Posts Tagged ‘comics’

#CBR4 Cannonball 30: The Sandman, Volume 4: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of MistsThe Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, wow. Just… wow.

Season of Mists moves the story of Dream along. He is one of the Endless, along with his siblings, Death, Desire, Despair, and Destiny. Destiny calls them all together and, as a result of this meeting, Dream goes to Hell to free someone that he wrongfully condemned there ten thousand years ago. But the going won’t be easy because he offended Prince Lucifer (often referred to as “Satan”) the last time he was there.

Things aren’t difficult in quite the way that Dream expected. This volume subtly makes the point that the harder option isn’t always the punishment that we expect it to be, and that the easy road isn’t always the boon we think it is, either. Gaiman tells a very subtle allegory here, and it’s beautifully told.

Neil Gaiman is a serious genius. I can’t wait to see what the next volume is like.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 29: The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream CountryThe Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy cow, I had no idea just how good this series would be. Dream Country doesn’t even do all that much to move the plot forward, but it’s so compelling that it’s still nothing but a pleasure to read.

There are four unrelated stories told in this volume. The first is “Calliope,” about Richard Madoc, a writer who captures the Muse (like, I mean, the Muse, Calliope) and holds her captive in order to write brilliant things. She calls out to the Grey Ladies (the Fates) for help, and they tell her to ask Dream (known to her as Morpheus). We then see the terrible price of compromising integrity in the pursuit of success.

“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” tells the story of the world before recollection, when cats ruled the earth and humans were merely their pets. This all changed when, one day, a human started to dream of ruling the earth himself. This dream spread until a thousand people dreamed it, and it then became reality. A Siamese cat now roams the earth, telling her story and urging other cats to believe and dream, that they might rule the earth once more.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a really fun one. It shows the first-ever performance of Shakespeare’s famous play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was implied earlier in the series that Shakespeare struck a bargain with Dream in order to become a famous writer. This performance of Shakespeare’s play is put on for the fantastical characters in his play, many of which are real, and friends of Dream’s. It’s a nice bit of meta.

midsummer night's dream

Oberon, Titania, & co. arrive to watch the debut performance of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

“Facade” is about Urania “Rainie” Blackwell, who is transformed into a half-goddess, half-human by coming into contact with the Orb of Ra. She’s lonely and desperate, unable to interact with humankind because of her grotesque, half-human appearance, and she can’t even kill herself because she’s part goddess. Death (Dream’s younger sister) happens upon Rainie as she returns from taking a woman in the building who fell off a stepladder. She can’t take Rainie, but she gives her some helpful advice that allows her to find release from her suffering.

The stories don’t appear to be linked in any way, but they help you to get a bit of a feel for some of the main characters in the story. It doesn’t do so by direct revelation, but rather by showing you the effects that they have on others, which shows the reach of their influence and presence.

Dream Country is a heady read, and could stand alone as its own work.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 28: The Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's HouseThe Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I said in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes that I trusted that the foundation laid therein would be put to good use. Well, Gaiman exceeded my highest expectations.

We already know that Dream is the king of the dreamworld, but he was imprisoned by an occult group for seventy years. Now that he’s escaped, he’s trying to rebuild his kingdom. But there’s a complication: a girl called Rose Walker. The girl is a human dream vortex, and unless she’s destroyed, Dream’s kingdom could be destroyed. That sounds so much simpler than it actually is, which is a testament to Gaiman’s genius for storytelling.

There are also some dream beings who have rebelled against Dream, and are trying to create kingdoms of their own. They’re trying to interfere with Dream’s attempts to rebuild his kingdom.

There’s little I can say to adequately praise the beautiful artwork and breathtaking narrative in this volume. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t wait to read the next one.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 26: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman, #1)Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sandman is an interesting premise, and the first volume of the graphic novel has a lot of promise. I hear it gets even better as the series deepens, so I’m looking forward to getting into Volume 2.

An occult group, in an attempt to capture Death, accidentally traps and imprisons Dream instead. He escapes after seventy years, and his kingdom has since fallen into disrepair. He has to regain his tools for rebuilding his kingdom: a pouch of sand, a helm, and a ruby.

That’s such a gross oversimplification of the beauty of the first book that I’m rather disgusted with myself for not being able to describe the intricacies and nuances of it. But it’s clear that Gaiman, while still finding his direction in these first few books, is taking his work seriously and really trying to weave a tale like none other ever seen in comics. It can be at times macabre, at other times humorous, and at still other times truly magical.

