Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colorist) and Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Paper Girls, Volume 5(Image 2018)
So many books to read and, assuming I don’t live to much past 100, so little life left. Yet here I am writing about another instalment-compilation of a comic about a gang of young teenage girls taking on cosmic time-travelling forces. I plead in mitigation that this blog is a record of every book I read, however embarrassing or daunting the book. And this one has jumped to the front of the reading queue because it came as a birthday gift with invisible strings attached: the giver expects to be able to read it himself, soon!
The girls are in the future, dealing with time-travel paradoxes, particularly the ones generated by Tiffany having met her older self in Volume 4. The nature of their enemies is becoming clearer, and with it our hope that they will survive. There’s a terrible death, some incipient, awkward romance, and in the last pages a big twist that ensures that the story will continue for quite some time yet.
I didn’t warm to the artwork at all at first. In particular, the colouring seemed kind of drab. But I’ve not just acclimatised, but come to respect and even love the stylish near monochrome of much of the book.
Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colorist) and Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Paper Girls, Volume 4(Image 2018)
I wasn’t enthralled by Volumes 1 and 2 of this Girl-Goonies-meet-War-of-the-Worlds comic series, but when my Supplier gave me Volume 4 as a Christmas present I wasn’t unhappy.
Our time-travelling twelve-year-old girl heroes have left their newspaper delivering days well behind them, though there’s an occasional reminder that the skills and smarts acquired on their rounds come in handy when you’re caught up in a great war being fought wherever there are weird folds in the space time continuum. In Volume 3 the girls dealt with dinosaurs (I missed that instalment). Now it’s New Year’s Day 2000, and Y2K is a lot more dangerous and dramatic than it was in real life (always assuming that we haven’t all had our memories wiped, as happens to some of the characters here).
It’s common for people who create books for children as well as adults to give fair warning on the first page of a book for adults that the book is not suitable for a young readers. An obscenity on the first line, as in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, will do it. Given that an early volume of Saga hit a firestorm because an image (one that I didn’t even notice on first reading) was deemed corrupting of minors, it’s not surprising that both these much later volumes have startlingly not-for-children opening pages.
There’s a pretty striped horse on the cover of Volume 8, and the first page of the story itself features a cute bird with pinks three-toed boots and a sheriff’s badge saying, ‘Howdy strangers!’, but above the birds head is an unmissable banner that reads, ‘Welcome to Abortion Town!’ Oh, not for children! The cover of Volume 9 shows a warm family portrait with fantasy elements, but the story opens onto a piece of full frontal male nudity. Not for children either!
In Volume 8, as it turns out, our heroes – Alana who has wings, Marko who has horns, their daughter Hazel who has both and so represents the possibility of peace between their warring species, plus their remaining companions – aren’t looking for an abortion, but there’s a lot about reproduction. Alana became pregnant in Volume 7, and I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it doesn’t turn out well. Hazel, now maybe seven, asks a lot of awkward questions, and there are moments of sublime joy and sorrow for her as she deals with the issue of having, or not having, a sibling.
As always there’s plenty of sex and violence, and the the plot developments involving the little family’s allies and enemies are full of surprise twists, and some stand-alone tales.
The naked man at the start of Volume 9 is likewise not just a warning to doting parents and grandparents. He is a significant enemy of our little family, now fallen on hard times. In the course of this volume, his fortunes change dramatically, of course violently, and in a way that brings about a major plot development. As always among the violence, intrigue and treachery, there is blissful family life (including blissful sex between Alana and Marko, oh and between another unlikely couple), and cute cartoon animals.
Saga has now been running as a monthly serial for six years. it’s definitely episodic in nature, and there’s a danger-escape-danger rhythm to it, but there’s also a clear forward movement and a clear memory of what has gone before. I have no idea where it’s heading, but I trust its creators. It’s brilliant story telling page after page, month after month, and now year after year.
Brian K Vaughan has recently been put on the payroll of a television production company. I can’t imagine how a TV series could be made of Saga, but that’s no reason not to hope.
Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga volume seven (Image Comics 2017)
The adventures of Hazel, now at least five years old, and her two-species family continue.
