Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review - Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splended Sundays

Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splended Sundays
by Winsor McCay; edited by Peter Maresca
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Collection/Project: Comic Strips

My immediate reaction on seeing Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays was awe. I was unaware of the exact format of the original collection Many Splendid Sundays and while Amazon's listing for this book mentioned it was oversized I couldn't wrap my head around how big it was. Here's a photograph of the book with a slightly irritated cat to give you a sense of scale.

I would say this book is huge but that's an understatement. I own huge books and Many More Splendid Sundays dwarfs them. It is by dimension the largest book I own by a wide margin. It's far larger than any of my shelves so I have to store it between bookshelves. I've only seen a handful of books on this scale ever.

The point of this monstrously huge book is to present the Little Nemo in Slumberland strips in their original format. When they were first published the newspapers the strips took up a full page of the Sunday comics. All reprints since then have had to scale the images down to fit a more manageable size. Many More Splendid Sundays measures twenty-one inches by sixteen inches in order to present the artwork in a lavish style.

The reason I'm going on at length about this is that the size is the entire reason that Many More Splendid Sundays is notable. There are other collections of Little Nemo that are much more affordable for those interested in the strip but this and its predecessor are the only ones that capture the full artwork.

Little Nemo in Slumberland was a very early newspaper strip. How early? Here's the strip that was published one hundred years ago:

I'd use the strip that was one hundred years old this week but it contains a racial caricature that I wouldn't want to inflict on anyone who was unprepared for it (there is a reoccurring "jungle man" character who turns up).

The strips follow a simple format; Nemo wanders his dreams having adventures which conclude when something causes Nemo to wake up in the last panel. McCay's writing is clumsy at best and his dialog is so highly stylized that it is awkward. The real reason to check out Little Nemo is the stunning artwork. McCay was putting surrealism into the Sunday newspaper before surrealism was an artistic movement. He developed a touch for beautiful flowing panels where you can feel the motion captured between them. And his sense of design is terrific; I could examine these panels looking at the details all day. McCay was the first artistic genius in the medium of linear art.

The biggest problem with Many More Splendid Sundays is that the comic strips have already been mined for Many Splendid Sundays making this volume a kind of runner up to the original. Maresca does take advantage of a blank slate by running long sequences of strips where a storyline continued from week to week for several months. Still I found myself hoping for certain strips that I was familiar with to be included only to find out that they were in the first book.

This is a book to buy specifically for the packaging. Before Many More Splendid Sundays the only Little Nemo strips I had read were shrunk down so far you had to squint to make out the words. The selection of strips may not be the greatest but that has simply made me want to get the first volume. I'll cheerfully recommend it to anyone interested in Winsor McCay's art with the caveat that if you are not familiar with Little Nemo you'll want to examine the strips in a less expensive format first.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review - The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
by Bill Waterson
2006 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Collection/Project: Comic Strips
Also contains all material from Calvin and Hobbes: The Revenge of the Baby-Sat, 1992 Eisner winner for best comic strip collection, and Calvin and Hobbes: Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, 1993 Eisner winner for best comic strip collection

The past few years have been good to comic strip fans. While the newspaper strips have been dying off new efforts to compile the high points of the medium have been occurring. Fans used to have to get their collection of strips in what were essentially "Best of" sets where an editor picked out a handful. Now there's a movement toward being complete and there are more of these projects than I can count. One of the major triggers for this movement was the publication and success of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

For those who have never seen Calvin and Hobbes (and I suppose that's possible since the strip ended fifteen years ago) it is about a young boy and his best friend who happens to be a tiger... or a stuffed animal if anyone else is looking. Calvin is prone to flights of fantasy and has an off-kilter world-view that's grounded by the tiger Hobbes. Together they get into every kind of mischief that a hyperactive six year old can get into and enjoy the suburban adventures of childhood.

