Freaky Friday: Graphic novel round-up

Dead Boy Detectives, Vol. 1: Schoolboy Terrors by Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo, $9.99).

Glory: The Complete Saga by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell (Image Comics, $34.99).

Hey, Mister: Come Hell or High Water Pants by Pete Sickman-Garner (Top Shelf Productions, $14.95).

Indestructible, Vol.1: …Not So Much by Jeff Kline and Javi Garron (IDW Publishing, $14.99).

Nothing like starting the weekend off with some good graphic novels. 

First up, Dead Boy Detectives, a new series from Vertigo, offers a new twist on horror, a sort of Encyclopedia Brown meets Tales from the Crypt. This origin story involves Charles, who died in 1990, and Edwin, who died in 1910—both were murdered at the same posh British school (think Hogwarts for the homicidal). 

The two solve mysteries, but Charles has a habit of liking the ladies, which frustrates Edwin. Charles is quickly enamored of one living girl, and so they follow one Crystal Palace, daughter of a performance artist and a rock star, back to their old school—only to find that it harbors ghosts and other dark, scary things. Their efforts to get to the bottom of their own murders and save Crystal from becoming dead before her time are a worthy origin story. 

Glory: The Complete Saga, on the other hand, is less satisfying—and, in a collector’s edition, much more costly. This attempt at myth-making tells the story of a goddess-demon hybrid who is the product of two warring alien races. Her birth is meant to stop the terrible war her parents’ races are waging across interstellar space, and it accomplishes that. The problem arises when Glory—er, Gloriana Demeter is her full name—decides, in a fit of teenage rebellion, to leave her people and come to Earth, were she will be a superhero.

She does a lot of fighting, getting hurt and sewn up by another alien named Henry. She’s looked after by a human named Gloria and adored by would-be journalist Riley Barnes. She’s got a little sister named Nanaja, and they hate each other but ally when necessary. 

And it’s really not as good as so many fans have claimed. While Glory may have been the inspiration behind the Wonder Woman of the New 52—or so many fans claim—she’s not a deep thinker and certainly doesn’t come at the superhero game with more on the ball than a sort of “HULK SMASH!” mentality. The violence isn’t hard to take—it’s all very stylized and comic-y—but the lack of intellectual underpinning is; don’t buy it unless you’re a collector.

As far from reality and as deep into meta as you can get, Hey, Mister: Come Hell or High Water Pants offers up theological conundrums disguised as dumb jokes. You know you’re in for something weird when the two main characters are Satan and Jesus. The “Mister” of the title is identified as an amateur filmmaker and professional loser, so there’s no way this is going to turn out well for him.

And when God has a magic friend—Teddy Roosevelt, no less—you’ve wandered into the straight-up strange.

Satan shows up at Mister’s house while he’s in a meeting with a producer, trying to sell him on hardcore Christian porn: “The Intimate Word Video Series,” perhaps. And it’s immediately meta, because Mister understands that he’s in the Hey, Mister comic series, and that his creator is Pete Sickman-Garner. Forget about God; his creator’s got an eraser.

Smart enough to send readers to Google (“Georgina Spelvin”), and deft in building in traditionally orthodox theology (Satan is clear that despair and the nonexistence of love are the absolute worst things about hell, but people are only scared by fire and brimstone), Come Hell or High Water Pants is about awe and fear of God, coupled with a good dose of adult-child frustration.

Basically, Satan hates hell, so he goes on walkabouts, and he likes hanging with his pal Mister. Meanwhile, there’s a coup going on in hell. Jesus is in psychotherapy, long-term psychotherapy. Joseph is making him crazy. His mother worries.

And, since both Jesus and Satan are unhappy, of course they make a fantastic team!

While this may be of only passing interest to some readers, those of us with a strong underpinning in religious studies will find it both hilarious and thought-provoking.

Finally, Indestructible offers up a fresh take on superheroes. 

In an alternate universe where mutants become superheroes and sign with agents—and comic book publishers—Greg Pincus is just a schlub, the less-successful younger brother in a family that only has eyes for winners. When he accidentally survives a shooting and the surveillance video makes it look like the bullets couldn’t kill him, Greg finds himself suddenly among the elite. Of course, everyone has demands, and Greg means to tell the truth, but his spotlight-craving roommate—and everyone else’s unwillingness to listen—leads him to play along with the superhero ruse for a bit.

