Friday, 31 August 2012

Wake, Watch and Wonder Are Good Books

Or why you should read the WWW trilogy by Robert J Sawyer

There is a tendency in Sci-fi to do dystopian futures with gritty male characters who commit gritty murders. As the record shows I love a good dystopian male murderfest on occasion, but I also enjoy utopian thinky books too. Robert J Sawyer is by my estimation the best contemporary writer of optimistic and thoroughly well researched Sci-fi. He is also a Canadian Sci-fi author who takes great pride in using Canadian characters and settings which is pretty neat (said as a proud Canadian).

The WWW trilogy is a near-future, hard science fiction story about a blind girl and a super-intelligent machine intelligence. The protagonist of the novels is Caitlin, a blind American expat teenager, living in Waterloo Ontario with her academic parents. Caitlin was born completely blind, but due to an experimental optic nerve implant, she gains sight for the first time early in the trilogy. In the process of debugging her new sight-aid to perfect her vision, Caitlin "sees" evidence of an emerging intelligence in the Internet. This emerging intelligence, with the aid of Caitlin, gains sentience, names itself Webmind, and begins to interact with the world... and the story goes on from there.

Of course the books also has some pretty important subplots about Chinese dissident bloggers and the plight of hobo the bonobo painter.

These novels are tremendously well researched and highlight some pretty nifty theories about the development of consciousness, the relationship between vision and thought, and the way the Internet works. On top of these well researched bones are some thoughts about neurodiveristy, growing up, living with a disability, and the existence of a super intelligent machine sentience.  It's the kind of science fiction where you actually learn some things and are introduced to some pretty high concept ideas. 

The novels also, through their use of Americans living in Canada, highlight some of the little quarks of Canadiana that make Canada a distinct place. 

The engines of the book are, however, the characters. Sawyer is a master of creating these vibrant, amazing characters thr you really care about which he uses to ground and drive his higher concept story elements. As much as I'm intrigued about how webmind will change the future of mankind, I find myself engrossed in the day-to-day struggles of the characters: from Caitlin's social life to the plight of hobo the bonobo to the challenges associated with being autistic. It's thought provoking Sci-fi with a big giant human heart. Which, if you think about it, is a great concept since the amazing technology and innovations of Sci-fi really only matter in the context of actual people.

If you enjoy hard Science Fiction and like seeing lovable, complex, and diverse characters I'd sugget you read this book (particularly if you love Canada). If you care more about laser pistols and deathbots... read this anyways because variety is the spice of Arrakis.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

So I Read Atomic Robo and The Fightin’ Scientists of Tesladyne

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Atomic Robo collected edition.
By Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, Red 5 Comics

Atomic Robo is a fun comic. Specifically, it is a fun adventure comic with a liberal helping of comedy. In Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne we follow the adventures of Atomic Robo, a charismatic nuclear powered robot built by Nikola Tesla in 1923, and his team of Action Scientists as they confront paranormal threats. The collected edition works as an encapsulation of the entire Atomic Robo concept: to tell funny, action packed stories set throughout the various time periods of Robo’s life (the 20’s to the Modern day). The upside of this is the comic doesn’t waste time on excessive exposition and can focus on the most entertaining moments in Robo’s life. The downside is that at times some helpful setting information is lost on the altar of Action and that this first trade lacks a central narrative which gives it a schitzophrenic feel (for instance a two issue cliff hanger is left a-dangle).1,2 The balance of this equation, though, is a comic that sees Robo fight Nazi’s, battle cyborg armies, combat giant ants, study a mobile attack pyramid, and take an uneventful trip to Mars… which is pretty great. It also bears mentioning that Atomic Robo is audibly funny. I am not a person prone to laughing aloud at my fiction very often, but Atomic Robo had me snorting up a storm. Celvinger and Wegener have created exactly what they sought to: a funny, action-packed adventure comic. It’s unique, laugh-out-loud funny, and genuinely good comics.

Word count: 249

1: I want to know what happened with the giant mummy robot, damn it!
2: This is mostly an artifact of it being a collection of single issues. Subsequent trades are more cohesive and better. But still, great comics.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Minority Report vs The Minority Report

Or a comparison between the source and the adaption.

