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!

Where The Boys Are

House of Women by Sophie Goldstein. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781683960515. 200p.

Four women, Sarai, Kizzy, Riva, and Aphra, devoted servants of the Empire, arrive on a frontier world to start educating the natives. They meet Jael Dean, employee of Grendel, Inc, who reports on the minerals and plants for his company while fornicating with and drawing the local women to pass the time. His behavior is a bit shocking, as are the aliens, but not all of the women are as prim and proper as they’re supposed to be. Then there’s trouble as the nature of the male half of the alien species becomes apparent, as well as the desire of (at least one) of the women for Jael’s affections.

Sophie Goldstein has a beautiful way of drawing alien landscapes in her graphic novels. The shapes of her characters and buildings and even the flora look pleasant and friendly because of the curves she draws. It makes the danger, when it appears, much more startling. My favorite part of this graphic novel is when the shit hits the fan — there are huge brush strokes (some over word balloons) to express loud, unintelligible alien screaming. (The women can’t hear themselves until they move away.)

If you haven’t picked it up, her other science fiction graphic novel, The Oven, is also worth reading. (Full disclosure: Sophie drew Poopy Claws, which I wrote. And I’m a huge fan of all of Sophie’s work.)

Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Aliens: Defiance Volume 1 by Brian Wood with art by Tristan Jones, Riccardo Burchielli, and Tony Brescini. Dark Horse, 2017. 9781506701264. Contains Aliens: Defiance #1 – #6 plus a short from 2016’s Free Comic Book Day.

PFC Zula Hendricks of the Colonial Marines boards a derelict ship in lunar space with a squad of heavily armed, humanoid security drones. (She’s been going through a course of reconstructive surgeries and physical therapy on the moon, and the rough ride is anything but soothing.) The ship’s crew is missing and, well, you know — the drones are soon fighting the long-headed, double-jawed aliens you’ve seen in the movies or just the trailers. After her suit’s helmet is cracked, one of the drones throws her into a stasis pod. She wakes up 27 days later: her legs barely work, the ship has been sterilized, and it’s left our solar system. One of the drones has gone rogue, is actively disobeying orders from its corporate masters, and has set them on a course to find more aliens. It also seems to be in charge, but since it’s not doing what it’s supposed to, that won’t last.

I know it sounds a lot like the original Alien movie, and that’s on purpose. Wood did the same thing with his run of Star Wars back when Dark Horse still had the license — he’s great at writing stories in existing universes that are well plotted, pleasing to longterm fans, and that stand alone. (His creator-owned comics series are great, too.) Hendricks is struggling to appear stronger than she is while fighting the xenomorphs, and she’s not the only strong woman in the story. The rebellious synthetic soldier’s idea of doing what’s right clearly doesn’t jibe with Hendricks’ (though she doesn’t quite know that). The book ends with a great setup for the second volume, which is also a great read.

The Neverending Substitution

The Infinite Vacation by Nick Spencer and Christian Ward. Image / Shadowline, 2013. 9781607067214. Contains Infinite Vacation #1 – #5. Publisher’s Rating: M / Mature.

The multiverse if full of yous living lives of endless possibility. Infinite Vacation makes it possible to trade places with other (better?) version of yourself in the multiverse (for a price). Mark averages 9.7 life-changes per day, but he never ends up in a life where he wants to stay. There is a small group of folks who don’t jump to new realities (Deadenders). Shortly after Mark tries to hit on one, three versions of himself break into his house: a redneck, a nudist, and a hacker. Someone is killing Marks across the multiverse, and these three survived the attempts on their lives. So they hide this Mark the only place no one will ever look, with the Deadenders. (This does not work out.)

It’s all a little crazy, and Ward’s art makes the weirdness sing. My favorite bits are the adverts, which feature photo comics of smarmy marketing people explaining infinite vacations. The worst parts feature psycho cannibal Mark, who is on the trail of our hero (main Mark?), who likes to not only kill and eat different versions of himself but do much worse. (You may want to skip a few pages in the middle of the book. There’s some gruesome, sick stuff that didn’t seem entirely necessary, but it’s pretty contained, and the rest of the book made it worth it. I think. But then I may just be scarred for life.)