Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Review of the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Review of the graphic novel Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by various artists. Published by DC Comics.

  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

    • by Bill Willingham, Todd Klein, Charles Vess, Michael Wm. Kaluta, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, Mark Buckingham, et. al.
    • HC, © 2006, 144 pp, DC Comics, ISBN 1-4012-0367-1

Released last week, this graphic novel features characters from the ongoing Fables comic book series, but you don’t need to be reading the series to enjoy it!

The premise of Bill Willingham’s Fables is that the homelands of many classic fairy tales have been conquered by a mysterious Adversary, and many fables have escaped and are living in our world in New York (city and upstate). The framing sequence here sees Snow White sent as an ambassador to a Sultan in the middle east, to warn him that the Arabian fables’ lands may be next. Instead, she ends up playing the part of Scheherezade and telling the Sultan stories of her friends’ lives in their homelands to stave off her execution.

The framing sequence is charming, but as an illustrated text piece it drastically underutilizes the skills of Vess and Kaluta (I had similar misgivings about Vess’ illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust). But it’s the tales that Snow is telling that make up the meat of the book.

The book leads off with John Bolton’s piece, which is about a couple of very-well-known characters (no, it’s not a big mystery, but I won’t spoil it for you), and is the longest and best piece of the book. Bolton has been one of my favorite painting comic book artists and has been for years (for instance, I love his work in Gaiman’s The Books of Magic), and while his stlye has evolved, his sheer skill is not diminished; his work here is gorgeous, and unlike some painters, he’s also skilled at laying out a graphic story. (Some artists – to my eyes – seem to draw some stiff pictures that just don’t flow as a story; Bolton does not have that problem.)

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1001 Nights is sort of a primer to Willingham’s overall approach to Fables: Start with some well-known (or not-so-well-known) fairy tales, and either explore the ramifications of the story by considering what happens after it ended (or before it began!), or put it in a world with other such tales and meld them together into a larger whole. So here we see the early life of the Big Bad Wolf (appropriately drawn in a rough, wild style by Mark Wheatley), and a nasty witch of some reknown (in an eerie style by Esao Andrews – one of several artists here I’m not familiar with). While these contortions tickle the geek in me due to their cleverness, they’re also just good entertainment.

The witch story, actually, is the one story in the volume where I wasn’t fond of the artwork. It’s the one story illustrated by two artists: Andrews and Tara McPherson. In the case of each artist, it’s the stiff poses and relative lack of detail that turn me off. It’s not that their art isn’t expressive, bit it didn’t feel as fully-realized as that of the other artists.

The thread running through most of the stories is that this is backstory for the characters in Fables, and we get many different pictures of characters fleeing their homelands when they’re conquered. Such tales are typically grim, but “Fair Division” – featuring Old King Cole – is charming and heartwarming despite this, which is fitting considering its main character. It’s also wonderfully drawn by Jill Thompson, an artist whose style changes almost every time I see her work. Sometimes it like it and sometimes I don’t, but she brought her “A” game to this yarn, and it’s a fine bookend to Bolton’s story at the front.

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Whether or not you read Fables, you can enjoy this volume. It’s pretty to look at, fun to read, and worth coming back to. (But I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to wait for the paperback.)

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Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (1)

Review of the first 5-book story of the Amber series by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The First Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels have become classics of the fantasy genre. The series consists of two cycles of five novels each, plus some short stories. I first read the series back in the 80s, and last read them before the second cycle was complete. Recently I decided I was really in the mood to read them again, not only to complete the series for the first time, but to see how well they held up after all this time.

The answer is, “pretty well”. I was pleased to find that they’re a quick read, a fun read, and still contain some surprises of the “I should have seen that coming” variety.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe the series without giving away some of the first book: Our hero, Corwin, is a Prince of Amber. Amber is the first among all alternate realities, the other all being shadows cast off from the prime world. Amber has been ruled from time immemorial by Oberon. Oberon had over a dozen offspring, who have engaged in internecine competition for thousands of years, and Corwin is one of these. Amber is embodied by the Pattern, a magical design which can be walked and if one is a true child of Amber will confer on that person the ability to shift through all the various Shadows simply by travelling and willing it so. Such children also are immortal and immensely strong, with superhuman constitutions.

