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.
Having enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Descender (my blog posts here, here and here), I was happy that my Christmas gift from my Comic Supplier included the first two books in a new series by him. It’s shaping up to be quite a story.
The first volume sets up a superheroes-in-retirement scenario. There are six of them, in order of appearance: Abraham Slam, strong man, who is more or less content with his life in exile as a farmer; Golden Gail, a 54 year old woman trapped in the body of her child superhero identity; Barbalien, a Martian master of disguise who struggles with unfulfilled desire; Colonel Weird, who spends a lot of time in the para-zone, where past, present and future are jumbled up together, and whose mind appears to be pretty jumbled as a result; Talky-Walky, a robot who does all the household chores and keeps building probes to try to find a way to escape; and Madame Dragonfly, a dark witch figure with dragonfly wings who keeps herself apart from the others and is generally disliked by them.
The nature of their exile isn’t clear. All we really know is that they are confined to a limited space including their farm and the small town nearby, and that they’ve been there for 10 years. We learn snippets of their past lives fighting crime and saving the occasional cat from a tree, beating supervillains, and joining forces to combat the greatest of all supervillains, the daringly named Anti-God. We also learn that there was a seventh superhero, a leader of sorts, called Black Hammer. The first volume – which collects numbers 1 to 6 of the comic series – ends with the arrival at the farm of a young reporter named Lucy, Black Hammer’s daughter.
In the second volume, things develop in a most satisfactory manner. We get more detail of all the back stories, and of the struggle against Anti-God (he had destroyed a whole other world before attacking their former home, Spiral City, and many other superheroes died at his hands). Our understanding of the nature of their exile grows less fuzzy as Lucy snoops around (and incidentally one of her discoveries echoes a climactic moment in Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, confirming my sense that what JCO treated as a major unexpected twist can be an unremarkable plot point in genre fiction). Romantic and other relationships with the townsfolk develop, none with outright happy results. One member of the band commits a shocking act of violence against another.
The final moment of this volume echoes the end of the first. Lucy once again dominates the moment, and it may well be that the story is about to head off in a completely new direction.
One last comment. The art by Dean Ormston, colouring by Dave Stewart, and lettering by the legendary Todd Klein (who must be legendary because I’ve heard of him) are wonderful, and then there is a 22 page section in a completely different, gaudy and ebullient style, by Dave Rubín. This section is ‘The Ballad of Talky-Walky’, and though I probably wouldn’t have persevered with a whole book in that style, here it brilliantly enacts the bizarre circumstances in which Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky became close friends and allies.
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).
For a Story So Far on this ripping revenge-of-the-robots space opera, you could do worse than clicking through to my blog post on Books 2, 3 and 4, by clicking here.
At the end of Volume 4, things were looking grim: Telsa, staunch but compromised ally of our robot hero child Tim-21, was left to drown by evil clone Tim-22; powerful destructive codes were about to fall into the wrong hands, and the galaxy as we know it was threatened with destruction; the Hardware were about to destroy Tim-21’s human ‘brother’ Andy, when Tim–21 recognised him on a screen and cried out, ‘That’s my brother!’
In Volume Five, the full complexity of the space wars is laid out.
Telsa is saved and evil Tim-22 comes to a ghastly end. Not to be too spoilerish, it turns out that ripping the head off a boy-like robot doesn’t disable it. You have to go a step or two further, and they need to be heavy steps.
Meanwhile, I don’t recommend that anyone read this book without reading the earlier instalments – and a quick reread of the earlier volumes would certainly have helped me. It’s a very complex world that Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have created here: the main conflict is between humans and machine, but there are individuals in both camps who ally themselves with the other side, some as opportunists, others working for peace. It’s not at all clear that the humans are the goodies: in fact, the mysterious descenders of the title – the ones from whom all sentient machines are descended – make a good case for eliminating humans from the universe.
This volume ends with the appearance of yet another group of robot beings, who seem to offer some hope for peace (and who are keeping company with a benign human we met and assumed dead in the first volume, and whom I had completely forgotten).
Like all good space operas, this one ends with an all-out battle to save the universe. Dustin Nguyen’s images don’t always make it clear who is blasting whom, but it doesn’t seem to matter terribly, and his watercolours manage to convey both the intensity of the conflict and the vulnerability – I was going to say vulnerable humanity, but the character we care about most is Tim-21, a robot – of the beings involved, including the most authoritarian of humans and robots. There are huge moral dilemmas as characters have to choose whether to obey orders or follow their deepest values.
Just in case you assume that a cosmic war has to be won by the side that wants to save the universe from destruction, be warned, the final chapter begins with an irregular title card in the middle of a dark page: ‘This is the way the universe ended.’
On the other hand, the final page is a beautifully optimistic promise of a new series, Ascender. I’m looking forward to it
This work of fiction, whose story covers the half dozen years in Berlin leading up to Hitler’s coming to power, was originally created as a series of 22 comics published over more than two decades. I read it in a single day, when I was too sick to do much else.
The first issue was published in April 1996 and the last in 2018. Those years saw 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the War in Iraq and the rise of IS; Donald Trump became President of the United States, and Jason Lutes became a father (his acknowledgements in Book Three describe two people with his surname as ‘the best reasons possible to miss deadlines’). No doubt the course of the narrative departed hugely from the original plan, but there’s an awe-inspiring visual consistency – neat ink drawings in regular panels, with meticulous hatching and loving attention to architectural detail.
At the beginning of the first book Marthe Müller, an art student, meets journalist Kurt Severing on a train travelling to Berlin in September 1928. They go their separate ways at first, she to the rigours of art school (in which the reader attends a lesson in perspective, which incidentally directs our attention to the quality of much of the book’s art) and the joys of bohemia, he to his politically engaged journalism. But theirs becomes the central relationship of the story, soon featuring lots of tactfully drawn sex. The second main narrative thread involves a working-class family that splits along political lines – the father and son join the Nazis while the mother, Gudrun, is drawn to the Communists along with her two daughters. These stories play out against the backdrop of serious political tensions, with flashbacks to the founding of the Weimar Republic after World War One. The final pages of this book feature the massacre of May Day marchers in 1929, where Gudrun is among the many killed.
City of Smoke picks up the story a month later. Marthe is drawn into the famous Weimar decadence, with an Eyes Wide Shut style orgy, lots of drugs and a relationship with a gender-fluid fellow student Anna. Kurt becomes increasingly despondent at the evident futility of his journalism, as his editor is charged with treason for a significant piece of investigative journalism (a page at the end of Book Three notes that this arrest and imprisonment are historical facts).
Meanwhile, Gudrun’s daughter Silvia lives by her wits, hating the Nazis but blaming the Communists for her mother’s death. She becomes involved with a Jewish scrounger and lives for a time with a comfortable Jewish family. A third major plot line involves an African-American jazz group, and the relationship one of them forms with a cabaret performer (who also happens to be a life model at the art school in City of Stones). Again, these personal dramas play out as part of the sweep of history, as anti-Semitic violence increases, and the Nazis become a greater force. Book Two ends with the jazzmen flying out of Germany just before the September 1930 election, which increased the Reichstag seats held by Nazis from 12 to 107.
City of Light dispenses with the methodical noting of dates that has been a hallmark of the books so far. It also has slightly larger frames, slightly larger lettering, perhaps a result of Jason Lutes’ ageing eyes, and certainly a kindness to mine.
Like the first two books, this one opens with passengers on a train bound for Berlin. In Book One it was Marthe, in Book Two the jazz group. In Book Three it’s Hitler himself, not even a name previously, but now a fully-fledged character. The book ends with his becoming Chancellor in 1933 – followed by four spreads showing panoramas of the city over the decades since then, including the only use of colour in all three books, for the decorations on the Wall after it fell in 1989, and a photograph of the modern city.
All the characters we have been following reach some kind of resolution. The Jewish family escapes. A policeman with scruples quits his job and leaves Berlin. Marthe returns to her parents in Köln (though in her final frames she considers turning back). Silvia and Kurt, each in their own way, decide to stay and fight. But the city itself, as those final spreads show, is in for a long and tortured time.
I was given Book Three as a Christmas gift, and decided to buy the first two and read them first. I’m glad I did, because much of the power of the third book depends on what we know of the characters’ struggles in the earlier books.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand those pages that consist of a series of almost identical panels showing, for example, a man playing a clarinet, but I expect that’s because of my relative visual illiteracy. This is a terrific historical novel, and a monumental piece of visual story-telling, a brilliantly accessible introduction to important history, and – what Lutes couldn’t have known when he started the project – a sober warning for our times, that catastrophes approach one step at a time.
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 bee 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.
Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi-Coates, Yona Harvey and Rembert Browne (writers), Alitha E Martinez and Roberto Poggio (main artists) and others, Black Panther: World of Wakanda (Marvel 2017)
Ta-Nehisi Coates & Yona Harvey (writers), Scott Hanna (main pencils), Dan Brown (main colorist) and others, Black Panther & the Crew (Marvel 2017)
My resolve not to read any more superhero comics weakened when, soon after seeing Ryan Coogler’s fabulous Black Panther movie, I spotted these books written by, among others, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, and Roxane Gay, who was a fabulous guest at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. I bought them as a gift for the son who generally gives me comics – and read them first.
I’ve been lured to superhero comics by big name writers before, and been disappointed. Josh Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 left me cold. Alas, so did these two.
World of Wakanda comprises three origin stories of characters who I assume feature in the Black Panther series proper. There’s a permeating sense that the main action is happening between episodes of these stories or is yet to come. Occasional footnotes refer the reader to other comics. Oddly, even some of the key moments in Roxane Gay’s story, which is the longest and most interesting, happen off the page.
Without the in-house Marvel elements, Gay’s story is of a kind that’s banned from my (mostly Lesbian) Book Club: a Lesbian story in which the Lesbianism is not incidental to the plot. I’m guessing that for Marvel cult members the story will work as thrilling feminist subversion of the prevailing indiviualistic male domination. I can applaud that at a notional level, but meh, I’m not part of the target readership.
Black Panther and the Crew is another origin story. Again, as evidence that I’m not the target readership, I found the superhero elements a fairly repugnant intrusion into a story about African American politics. I was with Brecht’s Galileo: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’ I also found it hard to follow at times, possibly because unlike proper Marvel readers I don’t recognise the superheroes who make up ‘the Crew’ (and before them ‘the Crusaders’) and almost certainly because my grasp of Marvel’s visual language is patchy.
Both books include advertisements for the three volumes of Black Panther: The World Beneath Our Feet, the main Black Panther story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even if I don’t read those myself, I’ll keep an eye out so I can include them in my gift to my son.
I read the Book 1 of Fatale a while back, and was unimpressed. When my son recently offered to lend me all five volumes, I decided to give it another go. I reread Book 1 to refresh my memory, and am embarrassed to say that I had almost no memory of the first reading, and this time I enjoyed it a lot. My blog post from back then describes it pretty accurately:
It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocities remain unseen by the reader.
This time I read on.
As you’d guess from the covers, the Fatale of the title is preceded by a silent Femme. The central character, Jo (or sometimes Josephine, and in one context Jane) has irresistible power over men. Some she simply bends to her will, others she infatuates so that they not only desire her and forsake all others, but devote their lives to protecting her, killing or dying in the attempt.
But not all men. It turns out that her powers have something to do with a cult whose members dress in weird monkish robes and commit ritual mass murders. The leader of the cult, sometimes known as the Bishop, wants Jo for vile purposes of his own and hunts her implacably through the decades (or maybe centuries).
Did I say it was a detective yarn? Well, yes, that’s true of the first book. But Jo, or perhaps other women who have been cursed like her with fatal charm and at least partial immortality, has been around for a long time, so she also features in tales of mediaeval witch-hunt, a Nazi interlude, a Bonnie and Clyde yarn, and more.
The story-telling is strong, and the art is compelling, but by the end I’d decided that horror isn’t for me. When the Bishop lays out his world view in Book 5, articulating the story’s dark metaphysics (the ‘reality’ behind the world that most people think is real), I was revolted, as I was meant to be, but I also wondered if there was any real pleasure or gain to be had from immersing oneself in someone else’s confected nightmare, however well done.
Descender is a space opera in glorious watercolour with a sweet, vulnerable and potentially lethal little boy at its heart.
Two brothers who were torn apart ten years earlier are searching for each other in the context of the build-up to intergalactic war. The catastrophe that separated them involved huge robotic machines called Harvesters, which wrought havoc on the planets governed by United Galactic Council and then disappeared. Since then, the agents of the UGC and others who are simply robot-phobic have been trying to destroy all artificial intelligence machines. Freelance bounty hunters, ‘scrappers’, roam space ferreting out even the most innocent robots, ‘robbies’, including those that are essential to human life on tiny planets. The repugnant inhabitants of the planet Gnish have made a virtual religion of pitching robbies against each other in gladiatorial combat. Meanwhile, the UGC are secretly building their own version of a Harvester, in the hope of securing the software that will make it an invincible weapon; and The Hardwire, an underground robot resistance, is building a huge army and hoping to call on the Harvesters (whom they worship as gods) as allies in a great war to eliminate humans.
All of that is background revealed in the first couple of books as it impinges on the lives of a handful of vividly realised characters.
There are the brothers, Andy and Tim-21, who is not a human brother but a robot created to be Andy’s companion. We learn through a series of flashbacks that they were devoted to each other as small boys, that Andy’s mother treated Tim-21 with kindness and respect for his sentient nature, that Tim-21 developed a capacity for compassion, affection and loyalty. He was in sleep mode when the Harvesters struck and stayed asleep until accidentally woken ten year later. Meanwhile, Andy was filled with vengeful rage and became a scrapper.
The sweet-natured, vulnerable Tim–21 contains within himself the coding that will reveal the secrets of the Harvesters – so he is a sought-after prize by all the big players. He does have allies: Quon, the man who ‘created’ him, Telsa (not Tesla) an officer of the UGC sent by her father to retrieve Tim–21 (she is unaware that her father wants to weaponise his coding); and his brother Andy.
The little band is captured, released, split up, infiltrated. There’s plenty of explosions and bang-crash-pow. But the narrative is kept alive by the complex web of ambivalent relationships and the underlying Blade-Runner-ish question of what it means to be human: Tim–21 has a human ‘brother’ in Andy, and a robot ‘brother’ in Tim–22, both of whom claim his affection and also plan to destroy him; he grieves for his deceased human mother, sees Quon as a kind of father, and is claimed as a son by the leader of the Hardwire; Andy’s ex-wife Effie identifies as part robot since being patched up after an accident, and insists that her name is Queen Between; a barely-intelligent robot named Driller turns out to have deep reserves of remorse for a murderous act of revenge.
The back stories of the characters unfold, full of satisfying twists, as the adventure lurches forward. At the end of Volume 4, things are looking grim: one character is about to drown, the weaponising secrets are about to fall into the wrong hands, one of the little bands of adventurers is about to be wiped out by The Hardware, and the galaxy as we know it may well be about to be destroyed. Then Tim–21 recognises Andy on a screen and cries out, ‘That’s my brother!’ The end of Book Four.
It’s terrific story-telling, with moments of sly satire, as when the Gnishians are crowning a new king: instead of a crown they place on his head an orange hairpiece that is eerily familiar to anyone who follows US presidential politics.
I wasn’t drawn to Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art in the first volume but either it’s settled down or I’ve settled in, but now I’m loving it. My conversion was completed by a series of spreads early in Volume 4 where three narrative strands play out wordlessly – across the top of each spread, the two Tims are alone on a lunar landscape; across the middle Andy and Effie/Queen Between revive their former mutual passion; in the bottom panels Quon and Telsa fight off a Hardwire guard and search for Tim–21. Each level has its distinctive style, and the sex and the violence are both handled with conviction but without prurience. At a couple of moments it may be hard to tell exactly what’s happening (my complaint about Volume 1), but there is good reason for that: sometimes the reader needs not to know everything.
According to Amazon, volume 5, The Rise of the Robots, will be published in January 2018, and it’s ‘what it has all been building to … as the origins of The Harvesters are finally revealed and the galaxy is thrown into all out war’. But Amazon says nothing of what happens to Tim and Andy. I’ll just have to wait.
My reliable son lent me the remaining volumes of Velvet in return for walking his dog and picking up a parcel from the post office.
Reading the two books took just a bit longer than the walk to and from the post office with two aged and wilful dogs, and was a much smother experience. I was glad at times that I wasn’t in a crowded street because a couple of the pages, in which Velvet Templeton allays the suspicions of a man who is betraying her by indulging in intimate acts, are pretty NSFW.
I don’t know if there are any plans for further adventures of Velvet, glamorous super-spy. She came back from a desk job in the first of these books. There’s nothing in principal stopping her coming back at some future time from the beach resort where we leave her at the end of the third volume. But I’d be happy to have this be the end of this elegantly written, drawn, coloured (by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and lettered (by Chris Eliopoulos) series, to have the door close on all these twists and turns, alliances and betrayals, murders and rescues, seductions and rejections.
As my supplier said, it’s popcorn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This is a film in the Late Style as described by Edward Said. It's engrossing, intensely personal, all over the place, and completely absorbing. It's kind of Eight and a Half without the clever-dickery. In fact, Almadóvar without the clever-dickery. Great performances from Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.
Ava DuVernay's name is attached to this series: it begins with an African-American doctor being shot by a white cop in a tragic error. No charges are laid against the cop. And things play out in the lives of the bereaved family, the cop and the birth mother of the killed man's adopted daughter. It looks like a great show.