Friday, June 18, 2010

Review - The Tale of One Bad Rat

The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Bryan Talbot
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint

I had exactly one problem with The Tale of One Bad Rat (which should tell you right away that this review is going to be positively glowing). The main character is a very troubled young woman. She's almost certainly schizophrenic and at the beginning of the book she seems to be right on the verge of a final break with reality. Authors like to simplify such psychological issues for the sake of the story and in this case I think it was a misstep given the details that reader saw. I had a few other problems in mind but as I thought back over the book I decided that they worked in context which made The Tale of One Bad Rat a very interesting book.

Helen is a runaway teen on the streets of London. She fled her family due to her abusive parents and now the only living thing that she can stand to touch is a rat that she carries with her. Helen also has hallucinations and focuses on suicide. She also shuns people, or did until a gang of wild kids invite her to stay at a house they're squatting in and that starts her on a new path.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is all about getting inside Helen's head. Talbot puts a face to her fears and depression that makes the story compelling. Helen also has an obsession with rats and Beatrix Potter and uses that to relate to her own life. She finds comfort in the uglier aspects of Potter's early life and Helen finds herself following in Potter's footsteps. Helen latches onto Potter and her anthropomorphic rodents as a lifeline. It is a good depiction of a mentally ill girl and Talbot pulled him into her world.

Talbot plays with a variety of stories about Helen in the course of the book. Initially it's the story of an urchin on the streets of London but he takes it to many different places. The most striking is a segment near the end of the book with her story told as a pastiche of a Beatrix Potter. Helen moves through these changes in story as she undergoes her own changes. She's never the same at the end of one segment as she was at the beginning and it's that development that makes The Tale of One Bad Rat so compelling.

The artwork does a decent job of supporting the story and when Talbot wants to fit in Potter illustrations he's up to the task of making them look natural. He does draw some very masculine looking faces for his women which threw me off at a few points. Early on the first time we see that Helen's mother was also abusive I initially thought it was her father wearing make up which would add a whole other layer to the psychological aspects of the story.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is a compelling look at child abuse and its consequences. Talbot may have chosen a simple climax but the rest of the character examination was worth it. I doubt I'll want to read it again any time soon but I am glad that I read it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review - The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

After digesting The Windup Girl for a bit I've come to a conclusion: it is the most cynical SF novel I have ever read. There's a lot of cynical SF out there especially since post-apocalypse has been used often enough that it has become its own subgenre but The Windup Girl is so far beyond that cynicism. I came to this conclusion while mulling over if one of the two characters in the novel who are given a heroic role was supposed to come across as a reactionary, power abusing xenophobe as he did to me. And then I realized that he was because this is a novel about how screwed up and self-destructive humanity is even when doing the right thing and how we'll still be screwed up and self-destructive in the exact same ways as the world caves in around us.

After cheap fossil fuel runs out and environmental shifts ravage the world the people of the world retreated to their own borders. While energy may have become much more expensive the knowledge from before that that collapse still exists and so it is used to develop new food stocks that can maintain the world. The booming biological science also gives way to new forms of biological warfare as rapidly mutating diseases bloom in the results and nations are bought by companies that unleash blights to destroy crops and then sell seeds that can resist them.

Thailand has managed to remain independent of outside influences by having a seed bank of old crops that they can use. A representative of one of those aggressive companies is looking for that hidden treasure trove of genetic material since it can expand their own genetics division but the company's influence is so despised that he remains undercover as a foreign investor in a factory. Thailand's borders are guarded by the environmental ministry; a corrupt police force overseen by a zealot who would burn anything foreign out of the nation at any cost. The trade ministry is corrupted by foreign influences and wants to break the power of these policemen in order to bring in outsider. And caught in the middle of this power struggle is an artificially grown Japanese woman who was abandoned when her former owner left.

I'm getting this out of the way first: the worst part of the book is the titular wind-up girl. She's outright creepy fetish material; a Japanese sex slave who is bred to obey the orders of any man and is graphically raped repeatedly through the book (hello, Google hits). I understand what Bacigalupi was trying to do with character since she's there to show the horrors of people becoming things that are built. He didn't have to do this as a sleazy magazine story. Fortunately despite being the title she's the smallest part in the book.

