The phrase 'graphic novel' is frequently abused; by people who want to give an oversized story from a regular series more weight or validity, by snob booksellers who think they have to legitimise the buying of comics (I'm looking at you, various branches of Waterstones); by people who think a trade paperback just doesn't sound glamorous enough.
I would like all those people to look at The Sculptor and then take a good hard look at where they're going wrong in their lives. This is the real deal.
Scott McCloud's history in comics is one without a single mis-step. After creating one of the single finest runs on a character ever in Zot! (the initial colour run was brilliant, but the black and white second series is a masterclass) and going OTT mental in the one-off DESTROY!! he went on to take the medium to pieces and reassemble it in his groundbreaking Understanding/Reinventing/Making Comics series of books, creating other original material and some Superman stories along the way. There's also one of my favourite ever TED Talks in there somewhere. And now we have a new novel in The Sculptor, weighing in at just shy of 500 two-colour hardback pages.
The Sculptor is David Smith; young, talented but too unwilling to compromise. After pissing off his one influential sponsor, David has been struggling to get his work in front of the people who can then get it in front of the world. And David needs his work to be seen. He'd give his life for his art, and The Sculptor is the story of how he comes to do so (that's not a spoiler, by the way). An encounter with a strangely human Death gives him a chance to make a deal. And because The Sculptor has at least a little bit of a morality tale in its DNA, of course he takes it. 200 days in which to create sculpture like no one has ever seen before, then that's it.
Last year I tried to do a monthly round-up of my favourites and, er, un-favourites of each month. This had two goals: to get reviews off the blogging plate and to create some sort of personal 'record' that I could refer back to later in the year.
That said, I felt a little guilty about un-favouriting things. And, as I was working on various awards ballots and best-ofs and whatnot, I realised my favourites list was equally inaccurate. So I'm going to try something a little different.
I think star ratings - be they Amazon and Goodreads - are pretty ridiculous. They're fun (crowd-sourced wisdom!) but frustrating as hell. If you're following me on Goodreads (and why would you? Is there anything less interesting?) you'll see that I do two ratings: 5 stars or ... not at all. That's not a 5 or zero - that's a 5 or abstain. Either I'm recommending a book for some interesting reason or not. This pretty much matches my reviewing 'approach' for Pornokitsch: I can either find something interesting to talk about in a book, or I can't. That's not the book's fault, of course - more an expression of my own privilege as an amateur reviewer.
Anyway, I think it'd be more useful - certainly for me - if, instead of 'liking' and 'unliking' books, I turn this round-up into a list of books I five-starred, and why. As with all things, this is subject to change and whimsy. See "privilege", above.
With no further ado, the ten books from January - from spacegirls to the steam room:
The new One Comic podcast goes down the rabbit hole into the bizarre world of Jim Woodring's Frank. There's quite a lot to be said, though it's possible you'll learn more about what's going on in our heads than in Jim Woodring's...
Heroines are all well and good but bad girls have all the fun. The world of comics is overflowing with wicked women - from the obvious supervillains and rebels to the women perceived to be wicked through their defiance of local social and cultural norms. These are women who use their superpowers to please themselves, gleefully indulge in their criminal tendencies and let no one dictate how they live their lives. So here’s a celebration of women who aim to misbehave!
There’s not many who misbehave more than Mystique. With a long and complicated history, this highly intelligent ass-kicking gender fluid bisexual shape-shifter has been an assassin, a spy, a political leader and freedom fighter, among a great many other professions. She’s passionate about mutant rights, and will do what the more mild mannered won’t to defend them. While she’s most recently been seen in the various X-Men movies, Brian K Vaughan & Sean McKeever’s Mystique series is an excellent focus on this versatile villain. Coerced into working as a secret agent for Professor X, Mystique combats a variety of foes, while trying to trick her way to freedom and avoid the government agency currently hunting her. She keeps both allies and enemies constantly guessing, comes up with some devious and wonderfully creative shape-shifts and is never too banged up to deliver some well aimed snark.
Robin Hood retellings all tend to blur together - possibly because, after a lifetime of exposure to film, television, books, more books, comic books, and post-apocalyptic comic books, the core cast of characters and plot twists all become a bit predictable. Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988) adds a fresh perspective to the mix because it is spends the most time scrutinising what an outlaw thinks, as opposed to what one does. McKinley's Robin Hood isn't so much the grand adventurer or iconic rogue as much as an accidental - if thoughtful - leader.
McKinley sets the scene in the opening pages when Robin - who is actually a rather mediocre archer - accidentally kills another forester. It is in self-defense and it is a poor shot, but, nevertheless, a panicked Robin flees into the woods to hide. It is Marian and Much, Robin's two closest friends, who see the bigger picture: a new Saxon resistance, an icon of freedom, a beacon of hope, etc. etc. Robin is mostly concerned with staying alive.
Moreover, that's always Robin's concerns. If anything, Robin is the least "Robin Hood"-like member of his own band: he's pragmatic, slightly paranoid, and far more focused on the day-to-day elements (digging latrines, for example) than fighting for the greater good. McKinley is clever in how she weaves in the traditions of Robin Hood - the green cloth, the archery competitions - in a way that seems both natural historically and natural to Robin as a character. It is perhaps this commitment to making Robin an ordinary, nice guy in extraordinary, superheroic circumstances that makes him such a compelling character. Through the other characters' eyes, we start to see what he's becoming, and what he is a symbol. Through Robin's own... we only experience the worry, maturity and self-sacrifice that comes with being responsible for the lives of others.
There have been a lot of good things about 2014 in comics; mainstream US (superhero) comics became more deliberately diverse than ever before, though mostly at one publisher and still not to anything like a great enough degree; Image comics announced their most ambitious line-up ever at the Image Expo in January many of which turned out to be worthy hits; Archie’s unexpected excursion into adult stories and horror paid off for them in the form of more visibility than the brand has had in years; DC finally began to break the artistic mould (or as some would see it straitjacket) that had defined their line since the launch of the New 52 and publish series that at least tried to be different. It was also of course yet another year where comic-based material dominated other media; most notably film and TV.
On the other side of the scales: there’s the wealth of the other stuff DC continues to pull, including their inexplicable decision to dumb down and sexism-up Wonder Woman, the erosion of everything that used to make Batwoman strong and interesting to the point where she’s recently become a vampire's mind-controlled girlfriend just ahead of the cancellation of her title; and the licensing of those kids’ clothes (oh, and these); though Marvel also did some stupid stuff, like the Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover and the ongoing ‘thing’ about minimising the Fantastic Four to deprive Fox’s upcoming film of Marvel-generated visibility. And was it this year that Dynamite published the graphic ‘comedy rape’ panel in Game of Thrones? Yes, I think it was.
There’s no point even attempting a ‘best of the year’ list, because I obviously didn’t read everything. So these are just some highlights and lowlights - it's all quite mainstream, but that's how I'm feeling at the moment.
We're a teeny bit obsessed with Avengers Alliance - the super-popular Facebook-based fightin' game based around Marvel Comics. (It is now on iOS and Android as well, and therefore inescapable.) It is half-tactics, half-click-farming, as the player takes on the role of a SHIELD agent and, with the help of various Marvel characters, beats the crap out of villainy.
The game is now 3 years old and has a mythos as elaborate as the Cinematic Universe - indeed, it has its own SDCC panels, with thousands of people eagerly awaiting clues over which C-list character or alternate costume will be revealed next. The game actually links in to the MCU, with special updates and missions that are clearly hand-wavey homages to the latest movie releases - including those from Sony and Fox, as well as Disney. Plus there's PVP and time sensitive special missions and bonuses and side-games and and limited edition weaponry and and and... Basically, the game is a crafty, evil technology that is sucking in time and dollars from millions of people around the world. If the whole thing goes meta and turns out to be a plot by Doctor Doom, we wouldn't be that surprised. In fact, we'd probably send him a thank you note.
Anyway, one of the reasons we love the game is that the game is clearly developed by GEEKS LIKE US(tm) who also love the Marvel Universe - including incorporating hundreds of silly backlist heroes and minor villains into the roster of playable allies.
We've each selected five of our favourite evil-punching sidekicks. Maybe not the best ones, but certainly the ones we're enjoying the most.
Sadly eclipsed by the self-devouring #gamergate monster is a simple truth: computer games are fun. Like, really, really fun. And, as fortunate as we are to live in a Golden Age of processing power, it was almost more fun for us to have shared gaming's gangly teenage years. By 'us', I mean the first generation of folks that got to grow up with fairly easily accessible computer games - an era where there was visible, palpable improvement with every new release.
I personally grew up with (at? on?) my Apple IIe. I remember when we finally swapped to a (now) 286 - even though the new computer was functionally better in every way, I still made us cling to the poor IIe for another year, simply so I didn't lose my Ultima character. Poor computer. It didn't even get the dignity of breaking before being replaced: it was just obsolete. Given how hearty the IIe was as a machine, it probably still runs now.
All that means, of course, is that even as an amateurish (more 'sporadically obsessive') gamer, I have spent my entire life raising and destroying virtual civilisations. It reminds me a bit of the famous Denis Leary sketch about masturbation - "I have wiped entire empires off my chest with a gym sock". I'm afraid the metaphor, however distasteful, is apt. The vintage days of computer gaming were purely about self-actualisation: building, razing, winning, losing, all on one's own.
Enter Neal Tringham's Science Fiction Video Games (2014): a towering monument to our futility. I don't mean that to sound dismissive of this excellent (and absorbing) book - instead, it looms triumphantly, an exhaustive catalog of the tens of thousands of hours that have been spent in the company of that virtual gym sock. For those looking for a 1000 Games To Play B4 U Die printed Buzzfeed list, keep looking. Rather than merely remind the reader of games gone by, Mr Tringham tries to answer why? What is it about these games that makes them so damn good? He approaches the task with rigour: breaking down each game into its components and examining what makes them special, from 1995's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream ("presented with a great deal of angry passion, but offers no true moral choices") to 2012's Angry Birds Space ("the eponymous missiles remain endearingly cheerful despite the inescapable knowledge that every assignment is a suicide mission").