Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Big-@$$ Graphic Novels Round Up

I've been re-reading all of my favorite graphic novels which I own and took advantage of some free time recently to read 10 that I had never read before. Here are some mini-reviews of them dashed off quickly:

Foiled written by Jane Yolen with art by Mike Cavallaro
Published by One Second, who were responsible for one of the favorite graphic novels that I own, Journey into Mohawk Country, I had high hopes for Foiled. Also, I have been reading Jane Yolen's books since I was a child. I was impressed at her ability to personify a teenage girl. With dissections, lab partners, teenage angst/love, mysterious possibly dangerous love interests, and high school cliques, Foiled seems superficially to have a lot in common with Twilight. However, there are no vampires and no extended chastity metaphors (that I can find!). Instead, Alia is a New York high schooler whose adopted mother is obsessed with antiques and created histories. Alia lashes out by being preternaturally devoted to fencing, with her only respite being playing RPG with her disabled cousin (and listening to Enya, Ani DiFranco, and Loreena McKennitt, which made me laugh given I have all of their music!). Oh, and she's color-blind. The art by Mike Cavallaro is excellent, stylized but more sophisticated than manga. However, by the time I finished, I felt I had missed something. It wasn't meant to be a two-part story, was it?

The New 52: Wonder Woman Vol 1: Blood by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chang and Tony Akins
I have had decent success rates with the Wonder Woman titles I've read (which may be, to date, only one written by Gail Simone). I thought you could hardly go wrong by going back to basics, which I presume is the whole idea behind the New 52. So into this world I plunged, and I was not disappointed. This was not only highly accessible, the art was superb, and I enjoyed the use of Greek myth (which was probably always there with Wonder Woman but I never understood as she was being advertised as All-American). The narrative made me smile in places, and I think Diana came across as someone with whom to identify, often difficult with larger-than-life superheroes. Cliff Chang's reinterpretation of Greek gods like Apollo, Hera, Zeus, and Hermes was pretty impressive. I definitely wanted to know what happened next.

Gotham City Sirens: Union by Paul Dini and Scott Lobdel with art by Guillem March, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez
I had read what I think is the third volume in the series, Strange Fruit, which was enjoyable. However, I wish I had started at the beginning, because this first volume is by far the more impressive. The art is strong, but moreover, the writing was superb. I am a big Dini fan, and I thought he quite surpassed himself here. Moreover, Harley Quinn and Catwoman are two of my favorite Batman characters, and if anyone could write Harley going home for Christmas with her in-laws, its her creator, Dini. Poison Ivy has always represented to me a near-miss, because her general shtick makes for a good villainess—yet it really limits her in terms of character growth (and frankly, most of the time she's just an excuse for male artists to get their jollies trying to draw her as near to naked as possible). She doesn't steal the show here, but is better developed than in most other stories about her that I've read. I found the whole “decompressed-we-hate-thought-bubbles-narrative” going into overdrive in this particular volume, though the creative time is strong enough to just about hold it together (love a good Riddler story too, I do).

The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughn with art by Jason Shawn Alexander, Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, and Eduardo Bando
This was probably the best of the ten graphic novels I read. It played with the form, it was funny, incisive, creative, and, yes, full of escapist fun. The ripples of influence stretched far and wide, from “The Grey Ghost” of Batman: The Animated Series to Kick-Ass. Like The Master and Margarita (the graphic novel version), it employed the different styles of different artists to good effect. The workaday, almost web-comic-like stylings that told the story of Max Roth, a Jewish kid from Cleveland, Ohio, who loses both parents and then decides to pump new life into his father's secret passion, The Escapist comic, a superhero whose tiny Lone Ranger-like mask signals associations and nostalgias of days long gone by (he reminded me of The Spirit). You might think that the Escapist's exploits had seen their day, but Max has the help of his friend Denny and recently discovered artist/inker Case Weaver (who is the epitome of cute geek girl—seriously, she looks like she belongs in Chicks Dig Comics—it would have been nice to see a fat girl or a plain girl who can draw, because, believe me, we can). Nevertheless, I loved the “heart-to-heart” confessional feel of The Escapists, and because of that, I could follow it anywhere. Furthermore, “Case”'s art for the revamped Escapist is amazing. If I'd been Max, I would have hired her, too. I have not read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon upon which this is based.