Where Bacigalupi is incredibly strong is presenting all of his major characters in way that makes their bad decisions make sense. So the glory seeking policeman who plays up his role as protector of the people as he's undermining the people he should be protecting has a loving family and has tunnel vision with regard to protecting the country. There's a refugee from racial strife who embezzles, hides vital information that would make him look bad, and is willing to murder but it's because he instinctively knows that Thailand is unstable and could erupt into the same violence that killed everyone he knew. There isn't a character in the novel who isn't a broken person in some way and that makes the collision course that they are set on interesting.

The plot doesn't really require the after the oil crash setting to work. The problems Thailand manifests in the novel are the exact same ones that any developing nation has these days. Even the real world Thailand is currently undergoing the same self-destructive factional struggles. This works to Bacigalup's advantage since as I read the book I felt that he had a stronger grasp of the rhetoric around the issues he uses than the actual science. So by just using those issues as a backdrop and using a cynical all sides are right about their worst possible results he avoids turning The Windup Girl into a preachy political screed. The message seems to be to pick your poison because either way you're dead.

I found the novel tough to read initially since Bacigalup spends a long time building his characters before the plot starts to move. It's nearly the half way point before signs of a genuine plot show up and before that each character seemed to be wiggling through their tiny, barely connected subplots. Once the plot does start moving it goes quickly though.

I have to say that I found The Windup Girl to be interestingly subversive. A superficial reading could leave someone with the impression that it was just another story about fighting the corporate overlords with a side of how organic farming will save us all. A closer look makes it evident that Bacigalup is not telling that simple of a story; there's the potential for good mixed in with all the bad that is done. Bacigalup just seems to think that mankind will always waste the potential for that good. Even as you sympathize with the characters they are also destroying themselves. That makes this an intriguing and challenging book that I'd have to recommend.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dave Johnson's Eisner Winning Covers

How about that? Someone other than Alex Ross and Brian Bolland won an Eisner for cover artwork in 2002. Dave Johnson was providing covers for Detective Comics and 100 Bullets then and he infused each of them with covers that remind me a lot of dime novels from the sixties.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review - Runaways

Written by Brian K. Vaughan; Art by Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

When the time comes in the not too distant future when American superhero comics die and the postmortem is performed there will be a lot of pointing fingers at who or what killed it. Along with the cultural shifts there will be names mentioned; people who will be blamed for not choosing the correct course of action or who initiated a shift in the medium that was poisonous to it in the end. When that day comes that Marvel and DC comics close up shop and are reduced to just warehouses for intellectual property there is one person who will not be blamed because in the waning days of superhero comics he took the chances and he reached out to a new audience. Brian K. Vaughan recent efforts with superhero comics have been ingenious in breaking new ground and in breaking the genre mold.

Runaways has a simple premise: six teens who are the children of supervillains run away from their parents and look for a way to stop their plans. They each have their own inheritance from their parents which they hope to turn against them. What makes this story work is that Vaughan writes them as teens. They have the same plan of all teenagers in rebelling against their parents but they're lost on how to do this. So they've just run away from home and hide out together trying to figure out what to do. And one of the group is still loyal to their parents.

The strongest aspect of Runaways has to be the characters. Vaughan created a cast of believable teenagers who are in turn scared, angry, rebellious, immature, and argumentative. They spend a lot more time fighting each other than their parents. The group feels like teens on the run who like the idea of being runaways but have no idea actually how to do any of it. That gives the group an interesting dynamic.

Ostensibly this is a book about superheroes but you'll be hard pressed to actually find any. They don't wear the costumes or really fight many villains other than their parents. In a way very similar to his Ex Machina Vaughan uses the structure and concepts of superheroes to tell a very different story. This one is naturally all about teen rebellion, family ties, and establishing a life. It just happens to have a girl who can life a bus over her head in it.

The first eighteen issues of Runaways is one complete story and Vaughan won his Eisner for the period when that story was concluding. Most of the artwork for those issues were done by Adrian Alphona with a little bit from Takeshi Miyazawa. I liked Alphona's art quite a bit as it had a slick, dynamic style. With Miyazawa on the other hand I did not like how he drew the character's faces; his manga style lacked a lot of definition and made things look flat.

I have the impression Runaways is intended for a younger audience and I suspect that they'd like it a lot. The tone and style is something that I think someone the same age as the characters would appreciate. As someone whose teen years are far behind them I still loved it. Runaways transcends its genre roots and is worth checking out.