What I’ve Been Reading – September 1st 2010
I’ve forced myself out of my self-imposed comics bubble and started to regularly read novels again. It’s not clear why I ever stopped, possibly an illusion — a very retarded one — that I lack time to read a few pages a day.
I (re)started with a classic, J. D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. It’s a beautifully-written gem of a book, narrated in first-person by the protagonist Holden Caulfield, a whiny depression-prone teenager who finds himself in an existential limbo. During his narration, he uses a lot of the same words and expressions constantly, establishing a speech pattern that, throughout the book, goes from funny to disturbing. Adding excellent humorous touches to the narrative, Salinger portrays Caulfield’s many mood swings with brilliance and truly immerses the reader into the mind of the protagonist — and Caulfield, regardless of whether he’s likeable or a cunt, is nevertheless always fascinating.
I moved on to Charlie Huston’s THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH. I’ve never liked Huston’s work in comics, which is overly reliant on captions and grittiness, but as a novelist his talent is very much on display; the dialogue is fantastic, and Huston intelligently tailored his style around that; lines of dialogue are never followed up with “said Bob” or “Bob said”. Instead, the speaker is identified as the last person Huston mentioned. So Huston will describe a character doing something, and then a line of dialogue will appear, and once you’ve gotten used to this style, you’ll know that character is the one who spoke. After he’s identified the speaker, Huston rarely interrupts the flow of dialogue to give us more details because he knows that’s unnecessary. Therefore, this book always feels dynamic and really, really funny. It’s not as funny as Warren Ellis’ CROOKED LITTLE VEIN, but it’s more realistic and slightly less tongue-in-cheek, with a few dramatic moments that ring true (such as Web’s monologue about a traumatic event in his life, which he describes in a disturbingly disjointed manner). THE MYSTIC ARTS is also full of exceptional characters, my favorite easily being Po Sin.
Sadly, the book isn’t as consistent as CROOKED LITTLE VEIN and sags on the third act, concentrating on a silly subplot involving almonds that feels like it belongs to another, worse novel. Huston tries to make the shift sound natural by having almonds show up on the first and second acts, but they never do that in a way that justifies them being the center of the story’s finale. If Huston had concentrated on a subplot that was more fitting with the central theme — crime scene cleaning — it could have been far more interesting. But it’s important to note the novel never stops being a fun read, it just suffers a quality drop.
Then I got to a book that was very recommended by a lot of people, Cherie Priest’s BONESHAKER. Which is strange, because it’s mediocre. Surprisingly so. It opens with a prologue that gives away far too much of the backstory. When chapter one starts, we’re already familiar with the setting, and it would work better if the setting was gradually conveyed by the story, because it would also allow more time for character development; Priest seems far too eager to get to the action and, when she does, I knew very little (and cared very little) about the two protagonists: Briar and her son Zeke.
This impression only gets worse. Briar remains fairly dull, a watered-down version of the James-Cameronesque tough woman, and Zeke is absolutely unbearable. His immaturity and stupidity were probably meant to be endearing, but fail catastrophically. The supporting characters, on the other hand, are more interesting; them and the dialogue are the only aspects that keep BONESHAKER readable.
Priest’s greatest weakness is her style; she has the habit of spoon-feeding everything to the reader. It’s not enough to describe the actions of her characters, she insists on explaining why they’re acting this or that way even when it’s obvious (which is quite often). Unlike Charlie Huston, Priest frames her dialogue with completely unnecessary details — which often leads to ridiculous moments, such as a character giving a status report during a dangerous situation, and his line being followed with “Parks advised”. Yes, I know he advised, I’ve just read the line. If you’re going to interrupt the flow of dialogue, do it for a reason, such as letting us know how it was said. Another example of Priest’s clunkiness is preceding a line of dialogue with “She cut him off before he could say any more”. As opposed to cutting him off after he was done speaking, I guess. And there’s more. “‘Jesus’, Captain Brink blasphemed”. “‘Smooth‘, the captain accused.”
And then there’s moments Priest seems to stop paying attention, such as when she narrates, “It was the permanent dusk imposed by the height of the wall, its shadow blocking out even the weak, drizzling sunlight that came for a few hours each day during the winter.” So the shadow of the wall is blocking out the sun, instead of the wall blocking the sun and casting the shadow. And what is the word “even” doing there? “Blocking out even the weak, drizzling sunlight” — you’d think it would be easier to block out weak, drizzling sunlight than strong, blinding sunlight.
That, coupled with overdone descriptions of emotion (“the throbbing horror of her heart”), poor descriptions of surroundings (which makes an action scene inside an airship quite confusing) and lazy plot devices (a convenient earthquake destroying one of the ways into the city — it apparently had no trouble withstanding a decade of earthquakes before the protagonist came along) makes BONESHAKER a book that, for all its good ideas and interesting characters, constantly made me roll my eyes. And while the third act introduces us to the novel’s most interesting character, Dr. Minnericht, it resolves this subplot in a cliched manner.
