Thursday, October 27, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - The Walking Dead Vol. 5: The Best Defense, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Be warned: minor spoilers ahead.

All right. Before reading this volume, I went back and reread all of the trades up to this point, in order to recapture the narrative and get back into the spirit of the story for Halloween. A few things I noticed during the read-through:

1. I appreciate the switch to Adlard’s art after the first story arc. While Moore made the characters much more distinguishable from one another, he also lent an exaggerated aspect to their features and expressions that was almost cartoonish. The more realistic drawing from Adlard gives the artwork a gritty feel that’s more in line with the story.

2. Kirkman actually does a very good job in setting things up for future revelations. Much of what goes on in plot and character development is subtly constructed and foreshadowed in previous story arcs. And on that note:

3. I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely not my imagination. The world of the Walking Dead is profoundly misogynistic, populated with complicated male characters that are propped up by submissive, shallow female supporters. However, the jury is still out on whether this is a product of the story Kirkman is telling, or the heteronormative assumptions he makes while telling it.

In this volume, the story moves from a simmering internecine struggle to a more dangerous external conflict, as the sudden appearance of a helicopter leads Rick, Glenn, and Michonne to the doorstep of another survivor camp. This group is led by a man named Philip, who has styled himself The Governor. This new player in the story is quickly established as certifiably insane, as well as the extreme example of securing authority through the “might makes right,” do-anything approach to keeping people safe that Rick has been struggling with up until now. As the three protagonists begin their ordeal in the Governor's hands, the rest of the group back at the prison wait anxiously for their return, with no idea that a new, non-zombie threat is now bearing down on them.

As usual, I’m conflicted. The introduction of an honest-to-goodness, crazy-ass human villain that doesn’t immediately flame out and get shot in the next issue is exactly what the story needed. I appreciated the claustrophobic tension that suffused the last volume, especially considering that finding and keeping a sanctuary broke the formula that had previously been established. That sort of conflict can only keep up for so long before getting tiresome, though, and a clash with another survivor ideologue is the next logical step. As over-the-top as the Governor is, I needed a shock to the system. We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few arcs on what the end of the world has done to our heroes, so I appreciate the reminder that yes, by the way, it really is the end of the world. Dead people are trying to eat everyone that’s left, and that can make people justify doing some really screwed up things in the name of survival. I consequently ate this volume up. The story is exciting, the pace is perfect, and I’m primed for the fallout that’s sure to come in the following volumes.

Here’s the thing, though: did we really need another refresher course on how women are not welcome in this version of the zombie apocalypse? Maybe it’s because I reread everything, but the no-girls-allowed mood was already firmly entrenched. At this point it’s really starting to grate, and I wish Kirkman would stop harping on it and just fucking move on, already. I like that the theme of deconstructing nuclear families and monogamous relationships has appeared, but as foreshadowed, it comes from the female character that apparently can’t function without a man. More problematic, though, is that the reasoning for this development actually makes sense and is dramatically interesting, but is immediately met with “we don’t do that in Kentucky,” etc. I’m not sure if that was a reference to polyamory or homosexuality, but considering how Andrew and Dexter turned out and what happened to them, I wouldn't be surprised if homosexuality is unwelcome in this zombie apocalypse, too. We can forget about Andrea being a solid female protagonist, too, now that she's voiced her committment to doing whatever Dale tells her to do.

And, of course, Michonne. Oh, Michonne. To be fair, our sole remaining strong female character was effectively subjugated right as she was introduced in the last volume, when she immediately glommed onto a male protagonist for no other apparent reason than that they are both black. But yes, the brutal, prolonged rape and torture of Michonne for daring to physically attack the man that had, without provocation, maimed one of her companions was particularly hard to read. Not just because it’s hard to stomach on its own, but because Kirkman has decided to frame it in the perspective of what it does to the men around her. The Governor’s so crazy, he rapes people for fun! What a scary and interesting character! And oh, poor Glenn! Look how traumatized he is by having to hear Michonne being raped! Meanwhile, we get one line of dialogue from the victim herself concerning what she plans to do to her tormentor (which I’m convinced will happen, and will be as bad as she implies), but otherwise, no actual focus on what such horrific treatment is actually doing to her or what she is thinking. Other than some artistically drawn panels of her tied spread-eagle, of course, and renderings of her beaten face and cries of pain for dramatic effect. That says all we need to know, right? Sigh.

I usually don’t have patience for people that go searching for reasons to get offended, but Jesus, WE GET IT, ROBERT KIRKMAN. MEN ARE IN CHARGE. I think my problem with all of this is that Kirkman is taking pains to write what he feels might actually happen in a zombie apocalypse, which implies that somewhere deep down, he imagines violent patriarchy to be the natural order of things that would immediately be reestablished without social norms to hold it back. Admittedly, that’s an argument that can’t be dismissed offhand, considering that institutionalized rape and the relegation of women to submissive wards meant to be owned, guarded, shepherded, and/or used can be found this very moment in various parts of the real world (and even in our own “civilized” country). It’s still unpleasant, though, and I have yet to see the purpose for constantly reasserting it in every single story arc, especially since it’s largely done through and abetted by the female characters that I’m supposed to like and sympathize with.

