Marco Lopez, Desiree Rodriguez, Hazel Newlevant, Derek Ruiz and Neil Schwartz (editors), Puerto Rico Strong(2018)
This is a comics anthology supporting Puerto Rico disaster relief and recovery in the wake of Hurricane María in September 2017.
I confess that before reading this book my main source of information about Puerto Rico and its relationship to the USA was West Side Story. The book has given me a lightning introduction to 500 years of the island’s history, from the original Taino inhabitants, through brutal Spanish colonisation to the current US imperial presence. Puerto Ricans were made US citizens – who don’t have the vote – in 1917, and a couple of weeks later the men were called up to fight for the US in World War One. As many as 1500 Puerto Rican women were involved in trials of the contraceptive pill in the 1950s, without real informed consent. And so on.
Among the 40 short pieces, as well as the history lessons, there are childhood stories, fantasies of dystopian futures and mythic pasts, explorations of the complex identities involved in being Puerto Rican, tales of friendship and creative enterprise, all in a dazzling range of art styles. Most of the writers and artists are Puertoriqueños. Donald Trump’s insulting paper-towel-throwing stunt and subsequent blocking of aid after the hurricane is mentioned, but his presence is restricted to less than a handful of pages. Attention goes instead an exhilarating assertion of pride in Boricuan identity and the proud history of resistance. (Borikén was the name of the island before the Spanish colonisers renamed it.)
I’m in awe of the work of the editors bringing this vast array of writers and artists together in a work that has many overlaps but never feels muddlingly repetitive. My copy was a gift for my birthday in March. I waited too long to read it.
Having been given the first three books in this series for my birthday in March (blog post here), I’ve reciprocated by buying this as a late Father’s Day gift for my comic supplying son, who is also a father. Of course I had to read it first, even though it’s horror and not my cup of tea.
Because I am so much in alien territory, here’s a quote from a Goodreads review by an English Professor at the University of Illinois, who I assume is a knowledgeable fan of this kind of thing (link to the whole excellent and spoilerish review here):
It’s clear from my glance at the reviews that 1) everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading and 2) loves the art, but 3) doesn’t know what the Hell (pun intended) is going on. I find little hints in the text itself that seem to indicate writer Jeff Lemire acknowledges he feels our pain.
The artwork is extraordinary, I agree. I agree there’s a pun if you say ‘what the Hell’. I’m not sure everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading.
The story telling is assured, so assured that even as the action shifts in time and place from page to page, you can generally follow with a little increase in focus. But look, the blurb says that in this volume the mechanics of the Pentoculus are explained. Well, yes, but the explanation certainly left me not knowing what was going on. The Bishop from earlier volumes, who I was sure was evil, is probably a good guy. Other key characters have their identities change before our eyes – and theirs. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m supposed to find it weird that the young hero, if that’s what he is, wears a Covid-type mask. And the piles of bloody corpses continue to mount …
These three books were a birthday present from my main comics supplier. I’m reading them promptly in order to lend them to him in this time of pestilence. It turns out this is a horror series, not something that appeals to me.
The first volume opens on an image of a young man in a surgical mask and rubber gloves looking at some roughly sketched garbage. Only a couple of months into the Covid–19 story, it takes an effort to realise that these accoutrements signify anything else besides sensible precautions against infection. But they do, though (not really a spoiler) we still don’t know what they do signify, beyond that the young man is a bit scary, by the end of the third volume.
Two story lines emerge in a fragmented and disorienting manner. A young man in psychotherapy for his obsession with garbage has troubling visions of a black barn that somehow embodies evil. A Catholic priest is sent by a bishop (whose face we don’t see) to a country town – Gideon Falls – to replace the parish priest who died recently, and behold he sees a black barn in gruesome circumstances on his first night there.