I think Priest has potential, but in BONESHAKER, lacks the style and subtlety to make the most of it.
I’m now going to finish reading Roger Ebert’s YOUR MOVIE SUCKS (Ebert’s wit is always a pleasure to read), then move on to China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY.
As for comics, UNKNOWN SOLDIER continues to be a beautifully written and brilliantly lettered story which has seen enormous improvement in its weakest aspect: the visuals. For the arc DRY SEASON, Alberto Ponticelli adopted a heavily pencilled, tonal style that did indeed give the visuals a dry, arid feel and — here’s the surprising part – looked good. Ponticelli has always been talented with visual narrative, but his lines had an ugly, unpleasant look to them. With this new style, however, he delivered very competent and good-looking work in this arc, coupled with excellent color art by the very same Oscar Celestini who’d been previously adopting a simplistic and dull palette. After DRY SEASON, both artists went back to their previous styles, but they both continue to show improvement even then. Ponticelli, in particular, is starting to draw faces more carefully, and his splash pages are quite intense.
It’s wonderful to see one of the bravest and most intelligent books of late, a comic with teeth, becoming homogeneously excellent. So of course, it has been canceled and will end soon, for there is no justice in the world. Regardless, it’s one hell of a comic and I’ll stay tuned to the careers of all involved (the one member of the team I knew before reading this comic was letterer Clem Robins, whose work I’ve been a fan of since PREACHER).
I’m also reading Jason Aaron’s PUNISHER MAX, which accomplishes the same thing many other Punisher comics have: proving that only Garth Ennis knows how to write the Punisher. Aaron continues to resort to characters from the regular Marvel universe, giving them the MAX treatment. First, it was Kingpin, and it wasn’t too bad an arc. Now it’s Bullseye, and it’s been fairly ridiculous, although still entertaining. Aaron’s dialogue is fun, and his portrayal of Bullseye is wonderfully over-the-top, but the point remains: this is a shadow of the Punisher that Garth Ennis spent years and years sculpting into a fascinating character. It doesn’t even work as the simpler Marvel Knights Punisher Ennis used to write — Aaron’s Frank Castle is just your regular gritty vigilante. The writer tries to pull off the Punisher-as-a-force-of-nature feel, but he fails. Even poor Steve Dillon is on automatic pilot. His art is always a pleasure to admire, but here it feels less careful, not as subtle as usual, although colorist Matt Hollingsworth and letterer Cory Petit, unsurprisingly, deliver their typically very competent work.
To be fair, after Ennis’ magnificent run on the character, any writer will find himself in a nightmare trying to keep up the standard. I don’t think there’ll ever be a better pissed-off Punisher than in Ennis’ UP IS DOWN AND BLACK IS WHITE arc (Punisher #19-#24).
And in the regular Marvel universe, Frank Castle has apparently been turned into this:
So I give up on the regular Marvel universe.
As for the rest: Ennis’ THE BOYS continues to be exceptional (Russ Braun’s participation, I must say, is actually being superior to the series’ regular artist Darick Robertson), THE WALKING DEAD has seen a sudden improvement (it had been somewhat repetitive of late, but Kirkman kicked things up several notches on the latest issues), Mark Waid’s IRREDEEMABLE is gripping and inventive although a bit too talky at times (I don’t mind dialogue, of course, but I do mind extensive monologues uttered by characters while they’re fighting each other), Morrison’s BATMAN continues to be pathetic (the time-traveling plot and what Morrison’s done to the Joker are absolutely painful to watch, although I’ll admit the writer does manage to make the time-traveling plot interesting at times), Warren Ellis’ SUPERGOD is being, by far, the best in his recent superhero trilogy (comprised of the irregular BLACK SUMMER and the weak NO HERO), David Lapham’s CROSSED: FAMILY VALUES is laughably mediocre (the writing’s clunky, lacks any subtlety and the art fluctuates wildly in quality) and Alan Moore’s NEONOMICON is very, very promising.
And finally, since we’re talking about Alan Moore: I’ve finally read FROM HELL. Which is absolutely magnificent. It makes the movie seem even worse by comparison, and it was already a piece of shit. The comic’s thematic complexity is simply stunning, and the tenth chapter is phenomenal. Eddie Campbell’s art, though, is most of the time weak, and the lettering is often dreadful, but the man does pull off some good panels, particularly on the tenth chapter.
Sorry about the length of this post. Last time I gave a broad update on what I’ve been reading was eight months ago. I’ll try not to take that long again.