One of the interesting consequences of having so many different flavours of media these days is that things have a tendency to be adapted between formats. Comics become movies which are adapted to novels which inspire TV shows which spin into new comics. Each media transition often involves different people with different objectives, goals, and creative tastes. Each flavour of media has its own individual strengths and weaknesses. While the core story can never really be completely divorced from its creators or media, I think it's a fun game to compare different versions of the same story and see which I like best.

In the following essay I will discuss and compare the classic Phillip K Dick short story The Minority Report with the Steven Spielberg action film adaptation The Minority Report.

There will be many *SPOILERS* in this article.

My analysis after the cut:

Friday, 24 August 2012

Lights, Camera, Action Comics.

Or how questionable comic motifs have made into our comic book movies.

As a guy who loves comics, Hollywood's current obsession with quality superhero flicks is pretty great. That said, I've noticed some odd choices in some of these films, which at first glance would seem like unusual/practical film choices, but upon closer examination I suspect these are just films attempting to better mimic comic books.

It should be noted that this is going to be *SPOILER*-tastic

The Avengers: You know how the climatic conflict between the Avenges and Loki's invading army took place in a tiny chunk of manhattan which features many of the New Yorkiest locations? I think this was a deliberate attempt to be more comic booky. Sure, an argument could be made that the battle was limited to such a small and familiar location to give it a sense of place and to contextualise the giant CG action (to stop the Michael Bay effect), but I think this is misguided. Instead, think about how Marvel comics are based in mirror world New York and how many superhero fights take place within view of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Central Park, a New York bridge, the Statue of Liberty or on Coney Island. It's a lot right? The Avengers final fight scenes setting is just trying to stay true to the source material.

"We sure look like Grad Students"
The Amazing Spider-man: I think the choice to cast 20-something actors as teenaged Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey was an attempt to be comic booky. There may be a Hollywood tendency to cast distractingly old actors to play teenagers, perhaps out of a shortage of actual teenage actors with the skill, reputation, or schedule necesary to pull off a tent pole film. I'll concede it's also possile that the studio thought the actors' inherent Peter Parkerness and Gwen Stacey-tude made up for any age issues. But the choice of Andrew Garfield (28) and Emma stone (23) has nothin to do with these studio politicky or creative choices. Instead casting older actors is a tribute to comic book artists tendency to draw teens, especially girls, with adult proportions. I mean, If you look at the comics where Spider-Man was actually in highschool, Peter and Gwen already looked like young adults. So yeah, Amazing Spider-Man is an unexpected tribute to comics art.

The Dark Knight Rises: Gotham is a city of deserted streets for the vast majority of the movie. Is this pragmatic film making designed to cut the costs of many extras? Nope. It's clearly an attempt to mimic the visual tone of comics where the art team minimizes background characters for efficiency.

There you have it, three comic book movies with three questionable comic motifs included. Here's to faithfulness to the original material.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

So I Read Casanova: Gula

A 250 word (or less) review of the second Casanova volume

By Matt Fraction and Fabian Moon, Icon Comics

More virtuosic, sexy, smart, fun comics in the Casanova universe. Gula takes place in the same 60's chic, comic book espionage world of the previous book, but this time the plot is built around the mystery of when is Casanova Quinn. Of course, Gula is much more than that (deliberately) shallow plot synospsis. Much like Casanova: Luxuria, this volume functions as a metacommentary on comics as a genre, except this time, instead of using audience/genre expectations to drive the story, Gula subverts them. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the book uses audience preconceptions as misdirection to drive the core mystery. It's very well done. It’s kind of hard to pin-down exactly why I like the Casanova comics so much. I mean, a lot of it has to do with the extremely high quality of story and art… but it’s more than that. There is this ineffable, intoxicating quality to Luxuria and Gula that manages to elevate an already great comic. If I were to describe it, Casanova has that quality that made people lose their minds over the Beatles, or the effect the scent of someone you’re infatuated with has while it claws at your sensory neurons. It’s larger than life in its cool and primal in its delivery. Matt Fraction and Fabian moon, twin brother of Luxuria artist Gabriel Ba, have made one superb comic in Gula and together they pull off one groovy magic trick. Pa-Zow!