The stories progress in tandem, switching from one to the other without warning. There’s a section early on where the text bubbles and images belong to different stories. The effect is to unsettle the reader, slow him or her down, but also to suggest that the two plot lines are intimately interwoven, even though we don’t know how. In fact, even to the end of this first book, the two stories haven’t linked up. The young man’s therapist, who is a Buddhist and doesn’t believe in evil, comes to share his vision of the barn. The priest meets up with some locals who fill him in on the lore of the evil barn, and he finds himself inside the barn where his past wrongdoings come back to torment him. There is more death and bloodshed, though thankfully the artwork focuses more on the psychological fragmentation than the gore.
In the second volume the priest and the sheriff can’t remember their experiences in the barn, or even seeing the barn, but the aftertaste lingers on. Meanwhile, we learn more of the backstory of the young man, whose name is Norton – or is it? About the middle of this book the priest and Norton meet, inside the barn, which they have both separately reconstructed – either I didn’t read carefully enough or the impossible detail of how either of them did this was skipped. The intertwining images of them both at work are wonderful. The monster who inhabits the barn is revealed, up to a point, and we understand that the story is taking place in oddly dislocated time frames.
The third volume takes us into wild territory. There are crucifixions, visitors from the future, apparitions from the past, a gang of people wearing surgical masks, scary cockroaches, a satanic figure who is the heart of the book’s evil, something called the Pentoculus which suggests that there’s a sciency dimension to the horror … and a general sense that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Because these books give no information about their creators apart from giving their names on the cover, I went to Wikipedia for the details at the top of this post. There I learned that a fourth volume, The Pentoculus, is due for publication in April, and a fifth, Wicked Worlds, in May. I may seek them out if my Supplier is interested, but otherwise, meh.
As a no-longer-practising Catholic I’m unimpressed by the use of Catholicism for horror purposes, but I guess it’s an established trope, dating back at least to The Exorcist. When I was young I believed in the devil as an evil force active in the world, and I remember moments of terror, mainly at night, related to that belief. But it was always completely outweighed by belief in the goodness of God. There were devils, sure, but there were also angels who were just as real. I guess in the 21st century it’s tempting for people who have lost any sense of a loving God to think there must be some diabolical force loose in the world. I prefer to look for more mundane explanations, even if sometimes – like when I see the President of the United States boasting abut the ratings he gets for his Covid-19 press conferences – there’s no explanation that will make the reality unscary.
Early last December I announced that I didn’t want any superhero comics for Christmas. My second son’s alarmed expression made me think I’d spoken too late. But it turns out that he correctly intuited that the Black Hammer series was an understood exception. He knew I’d enjoyed the first two volumes of this series (though I doubt he read my blog post, here, which ended. ‘I’m patiently awaiting Volume 3’). Vol 3 was a Christmas gift from him, and I bought Vol 4 hot off the press.
Black Hammer isn’t so much a superhero comic as a commentary on them. In the first two books a band of superannuated heroes is on a weirdly unreal farm somewhere in rural USA: the last thing any of them remember is defeating the ultimate comicbook villain, the Anti-God. Everything looks normal, they have relationships with people in the nearby town, but they can’t leave. Black Hammer, their former leader, did manage to escape, but is now almost certainly dead. In the second volume, Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy, an investigative reporter, turns up but can’t remember how she got there. She finds her father’s fabulous titular black hammer, she wields it and becomes the all-new Black Hammer. In the final frame of Vol 2, she announces that she remembers everything and knows where they are and then …
… at the start of Vol 3, which is the beginning of the Age of Doom sequence, she vanishes, SHRACK!!
We follow Lucy/Black Hammer’s travels through weird meta-worlds incuding a version of hell and a mysterious castle called Storyland inhabited by characters who could be parodies of Neil Gaiman’s Endless. And we follow those left behind as they try to unravel the mystery. About halfway through this volume the bifurcated paths reunite and the mystery is solved. But the solution reveals that things are actually much worse than anyone imagined. At the end of this volume, a couple of frames after someone says:
without so much as a SHRACK!!, everything goes white.
