vindictive relatives as they light explosives is terrifying. So we generally pass on attending that outing.

Also, in our particular low-income neighborhood with things being what they are, whenever we hear a series of flat cracks, the question is always, “kids with fireworks or gang kids with gunfire?” I couldn’t tell you who finds these intermittent stuttering bangs more nervewracking– Julie, me, or the cat. (Thankfully, it was just the neighbor kids. Yesterday a group of them were determined to reduce the entrance to our apartment complex to a smoking crater judging from the fireworks debris still scattered there this morning.)

We could have called the cops, I suppose, but they’re ineffective and late to respond the other 364 days a year on this sort of thing, and anyway I would have felt like a huge hypocrite. I was young once– no, really, I was. I remember the lure of lighting things on fire just to watch them explode, and how we used to nag our folks to go to the local reservation where it was legal to buy the Good Stuff and not just crappy kid fireworks like sparklers.

So we just hunker down and wait it out, usually. It was as good a time as any to attack the giant review pile that’s been accumulating, and so that’s what I did. Despite the random explosions throughout the day I did manage to get a lot of reading done and some of this stuff is pretty cool. So here we go with a bunch of capsule reviews in an effort to clear the decks.

*

The Weirding Willows: What the Wild Things Are by Dave Elliott, Barnaby Bagenda, and Sami Basri.

The blurb:
When she was nine, Alice wandered into the Wild Woods and discovered a portal to another world. A world called Wonderland! Now a young woman, she has spent her childhood discovering just some of the wonders the dimensional nexus of the Weir has to offer – a place where the worlds of Earth, Wonderland, OZ, Neverland, Mars, Pellucidar and Elysium collide, and where anything, and anyone, could turn up when least expected! From Frankenstein’s Monster to a giant purple T-Rex, from talking rabbits to winged monkeys, from a kidnapped Mowgli to a werewolf with a secret, there’s never a quiet day in the Weir – and Alice and her friends are all that stand between these worlds, and those who would exploit them. In this first mysterious collection, Alice’s father, Doctor Moreau, strikes a deal with the Wicked Witch of the West, and Alice must uncover the truth behind the Witch’s request before her father commits to something he will regret!

Collects The Weirding Willows story from A1 #1-6 – with AN ALL-NEW CHAPTER, character designs, bonus content and commentary. Don’t miss this stunning first step into an amazing collision of worlds!

What I Thought: Honestly, I was a bit put off by the premise at first– after all, these lit’ry mashups are getting to be old hat what with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Fables and the television show Once Upon A Time. And the description makes it sound like this one is trying to outdo all the others. Certainly, Frankenstein meeting Peter Rabbit and then going off with Alice and Mowgli to fight the Wicked Witch of the West sounds a little over-the-top desperate.

But Elliott’s script makes it work, and blessedly, he doesn’t try to make it “darker” like, oh, every other modern fairy-tale mashup ever. There are moments of drama and pathos, yes, but mostly the fun of the thing is that the pace is hell-for-leather and there are lots of amusing asides. There is an actual story here as well, and you can see that Dave Elliott has rigorously extrapolated the rules of this particular fantasy universe he’s set up here. It’s wacky and overpopulated and gonzo, yeah, but it has interior logic and that’s what you have to have to sell a premise like this. Moreover, despite the huge cast, he makes sure to sketch the characters in enough that the story doesn’t depend on the reader recognizing them from various other books in order to work (which is something that always annoyed me about the later volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, among others.)

The art from Bagenda and Basri is of that not-quite-manga, Humberto-Ramos-bigfoot school that I normally don’t care for, but it fits the story here and, the same as happened with Mr. Elliott’s script, I was won over in the end. This was a book I expected not to enjoy at all and by the time I finished it I was ready for more.

The collection is one of those nice British album-style hardcovers with lots of extra material like character design sheets and prose pieces from Dave Elliott on how it all came about. It comes in at $19.99 for 108 pages but unlike some of these hardcover collections from Titan, I didn’t feel like that was short weight… and as usual, if you shop around a bit you probably could knock a few dollars off that. Recommended.

*

Borderline by Lawrence Block.

The blurb:
THE SCORCHING PULP NOVEL BY LAWRENCE BLOCK, AVAILABLE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 50 YEARS!

On the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, five lives are about to collide—with fatal results. You’ll meet

MARTY—the professional gambler who rolls the dice on a night with…

MEG—the bored divorcee who seeks excitement and finds…

LILY—the beautiful hitchhiker lured into a live sex show by…

CASSIE—the redhead with her own private agenda…

and WEAVER—the madman, the killer with a straight razor in his pocket, on the run from the police and determined to go down swinging!

This is MWA Grand Master Lawrence Block at his rawest and most visceral, a bloody, bawdy, brutal story of passion and punishment—and of lines that were never meant to be crossed.

What I Thought: Another strong entry from Hard Case Crime. There tend to be two kinds of Hard Case books– the adrenaline-fueled pulpy adventure from people like Mickey Spillane or Max Allan Collins, and the darker, nastier, psychological noir-type story from people like Joseph Koenig or Christa Faust.

This is definitely the latter. Borderline is a story with no real hero, just a cast of several damaged protagonists headed for an inevitable collision. It’s almost impossible to put down, but that didn’t necessarily make the reading experience enjoyable. It’s a harrowing narrative and definitely not for prudes– a great deal of the action takes place in a Juarez sex club and Block doesn’t pull any punches about the kind of people that go to such places, or those who operate them. What struck me, reading the book, was that despite nobody in the story really being terribly sympathetic, Block makes you care about them anyway; I was rooting for them to for God’s sake get it together and stop the self-destruction, all the while knowing that it wasn’t going to happen. Despite the many graphic sex scenes, it’s not an erotic read at all– mostly, you pity these people.

