Friday, July 10, 2009

Review - The Big Book of Urban Legends

The Big Book of Urban Legends
Written by Robert Loren Flemming and Robert F. Boyd Jr.
Art by two hundred different artists
Edited by Andy Helfer
1995 Eisner Award Winner for Best Anthology

The Big Book of Urban Legends is the first book in the "Big Book" line of comics by Paradox Press. They were an imprint of DC comics that seemed to focus on the bookstore market by producing a few mature readers graphic novels (The History of Violence and Road to Perdition) but their biggest success was this line which consisted of strange trivia.

There is no plot or story to The Big Book of Urban Legends. Instead it is a compilation of two hundred one page strips the illustrate a story that is passed around as true. There are a handful of times when two pages are used to cover a topic but that is rare. The typical page gives a title for the strip and the situation plays out.

Almost all of the legends presented in the book are pulled from Jan Harold Brunvand's compilations of urban legends The Vanishing Hitchhiker and The Choking Doberman. Sometimes a page will comprise a story though it's far more common for it to be a joke. And as you might guess with two hundred of them in one book there's quite a bit of repetition in themes. Flemming and Boyd do a fine job in changing up the writing styles for the strips though their dependence on a punchline for the last panel means that the rhythm of each page remains the same throughout the book. Still for the format they did a fine job.

I wasn't joking when I said that two hundred artists worked on The Big Book of Urban Legends. With that many doing one page a piece you'll find a different style every time you turn the page. The majority of the artist used something along the lines of a Harvey Kurtzman EC Comics style which was a natural fit for the anthology. There are others who went for something more cartoony or impressionistic. I can't bring myself to call any of the pages "bad" since a single page in a constrained format is something that's tough to judge. On the other hand the number of pages that made me say "That looked pretty good" outnumbered the ones that made me yawn. I suspect that many of the minor artists treated the opportunity as a try-out for other comics work and that seems to have brought out the best in many of them.

(The above page is Frank Quitely's first work published in the United States.)

As an anthology this is the editor's baby. Helfer is to be commented for bringing together the most diverse group of comic creators ever assembled to contribute to it. I can only imagine the organizational nightmare that was. Unfortunately Helfer is also responsible for the organization of the book and I think that falls flat. The legends are divided and grouped into categories and while some of them can be fairly diverse others are almost the exact same story over and over again. It doesn't help when he puts two nearly identical stories on opposite pages such as people turning up nude at their own surprise party.

The Big Book of Urban Legends reads a lot like a compilation of newspaper comic strips and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's a book intended as bathroom reading; something you can pick up for a few minutes and put down. I think if you read it that way, a few strips at a time on occasion, it is entertaining. It's also interesting as a showcase for all of those artists. It's well worth getting just to poke through.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review - Kings in Disguise

Kings in Disguise
Written by James Vance
Art by Dan Burr
1989 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue (#1)
1989 Eisner Winner for Best New Series

I'm back! Blasting out with 500 watts of power across the Internet. And to celebrate here's a fresh one.

Kings in Disguise might be one of the most obscure Eisner winners. I had never heard of it until I saw it on the list of winners. I've never heard anyone talk about it. And yet it seems to have been quietly gathering accolades like hitting Time Magazine's top 10 graphic novels list when it was reissued a few years ago. But this is why I've made a hobby of reading these award winning works; not to reread things I know are good but to explore the ones that I don't know.

Kings in Disguise is set at the start of the great depression when a twelve year old boy loses his family members one by one to the hardships of the day. After losing his mother to illness, his father abandoning him to seek work, and his brother arrested the boy leaves home to travel the rails. His initial goal is Detroit where he thinks his father is seeking employment in the auto factories. He meets a hobo who jokingly declares himself to be the king of Spain traveling in disguise at the two of them become dependent on each other to survive as they are caught up in the events of the day.

Vance puts a lot of emphasis on people's responsibility to each other. The book opens with a father abandoning his responsibility and a sibling failing badly at his. Over the course of the book it includes people to their community, businesses to their employees, and between friends. As part of that theme a significant portion of the book is about the socialist movement and the violent reactions to it. Vance tackles it from a lot of different directions though he avoids any truly complex moral situation; in Kings in Disguise no one is forced to choose between two strong obligations.