This time she has a little brother on the way. At least, one of the cute meerkat-like creatures who temporarily join the family when they land to refuel on war-torn comet Phang is sure it will be a brother. A page-high image of an erect penis on page 3 is adequate warning that this volume is not suitable for children or for reading at work. (The Explicit Material in the first volume passed me by; this lot is unmissable.) And there’s not just (mostly joyful or comic) sex, but also (mostly swashbuckling or spectacular) violence. War continues between the horns and the wings, with vast collateral damage. Both sides, and a growing number of individuals, are still out to kill Hazel and her family. Our little crew is on a mission to rescue the Robot prince’s son. Hazel’s father, Marko, struggles to maintain his principled pacifism in the face of necessity and his remembered joy in violence.
A delightful new development is the television-headed Robot entertaining the young ones with cartoons on his screen ‘face’, and then their sneaking into his room to watch his dreams play across the screen:
Kurti: This is a creepy one.
Hazel: His dreams are always creepy, Kurti.
Kurti: I suppose. Least they’re not as boring as reading sacred scrolls with my cousins.
And in the following frames, as Kurti and Hazel lose interest and discuss the pressing matter of who will look after the baby when it arrives, we see the rest of the Prince’s nightmare play out on his screen in the background.
The juxtaposition of Hazel’s text narrative, which sometimes could almost be from a Wonder Years script, with the action taking place in the images makes brilliant use of the comics medium. For example, an image of Hazel’s mother kneeling between the prone, possibly dead bodies of Marko and the Robot prince is accompanied by the hand lettered text: ‘By the time they’re out of preschool, most children have seen thousands of acts of violence.’ Turn the page, and Hazel is playing hide and seek with her new friend Kurti, while the hand-lettered narrative continues, ‘Granted, for the average kid, these acts are mostly fictional … and unlike the real deal, fictional violence is cool as shit.’ And the last frame of the opposite page shows Kurti looking with terror into the faces (sic) of an assassin.
Most of this volume is spent in one place. At the end, we are on the move again, but the situation is, literally and graphically, very dark.
Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Image 2016)
Yet another comic series from the brilliant and prolific Brian K Vaughan, co-creator of Y: The LastManand Saga. This time, working with an all-male team (Cliff Chiang on pencils, Matt Wilson colorist and Jared K Fletcher as distinctive letterer), he gives us lead characters who are all female: twelve-year-old girls who deliver newspapers in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.
No sooner are the four bike-riding heroines introduced, doing their rounds early on the morning after Halloween in 1988, than weird, deadly dangerous things start to happen. It’s like a female Goonies or Stranger Things, only even more incident-packed and – at least at first – explanation-light. The word that came to mind as the first volume’s action progresses, complete with weird time-machines (note the plural) and pterodactyl-riding robots (I think), is ‘bonkers’, but in a good way. The second volume’s carnivorous grubs the size of four-story buildings don’t do much to restore equilibrium.
By the end of the second volume, most of the weirdness has at least a broadbrush explanation, but I have no idea what will happen next, or why these four girls are so important to the participants in the massive multi-generational multi-time-period battle that rages around them.
Any confusion doesn’t come from muddle in the artwork, which is wonderfully clear, or for that matter in the story-telling. The teasing is deliberate. The girls are caught up in a hugely complex conflict. We are ahead of them in a couple of details – we recognise the Apple logo on an artefact dropped by an ‘alien’, for instance, and likewise a ‘Hillary for President’ poster seen on their visit to 2016 – but mostly we’re plunged into the action with hardly any more perspective than they have. For them of course it’s life and death. For us it’s fun.
Previously in Y: Yorick, a 23 year old New Yorker escape artist, and Ampersand, a trainee-companion monkey, are the only two male mammals on earth to have survived a mysterious plague. They have teamed up with the woman known only as 355, who is a member of the Culper Ring, a mysterious organisation, and Dr Alison Mann, who has ben experimenting with clone technology and so has a good chance of ensuring a future for humankind. Dr Mann’s New York lab is blown up by Israeli operatives, and the three of them travel across the US to her West Coast lab where her back-up data is safe, encountering an assortment of female post-apocalyptic enemies and allies: the Israelis, a Russian operative, survivalists, escaped convicts making a new life, an astronaut, paranoid cowgirls. Yorick’s sister, Hero, has meanwhile joined a group of neo-Amazons who are fanatically and violently determined to erase all vestiges of the patriarchy. And Yorick has a personal mission, to meet up with his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australian when the plague hit and has since been out of contact.
The adventure continues in Book 3 with plenty of violence, and a modicum of sex. It turns out that the Australian navy had women active in submarines where the US did not. As a result a fully armed and dangerous Collins Class sub intercepts the ship taking our little band across the Pacific. Australia also comes to the fore as we get some of Beth’s story. There’s some deeply worrisome representations of Warlpiri culture (though you have to give Brian Vaughan credit for actually naming a people rather than giving us generic mystical ‘Aborigines’ like the ones in Werner Herzog’s Green Ant Dreaming).
Goran Sudžuka joins Pia Guerra in the pencilling, and to my untrained eye the seams are invisible.
In Book 4, Yorick, Dr Mann and agent 335 reach Australia, which isn’t a happy place, though there’s plenty of amusing US attempts at Australian slang, and some cheerful sex and one bit of comic full frontal male nudity (poor Yorick is drawn looking all heroic on the covers, but doesn’t fare so well in the actual stories).
We also get the back stories of a number of characters, and lectures on the status of women that in any other context might be tediously didactic, but here have a certain charm. For example, there’s a key plot point when two capuchin monkeys escape from their cages in an airport. This is how we see it:
And the reader responds by secretly cheering for the ‘gendercide’ that is to come. Similar moments, such as a short debate about whether the mistreatment of women in the Catholic Church was perpetrated solely by men, or whether women might have been pretty bad as well, turn out to be important to the plot.
Then in Book 5 it all comes together – or apart, depending on your point of view. Yorick finds Beth and their reunion turns out pretty much as the discerning reader might have expected. There’s another romance that also turns out pretty much as expected, though in a way that surprised and, yes, shocked me. In fact, the working out of all the plot strands is almost at the level of Shakespearean comedy. Of the many hypotheses that have been floated about the cause of the catastrophe, the one that is finally given may not be realistic but it fits the world of the story better than any other: at least grounds have been laid for it.
It all ends happily for the human race, though almost literally up in the air for Yorick himself.
One more note: It seems that if it is to succeed commercially, a comic series is required to have a certain amount of sex and violence. Y does that. It also manages to be witty, literate and occasionally instructive. Yorick and his sister Hero were named after Shakespearean characters by their nerdy parents. When it seems one woman is going to have to spend time in hospital, Yorick draws up a reading list for her – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is at the top of the list. It’s similarly refreshing that one of the characters becomes President in the final pages but not, it turns out, of the USA: in this US comic, other countries exist.
And let me burst into verse, for the second last time this November. Extra points for readers who spot the Bill Haley reference.
November Verse 13: On Reading Y: The Last Man Alas poor Yorick, last man standing! Two male mammals left alive on earth, just him and Ampersand, an ape, his kind-of pet. These five thick comic books by Vaughan and Guerra, amuse and tease, prompt pity, terror. A single man left on the ground, three billion women all around. But here’s no superhero fiction, no Bacchanal or things more blue, no Warhol shooter’s dream come true, no earnest SF clone prediction, just good fun: the men are dead, that’s sad, but what a watershed!
Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga Volume Six (Image Comics 2016)
The continuing adventures of bi-speci-al Hazel and her family.
Hazel is now in kindergarten in prison, with her wings bound so she can pass as a purebred member of her father’s horned species. Her parents are reunited and searching for her. Her grandmother is taking to prison life with gusto, getting tattooed and making friends. The cute but lethal Ghüs and Friendo are protecting the exiled former Prince and his little son. The Will is hallucinating and out to avenge his arachnid lover’s death.
There are a pair of web-footed closet gay journalists, Petrichor the glamorous horned trans woman prisoner, and innumerable extras.
Vaughan and Staples spin a great yarn, and the series benefits from being the work of a single artist. We don’t have to constantly adjust to different renditions of the characters, and can enjoy small felicities such as the sense that furry little Ghüs has wandered in out of a different comic.
The sex and violence continues to put the series in the Adults-Only category, though the nudity and sex scenes are a lot less grotesque and more joyful than in previous instalments. It’s painful to think it’s likely to be a year before Volume 7 arrives.
And because it’s November here’s a little verse (with a link to information on Fredrick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which made alarming assertions about the dangers of comics in 1954):
November Verse 6: On a frame from Chapter 32 of Staples and Vaughan’s Saga
Ghost Who Walks, friend of Bandar,
pirates’ foe, Diana’s love,
some say racist propaganda:
back then I treasured you above
all other comics. I was seven
when a nun intent on heaven
and panicked by Fred Wertham’s book,
took my Phantom ‘for a look’.