[In case you’re interested, the characters in that frame are: Madame Dragonfly, mistress of the macabre; Golden Gail, a potty-mouthed adult frozen in an eleven-year-old’s body; Colonel Randall Weird, who knows past, present and future all at once and spends a lot of time on the Para-Zone (don’t ask); Abraham Slam, whose name says it all; Barbalien, Gay warlord from Mars; and Lucy/the new Black Hammer. Missing is Walky-Talky, the robot who intervenes at key moments.]
The next volume, the end of the Black Hammer series (apart from a number of spoin-offs carefully adumbrated in this story, including Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil), begins with 48 pages of art by Rich Tommaso, reminiscent of the comicbook art of the 1950s and strikingly different from the moody heroic style of Dean Ormston in the rest. These pages follow the adventures of Colonel Weird in another unreal world, this one inhabited by ‘unrealised characters from never finished stories’. (You can tell the creators had a lot of fun with this story, and there’s potential here for any number of spin-offs.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew are back to normal life in Spiral City – a life where they have never been superheroes. One waits tables, one is a guard at the museum reading superhero comics, one is Gay in homophobic Martian society, and one is living with dementia in a nursing home. But thanks to the magic black hammer, a well-placed KRA-KOOM!!, and some intense recriminations, the original group is back together in time to face down one more threat to the entire universe.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it all works out in the end, in a ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started’ kind of way, with a door left ajar for further adventures of Lucy/Black Hammer.
I enjoyed this a lot. It’s not part of the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe so you don’t have to be a cult insider to follow it and enjoy it. According to Wikipedia, Black Hammer’s crew are going to team up with DC’s Justice League heroes this year, and a film and or TV series is in development, but I’m happy to stick with this odd bunch as they are, in the page.)
Scanning my shelves after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (blog post to come when the Book Group meets), I decided to stick with the title and read a couple of the quality comics I was given for Christmas presents (Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend possibly to come).
These two handsome stand-alone books (‘novellas’) are spin-offs from the Criminal series of comics created between 2006 and 2012 by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (art). According to Wikipedia, ‘The series is a meditation on the clichés of the crime genre while remaining realistic and believable.‘ That description is pretty accurate for these two books.
Bad Weekend is set in the world of comic artists. The narrator is charged with being the minder for a cantankerous, sexist, drunken old man who has been invited to a convention to receive a major award – because he is also an artist of genius. The narrator has been the old man’s assistant years earlier, and has been specifically asked for by him on this occasion. It turns out (of course) that the old man is completely uninterested in the award, but wants the young man’s help in finding some priceless original artwork that has been stolen from him. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the art has a slightly surreal noir feel to it (surreal because of the costumed convention-goers, noir because of the dark world of art theft and intrigue). There’s a nice twist at the end, which probably would have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t, like me, just along for the ride. I should add that the ride involves genuine pathos as we discover the causes of the old man’s vileness.
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies should surely win a Most Provocative Title award. It turns out that like Bad Weekend this novella has a fairly straightforward plot involving criminal intrigue. A young woman with a heavy drug habit is sent to an expensive rehab clinic, but has no intention of getting clean. She sets her sights on a handsome young man and persuades him to run away with her from the clinic and from the constraints of their lives. She is, as she says, a bad influence. But there are hints that she is much worse than that – and these hints are realised. It’s pulp.
The present-time narrative, mostly in full colour, is intercut with the young woman’s back story in moody monochrome, in particular the way, after her mother died, possibly of an overdose, she became fascinated by singers and pop stars who were heroin users. For me, the effect was a reinstatement of parts of famous lives that have been quietly erased or glossed over (David Bowie, John Lennon, Jean-Paul Sartre), and an attention to details of lives I knew very little about (Billie Holliday, Gram Parsons). So it’s pulp, but there’s plenty of nutritious stuff there.
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.
Bill Bryson's view of the Danes always ready for a cheerfully intoxicated good time doesn't apply here. It traces the lives of a number of people in the days before a terrorist attack and, presumably, after.
According to IMDB, this is the fourth of six projected seasons. This is the one where Diana Spencer makes her appearance. And Maggie Thatcher, who is presented in counterpoint to her. Is it wrong to want Jeffrey Epstein to have a cameo role?