This might be the easiest review I've ever written: I highly recommend this collection. Extremely highly. Doubly extremely highly. Adverbly doubly extremely highly. Calvin and Hobbes easily ranks among the greatest comic strips ever published. And unlike some strips Waterson ended it before it sank into a daily grind. That means that the more than three thousand strips are of a consistently terrific quality. Having the entire set in one beautiful package is well worth it.

The strips themselves possess a kind of timeless sense of humor. Anyone who spent their childhood wandering through imaginary vistas will be able to instantly connect with the strip. And anyone who knows the sheer volume of mayhem a six-year-old can cause will see that reflected in the stories.

The typical artwork in Calvin and Hobbes is great as Waterson is a master of character acting. As wonderful as it is to see how a tiger and boy can play off each other visually it goes from great to absolutely gorgeous when Waterson illustrates the lunatic imagination of Calvin. A dinosaur at the kitchen table looks just as natural as the mundane schoolrooms.

Okay, enough selling the content to those six people on Earth who are unfamiliar with Calvin and Hobbes; the main event is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It's a three volume set with either one sunday strip or three daily strips presented on each glossy page. Each volume is about five hundred pages and is just large enough that it isn't unweildy to read though I wouldn't want to hold it up for too long. The slipcase is heavy duty even has the cloth binding of the books. As a unit it is the heaviest publication I own. The production values could not be higher for this set.

The set is gorgeous and durable enough that I think that replacing any paperback collections that you have is worth it. This is the definitive format for owning one of the greatest works of comic art ever created. If you have any affection for Calvin and Hobbes then you will want to get The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. And if you don't then I pity the shriveled, black stone that passes for your heart.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review - The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
by Thomas M. Disch
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Related Book

Here's a sign of a bad book: I honestly cannot tell you what The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is about. It reads like the old-kilter rants of drunk man that progress down strange, incomprehensible paths and leap from subject to subject with little concern for bridging topics. It's a mashed together mess of the history of science fiction, the affect science fiction has had on culture, an overview of the genre, and critique of all of that. Disch's lack of focus means that his critiques are poorly supported and it contributes to making this book feel pointless.

Let's start with his opening chapter since it establishes a concept that Disch returns to throughout the book while establishing how shaky his reasoning is. It argues that American culture is somehow attuned more than other cultures to revere the liar; that deception is an American virtue. Now as much as that may make some people say, "Of course!" his support for this assertions is the same appreciation of tricksters, conmen, and audacity that has been evident in humanity for as long as there has been a written record. It's not an American thing to enjoy the tweaking of authority's nose by a clever person, it's a human thing.

Similarly he declares that Edgar Allen Poe was the first science fiction writer. Most of you are going to be scratching your head and saying, "Yeah, he grew out of the same gothic traditions that science fiction grew out of but he never wrote anything that could be remotely mistaken for science fiction." Disch's argument is based on Poe's place in pop culture of the time and literary style rather than the context of his stories. It's an argument that makes me wince because it could be used to justify the absorption of nearly any popular author since the nineteenth century into science fiction.

And so it goes through this book. His arguments are so ridiculous that I half suspect that Disch was making them spuriously so that people would react to them. Whether it's "The Cold Equations" as an example of how misogynistic science fiction authors were or using a self-help book based on Star Trek as the strawman for Star Trek's ideals so much of the book comes across as just wackiness. And with that first chapter dedicated to lying I have to ask if the book is a bit of a prank. Of course in the end I don't believe that; I've read enough off-the-wall literary criticism presented as reality that I can accept Disch's as genuine.

Things aren't all bad in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. When Disch gets personal the book is much more interesting. His take on the political extremes in science fiction authors is tightly focused on a few individuals that he could be addressing directly. There are times when he's discussing the context of an author or movement without getting into theorizing that kept me going. Unfortunately these only lasted a few pages before things switched up again and I never knew what I was going to get next.

I can't recommend The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of for many reasons. Top of the list is the rambling of the Disch who comes across as the Andy Rooney of science fiction. There's better histories and examinations of science fiction out there; the only reason to read this one is if you're interested in Disch's personal take on authors.