Before I Leave for Laundry Day

I moderated a panel on diversity at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con last month (my strategy: stay quiet and out of the way), and I wanted to check out the work of the writers and artists on the panel, so I put these on hold at my local library.

Before I Leave by Jessixa Bagley. 9781626720404. Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

This is a sad little book (with an uplifting ending, don’t worry) about Zelda, a hedgehog whose family is moving, and who is going to miss her best friend, an aardvark named Aaron. There are great moments, like when Aaron tries to fit himself in Zelda’s suitcase, and when he’s sticking his tongue waaaaaaaay out at Zelda for the last time. The drawings have a very hand-done quality and have both amazing textures and expressive characters — the latter is especially good because there are so few words. My favorite thing about the book is the way the characters’ names have to be discovered in the pictures — they’re never mentioned in the text.

Laundry Day by Jessixa Bagley. 9781626723177. Roaring Brook Press, 2017.

This book features Tic and Tac, bored badger siblings whose mother gets them to help hanging up laundry. When she leaves them to finish the chore, they have a great time — so good, in fact, that they don’t want to stop hanging things on the clothesline when they run out of freshly washed clothes. (Spoiler: they pretty much empty the house.)

The drawings in this book have the same hand-colored feel, but they look more crisp. Possibly because the black lines here were inked while in the other book they were penciled? That’s my best guess. They’re just as brilliant, and I think a comparison of the two books would give young artists something to think about.

Neither On the American Continent nor States: Discuss

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA by Doug Mack. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 9780393247602.

While sorting laundry quarters to see which should go in his wife’s state quarters collection, Mack noticed an extra five off to the side for the US territories: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. He realized he knew almost nothing about these parts of the US, despite being both a travel writer and having a degree in American studies. He set out to visit them. He imagined white picket fences, baseball, and banana trees: a tropical all-America. Instead, he found the world’s largest K-Mart, a park filled with erotic statues, a machine-gun shooting range for Japanese tourists, and huge tropical national parks.

Mack is a great guide — he’s funny, well-informed, curious, and has enough Minnesotan friendliness that he ends up being taken in and shown around by people he’s just met. His firsthand observations are interspersed with history and politics. These places became part of America during its “Imperial Moment,” an odd span of time when the US had aspirations to become an empire. There were a series of Supreme Court cases that established that the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag. There are strange side-effects of not living within a state, like not having votes in the Electoral College (assuming the locals are allowed to vote in US elections, which in Samoa they aren’t). The details of their truly bizarre legal and political landscapes are jaw-dropping: not just the shockingly un-American laws (early Naval governors of Guam forbade speaking the native Chamorro language in public), but the laundry list of ways the territories are treated poorly or just plain forgotten that causes high rates of poverty and crime, and provides little to address these problems. I hope this book starts discussions about how we treat these parts of our country.

I kept telling people about things I learned as I was reading: the territories have the higher rates of joining the armed services than any state, the US Virgin Islands has the highest murder rate in the US, American Samoa prohibits non-Samoans from owning land (thus there are no resort hotels) while Guam allows non-Guamanians to lease land for 50 years, and the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag you fly indicates how you feel about independence vs statehood (a topic at every gathering). The story of how the US “colonized” one of the Mariana Islands by having Hawaiian high school boys stay there, fishing and gathering food, in shifts for four months at a time is unforgettable.  This book reminded me of the wonderful, engaging histories by Sarah Vowell. I hope Mack will be just as prolific.

Who Would You Pick As Your Literary Guide Through Hell?

The Life After, Volume 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo. Oni Press, 2015. 9781620103890.

Contains The Life After #1-5

Jude lives the same dull, unsatisfying day over and over while unseen operators (think Cabin in the Woods) manage every detail of his reality. When he decides to change his pattern and talk to the beautiful woman who drops her handkerchief on the bus, reality begins to change around him. He sees visions of violent tragedies involving the people he touches, from the distant past and the far future. The city seems to be pieced together from parts of other times, too. When someone vanishes in a beam of light, he starts looking for answers with his new friend, Ernest Hemingway. The forces behind the scenes scramble to stop them.

The Life After draws an unsettlingly legalistic afterlife that’s part-technological, part-spiritual, where everything’s about the rules, no matter how baffling or unfair, and which is run like an office building behind the scenes. As out-there as some of it seems (part-robot six-winged seraphim, a supreme being that looks like a fleshy teratoma and acts like a horndog), the rules of the various realms of punishment will all be familiar to graduates of Sunday school. A poignant two-page spread shows the sin that brought one of the souls there: stealing a sheep to feed a family, returning it out of guilt, leading to the death of a child from hunger. Jude, baffled (“Well, what the fuck was that?”), recounts his vision to Ernest and asks, “Which part is he here for?” Ernest: “I suppose the stealing part.” Elsewhere, they find caves packed with souls suffering because they “pre-dated the current system.”