Word count: 242

Also, upon rereading Gula, I gotta say Matt Fraction is one cheeky guy.

So I Read Casanova: Luxuria

Monday, 20 August 2012

Brian the King Vaughan

Or why Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples are the solution to all our comics problems.

There are, in my view, a number of things I wish were better about comic book publishing. In no particular order here are some of the things about comics that I am not excited about:

  • Comic books are really expensive by any metric of content/dollar when compared to other media.
  • Money spent on comics has a tendency of going to support massive corporations instead of comics creators and occasionally comics creators are fantastically screwed by said corporations.
  • The domination of superhero comics as a genre has resulted in a narrower range of comics being produced. There is too little variety in comics today.
  • Comics are produced overwhelmingly by men; there are disproportionately fewer female comics makers and that's kind of crazy-nuts.
  • Artists are frequently swapped in and out in comics so that a greater number of books can be published per unit time. This interferes with establishing a consistent visual tone in books and devalues the importance of artists in the creative process.

recent interview by Brian K Vaughan at the The Comics Beat about Saga has some interesting quotes that make me really very excited:
"Not to brag—maybe a little bit—but the biggest surprise is how much fucking money there is in truly owning your own work."   
"I loved working for my friends at Marvel and DC, and I was always compensated with a very generous upfront page rate, but by betting on myself (and Fiona!) and waiting for money on the back end with Saga, I’m already making way, way, WAY more than what I made on comparably selling books that I wrote for other companies.  And that’s after splitting everything 50/50 with my richly deserving co-creator."
"That cushion blesses me me with a little extra time to give each script 100%, and more importantly, it means we won’t have to use any fill-in artists.  At this stage, I can’t imagine collaborating with anyone but Fiona on this story."
"I don’t know, I guess $9.99 seemed like a pretty fair price for the introductory volume of a new series. Maybe it will cut into our revenue stream, but I’m more interested in getting our story into as many hands as possible than in wringing as much cash as we can out of folks.
Fiona and I would probably be making more money in the short term if we filled the monthly book with annoying ads, or cut the page count down to 20, or charged $3.99 instead of $2.99, but I like to think that giving people more for less buys us a lot of valuable reader loyalty in the long run." 
So by my estimation, Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples seem to be solving a bunch of my comics problems with Saga:

  • The Saga 1 trade paperback (which I want THE MOST) will cost $10 for 160 pages. That is insane value! Trades generally run ~$20 for 120 pages, so this book is more than twice the value of most books on a purely content/dollar basis. Also, unlike most high-page-count-but-low-cost projects this one has full colour pages and is made by VERY A-list creators. So not only is it a lot of content/dollar but it's a lot of top quality content/dollar. 
  • Apparently, BKV and Staples are making pretty good money off the project despite charging substantially less for their books than typical ($2.99 for 30 page monthly, $10 for trades). It's just great when I as a consumer can both save money AND get more of it into the hands of creators AND still get a great product. This is the kind of success story I can get behind.
  • Saga as a book (from what I've gleaned) is an ambitious space opera/ science fantasy epic about family which is some nice non-superhero variety in the comics. The fact that this is a very successful book without being 1) superheroes or 2) zombies makes me pretty happy.
  • Fiona Staples is an incredibly talented artist who just happens to be a woman. The more rockstar female creators in comics at this point the better.
  • The importance of Staples to the final product is fully acknowledged both in the fact the books schedule is built around her ability to make the artwork, and in that she is receiving a fair share of the windfall from it.

Hyperbolic claims about BKV and Staples saving comics aside, I think it's really exciting that a high quality, original, indpendent book by top tier creators is doing so well. It's even better when this success comes with all the things I just discussed. I can only hope that Saga continues to make a splash and the comics publishing community takes some lessons from it.

