October 7, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 7 October 2011

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection, by Scott McCloud

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection
By Scott McCloud

Long before Scott McCloud became the guru of comics deconstruction with his wildly popular trilogy of nonfiction titles on the subject (1993's Understanding Comics, 2000's Reinventing Comics and 2006's Making Comics), he was the author of the late-'80s underground hit Zot!, an important transitional title between the daring but filthy work that mostly marked this industry in the '70s and the mainstreaming of indie comics in the '90s, but a title that had fallen into almost complete obscurity by our own times; so it's nice to see the almost complete run of the comic (minus its first ten crappy color "proto-issues") repackaged by Harper into a slick, hefty trade paperback, something that I feel deserves to happen to the early work of nearly every artist who manages to survive over the years, for posterity's sake if nothing else. Unfortunately, though, when McCloud mentions in the introduction how inspired he was by the then-unknown "manga" format from Japan (one of the very first American artists to be so, in fact), he doesn't mean the post-apocalyptic hard sci-fi wing of manga but rather the sappy, soap-operaish domestic dramas so loved by thirteen-year-old girls; and what starts as a fairly clever premise (the adventures of a do-gooder superhero in a parallel-universe New York perpetually stuck in Kennedy/Jetsons Late-Modernist shininess, and how this messes with the superhero's head when he visits our own run-down '80s Manhattan) devolves by its halfway point into an endless series of overly sentimental, overly earnest character studies about small-town New England, literally as if the creators of Superman suddenly decided one day to permanently saddle him in his Clark Kent persona, then make him a minor character in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (yet another inspiration that McCloud specifically references in his introduction by name).

Now, to be fair, even McCloud himself acknowledges most of the weaknesses in Zot!, in the fascinating 2008 write-ups he did to accompany each issue; plus I always think it's fair to cut a well-known artist a lot of slack when looking back at their raw, early work, and especially any stuff they might've done for just a small audience back in their twenties, like is the case here. But still, it's important I think to acknowledge the problems this series has, and to let people know that they're not exactly going to be stumbling across some forgotten Postmodernist Watchmen masterpiece when picking this up, despite these issues coming out at the same time as Alan Moore's '80s classic and in the early episodes dealing lightly with the same "What Makes Superheroes Really Tick" themes. Fun to read if you have a random chance, and a book I'm glad at least exists, but not something I'd recommend going out of your way to procure.

Out of 10: 7.9

Ashes of the Earth, by Eliot Pattison

Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America
By Eliot Pattison

It may sound at first to be the height of cheesy cross-genre gimmickry -- a modern-style crime drama set within a James Howard Kunstleresque post-apocalyptic, neo-Luddite America -- but in Ashes of the Earth, mystery veteran Eliot Pattison takes what could've been an extremely eye-rolling experience and actually makes it taut and fascinating, a thriller that I admit I found more engaging than most other crime novels set within much more workaday surroundings. And that's because Pattison chooses to take a sober, toned-down approach to his world-building here, concocting a crime that fits in very naturally with the quasi-Victorian, surrounded-by-ruins milieu of these kinds of novels, making the story much less about radioactive mutants and hidden caches of Barbie dolls (although both these things are there as well), and much more about how the human capacity for both compassion and greed will long survive whatever circumstances we humans find ourselves in, not a utopia or a wasteland like so many post-apocalyptic thrillers are but simply a new way of life and new ways for people to act both honorably and horribly. The twist-filled plot is best left a surprise, which is why I won't mention anything about what actually "happens" here; but let's just say that fans of both Scott Turow and dystopian sci-fi are likely to be highly satisfied with this quickly paced, always fascinating book, a story that manages to be not only inventive in its plot but even introduces lots of original elements to its details, something becoming harder and harder to do in our post-Road times, when an ever-expanding glut of post-apocalyptic novels seems sometimes to be in danger of cannibalizing itself to death. A pleasant surprise and a much better novel than I was expecting, it comes strongly recommended.

Out of 10: 9.3

Remain in Light, by Collin Kelley

Remain in Light
By Collin Kelley
Vanilla Heart Publishing

Regular readers will remember the 2009 book Conquering Venus, the debut novel of multiple Pushcart and Lambda Prize nominee Collin Kelley, and how in my original review I found it promising but full of problems as well, a decent enough first novel but that got only a tepid recommendation from me. And now Kelley has just released a sequel, Remain in Light, which essentially takes the same characters and picks up about a year after the previous book leaves off, examining the long-term repercussions of this group's event-filled lives in the original; and the good news, I'm happy to say, is that this second novel is much better than the first, and in fact Kelley seems almost to have directly addressed the exact issues I most complained about in the previous title. For those who need a recap, the first book details the adventures of two youngish hipsters from Tennessee (one a slightly douchey Jewish woman, the other a gay man whose lover recently committed suicide), in charge of leading a group of rowdy teens through their senior trip to Paris, where a whole series of tumultuous events occur -- the man falls in love with one of the teens, a closeted jock with addiction issues, then accidentally becomes friends with a sixty-something French female ingenue, who has been a virtual shut-in since her own lover was killed in the 1968 student riots in that city, the two coincidentally sharing both an unusual tattoo and a propensity for strange magical-realism dreams, a fascinating milieu but unfortunately with wildly inconsistent characterizations, not to mention the troubling aspect of our "hero" entering into a sexual relationship with an underage boy by basically taking advantage of him whenever he was wasted.

Thankfully, though, it's these exact troubling aspects that Kelley mainly addresses in Light, with much of this book being about the long-term effects of that relationship on everyone involved; the devastated man is now sharing a flat with the ingenue, sexually drowning his sorrows through a series of bathhouse-cruising hookups with strangers, while the boy has since disappeared, with his homophobic parents back in Memphis vowing revenge, while the ingenue has had her own mystery deepen as well, as it starts becoming clear that it wasn't actually de Gaullean stormtroopers who killed her husband but rather one particular individual, a former family friend who may or may not have been secretly keeping tabs on her for the last thirty years, and who may or may not have recently purchased the publishing company where she works for mysterious and perhaps sinister reasons. And that's great, because it keeps up the intriguing and busy plot (the best part about the original Venus) but takes a much more consistent and realistic look at how such events would actually affect characters like these, all of them more sympathetic here in the second volume (including the aforementioned douchey hipster Jewish woman, whose one-year-anniversary vacation to Paris is what kicks off all these new events in the first place), precisely because their actions have such more serious consequences here; plus, it's clear that Kelley's actual extended trip to Paris himself between the writing of the first and second novels had a tremendously positive effect as well, in that the city really comes alive here in a kind of engaging and evocative way that it simply doesn't in the first volume. Great as a standalone book, or even better as part two of a grander whole, this is the rare sequel that easily outperforms its predecessor in just about any way you can name, and it comes with a highly enthusiastic recommendation.

Out of 10: 8.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:37 AM, October 7, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |