I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!

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I just read: Habibi

img_1514 Habibi is easily the thickest graphic novel I’ve ever read. The blurbs on the back of this 670-page hardcover do a pretty good job summarizing some of my impressions. A ‘Orientalist fairy tale.’ ‘A modern Dickensian saga.’ ‘A parable about the divide between the first and third worlds.’ If any of that sounds interesting to you I’d say Habibi might be worth trying.

Here are some of my other thoughts:

Despite the book’s length, it is not a dense or a difficult read. In fact the story flies by, flitting between time jumps and Biblical allegories. If anything, I lingered on pages to savor the beautiful art. Craig Thompson fills each page with sinuous, flowing inks or intricately tight hand-drawn patterns. On an art level, the book is truly a black-and-white masterpiece.

img_1515Mostly, we’re following the story of a beautiful young Arabian woman, Dodola, and a younger African slave, Zam, that she takes in and cares for. Both Dodola and Zam have brutal backstories. They’ve both been born into impoverished, third-world cultures that marginalize women and blacks. They essentially have no one else in the world to care for them, and after Dodola escapes from a slave market with Zam, they become each others’ only family. Mother and son. Sister and brother. As Zam reaches puberty, his feelings toward Dodola grow more complicated, and that is the catalyst for the major conflict of the story. That and Zam’s discovery that Dodola has resorted to prostitution to bring them food.

The story is definitely not afraid to ‘go there’ when it shows the readers the brutality of Dodola and Zam’s world. In the first few pages, we are shown the aftermath of the consummation of a child-bride’s marriage. Then we’re seeing white slavery, a medieval attempt at abortion, rape, castration, infanticide, and a harem where women are callously murdered once they’ve lost the interest of the Sultan. Later in the book, Thompson spends a chapter explaining the horrors inflicted on a shantytown when their water supply is tainted by industrial pollution, sewage run-off, and even floating corpses.

img_1516Apparently Thompson chose to set Habibi in an anachronistic, allegorical sort of Arabian world, where skyscrapers and Western tourist co-exist with slave markets straight out of Roots or Game of Thrones. This to me was one of my biggest disconnects from the story. “Wait, was that guy driving a motorcycle? Now he’s throat slit by a nomadic tribesman?” I felt like it cartoonized the book’s depiction of the third-world. Surely there’s enough going on there to be frustrated or shocked by, without adding halberd-bearing assassins or pedophiliac slave traders.

But there are other parts of the book where its epic, allegorical vibe works well, especially when Thompson digresses into explorations of Arabic calligraphy, geometry, and ancient science. I found a lot of this stuff fascinating, in a numerology/astrology sort of way. And it’s always cool when comic artists find ways to work visual concepts or symbolism into their storytelling.

Overall, Habibi is a magnetic, beautiful, if sometimes confusing experience. The strong arc of Dodola and Zam’s relationship throughout the book (and as they come of age) helps to keep the story on track. I haven’t read Craig Thompson’s other graphic novel ’Blankets,’ but I’m looking forward to checking it out in the near future.

 

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I just read: The Steel Seraglio

steel_seraglio   ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (a dad, mom, and daughter team), is a wonderful epic story about women changing the world from unlikely origins—a medieval Arabian harem.

Considering its setting, it’s not surprising that the story works in elements of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with storytelling as a strong theme. But the first section of the book is more of a twist on the myth of ‘Lysistrata.’ In ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their men from going to war. In ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ the protagonists go the opposite way, overindulging the bellicose Sultan (with sex, flattery,  white lies, and any other feminine wile they can muster) to soothe him into not pursuing wars. As a result, the seraglio (another word for  stealthily presides over the most prosperous and enlightened sultanate in the land.

Unfortunately, this ‘Pax Romantica’ is finally shattered by a truly frightening villain in Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim is a religious extremist who believes all of Earthly existence should be a grinding, joyless slog to achieve perfection in the afterlife. He’s also got a unique origin story and a truly creepy secret totem that he keeps with him.

The protagonists are a savage exile, surrounded by men who see them as objects of gratification or political pawns to be slaughtered. But they work their way through each hardship with wisdom and cunning. These courtesans aren’t just sexpots playing dumb; they’re savvy, talented women.

