I know what I read last summer

In the air and on the ground in South Korea and Vietnam I made it through three book books in a month. That’s a lot for me. My secret: I read slowly. Must be why I like graphic novels so much.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pocket Books, 2013. 9781501168918. 576pp.

A personal recommendation by the owner of Seattle’s BLMF bookstore who said something like, “This got me reading spy fiction again.” This is indeed a great book that doesn’t center on the character in the movie trailer seducing everyone after going to sex/assassination school (though Dominika Egorova does to to that school). The book starts with a young CIA operative in Moscow (Nathaniel Nash) nearly getting caught as he goes out to meet a high level Russian double agent, then alternates telling the stories of Nash and Egorova as it brings each into the other’s orbit. The less said about the plot the better, but the characters are scary brilliant at every turn, and the situations they face will have your heart pounding.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. July, 2018. 9780062699220. 368pp.

Chambers is writing the most upbeat, character centered science fiction that I’ve read. Plot seems secondary to people in an absolutely brilliant way in the Wayfarer series, which started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (You don’t need to have read it first, but there are some references to it in this one.)

This book revolves around life in the Exodan Fleet, the ships in which humanity left the Earth behind centuries ago as it set out for the stars. To members of a Galactic Federation, the Exodans’ way of life and level of technology are very backward, though to some their communal way of life is fascinating. The story is told from several points of view — young people who want to head planetside as soon as they’re able, a young man who grew up on the ground but has come to the fleet to try their way of life, an archivist in the fleet, a person who prepares bodies for recycling and handles funerary rites, and an alien who has come to study and report on Exodan society. The insects they eat sound delicious, and I’d go visit in a moment if this was a real place — not many books make me smile as often and unexpectedly as Chambers’ do.

The Crippler: Cage Fighting and My Life on the Edge by Chris Leben and Daniel J. Patinkin. Skyhorse, 2017. 9781510727731. 296pp.

I was a huge fan of Leben’s bloody slugfests in the UFC — he was tough and often seemed to keep fighting on pure heart. Reading about how tough his early life was and how he abused his body before and during his time as a pro fighter was a bit horrifying, but about halfway through the book I checked his Facebook page and saw photos of a smiling Leben in Hawaii with his family, and that pulled me through.
The only other MMA bio that I’ve read is strategist/fighter Georges St-Pierre’s The Way of the Fight, whose “this is how I became who I am” book stands in stark contrast to Leben’s “I can’t believe I made it through this” stories. Maybe the contrast means they should be read together?

The Starlost

Lost Stars Volume 1 (Star Wars) by Yusaku Komiyama, based on an original story by Claudia Gray. Yen Press, 2018. 9781975326531. 256pp.

A Japanese manga adaptation of a Star Wars novel originally written in English, translated back into English. Strange thought? Yeah. Worth reading? Totally.

Thane and Ciena are friends who grew up on the same backward planet with the same dream: attend the Imperial Academy. At the academy they were on the verge of becoming more than friends, but were driven apart. Now Thane flies an X-wing for the Rebellion, and Ciena is rising in the Imperial ranks. How’d all this happen? It’s not quite clear by the end of this, the first volume of the story, which takes place in the background of the original Star Wars trilogy (the good one, the original original, not the three movies you’re trying to forget).

When I talk about comics at library staff days and conferences, I meet a lot of folks who never read manga. I often recommend they try the original Star Wars manga that Dark Horse published back in the 90s because it’s easier to relate to the manga art style when the story is already familiar. But since those are long out of print, this is going to become my go-to recommendation for such folks. The focus lines make X-wings soar and help the AT-ATs on Hoth look extra intimidating. The layouts make for some amazing pacing. And everyone has such great hair! It’s kind of a relief. (I mean, have you watched the original trilogy lately? Why did no one in that far far galaxy ever invent hair care products?)

My Little Browns Fan

Jeff Steinberg: Champion of Earth by by Joshua Hale Fialkov (Author), Tony Fleecs  (Illustrator), Luigi Anderson (Illustrator). One Press, 2017. 9781620104316. 176 pp.
Gene: Fialkov wrote The Life After — the book that takes place in Heaven, but it’s kind of virtual reality. I thought you liked it?
Sarah: I don’t remember it.
G: Well he’s written a bunch of stuff. Tony Fleecs used to draw My Little Pony, and David Luigi Anderson, the colorist, this is from his bio: “Luigi ran away to the heathen metropolis of Atlanta when he heard there was a way to get paid coloring inside the lines for a living. Upon his magical quest to find the cushiest job in the world he met a strange man with a large red beard who spoke to him of a comic book that featured a guy chosen to save the universe because he took a really tremendous dump.”
S: Ha!
G: That’s the pitch.
It opens up, there’s a loser, Jeff Steinberg. There’s some kind of bet that involves him, there’s a pool. We don’t know what it is. He lives with two people. He works at a video store (still). Everyone is waiting for this thing to happen. He goes to work. Then it’s time and he runs home.  He runs into the bathroom which has a sign on it: Reserved Parking Browns Fans Only.
Close on Steinberg: “Alright, asshole, lets do this.”
While he’s in there, aliens invade. Earth is going to be judged by the Intergalactic Council on Planetary Relations. If we pass we enter the brotherhood of planets, if we fail, we all die. And the aliens have a champion picker, a program that runs on WindowsME. Jeff is still in the bathroom. And then the aliens choose our champion based on the most powerful force in the universe, willpower. “Not unlike your excellent Green Lantern movie featuring Ryan Reynolds.”  From all the people all over the world it picks the person with the most willpower who happens to be Jeff, because he’s trying to force out a really difficult poo. He ends up on every TV.  (A flashback then shows why it took him 18 days, 16 hours, and 14 minutes and 30 second to have a bowel movement.)
S: Oh no! (laughing, groaning)
G: And look!
(cue gasping)
And then he’s transported to an alien ship without his pants on.
“That guy with the tiny dick has doomed us all!”
His terrible girlfriend is having an affair. A hot alien is going to teach him how to fight using a giant robot. And there’s a funny Barak Obama cameo.  This one has it all. It’s an adult book teens will love.