But I’m still giving this one a four. Yeah, I know. Insensitive, privileged white male. The story is still fantastic, though, and I liked this volume much better than the previous few. It’s a really good zombie melodrama, and at this point in the series it’s still a great read for fans of the genre. Just, you know... trigger warning. Don't read this series with any illusions of it being more socially enlightened than any other comic book aimed at young men. Also, I’m realizing that most of the protagonists are pretty hard to like at this point, and I’m torn between finding that odd and recognizing it as interesting, as the reality of the world they are in continues to take its emotional toll on them.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review - The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Is this a story about teen suicide? A murder mystery? A dystopian parable? A paranormal tale about plucky young people holding off the forces of evil? A realistic take on coming out of the closet? Well… yes. The Shattering is undoubtedly an engaging read, but there’s a lot of competing themes to contend with.

The story opens with Keri, a Maori girl who has lived her entire life in the idyllic New Zealand seaside hamlet of Summerton. Her older brother Jake has recently committed suicide, leaving her in a frustrated limbo of rage and grief, and straining the bonds of her family. However, her childhood friend Janna comes to her with a shocking assertion: Jake was murdered. At Janna’s request, they meet with an online friend and former summer fling of Janna’s, Sione, who has deduced that not only do the three of them have firstborn older brothers that have committed suicide, but that the trend spirals unsettlingly outward. Each year, a firstborn older brother from somewhere in New Zealand or Australia visits Summerton, and is subsequently reported to have killed themselves shortly afterward. Determined to put an end to what they are convinced is a serial murder spree, the trio bumps up against a force much more powerful and insidious than a lone killer, which weaves through the entire town and is tied to everyone who lives in it.

I didn’t know a whole lot about this one when I started. I guess I was expecting something like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher after reading the blurb, but the story took a hard left in the first few chapters. Once the pace really started to ramp up, it changed directions again as the neo-Pagan elements came to the fore. Out of nowhere, everything stopped for a minute to ponder on the complexities of being gay in a small town, in an almost completely internal conflict. Finally, after the intense, rapid-fire climax, we slide right back into the suicide motif that started everything off. Quite frankly, this whirlwind of themes is extremely disorienting. All of them fit nioely into the story, adding dimension to the characters and making for a story that is never boring. However, the sheer number of ideas pretty much ensures that none of them get explored very deeply. I left the story feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as a result.

Other than a slight case of multiple personality disorder, though, the book is a fairly engaging read. The upshot of all these themes is that the story remains fresh and occasionally surprising from cover to cover. The character work is great, with a multicultural cast of sympathetic characters that are unapologetically flawed and believable. Healey also did some interesting stuff with the setting, here. For all that the story takes place in a beautiful coastal tourist town, there isn’t much in the way of flowery descriptions. The closest the narrative comes to describing the backdrop is a vague trance that occasionally overcomes Summerton’s visitors, leaving them ensnared by a picturesque beauty that is never really depicted in detail (which makes perfect sense as the plot begins to thicken). Meanwhile, the reader is immersed in various words, rituals, and articles of clothing in the Maori and Samoan cultures, and bombarded with New Zealand and Australian geography. The result is an understated but real and comprehensive introduction to the setting, delivered almost wholly through the somewhat jaded eyes of the characters themselves.

Ultimately, I wasn’t really blown away by this book, but I did enjoy following the various narrative twists and turns. There are a lot of moving parts, but if you aren’t particular about your story focusing on one thing at a time, the parts make for a decently fun read for a wide swath of YA readers.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review - It Gets Better, ed. by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

For roughly three years of my teenaged life, I was the target of anti-gay bullying. The fact that I am quite heterosexual did nothing to alleviate it; in fact, the bullies harassed my girlfriend, too, just for good measure.

Granted, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The main instigator was as cowardly as he was stupid, and he lost much of his power to intimidate when he backed out of a surprise opportunity to settle things one-on-one, outside of school (one that I was more than happy to take advantage of). But he always had a flock of his mouth-breathing buddies with him, some of whom were twice my size and seemed intent on really hurting me. Furthermore, he was consistent. If ten days had gone by without them sauntering up to me at lunch, I could reliably expect an encounter at any moment. Even though things rarely went beyond words, the constant, absolute mindlessness of the regular harassment wore on me.