65_edc02steelseraglioremnimitmalaviaAll except one among them, who wields a sharp knife better than a sharp wit. I won’t give that woman’s name, because it would spoil her sudden introduction to the story. But let’s just say she is the land’s only professional female assassin, and she finds herself throwing in with the Seraglio. Soon she is recruited as the group’s reluctant (and refreshingly gruff) tactician. There are other standouts: the wise and aging matriarch, the snobbish and brilliant diplomat, and the librarian who was granted powers to see the future.

Lastly, there’s the slain Sultan’s last living heir, Jamal. Jamal starts the book as a young, inconsequential prince—far back in the line of succession—so he is both spoiled and essentially ignored. When the Seraglio helps him survive the slaughter of all his brothers and half-brothers, a new world of possibilities opens up for Jamal in exile. But will he choose to follow those possibilities toward good, or toward evil? Jamal has the the strongest character arc in the book. He’s written as a character who is hard to like, but easy to empathize with.

Steel Seraglio also features evocative illustrations by Nimit Malavia.

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Series Condition: Tokyo Ghost

I’m updating this post from June to note the Tokyo Ghost finale.

I’ve heard a lot of great things about the comics writer, Rick Remember. Nearly every one of his Image series has sounded cool enough to hook me in for at least the first issue. Unfortunately, Black Science, Deadly Class, and Low all felt too nihilistic, too ‘hair-trigger’ for me. Lots of bouts of sudden violence; lots of main characters or innocent bystanders being killed off. They were cool books, with great ideas and art, but I had difficulty finding something enjoyable or sympathetic to grab onto, something to make me hang on for the ride.

tg00That’s not the case with the thundering tank-cycle that is Tokyo Ghost. So far, I’m totally hooked for the ride.

Tokyo Ghost
Writer: Rick Remender

Artist: Sean Murphy
10 issues
Years: 2015 to 2016
Publisher: Image Comics

If anything, Tokyo Ghost should be the Remender book that I most hate, because it might be his most misanthropic premise. Here’s the description from Comixology: The Isles of Los Angeles 2089: Humanity is addicted to technology, a population of unemployed leisure seekers blissfully distracted from toxic contamination, who borrow, steal, and kill to buy their next digital fix. Getting a virtual buzz is the only thing left to live for. It’s the biggest industry, the only industry, the drug everyone needs, and gangsters run it all.

tg01To establish the setting, Remender presents us with a ton of carnage and depressing scenarios. Also, a couple of truly ruthless and depraved bad guys, including a kazillionaire (a Donald Trump stand-in) who’s so debauched, he spends most of his business hours Donald-Ducking it. (Word of warning: If you don’t like doodles of men’s diddles, or other bits of nudity and bad language, then this might not be the comic for you.)

Again and again, the book goes over-the-top to show you just how this potential future is nearly-completely awful. I think one of the things that pulled me through this section of the book was that the future Earth in my ‘Idyll’ novel has some similar things going on (i.e., crowds of people who are emotionally and physically reliant on indulgent technology).

Then we go to the Garden Nation of Tokyo, which is the one place on the planet that is off-the-grid. In my mind that’s when the story really gets good. We learn more about our two main characters, one of whom is finally forced to disconnect from the tech that has consumed him.

tg02bThe story is always moving, with something at the end of each issue that breaks the status quo established by the issue before it. Then in issue 5, Remender really pulls the rug out from under our heroes, just when they’re at their happiest point.

Besides Remender’s twisty plot, the other HUGE draw is Sean Murphy’s art. He has a new, fun, ‘scratchy’ kinetic style, (I like Otto Schmidt and Sanford Greene, too).  Murphy’s delicate scratchy lines manage to be both dynamic and meticulously rendered. His art is like the beautiful love-child of Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Nino. Every other page, I had to stop reading and zoom in on my iPad to enjoy a rendering of a Zen Garden, or a kinetic kick, or just a reflection in water.