American Vampire Vol 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King with art by Rafael Albuquerque
I thought I would give this a try, and though it (surprisingly) has a bit in common with last year's Dracula TV series, for the most part I had to admit it was well-written enough to keep me reading. I was a bit annoyed at some of the lack of historical accuracy (if you're going to set in the 1920s, do some radio research for God's sake) which seemed to matter less during the sections set in the Wild West. However, in the end the story and conceit lent themselves quite easily to the chosen historical settings. I enjoyed seeing a bedazzled Hollywood of the 1920s, I like the heroine, Pearl, and I enjoy the ambiguity of the vampire anti-hero Skinner Sweet (dude, a vampire who loves candy!). He reminds me of Jack of Fables. Anyway, the “bad” European vampires are a bit weak as adversaries, but I imagine they will improve. And for the record, Stephen King's first graphic novel writing is good but not great, but I'm sure that, too, improved. It's all solipsist-ically well-told, which is nice to see when encountering vampires for the umpteenth time (and it looks like there are 5 more volumes to come).

Fatale Vol 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker with art by Sean Phillips
This was disappointing. I've highly rated all of Ed Brubaker's DC writing. Mood and atmosphere were key in this noir offering, both of which it abounds in. Despite the fact that as an ongoing series, it was going to leave more questions unanswered than solved, I felt rather in the dark by the time it had ended and not all that tempted to read on to find out what was happening. I suppose it's unfair on the volume itself, but I've had quite enough of cults and groups of aristocratic white men summoning up the Devil while making human sacrifice, etc (see The Five Fists of Science). I was bored with that years ago. It would have helped had Josephine herself been a more interesting character, but like the majority of Steven Moffat's females, she was just a mystery wrapped in an enigma waiting for a man to explain her. So, the first volume was well-plotted, well-paced, and well-drawn, but not for me.

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel by Timothy Truman with art by Tomás Giorello & José Villarrubia
A rather unusual choice for me; I have never known anything Conan the Barbarian other than I remember in first grade someone at school had a record player that played some Conan adventure or other. What is immediately obvious about this story (and probably the majority of Conan stories) was the absence of women. Fair enough. Adventure series of yesteryear seem to believe, with Frederick Faust, that a good horse is more important than a woman. Timothy Truman has put his heart on his sleeve to demonstrate that he is invested in the source material and wanted to recapture that 1930s style of Bardic, fantastic imaginings. This is a weird and dreamlike, though warlike, world. I let the art carry me along. As a story, I found it satisfying.

The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction with art by Steven Sanders
I had real mixed feelings about this one. It is all about the Steampunk, though rooted in reality, of course. Mark Twain seems to be a surprising fixture in alternate history comics, and nutty Nikola Tesla is a natural for Steampunk-y, science-y plots. However, this Twain is a lot less depressed than the one who wrote The Diary of Adam and Eve, which was the last thing of his I read. The victim of genteel poverty, Twain is out to sue for world peace using some of Tesla's inventions—on a quite impressive scale. For some reason, they need a woman, who is yet so incidental to the plot that I cannot remember her name nor does it appear on any of the Amazon reviews. I had mixed feelings about the dramatis personae provided at the beginning of the volume. It helpfully told us that most of the characters were based on real-life historical personages, but also revealed that the creators had made some rather arbitrary changes to the characters in order for the story to work. For example, making J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and and Thomas Edison evil cult members (see Fatale) and Marconi into a buffoon (a Fascist he may have been, as the creators note themselves, but a buffoon—I think not). The story is, naturally, on a big scale, and a lot of fun. Twain (seemingly by default) makes a great comics protagonist, and Tesla is interesting, too.

Northlanders Vol 3 by Brian Wood with art by Vasilis Losos and Danijel Zezelsj
This is my favorite volume of Northlanders so far. I was way underwhelmed by The Cross + The Hammer. Although the first two stories (“Lindisfarne” and “The Viking Art of Single Combat”) were enjoyable (well, perhaps enjoyable is not the right word for this brutal and bloody series—satisfying is perhaps more apt), “The Shield-Maidens” was excellent. What perhaps makes this treatment of female Vikings different is its lack of idealistic backdrop. The three Danish women are not on a quest when they bear arms—different, then, from the other shield-maiden who springs to mind, Eowyn in Lord of the Rings—but have lost their husbands and protectors and are fighting to survive. They use cunning, brute strength, pagan feminine mystique (!), and hardiness to fight against their Christian Saxon adversaries. And, not to spoil anything, but . . . they survive!! “Sven the Immortal” was a nice conclusion (?) to the story from Sven the Returned.

Fables Vol 6: Homelands by Bill Willingham with art by Mark Buckingham
It's such a shame I've read these out of order, because the big reveal in this volume—of the real Adversary in the Homelands—would have packed a punch had I read them chronologically. Nevertheless, Boy Blue's heroism and daring are enjoyable and impressive.

Finally, I hate to be that old Victrola playing the same old broken record, but out of ten graphic novels, only one of them had a female author or artist. You might think titles like Wonder Woman or Gotham Sirens might attract women writers at least. Are mainstream comics becoming more girl-friendly? I see contradictory evidence.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Insurgents, American Patriots

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People

Troubled times demanded commitment” (73).

One of T.H. Breen's objectives in this book was to show how the commoners of English colonies who rebelled or asserted their independence, depending on how you look at it, made and carried out the decisions that were so unprecedented and led to the formation of the United States of America. Instead of focusing on military battles or the stand-out leaders with whom we are familiar (the Founding Fathers and others), Breen has chosen to look primarily at the Committees of Safety1 that ordinary Americans (he looks primarily at New England but other places, too) formed to police themselves, as it were. So far, so good—that's what I wanted the book for. Breen also notes that people have a habit of glossing over the complexities of the American Revolution—as it says on the cover of my Eyewitness American Revolution book, “Discover how a few brave patriots battled a mighty empire.” If you've read Redcoats and Rebels2 or The Spy, you know it's more complicated than that. John Adams famously said that 1/3 of Americans at the time were active revolutionaries, the others being roughly 1/3 Loyalists and one 1/3 neutral. While Breen gives good reasons for being skeptical about Adams' figures, it is a very tempting assertion—one-third stuck in the middle, waiting to see which way the wind was going to blow.

Breen has no time for either neutrals or Loyalists (in fact, I think he is a bit too critical of the actions of the latter). He also has no time for the Founding Fathers. American Insurgents, American Patriots is probably the closest we'll ever come to a Marxist reading of the American Revolution3. So it's a shame that it only seems to cover until about 1776, as I was interested to follow what this same body of people that Breen highlighted did once fighting actually began in earnest. Despite using the word “insurgents,” Breen mocks the Loyalists who wrote at the time they feared rule by the mob; I find his explanations for why the American Revolution didn't spiral out of control like it did in France some 15 years later, or the more recent examples Breen gives (as he seems to be something of a specialist on insurgency and counter-insurgency), to be not completely satisfactory. He seems to argue against a theory of exceptionalism but then does not explain why, not to my satisfaction anyway4. He feels that “taxation without representation” has been overemphasized as motivation.

He has mined a strong and interesting selection of primary sources and got me closer to the mindset of the average participant in the conflict than I was before, which is what I wanted in the first place. One question he has set out to answer—and which he does answer—is why an ordinary farmer like Matthew Patten-- “like other farmers, he did not welcome disruptions that took him and his sons away from normal chores”--would participate in “extralegal militant activities” (6,7). Breen feels that, instead of a favored view that Revolutionary/Enlightenment principles appealed to the cogitating intellectual class (I feel a dig at Jefferson here), the Revolution hit ordinary people's gut emotions. “Grief served to reaffirm a commitment to the American cause; anger fueled a sense of political self-righteousness . . . fear, fury, and resentment” (9-11). So who were these people? They were generally from white farm families. “Half of the total number of colonists” at this stage “were under the age of sixteen” (26). A population boom + new widespread availability of high-quality manufactured goods from Great Britain + high standards of literacy5 + social equality within communities + pride in agrarian life + evangelical Christianity + newspapers + effective communication networks = the kind of people Breen is profiling. These people had been, until the Stamp Acts, proud of being British citizens; “they served a vital economic role within the empire” (38). However, part of the problem was that this feeling was shared by the rulers over in Europe. As Breen has it, “The British learned a little late in the day that punishing insurgency—especially by attacking innocent people—is usually counterproductive, turning moderates into radicals and enhancing the reputation of the local resistance forces”6 (50). Unlike the sympathetic portrait we get of George III in David McCullough's 1776, Breen has contempt for the British and their lackeys in the colonies. “The defense of order and property in far-off colonies apparently justified authoritarian schemes” (63). Breen sees that Lord North's punishment after the Boston Tea Party “fell disproportionately on the poor,” but the cause-and-effect was such that colonists reacted in solidarity with the people of Massachusetts.

“Colonists reading about events in Boston persuaded themselves that ordinary people who lived there were suffering for all Americans” (101). The Boston Committee of Donations is an extraordinary body, something that should not have been written out of the history books: they organized the distribution of gifts of food, money, livestock, and random stuff out to the suffering poor of Boston. “The committee translated many contributions into cash, which in turn underwrote ambitious public works projects” (114). Why does no one teach us this in school? “And perhaps the most surprising gift came from 'the Aboriginal Natives of Christian-Town on Martha's Vineyard.' The Indians collected more than two pounds sterling for people who might not have been so generous had the situation been reversed” (118). Furthermore, being generous could sometimes save your life. Breen shows at least one case of an American being put on trial in suspicion of being against the Cause and being redeemed because the records showed that he sent an offering to the suffering Bostonians.