Corwin has been out of the game for many centuries, living on our own world as an amnesiac. Nine Princes in Amber opens with Corwin’s memory being jogged, and him going on a quest to recover it. Along the way he meets several of his relatives, some he likes and some he doesn’t. He finds that his father has gone missing, and his brother Eric – whom he likes least of all – plans to crown himself King of Amber, an ambition Corwin holds for himself.

Narrated by Corwin himself, the series features our hero confronting his past and his present, making mistakes and suffering the consequences thereof. Ultimately it’s about this extraordinary man evolving from a man of ambition and vengeance to one of duty and compassion. In this it resembles any number of “prince earning his throne” parables, but Zelazny never loses sight that it’s not really about the throne: It’s about Corwin and his relationship with his family. Corwin learns what he’s not, rather than what he is and by discharging his responsibilities to Amber he frees himself to live his own life.

The royal family of Amber are a capricious lot, often acting like little gods who use the mortals of shadow purely for their own ends. Backstabbing and calculating, their paranoia fuels the story’s writing style, in which Corwin is deeply analytical and even his emotions are carefully scrutinized by himself in the narrative. He regrets and loves and yearns, but his words are typically clinical and rarely heartfelt. In this regard Zelazny’s prose feels artificial. Corwin’s hatred of Eric and his mixed feelings about his father feel the most genuine.

Despite that, Corwin is a likeable protagonist and that makes the story, because you root for him. Though a flawed figure, you can see him growing as a person and coming around to where he’s trying to do the right thing when circumstances allow.

I’ve heard that Nine Princes was originally written as a standalone book, so it’s not too surprising that the story expands considerably as it goes on.

I think The Guns of Avalon is my favorite book in the series. In it, Corwin surveys the results of one of his acts in the first book, meets up with an old ally, Ganelon, with whom he has a checkered history, and meets another brother, who’s had an unfortunate encounter with some adversaries. It feels almost as fully-textured as Nine Princes, and is full of portentiousness. Corwin’s relationship with Ganelon is one of the best elements of the series, and is crucial – in more ways than one – to Corwin’s story arc. The book even ends on a dramatic note (although later books drop the ball when it comes to following through on it).

Unicorn and Oberon unravel the plot by the villains, and along the way reveal some more surprising characteristics of Amber and its universe. The most compelling thing is the depth of the machinations of the characters, which is especially impressive since I’m pretty sure Zelazny was making it up as he went along, so he had to retrofit events into what he’d already written in the first volume. Not everything works – one revelation about the Pattern seems rather superfluous, for instance – but it never detracts from it being a fun ride. Oberon finishes with a terrific and clever confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, and ends with a surprising revelation (well, it surprised me, anyway).

The epic’s biggest drawback is that Courts is a slim volume in both page count and content. It’s really a denouement to the end of Oberon – which is the emotional climax of the whole series – and it includes a lengthy trip by Corwin, a lengthy war between two armies (one of whom we barely know), and a couple more revelations that feel like too much too late. There’s some decent material in the final volume, but unfortunately it means the story ends with less than a bang.

I feel I should make some observation about the influence of Amber on the fantasy genre, but in fact I know little about it. Some say that Charles Stross’ series starting with The Family Trade is influenced by Amber, but other than featuring parallel worlds I think it bears no resemblance at all. It’s really more akin to “modern person thrown into a medieval society” stories such as H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, and – of course – Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve also heard Zelazny’s writing was a significant influence on Stephen Brust. But the Amber series doesn’t otherwise significantly resemble any other fantasy of the modern era that I’m familiar with.

The first Amber series is a big box ‘o fun, fast-moving and inventive. It’s not very deep, but it’s more than mere fluff. As escapist fantasy goes, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides

Review of the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

I’m a big fan of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. On Stranger Tides is the book he wrote immediately following that one, and it has all the classic hallmarks of a Powers book: A protagonist who walks through hell to emerge a changed man on the other side; a fantastic setting made real through a depth and breadth of research; a tightly-constructed plot; deftly-handled magical elements; and the degree of brutality one expects when fairly normal people are thrown into such nasty life-and-death situations. For all that, it’s not a great book, but it is solidly entertaining.

The operative theme here is “pirates”, as our hero – John Chandagnac – is on a ship in the Caribbean that’s captured by pirates. These being the early days of the 18th century (that’s three hundred years ago, for those keeping score at home), he’s pressed into their service, “service” in this case being to help the famous pirate Blackbeard assist a mad professor, Benjamin Hurwood, and his even madder doctor, Leo Friend, travel to Florida in search of a focus of magic energy. Chandagnac is rechristened Jack Shandy by the pirates, and he learns about sea travel and survival among this clutch of fairly amoral men.

Powers’ characters always have unique backgrounds, but that doesn’t always make them fully-realized characters. Shandy was a puppeteer, and is travelling to Jamaica to try to wrest his father’s inheritance from his uncle, but he’s really a pretty flat character. Okay, he does have a certain sense of nobility and honor which is both sorely tested and which gets him into profound trouble, but isn’t that true for many heroes? He falls in love with Hurwood’s daughter, Beth, but Beth is almost a nonentity as a character. Their attraction to each other never feels very plausible, either, as they don’t really know each other, and it feels like just a too-blatant instance of love at first sight. So it’s hard to take too seriously Shandy’s ongoing quest to save Beth.

It’s the villains who really make the story: Hurwood is obsessed with trying to bring his wife back from the dead, and has a gruesome plan to accomplish this. Friend is a despicable figure who’s just looking to gain personal power. And Blackbeard, well, is a notorious pirate with a clever plan for effecting his retirement as the age of pirates is driving to a close. Blackbeard is the most fun of these, as he’s more self-confident and even humorous at times. All three are deeply threatening, though, and Beth is caught in the middle of all of their designs, so, by extension, Shandy is too.

Powers’ drawing of pirate culture is arresting, and it seems he did plenty of research on pirates of the age and of Blackbeard’s exploits (confirmed and rumored) in particular, although I imagine that aspect of the book would be more rewarding to someone who’s also a pirate aficionado (unlike myself). There are some cool references to better-known people and places, too.

The story’s biggest weaknesses are the bits that aren’t fully explained, or that don’t seem truly plausible. Aside from the what I’ve already mentioned: Hurwood suffers flashbacks to his youth, for no apparent reason. Magic is thrown around a little too lightly, with even some of the also-ran pirates being proficient in it for some reason. Sometimes Powers substitutes his characters being unable to fully control their magic in place of a proper framework within which the magic seems believable.

But there’s plenty of action and adventure, and that’s what carries the book. Despite it’s flaws, it’s better than a “nice try”, and is a solidly entertaining read.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

To Be a Better Reviewer

One thing I hope to do in this new journal is to become a better reviewer.

I’ve been writing reviews for some years now, and lately have felt like I’m stuck in a rut. My review format is pretty standard:

  1. One or two sentence introduction.
  2. One-to-three paragraph plot summary.
  3. A few paragraphs of what I thought about the book.

After a while this format has made me start feeling as if I were Harriet Klausner, only slightly more insightful and a lot more cynical. (For those who don’t know, Klausner is the #1 reviewer at Amazon.com. It’s been conjectured that she’s actually a pen-name, perhaps for multiple reviewers. I don’t know that there’s any evidence for this, and there’s some evidence against it. In any event, her reviews are invariably positive – 4 or 5 stars – and have the consistent format of 2 paragraphs of plot summary and one paragraph of opinion. In other words, I find them bland.)

For me, the challenge in reviewing is that I both want to urge people to read books I enjoy, and discuss books I think are interesting. The former suggests that I keep my reviews spoiler-free, while the latter often requires that I include spoilers. (And both suggest maybe I shouldn’t review books I don’t like and don’t find interesting.) The solution to this, I think, is to write a review using the former approach, and then put any comments in the latter vein behind a Read More tag. (For the most part I hate it when people use things like lj-cut tags, but I think spoiler info is one of the very few legitimate uses of such things.)

And I’d like to break out of a standard reviewing format and get a little more creative.

Anyway, that’s the goal. I think it will take some thought and practice before I can properly execute it.