By Issue 6, the story has turned dark and nihilistic again, but I’m imagining that Remender has more surprises up his sleeve. I’d like to see more of Tokyo’s Samurai Shangri-La as opposed to being stuck in just another Cyberpunk Dystopia. Here’s hoping the story goes to more beautiful locations, to complement Murphy’s stunning art.tg03

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Update:

Issue #10, which came out in September of 2016, marked the end of the series. Murphy is moving over to DC Comics to work on ‘All-Star Batman.’ That should be pretty cool. It would’ve been interesting to see where ‘Tokyo Ghost’ might have gone, if it had stayed an ongoing series, but the story had a natural conclusion to it at the Issue-10 mark. Actually, it probably could’ve wrapped up by Issue 9. The plot seemed to tread water in issues 7-9. Perhaps the creators were trying to work out whether they should end the series or not. Also, the latter issues were pretty damn bloody and nihilistic, so a bit of the antithesis of what I liked about the first few issues.

I did like the finale, partly because it went into that sci-fi idea of just giving up on the physical world, uploading your brain into virtual reality, and living there forever. Idyll Book 3 deals with that idea, somewhat. Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a genre book that’s dealt so heavily with the theme of co-dependence. That’s the primary (internal) struggle that Debbie faces in the last issue: Does she have the strength to make a break for her independence? Should she want to?

So, next steps for me: Keep an eye out for Murphy’s ‘All-Star Batman.’ And I might check out Remender’s ‘Deadly Class.’

I just read: The Fireman

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-11-02-42-pmLet me start by saying that I loved Joe Hill’s book Horns. It was definitely in my top-five books for the year that I read it (2013? 2014?). It was the perfect horror novel, with all the right tropes and a few good twists and deviations in plot structure. Any time a horror/paranormal novel clocks in at over 400 pages, I expect it to be a bit too sprawling. I think the best spooky novels are oftentimes fairly short-and-sweet. But Horns had just that right amount of ‘sprawl’ to it. It bounced back and forth through some classic coming-of-age flashbacks; established a good mystery with some solid red-herrings; established a great, unique villain; and set up the reader for some devastatingly heartbreaking moments. Awesome.

On the other hand, Hill’s latest horror novel, The Fireman, left me with mixed emotions. It’s over 700 pages long, so I can definitely say it felt too long. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into this book. (OK, not my most well-crafted sentence.) A plague, a near-apocalyptic setting, a psycho ex, escaped convicts, a ghost, a potential psychic, sci-fi exposition involving brain chemistry, a religious cult, a murder mystery, two or three secondary mysteries, a budding romance, car chases and gun fights, whew!

Here’s the basic premise (which definitely drew me in): humanity is being decimated by a plague of spontaneous combustion. The plague is caused by a fungal spore called Dragonscale. The Dragonscale grows on skin in glittering black patterns, like tattoos, but those pretty tattoo patterns can burst into flame when the infected feel stressed. The story follows a recently infected (and recently impregnated) nurse named Harper Grayson.

In the first act of the novel, we follow Harper, seeing the beginnings of the outbreak through her eyes. Hill establishes another great villain in Harper’s husband. He starts off seeming fairly nice, but quickly we see how self-centered, misogynistic, and brittle he can be, especially once Harper becomes infected. Harper makes like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, and we’re off to ‘Act Two!’

This is where the story became too bloated, in my mind. Harper falls in with a tight-knit community of Dragonscalers who have found a way to tame their infection—to stave off a fiery death. I wanted to skim through parts of this section, which introduced over a dozen characters. Too benign, too boring. Too many corny references to Mary Poppins, 80’s music, and MTV VJ Martha Quinn (Martha Quinn?!? Really?) But of course this is Hill building up a sense of complacency. Just as Harper’s husband revealed his dark side, eventually her new friends show their ugly sides.

My favorite part of this section is Hill’s sci-fi explanations of how the spore interacts with the minds of its hosts, how it has a biological imperative to punish stress and to encourage a harmonious ‘group-think.’ Hill relates this to oxytocin, which is a real-life hormone, and a pretty scary concept in its own right.

The Dragonscalers are being hunted by ‘Cremation Squads,’ who want to end the contamination with a holocaust of their own. So Hill sets up a interesting conflict where we get to see both sides of a mob mentality. The Cremation Squad are xenophobes (violently rejecting outsiders), and yet the people who are supposedly on Harper’s side are too prone to cultishness (tightly controlling insiders).

I love books where close-knit or desperate communities devolve into totalitarianism. The Beach, Lord of the Flies (sort of), Walking Dead, even Watership Down (which is mentioned a few times in this novel). But once again, there’s maybe a few too many scenes, and few too many story elements, and there are points where it seemed like the plot might collapse under its own weight.