Of course, Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples are not exactly any-avergae-comics-person. Their sales numbers don't exactly reflect the reality for a lot, or even most, independent comics makers and few people have the perennial selling power, cross media clout, or raw talent that Vaughan does. So, I'm not sure the awesome reality of their publishing experience is the beating pulse of everyone. But it's encouraging and, who knows, maybe some of it'll catch on?

Regardless, I am SO excited for Saga Volume 1. Waiting is killing me. 

Friday, 17 August 2012

Heart Attack!

Or the implausibly plausible Science in the Heart of Hush storyline by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen

Two of the things I love in this world are comic books and Science. Sometimes I like to write about both. This... Is one of those times.

In a recent post, the internet's foremost Batmanologist Chris Sims panned the character of Hush, criticized his origin and also the "Heart of Hush" storyline. Critically he dismissed the latter story for its entertainment value as well as its Scientific believability. I am here to tell you, in my capacity as an actual heart scientist, that as far as comics go, it's actually not too unbelievable.

Okay, gotta lay some caveats and addenda down here. While I might tease Mr. Sims for his knowledge of heart Science/Medicine, his Batman knowledge is encyclopedic and incredible and his taste in comics is impeccable. His thesis that Hush is a silly character with bizarre motivations and contrived story uses is totally correct. Hush stinks. The Hush origin books, while visually appealing are derivative and ultimately a base amalgam of much better comics. And yeah, the Heart of Hush storyline, wherein Hush literally steals Catwoman's heart is pretty ridiculous. (Although, I thought the Catwoman-Batman love story part of it was kind of nice; much better than the anatomically bizarre rooftop fucking of the New 52.)

The crazy thing is though, is that the Sci-fi of the story (Hush surgically removes Catwoman's heart, then keeps both Selina Kyle and her heart alive with machines, after which her heart is replanted) is actually not as far fetched as you might think.

A Scientific discussion of the Heart of Hush storyline after the cut: 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

So I Read Fatale: Death Chases Me

A 250 word (or less) review of Fatale: Book 1
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Image Comics

Fatale is the story of Nicolas Lash, the godson of dead crime novelist Dominic “Hank” Raines, who becomes ensnared in the Lovecraftian Horror world of the mysterious Jo, the titled femme fatale. Fatale is also the story of a young Hank Raines as his journalism brings him into contact with crooked cops, twisted cultists, and a dangerous dame named Josephine decades earlier. Like most of Burbaker and Phillips’ collaborations Fatale makes use of the conventions and motifs of Crime Noir to tell their story. However, Fatale also utilizes the mythos and some of the tropes of Lovecraftian horror fiction: generational guilt, madness, a sort of alien (weird alien, not ET alien) threat that exists on the margins of society/civilization, and tentacles. The result is basically Lovecraftian-Noir or Crime-Horror. I really like it: it’s well executed, sylish and fun. It’s also an effective and clever way to tell a Lovecraftian story. The two things that really stood out to me when reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction were the utter conviction of the authors voice (as seen through the narrator) and the way the supernatural is stretched out with all kinds of mundane little details, usually in the guise of an academic document, journal or correspondence. These make the horror elements tangible and create a dissonance with the ordinary world. By hanging Fatale on a Crime Noir skeleton, Brubaker and Phillips ground the story in something familiar and relatable to the audience which makes the supernatural elements all the more effective.1

Word Count: 250

1: Also: the idea of criminals as remote from society (as oppsed to rural, physical remoteness in Lovecrafts work) is pretty cool.

So I Read Coward
So I Read Lawless
So I Read The Dead and the Dying

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Kicking In?

Or my mixed feelings for Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, at least in concept, is a really great idea.

When I first heard about it, it seemed like this great device for putting the power of publishing into the hands of people who seldom get to wield it. The idea of Kickstarter to my liberal-ish mind immediately leads to this notion of crowd funding creators, especially new and marginalized ones, to finance projects that wouldn't otherwise get off the ground and to get new voices heard. Kickstarter would help break the creation monoploy of big publishers which would bring more variety of content, diversity of creators and a bigger audience to the world of comics (all of which it sorely needs). It would be a creative revolution. Power to the people man!