Worst of all, the adults in my life seemed powerless to stop it, in some cases willfully so. After an altercation that almost got physical (I had a soda can thrown at my face, and pushed the little shit who did it away from me), I was herded into a vice-principal's office. I was solemnly warned by my school’s administration that because I threw my tormentors’ words back at them, demanding to know what it was about “faggots” that seemed to get them so hot and bothered, I could be suspended for “sexual harassment” if I did it again. My parents gave me moral support, but it was clear they weren’t going to get any help from the school, at least in an official capacity. Because I felt confident enough to handle it on my own, I didn’t want to risk making things worse by kicking it up to them until the moment I felt that I had no other choice, which thankfully never came. And even then, things almost went very bad one night, when a van full of drunk chuckleheads (one of whom I thought was a friendly acquaintance of mine) tried to trap me, my girlfriend, and her little sister in a deserted parking lot after a school dance, forcing me to almost wreck my car getting away.

It was a serendipitous combination of my own moxie and the support of friends that got me through that time, but I didn’t escape unscathed. I still carry the marks of that old rage, at peers who could be so arbitrarily cruel, and at grown men and women who were supposed to help me and instead stood by and let it happen. Even though I was more angry than despondent over it, I can easily imagine a victim of such treatment feeling like they have no escape and no hope, especially a young victim who deals with it over the course of years. Even with more publicity of bullied teens committing suicide, many people still seem to think that this isn’t a problem, or even more reprehensible, that it isn’t a problem worth caring about. It’s really sad that a book like this even needs to be written, but it does, and the inspiring essays within serve a crucial need.

This book is basically a print extension of the “It Gets Better Project,” an online compendium of short videos recorded by LGBT and straight adults that speak candidly to teens being bullied over their sexuality or perceived sexuality. The project is meant as a lifeline for kids who are considering ending their own lives, by assuring and/or reminding them that while it may not seem so at the time, high school isn’t forever. If they can endure the static that they are getting from their peers, the adults in their communities, or even from their own families, they can still grow up and create a normal, loving, happy life, just like any other person. The assertion of things actually getting better is subjective, considering how ugly people out in the world still are, but many of the contributors acknowledge this. The point isn’t to paint an unrealistic picture of a bully-free life after high school, but to give these kids a glimpse of the power that they will have over their own life, and the great things waiting for them, once they get through this comparably short period of time.

In light of that, I feel like a bad person for not giving this a perfect rating. Honestly, though, this is only a cover-to-cover read for the harried kids who really need a chorus of voices affirming that things get better, and for those who are close to one and want to help them. For everyone else, it’s more of an inspirational read, to be picked up every now and again and read in short bursts. Each essay is a couple pages long, and follows the same formula: a description of bullying, the consideration of suicide, the good things that have happened since, and an affirmation of how loved and important the reader is, and how things will eventually get better for them, too. The essays do have variety, with authors that are gay and straight, old and young, politicians and students, men, women, and transgendered. There are two pretty awesome comics, and one screed aimed at the bullies rather than the bullied. All together, though, they do follow the same formula, making them undeniably repetitive. From the standpoint of a curious reader, the website is a bit more engaging than the book.

But that takes nothing away from the point of the book. In the introduction, Savage writes that the It Gets Better project was born out of a realization that no parent or school was going to invite him to speak directly to LGBT youth, who need to hear this message the most, so he took matters into his own hands. Not every teen has access to the Internet, and many who do can’t afford to have a browsing history that will call the attention of their family on them; this book is for them. Honestly, though, speaking as a parent and as a librarian, it’s a book that every teen should at least flip open, wWhether it’s cover-to-cover or a simple skim through a couple of the essays. The sentiment behind the book is absolutely correct, and many kids and teens desperately need to hear it.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The halfway point of the Scott Pilgrim series is where things start to get a little more complex. We’re still firmly on the “beat the evil exes to date Ramona” boss-battle rails, but in Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, an evil ex of Scott’s shows up, as well. Despite the story getting a little deeper, I had a little more trouble getting into this one than I did the previous books.

At the end of the last volume, Ramona reveals that her next evil ex is Todd Ingram, who just happens to be the bass player for the art-rock band The Clash at Demonhead. Incidentally, that band’s frontwoman is Envy Adams, the femme fatale who broke Scott’s heart by cheating on him with Todd, sending him into the pathetic spiral of insecurity and self-pity that he’s currently trying to fight his way out of. Got all that? As it turns out, Envy’s callous toying with Scott in the previous book has a purpose. She knows all about Scott’s quest, including some mysterious information about who Ramona really is. Further, she’s determined to see that Scott fail once and for all, at the hands of her current true love.

Getting into Scott’s backstory a little more is nice. The one consistent problem I’ve had with the books so far is Scott being somewhat of an unsympathetic jackass, and so a little exploration of the relationship with Envy and what went wrong alleviated that a little. In fact, it was done in a fairly brilliant way, paralleling the “main quest.” The cool art, hilarious sarcasm, and trademark video-game chic are all still in effect, as well, making for a read that’s at least as fun as the first two.