That would all be well and good, except that superheroes are expected to be, uh, heroic. And there’s the little matter of the rogue superhero, Stingray, a gorgeous woman who’s fresh out of prison and mixed up in some very bad stuff.

This is an interesting take on the superhero mythos, though it’s bound to run out of steam early, since so many people already know that Greg isn’t a superhero. And if he doesn’t come clean, he may lose his chance with a woman who actually likes him.

Overall, these are all worth the time to read—but Dead Boy Detectives and Hey, Mister: Come Hell or High Water Pants are more worthy of your money.

A matter of morals
Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Olena Bormashenko, with a foreward by Hari Kunzru (Chicago Review Press, $16.95).
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian brothers, collaborators on what was widely considered the greatest science fiction to come from the former Soviet Union. In fact, they were fantastic literary novelists who wrote speculative fiction as a way to address topics that would have gotten them sent to a gulag had they not been writing science fiction. 
This new translation by Olena Bormashenko makes Hard to Be a God widely available and follows her outstanding translation of Roadside Picnic. 
The protagonist, Anton, is from Earth but undercover on a planet only as developed as our medieval period. As Don Rumata, his alias, he is so far advanced as to be god-like, but he is bound not to interfere with their natural progression—easily understandable to American readers as a variation of Star Trek’s “prime directive.”
But when one of the natives decides to persecute scientists, poets and artists, Don Rumata’s personal ethics demand he attempt to help the intellectual and cultural capital of the culture escape; instead of being rewarded by his superiors, he’s chastised for interfering. 
The parallels with Soviet oppression are clear, and the story makes fantastic science fiction.

A matter of morals

Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Olena Bormashenko, with a foreward by Hari Kunzru (Chicago Review Press, $16.95).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian brothers, collaborators on what was widely considered the greatest science fiction to come from the former Soviet Union. In fact, they were fantastic literary novelists who wrote speculative fiction as a way to address topics that would have gotten them sent to a gulag had they not been writing science fiction. 

This new translation by Olena Bormashenko makes Hard to Be a God widely available and follows her outstanding translation of Roadside Picnic.

The protagonist, Anton, is from Earth but undercover on a planet only as developed as our medieval period. As Don Rumata, his alias, he is so far advanced as to be god-like, but he is bound not to interfere with their natural progression—easily understandable to American readers as a variation of Star Trek’s “prime directive.”

But when one of the natives decides to persecute scientists, poets and artists, Don Rumata’s personal ethics demand he attempt to help the intellectual and cultural capital of the culture escape; instead of being rewarded by his superiors, he’s chastised for interfering.

The parallels with Soviet oppression are clear, and the story makes fantastic science fiction.

To let it go, or not
Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction by Thom van Dooren (Columbia University Press, $30).
Thom van Dooren, a professor of philosophy and anthropology in Australia, doesn’t spend much time on the mechanics of extinction, as a biologist would; instead, he explores its deeper meaning of extinction. 
Of course, there’s meaning for humans in the loss of a species—especially when we lose animals or plants that have emotional or cultural resonance for us—but van Dooren examines how each species that ceases to exist effects the web-like relationships of all the other species in an ecosystem. 
Unfortunately, our general understanding of extinction is limited to dinosaurs (they’re cool, but it’s a good thing we don’t live next door to one) or to the threat of losing something adorable, like pandas, or big and exotic, like rhinos. In Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, van Dooren is moving us away from this human-centric view; when it comes to extinction—so far, at least—it’s generally not about how we feel. This leads him to examine things like captive-breeding programs and our part in stacking the deck against not just individual species but entire ecosystems, in what he calls “the messy work of ethical conservation for our time.”
Is it fair to keep a species “viable” only to reside in human-created and curated spaces like zoos, for instance, once the natural habitat is gone? Are there times when extinction may be for the best? Van Dooren’s interest is in a less-sentimental and more holistic way of seeing the planet and all its inhabitants here, on the cusp of the sixth great extinction.

To let it go, or not

Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction by Thom van Dooren (Columbia University Press, $30).