Kickstarter is also nifty from the perspective of how art gets made. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying the crap out of this, but from what I understand there are two prevailing and competing paradigms for publishing. One, the kind you'd associate with Marvel or DC, is this profit driven Ayn Randian approach that is about maximising the money the author/publisher receives from a project. The object of the art is to make money, essentially. The other model is more about getting the art out while ensuring the artists make a sufficient amount of money to fund the production of the artwork and to, you know, keep them alive and off the street and such. It's a model that's more about breaking even and keeping creators fed than turning huge profits. Think public radio. Historically this model of publishing has gotten by laregly from government subsidies and arts grants but Kickstarter, at least in theory, provides a new avenue for creators interested in pursuing this kind of publishing model.

(One could also add a third publishing strategy with straight up patronage... but until I am an eccentric billionaire it isn't super relevant to me.) 

So yeah, Kickstarter at first glance seems pretty rad.

And sometimes it is.

There are certainly a wide variety of worthy projects that are Kickstarted by generous (and sometimes insane) people. The world is richer for these projects, the generosity/avarice of the crowdsourcers, and honestly for Kickstarter. Despite any of my misgivings, I'm genuinely glad Kickstarter exists and that there are people inclined to Kickstart wicked cool projects.

Hell, after I started writing this as a Kickstart is crazy essay, I saw news that Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore  announced Leaving Megalopolis, a comic about people trying to survive superheroes gone crazy that would be thematically similar to the beloved and departed Secret Six. And well, THIS IS A THING I NEED and it is available exclusively via Kickstarter. So yeah, I'm helping to Kickstart this one at the $20 level which will get me a print copy of the book sent to Canada. I love these creators, know that they will produce a quality product, and believe that they will deliver this comic in a reasonable time frame. Gail Simone also seems like one of the nicest people alive so I'm confident that my money will not be stolen or squandered. The project has since been Kickstarted into existence.

It's also important to note that my Kickstarter experience is a pre-purchase for something I would buy anyways and can only get through the Kickstarter as opposed to generosity, patronage, investment or, you know, choice.

However, despite my participation, I still have some substantial misgivings about Kickstarter and how it's being applied.

My misgivings after the cut:

Friday, 10 August 2012

Embassytown is a Good Book.

Or why you should read Embassytown by China Mieville

Embassytown has a sort of poignancy that makes it a really beautiful and moving story. The book tells the story of Embassytown, a small human outpost colony/enclave on an inhospitable alien world populated by the tolerant Ariekei hosts, and the conflicts that arise between humans and their alien hosts based essentially on miscommunication. The story is told in the viewpoint of Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytown native who became a simile in the language of the Ariekei as a child, an “Immerser” interplanetary sailor, and finally a key observer and participant in the conflicts that unfold. Conflicts… that are deliberately referred to only vaguely.

Embassytown, though, is really a book about memes (in the idea that propagates through society sense instead of the cats that can haz things sense). Specifically it's a book about the intersection of memes and language and how language is a medium for propagating memes in both its capacity to convey ideas and in its capacity to inform identity. This whole discourse plays out through the novel’s collision of cultures, the Embassytowners and the Ariekei, and the way in which adaptations in language allow memetic cultural contamination between groups. As such Embassytown is also a commentary on Colonialism and the meeting of cultures in general. Mieville has some strong statements about the importance of communication and about the ways people on either side of a cultural collision react: specifically those that seek subjugation, those that seek to protect cultural purity and those that collaborate to share memes and create new understanding. This is a very smart book.

What might be under appreciated is that this is also a very exciting book. For being a book about memes and cultural contamination and language, it is a surprising page turner. The characters are well realized and sympathetic, the story is keenly focused, and the stakes of the story are dramatic and emotionally resonate. Mieville really makes you care about the Embassytown’s aliens and colonists and that, more than anything, makes for an engrossing read.