Slapped by Adam Smith

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2017. 9780763687892.

After watching humans for decades, the aliens have landed. The Earth is now part of the Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance, trading the energy being harvested by the vuuv for advanced technology to solve the world’s problems. But the technology went to Earth’s big corporations, so you can only get it if you can afford it. Earth currencies are worth almost nothing in vuuv money, so only the privileged few  can have their diseases cured and live in beautiful floating cities.

Adam’s family is broke. His mom’s old job is done by a vuuv computer program and she’s spending every day looking for work. Even a job at a soup kiosk at the mall has an applicant line around the block, so they have to rent part of their house out to another family. Adam falls for the family’s daughter, Chloe, and they decide to make money from the vuuv by becoming stars in a 1950s-style dating reality show. They strap on sensors and look at sunsets together while the vuuv watch. (The vuuv don’t reproduce the same way humans do so it all seems exotic.) But the love and the money don’t last.

This book is not subtle: it’s about colonization and economic exploitation. The ideas in it would only be new and mind-blowing to young people. But the family’s financial hardships and indignities pile up gradually, building a claustrophobic feeling as the family loses the hope of making their own way out of poverty even as Adam refuses to compromise himself.

Dinosaur vs Robot

There’s nothing better than checking in on graphic novel series I loved, finding out I’m 6 books behind, and realizing they’re all excellent. This isn’t an experience I’ve ever had before, but I just checked out a stack of Atomic Robo books at the Seattle Public Library. Here are the two I read last night.

Atomic Robo Volume 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2013.  9780986898525. Contains issues #1 – #5 of the series.

A post-WWII pirate adventure set in the South Pacific! Starring a group of jet packing, sky ship flying badasses keeping the world safe! (Plus, of course, that Tesla-invented, atomic-powered adventuring robot we all love.) There are misguided villains, amazing rescues, and a few spectacular dogfights. It’s all totally fun.

And (really cool) all of the She-Devils are based on women working in comics who Clevinger and Wegener have met: Lee Black, Yuko Ota, Lauren Pettapiece, Lindsay Small-Butera, Elizabeth Robbins, Veronica Fish, Sara Richard, and Bridgit Scheide.

Atomic Robo Volume 8: The Savage Sword of Dr. Dinosaur by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Red 5 Comics, 2014. 9780986898563. Contains #1 – #5 of the series, plus the Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day 2013 story.

This one starts on Tesladyne Island in 2013. Atomic Robo’s popularity is at an all time low, so when cryptids are sighted in Venezuela, he leads the mission, which is suspiciously close to the heart of a base for the secret Nazi space program. Back at home, there’s some trouble when a nuclear weapon is delivered to Tesladyne. And what Atomic Robo and his team find underground in Venzuela has something to do with that, too — but it’s more about a deranged dinosaur “genius” with Marty Feldman eyes, silicate life forms, and maybe the Hollow Earth theory. The dino has an insane plot to wipe mankind from existence, which is a great excuse for adventure (and a lot of jokes). Good stuff.

I’d tell you how it ends, but it seems like a bit of a spoiler. It’s kind of a cliffhanger that leads right into the next book (which I’m reading tonight).

Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.

Weird drugs for movie watching

Anti-Gone by connor willumsen. Koyama Press, 2017. 9781927668511.

The striking thing about this book is the paper most of it is printed on, a plastic-y, smooth paper that’s a bit more translucent than average, a modern version of onionskin tracing paper. It just feels good in your hand. And it makes or maybe helps the lines of much of willumsen’s art (at least when the background isn’t grey) look a little undefined, as if they were drawn in a soft pencil. The effect is mesmerizing, especially on pages with lots of white space.

The story, well, it’s weird. A man and a woman in a sailboat visit a deserted island. When they leave they’re approached by a little cartoony guy on a waterbike (his look recalls the black spy, and is different from other characters) who tries to sell the man some DVDs and gives the couple some movie tickets. Then they visit a city that’s mostly underwater to see a movie. The woman becomes attached to a cartoony alligator/lizard that she adopts as a pet. She and her boyfriend see a movie.

Strangenesses in the book: When they try to have sex on the beach, a little frog (and other animals) totally watch. A person tries to sell them drugs to make their movie experience better, including one that makes the man forget he’s seen a film before, and another that makes the woman feel like she’s having a near-death experience. The riot on the boardwalk outside the theater. The movie they watch, The Readers. The ending.

It’s a bit of a WTF book, but it’s totally compelling somehow, both to your eyes and your fingers. Feel that paper!