I think part of the reason I felt restless was because I expected the xenophobes vs. zealots storyline to play out and climax at the very end of the book. So when I was about 80% through the book, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I have a long way to go before all this stuff is resolved.’ But no, Hill surprised me by changing the status quo earlier than expected.

I won’t talk too much about ‘Act Three’ to avoid spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed it. I could definitely understand why some people might find it slow, or a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciated the change in structure, as a sort of thoughtful, hopeful denouement. Also, I truly didn’t see the last twist coming, and I liked that part very much.

So, overall, I think I’m finding that I like the book more than I thought I did. Just one last comment: Hill tries that trope of taking a fairly banal lyric or rhyme and framing it in a horror context so that it comes off as creepy or bad-ass. But I’m sorry… there’s nothing creepy or bad-ass about Mary Poppins quotes. ‘Spoonful of sugar.’ ‘Chim-chim-cher-ee.’ Ugh. It just reminds me of being forced to watch 60s Disney movies on the last day of school. Although there is a scene that used the Christmas carol, ‘Old Come All Ye Faithful,’ and that scene was very creepy.

I just read: Sleeping Giants

sleepinggiantsThe description for Sleeping Giants reminded me of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers. To me, that’s a very good thing, because Tommyknockers starts with one of my favorite high-concept openers ever: Woman finds a strange piece of metal stuck in the ground, starts digging, and digging, and digging, and eventually realizes it’s the lip of a gigantic, buried flying saucer.

In Sleeping Giants, it’s a young girl who stumbles upon a huge piece of long-buried alien technology. In this case, she finds a hand. But where’s the rest of the metallic body? It’s up to a shadowy government conspiracy to find it. The girl grows up and joins the shadowy government conspiracy, and soon her and her team are on a globe-spanning quest to find the pieces of their Giant (not unlike G.I.Joe searching for fragments of the Weather Dominator).

Overall, this novel has a fun ‘popcorn’ type feel to it, so a comparison to an afternoon cartoon feels very apt. I was also reminded of the movie ‘Pacific Rim.’ A giant robot? Check! Alien threat? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that. But mainly I was reminded of Pacific Rim in the way that the Sleeping Giant is designed to be driven.

The feature of this novel that really helps it stand apart is the way it’s constructed in a sort of ‘found footage’ way. Most of the story is told through transcripts of interviews or communiques, or through descriptions of satellite footage, etc. I suspect some readers will love this type of storytelling, and others will hate it. It does make you work harder to understand what’s going on, and to keep track of characters. In fact, reading ‘Sleeping Giants’ is a bit like putting together your own mysterious puzzle. But this also creates a distance between the reader and the characters. Sometimes the author cheats with this technique to give us more of a perspective into the heroes’ personal lives, and some of these attempts are a bit cringe-worthy. For instance, in at least two separate occasions, agents are being interviewed by their superior and they end up describing sexual encounters with their coworkers.

I never felt fully immersed in a scene, although I was fine with that because I enjoyed the ‘piecing together’ aspect of the reading experience. I’m sure I’ve read other books that are primarily told by letters or transcripts, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t include a huge, drivable robot in them!

The story also takes some very unexpected, whip-fast turns, which was cool. My main beef would be that the ending is a bit anticlimactic—and it’s obvious that the author is setting up a bigger conclusion in Book 2, ‘Waking Gods,’ which doesn’t come out till April 2017. Wakey, wakey! I’m ready to see how the story ends.

Decatur Book Festival 2016

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaI scoped out the Decatur Book Festival for a little while on Saturday and listened to a handful of indie authors do the unthinkable… Speak in public!

Check ’em out:

Roger Newman (Suspense Thriller starring a OB/GYN mystery solver)
Michel Le Gribble-Dates (Yoga and storytelling for kids)
Katelyne Parker (Fiction, Hosanna)
James Marshall Smith (Suspense Thriller written by a Radiation expert at the CDC)
Dawn Loetscher (Memoir, Survivin’ the Hand Life Dealt)
Dell Johnson (‘Poetry and Other Muses’)
Bernard Lee, Jr  (‘A Look Back In Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the Fifties’)

Lots of cool genres and types of literature on display at the DBF. If you’re in the Atlanta area (possibly nursing a Dragon*Con hangover?) you should go check it out!