I was interested to learn about the Association, a sort of honor-system code against buying British products and therefore displaying modesty in dress and not doing fun stuff like going to the theatre and/or gaming. Long before the Declaration of Independence, “Some colonists stopped drinking tea; others joined vigilante groups roaming the New England countryside” (81). The vigilante groups differed in their approach, but they often made a show of intimidation against those they perceived as tools of an oppressive regime. One question I had to ask myself was what made a veteran of the French and Indian War a rebel/patriot or a Loyalist. Joshua Loring, for example, had served on campaigns on Lakes Champlain and Ontario, and his family was harassed in August 1774 by “a mob.” Meanwhile, Israel Putnam, who was also a hero of the French and Indian War, became a Revolutionary firebrand. Few of these intimidations (at least the ones cited by Breen) ended in something so violent as tarring and feathering (though anyone who has seen HBO's John Adams will not be able to think of that punishment as anything but brutal)--but true to The Spy, recent arrivals and small-time merchants (any outsiders in the community) were targeted for reprisals. Furthermore, a false report of Boston being destroyed by the British in September 1774-- “it is noteworthy that no one seems to have expressed the slightest skepticism about the intelligence” (138).

One of the chapters is called “Appeal to Heaven,” and I very much enjoyed learning about the origin of this phrase, which has filtered in and out of my learning about the Revolution since as long as I can remember. But I never knew quite what it meant before (it's from Locke). Breen uses this as the basis for the chapter explaining how Christianity helped fuel the Revolution—it's one of the best parts of the book. I also learned about The Crisis, an incendiary piece of writing from a crusty British misanthrope that had influence way out of proportion once it got to the colonies. Reprinted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, the headline was “BLOOD calls for BLOOD” (270).

Breen's book had me questioning how I (and James Fenimore Cooper, for that matter!) had lightly passed judgement on the Skinners in The Spy. Despised by all the other characters, they are considered the lowest of the low and are meted out with harsh punishment, which seemed to me deserved. The extralegal committees of 1774 “when pressed to justify their proceedings, they claimed to be acting in the name of the people, or the public” (162). However, the differene is that those who put their neighbors on trial, by and large, were lenient and patient—and did not advocate violence, unlike the Skinners who of course rob people and burn down houses. “Thousands of Americans who had never before held office—indeed, who never even imagined that it was their right to do so—flooded into positions of leadership” in the years after 1774, which I guess is what the Skinners would have done if, in the novel's voice, they were morally worthwhile (12). Besides, “no one else had a right to seize the property of another person,” thus the Skinners are reprehensible (250).

However, what I will most take away from Breen's book is his agonizing description of what could and did happen to people who upset the Revolutionary status quo. Two men in Camden, New Hampshire in 1774 attacked a man named John Taylor,“ ‘beat & kicked [him] with Fists & Feet. The ride lasted fifteen minutes, leaving Taylor, according to later court testimony, ‘very much bruised.’ Before his neighbors grew tired, the ordeal took a particularly ugly turn—whether by accident or design, we shall never know—for a sharp edge of the fence rail cut deeply into Taylor’s groin, leaving ‘a mortal wound on the private parts of his body of the length of six inches [and] of the breadth of four inches.’ The precision of the measurement seems in itself curiously gruesome. With a short time, Taylor bled to death. . . . John Steele, Moses Jewell, Robert Blood Jr, and Jane Steele appeared before a New Hampshire court for killing a man who apparently had not supported the American resistance to parliamentary taxation with sufficient enthusiasm” (Breen 15). Taylor's tormentors escaped punishment.

At exactly 300 pages, American Insurgents, American Patriots is succinct and easy to read.

1Despite the fact I now know that the American versions came first, I always think of the French Revolution when I read “Committees for Safety.”
2Which I read last year but didn't have time to review.
3Feel free to suggest alternate titles if you can think of any.
4“They [the Americans] surely would have burned houses and murdered neighbors if the situation had invited a continuous purging of ideological dissenters. . . . Wealthy Americans—great planters in the South or leading merchants in northern ports, for example—certainly harbored doubts about resistance to British rule, but when push came to shove, they depended more upon the goodwill of their neighbors than upon representatives of an imperial establishment” (163).
5I have read in various places that literacy among white male New Englanders was as high as 90%, with certain definitions of literacy for white women not all that much lower.
6Isn't that the whole thrust of the Mel Gibson Patriot?