Monday, January 25, 2016

Best Comic Book Reads of 2015: Dan Slott and Mike Allred's Silver Surfer

Silver Surfer
Cover image from Silver Surfer
Vol. 1 TPB.
Written by Dan Slott and drawn by Mike Allred

Much like Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer is imbued with a sense of fun, strong characterization and a willingness to take the character in entirely new directions. In the case of Norin Radd, the intergalactic surfer and ex-herald of Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, there is space aplenty to play with. This is, without a doubt, one of Marvel Comics' most successful relaunches of a title as a starting point to bring in new readers.

I recall being a young teenager and watching the 1985 film, Explorers, about three kids who end up exploring outer space. The premise with its wide-open possibilities was irresistible to my impressionable mind. However, the execution of the premise fell far short of my lofty expectations. The kids end up chasing space aliens or getting pursued by space aliens. Now, as much as I liked aliens at the time, I thought the film could have done anything—been anything—instead of this rather simplistic and limiting piece.

In Slott’s Silver Surfer, I find a similar premise with many possibilities. But instead of disappointment, I find joy and great writing. Norin develops a passing friendship with Dawn, a down-to-earth human who runs a bed-and-breakfast in New England with her father. Through a series of events, Dawn ends up travelling with the Surfer. Their adventures take them near and far and Dawn’s presence humanizes Norin Radd. Now, I‘ve seen many examples of good and so-so portrayals of Radd, a series in the 1990’s pencilled by Ron Lim and penned by a variety of writers and a limited series by Stan Lee and Moebius among them. The Norin Radd character is as malleable as the writer’s intentions, as can happen in the comic-book industry. Thus, he can be vengeful, benevolent, disenfranchised—iin other words, the characterization varies wildly.

Slott, in his enjoyable run, uses Radd’s alien nature to his advantage. The Silver Surfer thinks himself beneath such menial pleasures as eating, or thinking of others first, or staying anywhere for long. So Slott establishes Radd’s ability to transform back to human form, granting Radd the ability to eat and to enjoy small pleasures. Radd also forms a rapport with Dawn so that he is not merely flitting away at his nearest opportunity. Neither is he pouting like in many of his lone-wolf incarnations. These alterations to the Silver Surfer mythos allow for narrative far beyond simple cosmic tussles. Instead, the Surfer is learning. Through Dawn, he is rediscovering joy, from the simple of act of eating to witnessing grand cosmic beauty. He also finding out what it feels like to care for someone else instead of heading off again into the cosmos.

Lastly, Norin’s surfboard is shown as being sentient and Dawn even names it “Toomie” from the Surfer calling “My board! To me!” To top that off, Toomie even saves Dawn’s life in a few instances (This last observation is courtesy of a seven-year-old boy who is also a fan of Silver Surfer.). 
An example of Mike Allred's simple, clean lines. What beauty.

That there is a sense of fun and adventure and admittedly a kid-friendly aspect to the book is also a boon. It’s this sense of fun and humour and playfulness that Marvel Comics sometimes lacks in its other titles, most notably in Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers: Everything Dies. This particular story arc lives up to its billing as a grim and relentless march requiring sacrifice after sacrifice and little action. Hickman's interpretations of the Avengers represents a fascinating phase in the history of the book, but not a very palatable one.

But I digress. Industry legend Mike Allred’s masterful art on Silver Surfer is a pleasure to behold—clean, beautiful, and simple. Comic-book folks have compared his scribbles to the iconic Jack Kirby’s. Regardless, Allred’s style is perfectly suited to storytelling that can reach to the far ends of the universe, and into new places of storytelling. 

Best Reads of 2015: Books—and All Canadian Goodies

Queeroes by Steven Bereznai
Jambor Publishing, 2009
Lethe Press, 2010
Toronto’s Berenznai does a wonderful mash up of the T.V. shows Glee and Heroes. This delightful and equally ruthless romp involves high school kids who get super powers. They then choose sides (good or evil) and Bereznai brings the analogy of teen isolation and introversion to its natural extreme. What if you were an introverted teen, into comforting but obscure music, a kid on the fringe, or even a popular jock, when one day you had extraordinary abilities? The answer is dizzying fun, thanks to the punchy prose of Bereznai.
(Editor's Note: My publisher, Lethe Press, bought the rights to Queeroes in 2010, and has also published Queeroes 2; however, I have not had time to read this second installment yet.)

An anthology edited by Michael Kelly 
Undertow Publications
They call it quiet, literary horror for a reason and this anthology from accomplished Canadian editor Michael Kelly proves its worth. About eighty-five per cent of the pieces here are unsettling and hard to shake. A few, though, do fall under the literary pitfall of guess-what-really-happenedin-the-ending-of-this-story. This makes me think that some stories aren’t as clever as they seem to be, but still more ponderous than typical spec fiction. Still, the good pieces glitter and inspire.