Thom van Dooren, a professor of philosophy and anthropology in Australia, doesn’t spend much time on the mechanics of extinction, as a biologist would; instead, he explores its deeper meaning of extinction.

Of course, there’s meaning for humans in the loss of a species—especially when we lose animals or plants that have emotional or cultural resonance for us—but van Dooren examines how each species that ceases to exist effects the web-like relationships of all the other species in an ecosystem.

Unfortunately, our general understanding of extinction is limited to dinosaurs (they’re cool, but it’s a good thing we don’t live next door to one) or to the threat of losing something adorable, like pandas, or big and exotic, like rhinos. In Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, van Dooren is moving us away from this human-centric view; when it comes to extinction—so far, at least—it’s generally not about how we feel. This leads him to examine things like captive-breeding programs and our part in stacking the deck against not just individual species but entire ecosystems, in what he calls “the messy work of ethical conservation for our time.”

Is it fair to keep a species “viable” only to reside in human-created and curated spaces like zoos, for instance, once the natural habitat is gone? Are there times when extinction may be for the best? Van Dooren’s interest is in a less-sentimental and more holistic way of seeing the planet and all its inhabitants here, on the cusp of the sixth great extinction.

Speechless
The Silent History: A Novel by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett (FSG Originals, $16).
First, you’ve gotta know: This novel started as an iPhone app, and it really does have three authors. The Silent History originally played out in episodic form for subscribers; now, it’s available as a book. 
That backstory doesn’t in the least detract from the power of the story, which tells of a dystopian near-future (don’t all contemporary novels?) in which children are born without the ability to create or comprehend language. 
The Silent History is written in the pastiche form so popular—and familiar, from books like World War Z and Robocalypse—in which news reports, interviews, journal entries, and emails move the narrative along over the course of 30 years. Instead of a pathogen, what these children just don’t care about language; indifference is the infection. That makes it a great deal more frightening, since the option to choose to abandon the making and passing on of culture is one that we could take at any time.
 

Speechless

The Silent History: A Novel by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett (FSG Originals, $16).

First, you’ve gotta know: This novel started as an iPhone app, and it really does have three authors. The Silent History originally played out in episodic form for subscribers; now, it’s available as a book.

That backstory doesn’t in the least detract from the power of the story, which tells of a dystopian near-future (don’t all contemporary novels?) in which children are born without the ability to create or comprehend language.

The Silent History is written in the pastiche form so popular—and familiar, from books like World War Z and Robocalypse—in which news reports, interviews, journal entries, and emails move the narrative along over the course of 30 years. Instead of a pathogen, what these children just don’t care about language; indifference is the infection. That makes it a great deal more frightening, since the option to choose to abandon the making and passing on of culture is one that we could take at any time.

 

Too many fathers—and not enough
Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, $26)
Brando Skyhorse’s beautiful, wild—and downright crazy—mother was known by so many aliases that she could fan out her I.D.s like playing cards, and he spent years believing he was the son of imprisoned Native American rights activist Paul Skyhorse, one of a steady stream of men that his mother introduced to him as “your dad.” 
It got rather confusing, though, even for what was a confusing life: There were two men named Paul Skyhorse in the picture—the AIM member Paul Skyhorse and another Native American man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. And there were also other men coming through the house young Brando shared with his mother and grandmother.
Eventually, though, Skyhorse learned that his real father was a Mexican named Candido Ulloa; then, he was faced with how to explain himself to a world that thought he was Indian. What’s more, he struggled to explain himself to himself, and that’s the heart of this honest and unflinching memoir as Skyhorse tries to break free of the madness that followed his mother like cats behind a fisherman and search for the father he needs. Take This Man is about fatherhood, yes, but also about motherhood and the ways in which it is possible to love a parent who fails you while still protecting yourself.

 

Too many fathers—and not enough

Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, $26)

Brando Skyhorse’s beautiful, wild—and downright crazy—mother was known by so many aliases that she could fan out her I.D.s like playing cards, and he spent years believing he was the son of imprisoned Native American rights activist Paul Skyhorse, one of a steady stream of men that his mother introduced to him as “your dad.”

It got rather confusing, though, even for what was a confusing life: There were two men named Paul Skyhorse in the picture—the AIM member Paul Skyhorse and another Native American man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. And there were also other men coming through the house young Brando shared with his mother and grandmother.

