Wednesday, April 01, 2009
BooksFirst - March 2009
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
Scat by Carl Hiaasen
The Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.
The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Scat by Carl Hiassen
Perhaps you've noticed already, but there are three overlapping themes in the books I've read this month. If not, it should be apparent by the time I finish the comments.
For some reason (mostly cheapness) I've read a ton of Neil Gaiman but danced around his career-making Sandman series. He has done a ton of other work in the comics field though and one I hadn't known of until I stumbled across it in the graphic novels section of the library was his reworking of Jack Kirby's The Eternals. I still haven't decided how I really feel about Kirby in the history of superheroes. I wasn't there in the early Marvel days and that story is hopelessly muddled. What is clear is that from about Silver Surfer on he got a snootful of Epic Mythology that he was never able to shake. He eschewed traditional Guys-In-Pajamas superhero storytelling for increasingly bizarre creations of his own that never quite fit in any traditional mythos. Some worked. Some didn't. Personally I'm a big fan of the underrated Kamandi Miles-Beyond-The-Planet-Of-The-Apes universe, but a lot of his other stuff leads me just perplexed.
Not being a Marvel fanboy, I had never heard of The Eternals until I picked up Neil Gaiman's reworking of it, but they come across as weak reworkings of Kirby's New Gods who were DC property. The story as constantly reiterated is inspired somehow by Erich von Däniken and his Chariot Of The Gods nonsense. Super beings and their evil enemies have been fighting for millennia on Earth watched over by some group of even superer beings. As they awaken and rediscover their roles they butt heads with Earth's current far inferior superheroes, particularly a Civil Wars era Iron Man. All comic book plots sound uber-dorky when described, but this one is far-fetched even by Kirby standards. Gaiman is clearly having fun updating a treasured memory but the bits haven't aged well.
Much better because it is closer to his darker stuff is The Books Of Magic where a British schoolboy is told that he has untapped magical potential that save the Universe or destroy it. Said kid has dark black hair, wears goofy round glasses, and has an owl sidekick. Any resemblance to a certain Hogwarts student is incidental. According to Wikipedia, all parties claim the similarities are purely concidental.
This time Gaiman is taking a stroll through the DC-verse incorporating all their magic wielding characters, past, present and future. Some I recognized and some I didn't. Dream and Death make their prerequisite cameo and it as always good to see them. Timothy Hunter is bewildered by all this and the resolution is rather indeterminate.
This four part series became the basis for a continuing series that didn't have much connection with Gaiman. I got the impression that this was more of a writing exercise than an attempt to tell a real story. I'm not inclined to follow it further without knowing what the direction or purpose is.
My final graphic novel of the month is the omnipresent Watchmen, considered to be the greatest graphic novel of all time. Maybe I'm jaded or just didn't catch it in the moment, but I have to say it's a tad over-rate. I had read it several years ago and never quite got the pirate comic sub-plot. I still don't. The overall story is complex and deep and just a bit disturbing. The whole concept of what superheroes would be like in a 'real' world is no longer novel and the meta 'nature of good versus evil' twists have been done to death by others, only not as well.
I read it of course as prep work for the movie version which I saw with my son at the local Imax screen. Yes, Columbia finally has an Imax format theater. No more roadtrips to King of Prussia needed. The movie is visually stunning. To call it lavishly faithful to the book is a vast understatement. Every detail was pitch perfect. And the few little streamlinings of the plot work well and remove some of the cheesiness of the source material. In particular the actors really embody the characters both as people and as heroes.
While I say the book is over-rated I don't mean that it's not excellent. As a self-contained mythos that stretches the boundaries of the superhero conventions, it is inventive and game changing. And contrariwise, I don't think the movie is being given its due. There are rumors of an even longer director's cut that will be on the ultra-deluxe mega-collector's edition DVD. I look forward to it and seeing the story even a little deeper.
The other two books I read are technically 'young adult' (a terrible, terrible euphemism) novels by writers that typically work in different mediums.
Neil Gaiman is the modern goth-tinged renaissance man seemingly able to transcend mediums at will. The British born writer just won the Newbury Award for The Graveyard Book which makes him a carpetbagger as well since that award is for American writers. The reviews and news stories about the novel make a big deal out of the fact that it is a retelling of Kipling's Jungle Book in a supernatural setting. You don't need to be familiar with that conceit to enjoy the book. The early chapters are a little episodic as if they were written as stand-alone short stories. Towards the end of the book, the pace picks up and all the pieces start to fall into place. Gaiman talked about the book and revealed some minor spoilers on the Colbert Report a few weeks ago and his wit and droll humor won me over once again.
As a children's book it works great, but it also serves as a well told story for any age. In this post-Potter world the fantasy worlds are blurred by age and rightly so. I don't know if there is anything truly frightening once you get past the first chapter, but the story stays suspenseful and compelling all the way through. Grown-ups should not be denied the pleasure of a fine ghost story about the only kid in the graveyard that isn't one.
Carl Hiaasen is another writer that has been mining the young adult vein. Scat is his third book for 'younger' readers and it really shows some serious improvement over the sometimes rough parts of his two earlier genre books, Hoot and Flush (see a trend with the titles?). There is a definite formula for a Hiaasen book and it usually includes evil but not too bright businessmen intent on despoiling the environment, an eccentric backwoodsman that metes out his own form of justice, and a bewildered protagonist that ties the whole plot together. Check, check, and check.
The plot involves a kid with a dad in Iraq whose eccentric teacher disappears about the same time some dimwitted oil guys are trying to wildcat on state property. Mix in a misunderstood hoodlum and a trustfundee that empathizes with Edward Albee and you have all the makings of near classic Hiaasen. In the kid's books you don't get the kinkily deviant characters of his more mature fare, but they are also much shorter and more tautly paced. Hiaasen's comic antics are tough to stretch out over a full novel without getting exhausting.
So let's recap the formats:
Graphic novels: 3
Young adult books: 2
Neil Gaiman: 3