She gave it back a full week later
embarrassed that she couldn’t tell
how it might pave my way to hell.
Her ghost today might well berate her
younger self. She would not bless
this bare post-coital tenderness.
My younger son and I are enjoying Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ space opera romance comic, Saga, as it appears book by book. So Y: The Last Man, written by Vaughan in an earlier collaboration with artist Pia Guerra, was an excellent gift from him to me on a recent birthday.
All the men on earth, indeed all mammals with a Y chromosome, die suddenly, cause unknown. In the grief-stricken chaos that ensues, the highways of the USA are choked with crashed vehicles and the great majority of society’s institutions screech to a halt. Suddenly it’s a post-apocalyptic landscape. But wait, there is an unexplained exception to the equally unexplained die-off: Yorick, a 22 year old amateur escape artist and his pet monkey are still alive. Yorick has two goals: to get to Australia to rejoin the woman he hopes is his fiancee (the proposal phone call was inconclusive); and to do what his mother wants and help restore humanity – no, not by going on a reproductive marathon, but by finding a woman known to be an expert in cloning and working with her.
It’s slightly silly, but mostly played with a straight face as Yorick confronts gun-toting widows of Republican congressmen who believe they are entitled to their dead husbands’ seats, a fanatical Amazonian sect who are determined to finish what Mother Earth has started and exterminate Yorick, the escaped inmates of a women’s prison who have established a self-sufficient village, and sundry other outlaws, scroungers, allies and protectors.
This book is the first of five – I expect to be reporting on the remaining four in the fulness of time.
Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga Volume Five (Image Comics 2015)
Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Bryan Talbot, Linda Medley and Steve Leialoha (artists), Todd Klein (letterer), Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love (Vertigo 2004)
Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, P. Craig Russell and Steve Leialoha (artists), Todd Klein (letterer), Fables Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers (Vertigo 2004)
One of my sons kindly went through his comics collection recently and put out a pile that I might be interested in. I passed on Swamp Thing and something about zombies (or they might have been vampires), but carried off a small swag. These are some of them.
In Saga, Hazel, the child of parents from two different, warring species, has her father’s horns and her mother’s wings, or at least the beginnings of both. Her existence challenges the ideologies of both sides, and the little family has powerful enemies. In previous volumes they have had narrow escapes, acquired a number of bizarre allies and fellow travellers, and dealt with an apparently endless stream of weird, murderous monsters.
Though this instalment, in which Hazel is a toddler, continues to enthral and delight those of us who have the preceding four volumes under our belts, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with it. You’d still have the wit, the wonderful art, the occasional outrageous action, and even the underlying celebration of love and family, but you’d be left wondering if there was any coherent thread at all as the family members are spread across the galaxies. I recommend reading Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4, in that order, before this one.
The series has a bit too much explicit sex for my taste. Not that it’s pornographic: I can’t, for example, imagine many people would find the sexual behaviour of the dragons in this book anything other than disgusting. I guess I find other people’s sexual activities and fantasies mildly embarrassing. There’s a bit too much graphic violence too, come to think of it. Oh, and there’s some romanticising of drugs, though the realisation that a main character comes to as a result of his stoned dreams is hardly endorsed by the narrative. None of those misgivings stop me from already hungering for Volume 6.
There are no giant dragon’s genitalia in Fables, but there’s enough human-looking sex to ensure that this series about fairy tale characters in exile isn’t for the very young. The tales are dark, though not exactly in the way the original fairy tales were dark: more like childhood noir. The big bad wolf is now Bigby Wolf, a tough-guy operative on the side of good who is – mostly – in human form. Old King Cole is a figurehead mayor of Fable Town while Snow White as his deputy really runs the show. And so on. All in the midst of unsuspecting ‘mundies’ (short for ‘mundanes’). In Volume 3, the love story between Snow White and Bigby Wolf passes a significant milestone (see cover of Volume 4 below for a spoiler), tiny police mounted on talking mice do their bit for law and order, Bluebeard turns out not to have reformed as thoroughly as he claimed, Prince Charming moves back in with one of his ex-wives when he realises there’s more to be gained there than by conning mundy women into supporting him, and a gun wielding Goldilocks does a lot of damage. What’s not to like?