The first volume does a solid job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. It’s really whet my appetite for more. While it didn’t quite blow me away as a standalone volume, I appreciate that Gaiman is taking the time to lay the framework of the series, and taking his time introducing us to Dream so that we’re encouraged to invest in the character, instead of getting cheap and immediate payoff.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 24: Blankets by Craig Thompson

BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blankets is aptly named. Imagine pulling out an old blanket and wrapping it around yourself. Breathe deeply of its scent; of dust and mold and mothballs, with a whiff of winter nights and pillow forts. For Craig Thompson, writing this graphic novel must have been like pulling out his past and immersing himself in it, inhaling the euphoria and pain of innocence lost.

Craig was raised in an evangelical Christian household. He was picked on by others and unpopular at school. He had to share a bed with his little brother, Phil. One year, he goes to a Christian winter camp, where he meets Raina. The two have an instant connection and begin a long-distance correspondence that culminates in Craig’s visiting Raina for two weeks.

Thompson paints a stark, sad, and unfortunately accurate picture of many churches and evangelical groups in America today. It made me really sad to see the kind of church he grew up attending. They taught him vague principles without any scriptural evidence, governed him by guilt instead of pointing him to the grace of the gospel, and were more concerned with outward conformity than inward renewal. Far too many churches like this exist, and then wonder why their youth abandon their “faith” as they grow older. I grew up in a church similar to that. I grew up feeling isolated and marginalized at church, which I resented because it just didn’t sit right with me that I was being rejected at the one place that I thought had no choice but to accept me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the true gospel (beginning with my own sinfulness and need of a Savior) and stopped thinking so much about myself and started thinking more about others.

lone wolf

And the whole trend of encouraging young men to go into ministry as a ploy to convince them not to abandon the faith is sad and ridiculously unbiblical. I’m thankful that Thompson had the foresight not to go into ministry out of guilt or because he was flattered by older men who told him they thought he’d be great at it. I don’t know any teenaged boys who know themselves well enough to know whether they’re called to ministry. Oh, and you have to be called. You can’t just appoint yourself to this role, and if you’re not sure, other people can’t make that decision for you, either.

*steps off soapbox* But the novel isn’t just about religion. The novel is also a raw look at first love. Most of us are familiar with the rush that comes with that first infatuation; the first time we meet someone who turns our insides to goo. And even more amazing is the moment when that person reciprocates your feelings.

But, then, real life is a lot harder than you want it to be when you’re seventeen. Raina’s parents are getting a divorce, and she’s often left to care for her developmentally disabled adopted siblings, Ben and Laura. Craig wants to support Raina, but the reader is left mumbling to herself, “Get outta there, kid; it’s going to be too much for you.”

Blankets is a beautiful coming-of-age story about family, friendship, first love, and learning the ropes of life. The artwork is superb and the story, well-told.

But it did leave me quite sad. Once you leave that innocence behind, there’s no getting it back. It happens to all of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let it go.

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Regular Read: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Ghost WorldGhost World by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Everyone seems to love Ghost World, and I just don’t get it. I saw the movie and hated it, and I thought maybe I would like the graphic novel better, but I didn’t.

Enid and Becky are about to graduate college. The two girls, especially Enid, spend most of their time criticizing the world around them, playing pranks on people, and speculating about the lives of the people they see.

I suppose the two girls are supposed to represent disillusioned youth, but, to me, they epitomized the folly of youth. When you’re young and haven’t made all that many major mistakes, you can afford to criticize and scoff at old people with pathetic lives that didn’t live up to anyone’s dreams or expectations. I guess you could say that Enid is an antihero, but I couldn’t connect with her in any way. Her pretention and arrogance made it impossible for me to like her in the least.

I would call this graphic novel “proto-hipster,” and I don’t mean that in a good way (although I suppose hipsters would think that made it cooler). Basically, it glorified a pretentious, ungrateful, critical, self-righteous, elitist generation before it was cool to do so.

hipster kitty

It reminded me a little of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book that takes an unflinching look at the folly and pretention of youth. But, for me, the difference was that, as much as the young Dave Eggers of the novel annoyed the crap out of me, I could still stand back and admire the sheer beauty of his writing. The cat can write; there’s no doubt about that. While I disliked the young Eggers of the novel, I could appreciate Eggers’ brutal honesty and his ability to give his readers an accurate snapshot of the person he was in his early twenties.

Clowes, on the other hand, presents us with a caricature patched together out of snark and snobbery.

I wasn’t a huge fan of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I appreciate it a lot more now that I’ve read Ghost World.