I would recommend Embassytown to most readers. It's very ambitious and smart, but also immensely readable and exciting. However, It can be a bit dense at times, and requires a certain amount of investment and engagement with the themes to work its magic. So if you like books that make you think and feel check it out. If you like to be spoon-fed your fiction.... I'd look elsewhere.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

So I Read Casanova: Luxuria

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Casanova volume.
By Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba, Icon Comics

Casanova luxuria, more than anything, reminds of a mango.1 Luxuria, like a mango, has this absolutely huge flavour that is simultaneously rich and sugary and tart. It's pulp, not in the comic sub-genre sense, but in the concentrated taste sense. Superficially, Casanova functions as a superhero spy comic... think James bond meets Steranko’s Nick Fury meets the Beatles experimenting with jazz in the '60s. It's as groovy, psychedelic, sexy and acronym laden as you'd expect (Because the genre demands it!). I say superficially a spy comic, though, because like a mango, Luxuria has a secretive hard kernel underneath all it's juicy flesh. I get the feeling the Fraction and Ba are sort of deconstructing comic books as a genre in Luxuria, but in a nice way that literally shouts "I love comic books!”. Maybe reconstruction would be a better word? Regardless, the book plays with genre tropes and expectations in way that is very self aware and slick. Luxuria, also manages to function on this intellectual level without sacrificing sexy good fun which makes it both stimulating and enjoyable to read. Fraction and Ba have written and drawn something daring and beautiful in luxuria and everyone should be reading this. Everyone.2,3

Word count: 201

1: Manila mango, to be specific. It's the best kind.
2: Procuring Luxuria actually proved to be somewhat difficult as my local comics shops (there are four conveniently close to where I work) barely stocked Casanova. Talking to the clerk at one of the smaller shops (mostly a used book store), I found out Casanova doesn't move well despite Fraction's visibility as a "Marvel Architect". This is a sin against comics.
3: Seriously, if we buy enough Casanova maybe Fraction will start doing more creator owned stuff and that can only be amazing.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Atoll Comics: Round 2

Or Changes to My Top-Ten Comics

Due to poverty and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be super-selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

A complication of this is that I am forced to drop an on-going title if I want to try reading a new on-going title, an act of very tough love. Being financially responsible is the worst.

I will be adding Hawkeye to my ten comic list and dropping The Flash.

Why after the cut:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Joe Abercrombie’s Fantasy Novels are Good Books.

Or why you should read The First Law Trilogy and semi-Sequels by Joe Abercrombie.

When I was in highschool (grades 8-12), I was pretty into the Fantasy genre of books. I had exhausted the supply of easy and moderately difficult to find Star Wars expanded universe novels and was looking for another epic and very geeky genre of books to read. I found that in Fantasy novels. Oddly enough, I think my first Fantasy Novels were a trilogy by Chris Claremont (of all people), which were imaginative, adventurous, and just that little bit sexier than a Star Wars novel. I later got me into some R A Salvatore, some Ed Greenwood, some Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I loved the Dragon Crown War Cycle of novels by Michael A Stackpole (the author of my favourite Star Wars books), and still love them with the fires of nostalgia. I tackled The Lord of The Rings, and struggled through its (as I felt then) detached storytelling while still acknowledging its brilliance and influence. I read a lot of objectively terrible D&D tie-in novels in several universes.

I did not read Harry Potter.

Eventually though, my love affair with Fantasy waned. Part of it was the rapidly decreasing stock of unread fantasy novels at my library. Another part was that fantasy novels, particularly of the D&D spin-off ilk, had repetitive plots that were mostly just subtle variations of Tolkienian fiction which when it’s all you read gets pretty stale. The final nail in the coffin for me as a prolific fantasy reader was that most of the books I was reading were not particularly well written, and as I matured and gained other reading experiences, I started to want more sophisticated fiction. Of course, this also coincided with me rediscovering more literary and mature Science Fiction novels that wanted to discuss big ideas about society while still having awesome adventures and thrilling plots.

The net result was that I more or less stopped reading Fantasy novels, with a few remarkable exceptions: those few Fantasy novels that deliver well written, mature stories that, thematically, explore larger concepts.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels are just such exceptional Fantasy novels.

On The First Law Trilogy.