Jeff Round’s The Jade Butterfly 
Dundurn Press
Toronto novelist and poet Round lands Dan Sharp in another missing person’s case. Allusions to urban Toronto and gay romantic life abound, but what really soars in this outing is Sharp’s sex life. Things heat up. He also puts his heart on the line for once. This move humanizes and enriches the perennial bachelor’s life.

Peter Norman’s Emberton 
Douglas & McIntyre
If you took a dash of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, George Orwell’s 1984, meta-fictionalized the tone of Monty Python, channelled strains from the film Barton Fink and blended this concoction with a hint of William S. Burroughs, you’d have Toronto writer Peter Norman’s debut novel, Emberton. It’s a story, as Pete told me years before its publication, of a book. Particularly, it’s about Lance Blunt, a hero who lands an unlikely job working at Emberton Dictionary. This ancient business decides which words stay and which words are dropped from the dictionary. The bulk of the book remains an unsettling immersion. An office building may live and breathe like us. The protagonist harbours a terrible secret that may even be more terrible than Lance knows.  As though plucked from subconscious murk and neurotic flights of fancy, Norman’s narrative straps the reader in and does not let them out until the final exit. Kudos also to the graphic design of the novel, as the pages appear old and fragile. I was afraid that the archaic-looking pages would rip. 

Nightshade Books
This is a spicy jambalaya of ghosts, of secrets and the yarn of a dysfunctional Cajun family. The story spans New Orleans, Calgary and the west. Ottawa spec writer Riopelle assembles some startlingly unnerving and enjoyable scenes and characters. Hope there’s another on the way in 2016.

Arsenal Pulp Press
Dawn, a Vancouver poet and novelist, writes survivor poetry—about being a prostitute, a femme, a bottom, a sex radical, and an activist. The pieces of personal history are interwoven through Glosas. As the publisher Arsenal Pulp explains on their site, a Glosa is a 15th-century Spanish form. It usually opens with a quatrain from an existing poem by another writer, followed by four stanzas of ten lines each, and normally ends with a line repeated from the opening quatrain. In this fashion, Dawn tributes various other queer poets. When the technique soars, she essentially holds a conversation with these writers through time and space. These poets include Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich but also contemporary writers such as Leah Horlick and Rachel Rose. Some of the pieces, such as "Sandra Anna's Baby Book", in which Dawn tries to forgive her mother for a terrible childhood involving abuse at the hands of her father figure, can reduce a reader to tears.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Best Reads of 2015: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a novel)

Before I was done reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and was about a third in, something marvelous happened. Everything came together. The train wreck of a hero, Private Detective Meyer Landsman, started to pull himself off the ropes. Landsman's tragic past and his gloomy, lonely present and the whole tension in the central story, also come together.

Detective Lansdman wades through the fictional Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" Jewish settelement created on the northern panhandle of Alaska in the wake of the Holocaust and the collapse of Israel . He is also wading away from his failed marriage and through abject alcoholism and solitude. The tension underlying the story is that the frontier town of Sitka is about to revet to native ownership. In lovely hardboiled detective style, the reader meets the murder victim and Landsman on the first page. Enter his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, now his boss, and a plethora of colourful characters and suspects among the wide and sprawling populace of Sitka.

There are, of course, a diverse number of different Jewish factions in Sitka. Characters often utter, Yiddish street slang. As well, an abundance of detective story tropes and dialogue segues ensue. The readers receives a rambling, dystopic impression of Sitka as overcrowded and teeming with a complex caste structure.

Here, Chabon demonstrates his brilliance again. There is his usual command of grammar and syntax and muscular, sweeping prose, yet in shorter bursts this time than his other books. During several instances, I wanted to give a big rallying yodel from a rooftop. 

I would love to interview this author about his work sometime. He’s like a Canadian Mordecai Richler, with splaying epic sagas involving colourful Jewish characters, often working-class geniuses with amazing secret projects on the side. Or rich barons of industry with colourful and outlandish pasts. And always, of course, they are fallible, such as Detective Landsman, a failed husband, father and alcoholic.

Does any of this sound like a Richler character from Barney's Version? If I changed some names to say, Duddy Kravitz from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Barney of Barney’s Version or Solomon Gursky from Solomon Gursky Was Here or the hero from St. Urbain's Horseman, I’d be talking Richler instead of Chabon. The parallels are stunning. Their work is, likewise, outstanding, and not at all the same desp
ite these similarities. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Not-The-Best Reads of 2015: Comic Book Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales in Excess
Avengers: Age of Ultron TPB
Ultron feels bloated, crammed with apocalyptic but often careless art. Like Ultron, a vasy array of writers share the tale, including Brian Michael Bendis. The spin-off stories occupying a third of the trade belabor the point. It feels like a contrived story designed to disturb or delight fans with scenes of defeated heroes such as Spider-Man bound to a chair and drugged out of his mind, or the death of any number of favourites, She-Hulk among them. I understand this was all a set up for Marvel’s latest paradigm-and-universe reordering. But as for actual storytelling quality, the book is tedious in the end and rather infinitely derivative of disaster films.