There are many artists who process their religious upbringing through their art (I think of it as the “Whaaaaaat?” they were too afraid to shout as a kid). The Life After is one of the more fun explorations I’ve read.

My Little Motorcycle Talks To Me

MOTRO Volume One by Ulises Fariñas, Eric Freitas, and Ryan Hill. Oni Press, 2017. 9781620104088. 112pp. Contains MOTRO #1 – #4.

A young man with the strength of 10 named Motro lives in a post-apocalyptic world where vehicles speak in images, including the friend who shares his cave, a small wheeliebeast (motorcycle). Heading into a village to trade, he finds it under attack by gun-wielding marauders. He takes them on with his fists and some pepper-root. That’s just the first bit.

Later, working as a gravedigger to clear a battlefield, Motro finds a magical lens that reflects the future. What he and others see gets him adopted by the Captain of the United Brothers Army, and sets him at odds with the Captain’s biological son, Rockmaster. There are fights, reptoids, frog wizards, adventures, and battles as Motro grows into the leader/warrior he’s destined to become.

Everything is drawn in a pleasant style that really flows, story-wise — the characters all look a bit squat and startling compared to average, overly anatomical comics, the same way Frank Quitely’s art did the first time I saw it, in JLA: Earth 2. And it feels like a weird cross between Heat Vision and Jack, The Road Warrior, and One-Punch Man. (That make sense to anyone other than me?)

The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it. Continue reading “The Big Book of Surgery”

Marathon Men

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.

I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.

A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water  (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.

Shaken Not Stirred

Richard Stark’s Parker: The Martini Edition by Darwyn Cooke. IDW, 2011. 9781600109805. 360pp.

Contains the previously published adaptations of The Hunter and The Outfit, as well as the short “The Man with the Getaway Face,” and a new short, O. Henry-esque adaptation for this volume, “The Seventh”, and lots of extras.

I was having a crappy day yesterday, and somewhere in the back of my mind I must have remembered that this book was about a crook having a few bad days of his own.

The Hunter opens in 1962 as Parker is walking back into New York City. His wife shot him at the end of a recent heist, and then she took off with his partner on the job, Mal Resnick. They assumed Parker was dead. He tracks her down. Then he interrogates the man bringing her an envelope of cash to find out where that’s coming from. Then he tracks that guy down and keeps working his way up the chain of command. Resnick used the money from their heist to buy his way back into the mob. But the mob, instead of protecting Resnick, wants to see him deal with the problem he’s created: Parker.

I won’t tell you how it resolves, but I will say it’s the first in a long line of Parker novels, and at the end of The Hunter Parker needs a new face to hide from the mob (they prefer to be called The Outfit). That’s all covered in “The Man with the Getaway Face.” Then in The Outfit, after Parker survives getting fingered by an informant, he heads out to make peace with the mob by making things tough for them when he and his friends start hitting their operations. It’s beautiful. And all three of those books form one long story.

This is a deluxe, oversized collection of these previously published books. The duotone art looks fabulous on the thick, cream paper, and the larger pages really let the art sing. (Plus I didn’t need glasses to read the print.) There’s a conversation at the front of the book between Tom Spurgeon, crime writer Ed Brubaker, and Cooke, and a ton of extra art by Cooke that includes portraits of Parker, Westlake, and a portfolio of images inspired by the Parker films and others. There’s a drawing of Michael Caine in Get Carter (based on the excellent novel by Ted Lewis) that I just may have to cut out and frame.

These graphic novel adaptations have lead me to track down some of the original novels by Stark (a pen name of Donald Westlake). The original prose is spare, no nonsense, and tough, without the over-description and sentimentality that ruins too many modern mysteries for me. Parker isn’t ever nice or easy, and he doesn’t flinch from difficult and dangerous work, but he’s not stupid. No one could draw a 60s tough guy like Cooke, and the cinematic quality of his art makes this a better adaptation than any of the films — it enhances and clarifies the novels without changing them. (If, like me, you read this and want to see Parker on film, try Point Blank starring Lee Marvin or The Split starring Jim Brown (with Donald Sutherland, Gene Hackman, and Ernest Borgnine). Both Marvin and Brown feel like Parker. But don’t even bother with the latest film adaptation starring Jason Statham — it’s unforgivable even for a Statham fan like me.)