It’s not really a novel but rather a long novelette; the book is filled out with some of Block’s previously-unreprinted short pieces from the postwar pulps from the fifties.

I actually enjoyed those more than the main story; “Stag Party Girl” in particular was an interesting take on the private-eye whodunit. And I have always been curious about the late-forties, early-fifties crime pulps, kind of the last gasp of the industry before it morphed into the paperback-original spinner-rack boom. A lot of my favorite crime writers cut their teeth on those and I like seeing more of that stuff come back into print. In fact, if Hard Case Crime were to put together some sort of anthology of those short stories, I’d be all over that. In the meantime, I’ll say Borderline is recommended, but with the caveat that although it’s an amazingly-crafted piece of crime noir and well worth checking out… it’s not exactly fun.

*

Number One by Gary Scott Beatty and Aaron Warner.

The blurb:
Comic shop owner isn’t a job, it’s a CALLING, in this full color, done-in-one-issue story exploring 50 years of comic book history! Comics helped Steve through some tough times growing up and he turned his love of the medium into a comic shop business. But is it worth the toll it takes on his family? Written by Gary Scott Beatty, and featuring the return of Aaron “Adventures of Aaron” Warner to comic book illustration! 32 pages, full color, $3.25.

What I Thought: I don’t know exactly how I got on the radar to get a review copy of this book but I was delighted to see it. I have been pushing Gary Scott Beatty’s Indie Comics anthologies on my Cartooning grads ever since the book started coming out a couple of years ago. It’s a professional comic book series that is exactly the kind of thing we do in the class anthology books, it’s got that same anything-goes, genre-blind sensibility about it… but everything in Indie Comics is done with real professional polish. The girls, especially, love it and I rather like it myself. So when an email popped up out of nowhere from Gary Beatty asking if I was interested in seeing this new project, Number One, I lunged at it. I’d been meaning to plug Indie Comics in this space for a while anyway and this was the perfect excuse.

I expected to like Number One but I actually fell swooningly in love with it. If Indie Comics is something that I think is more for my students, Number One is aimed right at me, or at least it felt that way.

It’s the story of Steve, a young comics fan who eventually grows up to open his own comics shop.

The thing that hit me so hard about this, I guess, is that the fictional Steve is my age, more or less– certainly, he’s a Bronze Age Baby. So he experiences the comics industry pretty much exactly the same way as I did. I remember the head shops where I first found the undergrounds, as well as stuff like Star*Reach and Steranko’s MediaScene, with as much fondness as Steve does.

And certainly, though I’ve never actually risked a financial gamble like starting my own comics business, I assure you that carving out time to be any kind of writer or artist is just as difficult to explain to a spouse, and Steve’s effort to try and get his wife on board with the idea of becoming a comics retailer practically gave me trauma flashbacks to my failed first marriage.

(Decades later I would meet Julie at the Alki Beach studio and we would both realize that there really were people of the opposite sex out there who got it and understood it was worth the aggravation to work in the arts, but we were both late bloomers.)

I don’t want to spoil it but I’ll tell you that you should absolutely check it out if you have EVER had the argument about “why you still like that stuff.” Gary Beatty makes the case for comics fandom eloquently and with humor, and he doesn’t shy away from the down side of it, either.

I haven’t said much about the art but I completely adored that, too. A story like this one absolutely turns on character design and facial expressions and Aaron Warner just knocks it out of the park here. Great stuff.

You probably are going to have to ask your retailer to get it for you because it’s small-press and doesn’t get prime real estate in PREVIEWS. But it’s there, under Aazurn Publishing. Here’s the listing. I hope you’ll check it out. And you might give Indie Comics a look as well.

*

And that’s all I have, this time out. That puts a dent in the pile, anyway. I do have more to look at here, and even though it’s the afternoon of the 5th as I write this, there are still intermittent cracks and explosions going off outside. So I might as well grab the next stack of reading material and go back to the bedroom where Julie’s huddling with the cat. Looks like we’re making a weekend of it.

We’ll talk about that next lot of stuff… next week. See you then.

4 Comments

“Throughout my education I was NEVER offered a logical explanation of what SEPARATES illustration from fine art.”

Have ANY of us been given a logical frickin explanation for that? Rrrgh. I STILL get angry over it.

Number One looks good, and the Weirding Willows looks like a lot of fun.

“(…) a giant purple T-Rex (…)” Barney?

Rin: nope, I’ve never heard a LOGICAL explanation, either. I have, however, heard/read plenty of pretentious, snooty explanations, but they never really made any sense to me when I gave them some serious thought…

And Greg, you’ve just reminded me that one of my summer reading goals is to get through a few Hard Case Crime novels I’ve been meaning to get to, including one by Lawrence Block (although not Borderline).

Travis Pelkie

July 6, 2014 at 2:51 am

Obviously, the explanation is “because”. Duh. ;)

I was reminded of this a bit with Marco’s great Norman Rockwell homage on the Line this week, and being impressed that he approximated Rockwell as well as he did. It’s a lot harder to “do” Rockwell than it is to “do” Abstraction, or Pop, or other “elevated” art styles.

So the explanation is that rich sophisticates decide what is art and not silly “boo-shwah” people like us, thinking that comics illustration is the stuff. Fortunately (maybe…), the art world seems more willing to embrace comics these days. Sorta. Kinda.

I had another comment but it may have gotten lost in the ether.

the reason even steve in that book is never given a logicial explanation of what separates illustration from fine art is proably because its impossible to give one since one has their own opinion. and going to have to track down a copy of number one.

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