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Cannonball 20: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After my initial foray into the world of Batman graphic novels, I was just hooked. Batman has always been my favorite superhero; mostly because the “super” he possesses — wits, drive, physical agility and strength — seem so much more relatable to me than superhuman strength or the ability to shoot webs out of my wrists.

I also enjoy the dark, gritty edge to the Batman franchise. Gotham City is a den of corruption, crime, and mayhem, and that, in my opinion, is a much more accurate picture of the world we live in than some happy, prosperous Pleasantville-type city.

That’s why I especially enjoyed Frank Miller’s treatment of Batman’s early years. He shows the Dark Knight learning the ropes, making mistakes, getting gravely injured. It’s gritty, real, and gripping. The artwork in this novel is also edgy without being ugly; stark without being plain. He does a great job of looking back at Batman’s origins and showing a prologue of how the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns came to be.

He also explains and sets up a lot of future characters and relationships in the Batman universe, such as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, ADA Harvey Dent, and especially Detective Jim Gordon. It’s a fun “when they were young” look at these characters, and it really humanizes them. It’s especially sad to see how Harvey Dent and Batman had such a promising beginning to their relationship. But that’s life in Gotham City.

Batman: Year One is definitely a must-read for fans of Batman and of Frank Miller.

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Cannonball 17: Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles BeganMaus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second volume of Maus covers a lot of ground. It talks about Vladek’s time at Auschwitz. It talks about the author’s fears for the future of his relationship with his father — and his guilt over not wanting to have to take care of an ailing man who has suffered so much, but is unrelenting in his demands of his grown son.

Spiegelman paints a vivid picture of the horrors of a death camp, although these horrors are mitigated a bit by the cartoonishness of the animal characters. I don’t know if I’d be able to stomach them otherwise. His father suffered through horrors that I can’t even begin to imagine, no matter how many times I watch “Band of Brothers” and “Schindler’s List.”

But, as with his first volume, he doesn’t pull any punches with his father, either. It can be easy to almost deify Holocaust survivors, to think of them all as saints. It kind of reminds me of how, in the days right after 9/11, everyone kept calling the people who had died “heroes.” For the most part, they weren’t any different from anyone else on the street; they didn’t volunteer to die in this tragedy. They were mostly normal people with normal lives, and, had they survived, they would still occasionally have fought with their spouses and snapped at their children and ignored bums asking for change like most of the rest of us.

Vladek survived a terrible ordeal, and what happened to him should never happen to anyone. But he wasn’t a perfect person going into it, and he wasn’t perfect coming out of it, either.

cosby show

Obviously, Vladek didn't grow up watching "The Cosby Show."

Spiegelman describes one instance in which he and his wife pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. The hitchhiker is African-American, and Vladek is stupefied by what he sees as their foolishness. After all, this “shvartzer” (a Yiddish slur) could steal their money or their groceries! Art and his wife are horrified by Vladek’s racism, but when they try to point out that it’s tantamount to the German’s views on the Jews, Vladek just can’t see it.

It reminds me of an episode from my youth. Tom Bradley had just been re-elected as the mayor of Los Angeles. He was the first (and, to date, the only) African-American mayor of LA, and our teachers in school used the opportunity to teach us that anyone could be anything they wanted to be, no matter what their race. When I excitedly told my dad about it later that night, he said that he didn’t like Tom Bradley. When I asked why, he simply replied, “Because he’s black.”

Having been taught at school that racism was bad, I was shocked to discover that my father, when it came to civil rights, was one of the bad guys. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the reason because my dad was racist was because he owned a market in the ghetto of Long Beach, and that most of the people who stole from the store were African-American and Latino. That was his only experience with other minorities; he disliked black people the way I dislke hipsters. He’d just never met a nice one.

hipster kitty

It wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say that, had my parents not bought a house in the nicer parts of Long Beach so that I could go to the district’s better schools, which taught that all people are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin, I wouldn’t be a racist myself. I didn’t agree, but I understood why.

And Here My Troubles Began is a worthy successor to My Father Bleeds History. It continues to explore all of the themes and tell all of the stories that Spiegelman set up in the first volume. My only nitpick was that the ending was a bit abrupt.

But, I guess, when a story’s over, it’s over.

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Cannonball 15: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t read many comic books as a kid. Growing up, my parents bought us tons of books to encourage us to read, but they never bought us comic books, which they didn’t think had any educational value. Yes, I’m Asian. Why do you ask?