Where Vance really shines is in the interaction between his two lead characters. It gets off to a rough start with a standoffish kid and a friendly rogue but the relationship quickly develops beyond those stereotypical roots. Instead of a mentor student relationship where they grow closer these characters have a give and take that carries them along. By the time the book ends they're both in very different places emotionally than you'd expect given the beginning.

While Vance uses history he doesn't wallow in it. The only major historical event that his characters are caught up in is a labor riot. Beyond that factual occurrence the only kind of history that is name dropped is social and capturing life on the road during the depression is a major portion of the book.

While Dan Burr does fine work when it comes to capturing emotion in faces all of the figures themselves are so still that they look like department store mannequins. He does have a good eye for panel flow as the above sequence demonstrates. It's just that the characters themselves are so rigid looking that it makes them feel unnatural.

The best reason to read Kings in Disguise is for the development of the relationship between the boy and hobo. Their growth as they travel the rails is captured wonderfully and the rest of the book can't live up to that aspect's standards. The rest is decent enough but doesn't really stand out. The stories that Vance uses to illustrate the growth of his characters are heavy handed morality plays and Burr's artwork is too limited for my tastes. Still Kings in Disguise was worth reading just on the basis of that one major strength.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review - "Louise's Ghost" and "The Cure for Everything"

The Nebulas went back to agreeing partially with the Hugo winner list this year with Jack Williamson's "The Ultimate Earth" winning the novella category. Since these 2001 awards the only time where one story has not also won a Hugo was in 2004.

Also the next update won't be until Wednesday at the earliest. I've had some hardware failures and while I can finish the paragraph and half I have left here I can't rely on having access until parts arrive.

"Louise's Ghost"
by Kelly Link
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

The first thing that any reader is going to notice about this story and the thing that will stick in your mind is that it is about two friends who are named Louise. Link simply calls them both "Louise" in the story with no other identifies so it's filled with sentences like "Louise thanks Louise," and the reader has to try to work out the context. It's such a blatant bit of gimmicky writing that it got on my nerves. I know exactly what Link was attempting to do; she wanted to make the characterization distinctive and let the reader divide them mentally. What it actually did is make me reread passages wondering where she was trying to trick me into thinking of the wrong Louise. Thankfully she never does that but she never does anything else with the fact that they have the same name.

Louise 1 who is the protagonist often meets with her friend Louise 2. Louise 1 has a problem since her new house has a ghost. It's not a threatening ghost; just a naked man who appears in inconvenient places. Louise 2 has a solution to get rid of the ghost; she'll invite over all the cellists that she has had sex with (it's a lot of them) and one of them may be able to lure the ghost into an instrument and take it away.

The real point of the story isn't that plot (there isn't a lot more to it than what I put there) it's in the relationship between the two Louises. Link constantly plays up the differences between them because that's the only reason she has for giving both characters the same name. So Louise 1 has affairs with married men to avoid relationships while Louise 2 uses lovers and discards them. Louise 2 is drawn to music and Louise 1 is tone deaf. Louise 1 can't stand children and Louise 2 has indulged her daughter to a point beyond reason. And on and on.

This is a story that works hard to be metaphorical. It works so hard at it that it draws attention to the fact that it's working hard to be metaphorical. Consequently I had the same reaction I seem to have to every Kelly Link story: she gets so much right but she tries too hard and it ruins the whole thing.

"The Cure for Everything"
by Severna Park
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

An albino woman who is involved in relocating indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest finds a man moving a truck of natives without the propper authorization. The man doing this is forced to tell her that he works for a biomedical corporation that is relocating this tribe that is about to be flooded out by a new dam because their genetic code has the potential to cure nearly anything. With the promise of being able to have children with no risk of fatal traits coming forward she allows him to continue on his way. She winds up having second thoughts about this exploitation and follows in the hope of freeing them.

I'll give Park full credit for taking what is a hoary old SF cliche and spinning it into a new direction. The problem for me, though, was that the new direction wasn't an interesting one. I'm avoiding spoiling the story too much; it's just that when she departs from the usual trails Park doesn't do much with the concepts. And I found the very end of the story particularly awkward as a completely new story element is introduced in the last sentence with no foreshadowing or development; it's the conclusion to a story that wasn't in "The Cure for Everything".

I couldn't care about what happened to anyone in this story. Only the protagonist is developed beyond the level of plot device and most of her character development is heavy-handed. Despite a clever idea in the plotting there just isn't enough to "The Cure for Everything" to make it worth reading.