In Volume 4, the framing story comes back to life. The characters are in exile because someone known as the Adversary had mustered a huge army and was murdering everyone in fairyland. Those who escaped set up a clandestine community known as Fable Town in New York City, with a farm upstate for those Fables (as the fairytale characters are known) who don’t look human. These two places have been hard enough to police so far, because as everyone knows, being a fairytale character is no guarantee of decent behaviour. In this issue one of the gates dividing the worlds is breached and, after centuries of believing themselves safe, the Fables face Tarantino-esque violence at an industrial level.
In a long-lasting comic series like this, one of the pleasures is the regular appearance of guest artists. Mark Buckingham is the principal artist, and it’s his gritty vision that dominates. Then for a retelling of an American folktale or an episode involving cute miniature characters, someone else (in these cases Bryan Talbot and Linda Medley respectively) shows us the familiar characters and milieux through a different lens. The lettering, by Todd Klein throughout, almost makes one regret the less labour-intensive digitised process that (I’m assuming) is used in more recent comics such as Saga.
Wikipedia tells me that this series has continued from 2002 almost to the present – issue 150 was released in July. I’m reading it in the trade paperbacks, so far up to issue 27. I have 18 books to look forward to.
Tim Minchin, DC Turner & Tracy KingStorm (Orion 2014)
Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga, Volume Four (2014)
The slender rationale for including these books in a shared blog post is that they’re both comics, and I read them both in a single beach-side holiday afternoon.
Storm had its first incarnation as a beat poem Tim Minchin performed in one of his musico-comic solo shows. DC Turner and Tracy King, animators, loved it and saw its potential for an animated film. When they happened to meet the man himself a little later they asked his permission, and voilà, after just a couple of years’ work by many people, their video was scoring millions of hits on YouTube. This is the comic book of the film of the poem.
The poem tells of a dinner conversation where one of the guests (‘Tim’, known mainly as ‘I’) throws civility to the wind and delivers a blistering rant in defense of evidence based medicine and the scientific method against another guest, the eponymous Storm, who persistently advocates hip irrationality. It’s funny, both in its remorseless point scoring and in its mockery of the protagonist’s probably futile passion. It’s also completely serious, and includes a sweetly lyrical evocation of the wonders of the actual world.
The book in effect performs the poem on the page, illustrations and typography doing the work of voice and music. When ‘Tim’, in full snarky flight, asks, ‘Do we actually think that Horton heard a Who?’, a pale blue Dr-Seuss elephant trunk pokes in from a corner of the frame. And there’s an extra comic dimension in images of the other diners’ reactions – I particularly like his wife’s scowl when he mentions the tattoos on Storm’s breasts.
And then there are the equivalent of DVD extras: a foreword by Neil Gaiman (such a nice touch to have one of the living masters of fantasy write approvingly of a book that could easily be misread as antagonistic to fantasy); accounts of the book’s genesis by the writer and the artists (they are called illustrators, but they are much more than that); and a selection of alternative covers by other comics artists.
This volume of Saga continues to be as funny, suspenseful and artfully told as the first three volumes. I just reread my blog post on those, and don’t have anything to add. Except possibly that it begins with a full page close up of the television-head of one of the aliens emerging from the birth canal, Hazel’s parents separate, Hazel herself is kidnapped by a television-headed insurgent, who has also kidnapped the one we saw being born. Sadly the next volume won’t be here for an awfully long time.
Even more eccentric than the first series, this doco about innovation in film in the 21st century is worth watching mainly for the clips, but also for the Scottish cadences of Mark Cousins's narrative.
Although advertised on ABS iView site as a documentary, this is actually a drama, even a melodrama, based on Bertram Wainer's memoir of his struggle to reform abortion law and related police corruption in Victoria. Given recent legal decision in the USA, this is timely viewing.
This movie rides on the charm of its writer, director and star, Cooper Raiff. He's a young man, freshly graduated, who has a winning way with young children. His friendship and advocacy for a girl with autism leads to the beginnings of romance with her mother. I hope Raiff makes many more movies.
This series about the wife of a tech billionaire who is suddenly divorced but phenomenally wealthy starts out with some fairly revolting images of gross wealth and self indulgence, but we're told it becomes more interesting after the first couple of episodes as she tries to get involved in her Foundation's charity work.