By the time I as old enough to make my own decisions about reading material, I was too old to be interested in visiting a comic book store. I never did end up getting into comics, although I thoroughly enjoyed watching TV shows and movies adapted from comic books.

As a result of my childhood deprivation of comic books, I was initially leery of graphic novels, thinking of them as glorified comic books.

I read Watchmen a few years ago after hearing so much hype about it. I thought it was overrated, but was able to appreciate the graphic novel as a literary medium.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is my second foray into the world of graphic novels, and it was an interesting one.

The novel opens on an aged Bruce Wayne. He’s fifty-five and retired from his superhero duties. But his life is empty without his crime-fighting, and he’s really just staving off boredom while the city around him goes to seed.

Commissioner James Gordon, his old ally, is retiring, and the new commissioner that they’re bringing in is firmly of the opinion that Batman is a dangerous vigilante who needs to be brought to justice.

In the meantime, the city is being overrun by a gang known as the Mutants, a ruthless group of “droog”-like thugs (think A Clockwork Orange) whose anonymous leader has been making death threats against both Gordon and Batman.

batman and robin

Batman and the new Robin, Carrie Kelly.

Finally fed up with the state of things in Gotham, Wayne suits up. At first he goes it alone, but he’s soon joined by a new Robin: thirteen-year-old Carrie Kelly. He still carries a lot of guilt over the death of Jason Todd, who was killed by the Joker in A Death in the Family (incidentally, one of the two comic books I’d read as a kid. The other was The Death of Superman. I was fascinated by death as a kid).

This graphic novel explored an interesting question: what happens to a superhero when he’s no longer super? The novel dealt with Batman’s aging, as well as with a cynicism borne of having fought crime for so many years to little avail. It explored Batman’s motivations and even brought in familiar characters from other comics from the DC world without making it seem gimmicky.

I do think that graphic novel tend to get a bit cheesy when it comes to introspection, but I suppose it’s par for the medium. I did thoroughly enjoy the story, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Miller’s work.

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Cannonball 47: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t have too high a view of modern literature, mostly because I don’t have too high a view of the modern reader. When we’ve got fully-grown adults running around declaring that the Harry Potter series are the best books they’ve ever read, I think it’s only a matter of time before the premise of the movie Idiocracy actually happens.

But it’s authors like Michael Chabon that restore my hope in the future of literature. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is epic, and it left me reeling, in a good way.

The book is set in the 1930s and 40s, just before the U.S. involvement in World War II. We follow the stories of two cousins: Samuel Klayman, a young New York Jew, and his Czech cousin, Josef Kavalier. Chabon seamlessly works the nascent world of comic books into his tale, and the cousins’ rise and fall is mirrored in the success of their flagship character, The Escapist.

Chabon clearly researched the history of comics thoroughly, and his writing shows that it was a labor of love. Every step of The Escapist’s story, from his origin story to his eventually being sold out by the comic’s publisher, is fleshed out in minute detail. Only a true lover of comics could describe that process and make it interesting to a wider audience (in this case, readers of novels). And the origin story of the character, both the character’s conception and his motivation and origin as a superhero, is cleverly crafted by Chabon. I’d read The Escapist as a stand-alone story. It’s that compelling.

But The Escapist’s story is more than just a loving homage to comics by the author. It also reflects a lot of the character of its creators. Like Joe Kavalier, the character hates evil and oppression. Through The Escapist, Joe is able to land the right hook on Hitler’s jaw that he longs to throw, even as he waits in New York, virtually helpless to assist his own family.

And, like Sammy Clay, Tom Mayflower (The Escapist’s true identity) had a childhood history of physical weakness. But Sammy is able to give The Escapist a power and courage that he thinks he lacks.

The friendship and love between the cousins is just beautiful; one of the most moving friendships in literary history. Sammy doesn’t literally die to save Joe’s life, but he sacrifices his life for his friend all the same.

What makes The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so amazing is not that their actual exploits are so incredible, although some of them do border on the fantastic. But it’s the fact that Chabon is able to weave the common threads of the human experience — life, love, loss — into his story that makes it truly remarkable.

And he does it all with a beautifully nuanced prose that puts hacks like Nicholas Sparks to shame. Michael Chabon is not just an author. He’s a writer.

I loved this book for all of its beauty and despair and ugliness and loneliness, but I have to warn my more conservative friends that it’s definitely rated R. There’s profanity and sex up in the hizzy. I didn’t find it to be crass or thrown in just for shock value, but it’s definitely there, so be forewarned.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I absolutely loved it.

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