Eventually, though, Skyhorse learned that his real father was a Mexican named Candido Ulloa; then, he was faced with how to explain himself to a world that thought he was Indian. What’s more, he struggled to explain himself to himself, and that’s the heart of this honest and unflinching memoir as Skyhorse tries to break free of the madness that followed his mother like cats behind a fisherman and search for the father he needs. Take This Man is about fatherhood, yes, but also about motherhood and the ways in which it is possible to love a parent who fails you while still protecting yourself.

 

Young, frustrated and Russian
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker, with a foreward by Alexei Navalny (Disquiet/Dzanc Books, $14.95).
Originally published in Russia in 2006, this novel by Zakhar Prilepin is the story of Sasha “Sankya” Tishin and his friends, the post-Soviet generation of twenty-somethings who are drawn toward the right wing. 
They form a group called The Founders, loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks, that seeks to bring down the government and banish Western capitalism, returning to the “soil” in something that smacks of old-style U.S.S.R. organization, but they expect it to be different somehow. The idea that the soul of the Russian people is melded to a deeply reactionary version of patriotism seems to be a myth that even they succumb to, just as the myths about what it means to be American always seem to lead us to some sort of “know-nothing” populist outrage, like, for instance, the Tea Party movement.
Frustration is the marker of this generations, given voice in alcohol and violence, and Prilepin—who has been called “the modern Tolstoy”—offers insight into the youth of Russia in this remarkable novel.

 

Young, frustrated and Russian

Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker, with a foreward by Alexei Navalny (Disquiet/Dzanc Books, $14.95).

Originally published in Russia in 2006, this novel by Zakhar Prilepin is the story of Sasha “Sankya” Tishin and his friends, the post-Soviet generation of twenty-somethings who are drawn toward the right wing.

They form a group called The Founders, loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks, that seeks to bring down the government and banish Western capitalism, returning to the “soil” in something that smacks of old-style U.S.S.R. organization, but they expect it to be different somehow. The idea that the soul of the Russian people is melded to a deeply reactionary version of patriotism seems to be a myth that even they succumb to, just as the myths about what it means to be American always seem to lead us to some sort of “know-nothing” populist outrage, like, for instance, the Tea Party movement.

Frustration is the marker of this generations, given voice in alcohol and violence, and Prilepin—who has been called “the modern Tolstoy”—offers insight into the youth of Russia in this remarkable novel.

 

My short review of The Extinction Parade was published in this week’s edition of the Sacramento News & Review:


The narrator of Max Brooks’ latest graphic novel is a vampire. Brooks, who hit universal name recognition with his books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is sticking with what he knows in Max Brooks’ The Extinction Parade, Volume 1(Avatar Press, $19.99). Vampires have always known of the existence of what they call “subdead,” but the “outbreaks” were small and easily contained. Now, it’s the zombie apocalypse, and the vampires are so entrenched in their way of life and so convinced that the zombies—who won’t eat them—are irrelevant to them, they miss the obvious: Their food supply is disappearing. Raulo Caceres provides gloriously gory art, albeit with comic-book huge-breasted, wasp-waisted wet dreams instead of actual women. TheExtinction Parade is an original melding of separate horror mythologies that takes advantage of a terrible truth about a global pandemic: It’s going to hurt everyone.

My short review of The Extinction Parade was published in this week’s edition of the Sacramento News & Review:

The narrator of Max Brooks’ latest graphic novel is a vampire. Brooks, who hit universal name recognition with his books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is sticking with what he knows in Max Brooks’ The Extinction Parade, Volume 1(Avatar Press, $19.99). Vampires have always known of the existence of what they call “subdead,” but the “outbreaks” were small and easily contained. Now, it’s the zombie apocalypse, and the vampires are so entrenched in their way of life and so convinced that the zombies—who won’t eat them—are irrelevant to them, they miss the obvious: Their food supply is disappearing. Raulo Caceres provides gloriously gory art, albeit with comic-book huge-breasted, wasp-waisted wet dreams instead of actual women. TheExtinction Parade is an original melding of separate horror mythologies that takes advantage of a terrible truth about a global pandemic: It’s going to hurt everyone.