Avengers Vs. X-Men TPB
Apparently, Marvel has decided to yet again attempt to resuscitate the zeitgeist of the success of The Secret Wars series from the 1980’s and also to have the heroes fight each other, as DC Comics was fond of during the comic-book sales slump of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So the mutants clash with the Avengers and about half of this story arc is a delightful confrontation between heroes such, say, the Sub-Mariner and The Thing. But the bouts don’t end there. The heroes on either side seemingly recover from the most egregious injuries to fight again with no lasting consequences. Underneath this main event card, the struggle is about the return of the Phoenix Force. The X-Men want to wield this all-powerful force. The Avengers want to contain it. The other underlying theme is renewal, with Hope Summers, Scott Summers’ teenage daughter, slated to be the new generation’s heavy hitter. I loved about a third of this year, with the art and heroes locking horns. But in the end, the story took too long, felt like pandering to fans, and repetitive.  This could have been a finer story if pared down. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Best Reads of 2015: More Comic Books

Cover of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear! Vol.7 TPB.
Mark Waid’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
Chris Samnee, Jason Copland and Javier Rodriguez, artists
I've given Waid a lot of ink already, so I'll try to be brief. Particularly, the number seven trade paperback is good, which includes several Marvel monster characters, whom the hero has never met. Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock) forms an uneasy alliance with the Legion of Monsters. In Stone Hills, Kentucky, he works with Werewolf by Night, Satana, Frankenstein, the Living Mummy and Zombie in attempting to procure a valuable book of spells and defeat a villain named the Jester. Waid draws a slightly heavy-handed parallel between racism in the south and how locals see the creatures as, well, monsters.These details aside, the character interaction soars and continues in volume one of Daredevil: Devil At Bay in which Matt moves to San Francisco. He contends with villains, of course, such as the intellectually intimidating Mastermind, but also adapts to being in a new city with new sounds and rhythms. Luckily, ADA and girlfriend Kirsten McDuffie accompanies him, helping him find his feet.

Cover image of Hark! A Vagrant.
Kate Beaton: Hark! A Vagrant!
Canadian artist and writer Kate Beaton is very erudite, her drawings are cruder than I usually enjoy, and her footnotes are enriching. The art grows on you, though, whether she’s talking about posers imitating Beat authors or sending up The Great Gatsby or making quiet, strong parables about feminist figures. This mix of learning about topics in a historical context through fits of laughter is such a rare thing, and such a good thing, too. She makes it gleefully clear that no subject, historical or otherwise, is safe, and rightly so. Canada is lucky to have Beaton doing comic strips.

Cover for Locke & Key Vol. 6: Alpha & Omega TP
Locke & Key Volume Six: Alpha & Omega
Joe Hill, writer and Gabriel Rodriguez, artist
Ths volume is a good finish to a good series. Hill's writing is in the family tradition of ancient evils returning to attack the new generation. Gabriel Rodriguez's art is a detailed, stylist delight. There is a Dark-Phoenixesque sort of resurrection that lacks a satisfying explanation, but the art is gold and the writing is fun and the body count is higher than readers expect.

Artwork from It's A Good Life, if You Don't Weaken.
It's a Good Lifeif You Don't Weaken
I should qualify this praise. I once discussed artists who also write their own comics with Canadian comic-book artist Tom Fowler. He said that artists rarely do both because it is damn hard work. I agree, but the results can be breathtaking. In my opinion, any artist who does both is hardworking, ambitious and talented. Seth provides an examination of longing, love, loneliness, and dark nights of the soul. I knew there was a reason I wanted to read Seth again after reading The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, which simply knocked me back with the stylized art, brooding about simpler times and themes of longing to return to childhood. It’s a Good Life confirms his brilliance. He is another one of Canada's national treasures.

Artwork from Afterlife with
Archie #1.
Afterlife with Archie
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, writer
Francesco Francavilla, artist
When Archie Comics decided to go horror Archie, they went for four panels drenched in cinematic tribute to the horror classics, both old and contemporary. Francavilla's panels are practically shots taken from movies. That said, Afterlife takes pastiche to a new level, from winking at Stanley Kurbrick’s film of The Shining, Stephen King’s Pet Cematary, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and any number of zombie apocalypse scenarios (with The Walking Dead topping the list). This is a daring direction for a whole new Archie, kiddies. Kevin Keller even has the satisfaction of decking Reggie.

Cover of The Sculptor. While Neil Gaiman
will blurb anything, that charming rogue,
I do agreewith him in this case.
Scott McLeod’s The Sculptor 
At last! A new comic from McLeod, creator of Zot! and author of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. Now here, again, is someone who draws and writes thier own stuff. Looks like I have an accidental theme running through my Year's-Best-Of list. Like Beaton and Seth, McCloud excels at both, and this book has been long awaited. In Sculptor, McLeod describes the meteoric rise and fall of a gifted young sculptor trying to make his name again. It’s a mediation on art (particularly about concrete versus abstract and what makes art art), the struggling (and quite broke) artist, the artistic community and the business of art.