The First Law Trilogy, Abercrombie's debut novels, are essentially his take on Tolkienesque epic fantasy, with a genre appropriate amount of swords, sorcery and journeying. The story follows a thoughtful barbarian with a bloody past, Logen Ninefingers, a self centered nobleman fop, Jezal dan Luthar, and a crippled torturer, Sand dan Glotka as they, and their world, are embroiled in a war started centuries before by a schism between the Order of the Magi and the legendary Master Maker. So in a broad strokes way epically epic fantasy.

Except it's kind of not.

The key difference between The First Law Trilogy and other post-Tolkien epic fantasy, besides it's superbly crafted prose and it's fantastically vibrant characters, is that these novels add a layer of moral ambiguity to the Tolkien equation. Where most epic fantasy tends to boil down to good-verses-evil with clear, black-and-white distinctions, Abercrombie's novels exist in a much more murky and complex moral structure: no faction or character is completely good and no faction or character is completely wicked and where even the worst atrocities can be rationalized. This adds a layer of maturity to the story that is often lacking in Fantasy novels and makes for some truly shocking and thought provoking moments.

The first law trilogy also differentiates itself by its deconstructionist approach to the genre. Abercrombie is fully aware of the hero’s journey narrative structure and while he superficially crafts his novels around it, he gleefully and frequently subverts it. Beyond being a great way to generate plot twists, Abercrombie’s subversive breaks from genre conventions outline what makes Fantasy tick and really emphasizes how much a Fantasy audience relies on these genre conventions to inform their understanding of the narrative. Or at least to predict the shape of the story. While the moral ambiguity makes for a more mature and nuanced story, this deconstructionist aspect of the story adds an element of genre analysis to the Trilogy: what is Fantasy and how do we define it as a reader. It’s smart stuff.

Of course, when trying to convince friends to give The First Law Trilogy a try, saying things like “Fantasy deconstruction” and “challenging conventions by introducing immorality” don’t typically get people super excited. Instead I point out how funny these books are. Joe Abercrombie, despite the aforementioned academic aspects of his books, is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. His books are fully willing to acknowledge their internal absurdity and to basically satirize fantasy. Abercrombie is also adept at throwing a lot of jokes into his work, although, keeping with the morally challenging nature of the novels, a lot of the jokes approach gallows humour. Very funny, pretty dark. Still, one of the more funny series of books I’ve read, and easily the funniest Epic Fantasy series.

In a nutshell I’d say The First Law Trilogy is a mature, intelligent, and humourous take on the Epic Fantasy genre that manages to tell an exciting story with amazingly realized characters.

Okay, I want to discuss his other novels, but this is already kind of long… So I’ll continue it after the cut.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

So I read The Dead and the Dying

A 250 word (or less) review of the third Criminal volume.
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Icon Comics

The Dead and the Dying continues the strong collaboration between Brubaker and Phillips as seen in earlier criminal volumes. This time the story they create is set in the 1970s and is constructed around the backstories of Gnarly, the undertow bar proprietor; Teeg Lawless, father of Tracy Lawless; and Danica Briggs, a black woman with a troubled past. Actually, the way the story is told is pretty unique: The Dead and the Dying is really three separate character studies that contain within them the plot of the central story. It's a nifty device. I’m fascinated by the way this approach makes plot secondary to character, and the way that the larger story (which in a typical comic would be the only story) is just the collateral byproduct of the individual character’s stories. It’s kind of an interesting thing to consider in regard to how “real life” or historical narratives are created.1 This issue of Criminal maintains the noir trappings of the criminal series but with a distinct Blaxploitation and Grindhouse flavour (which is appropriate given the subject matter and the time period the story is set in). The writing and art as always are spot on and create this complete world to visit. Like all of the other Criminal books, I'd highly recommend The Dead and the Dying to any comics reader. Incidentally, part three of this book is the first creator owned comic I ever bought. Nostalgia!

Word count: 238

1: World War II as my generation is, perhaps, the aggregate of the byproduct from the individual stories of millions of people. 

So I Read Coward
So I Read Lawless