I kind of felt that O’Malley wanted to balance the more complicated plotline with an extra helping of jaded cleverness, though, and it got on my nerves a little. The story of Scott and Envy is told in choppy flashbacks that are interspersed with the main story, and the vignettes occur literally without warning upon the turn of a page. In fact, other than some slightly different hairstyles on the characters, a page turn is the only clue that the story has shifted to a flashback, every single time. It’s disorienting the first few times it happens, and annoying every time after. I could have lived with the haughtiness of it all, but it happens just a few times too often. Too many flashbacks, too little attention to the main narrative. I also thought that the forays outside the fourth wall were a little ham-handed this time around, compared to the previous books. Tablature play-alongs and impromptu cooking shows were quirky and clever; references to “the book” and character acknowledgments of a deus ex machina are trite by comparison.

All of which is not to say I didn’t like this one. I just liked it a little less than the first two. One positive note is the strong feeling that the story is going to shift a bit, now that we’re past the midpoint. The hints about Ramona’s past are much more pointed in this volume; the next three will hopefully change things up from the current formula. Even with the little problems I had, I got the definite feeling that the overarching story is really crystallizing by this point. Best of all, it does so without losing any of the charm, humor, or ridiculous over-the-top theatrics that I liked in the first two so much.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review - Underdogs, by Markus Zusak

I don’t know what it is with me and omnibuses… omnibusseses… omnibi? Anything that’s packaged as a complete set, be it made up of novels or comics, tends to attract my attention these days. This particular omnibus appeared to me out of nowhere, and didn’t do anything for me at first. Somewhere between when I started it and when I finished it, though, it crept up on me and became one of my favorite recent reads. It’s a meandering, quirky coming-of-age story that is funny and heartbreaking by turns, and will definitely touch a chord in anybody who has been a teenage boy before.

This is a collection of Markus Zusak’s first published works, before his recent fame for writing The Book Thief. The trilogy, comprised of The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl, is narrated by a teenager named Cameron Wolfe. Cameron is the youngest son in a blue-collar family trying to make ends meet in an Australian suburb, and the books are a mesh of his stream of consciousness and his poetic writings as he attempts to navigate through his daily existence. The first book, The Underdog, introduces the Wolfe family and follows Cam through an aimless period in his young life where he tries to reconcile who he wants to be with the reality of who he is. Fighting Ruben Wolfe offers a bit more of a linear story: feeling like they should somehow contribute to the family, which is facing increasingly dire straits, Cam and his older brother Ruben get mixed up in clandestine, amateur boxing. As they fight, though, Cam realizes that Ruben is fighting for something other than money, and that he might be fighting for something deeper, himself. The third book, Getting the Girl, brings the themes of the first two into a familiar focus: first love and its consequences, which refines and changes everything that Cameron thought he had knew about himself.

At first, I wasn’t so impressed. I have a consciousness that streams just fine on its own, and so I tend to get annoyed by fiction that doesn’t have a point. But the Wolfe family makes an indelible impression, and Cam in particular is intensely likeable in all his quiet nobility and earnest insecurity. Once I got accustomed to the tone of this particular slice of life (which, with all of its Australian mannerisms and references, took me a bit to do), the narrative began to solidify a little, first into an exploration of the fraught relationship between close siblings, and then into a time-tested story of love and frustration. The character development is particularly excellent, and gets more nuanced throughout the books. Fighting Ruben Wolfe’s themes of sibling rivalry and family bonds build directly on Cam’s observations from The Underdogs, while the messy relationships in Getting the Girl spring from the character development in Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Taken as a whole, the story arc is subtle, and brilliant.

Getting the Girl particularly resonated with me. It could have easily been another entry in a somewhat crowded genre: horny teen boy learns a lesson about healthy relationships! As funny and enjoyable as books in that vein can be, they don't usually do too much for me. Perhaps it’s because most of those stories only touch the surface of what it’s like to have an adult’s sex drive but a child’s impulse control, and I don’t harbor any particular nostalgia for the situations that arise from that. But Zusak’s take on this particular form of teen angst struck home. While reading this, I occasionally mused that girlfriends and mothers should give these books a spin to gain some insight into the teen boy’s brain. Cameron struggles with the conflict between his hormones (sex with any female that looks his way, and proving once and for all that he isn’t a loser) and his heart (the little-boy desire of wanting to be nurtured and loved, and the manliness of being perceived as honorable and chivalrous). The results are the same insecurity, shame, and tendency towards self-defeat that almost every boy has to go through while growing up, and find inventive ways to cope with. His sexual fantasies are constant, and he accepts their inevitability. He also can’t help but fall in love at the drop of a hat, desperate to find something noble that gives those fantasies meaning, which makes him even more self-conscious. And best of all, this is not a motif that show up fully formed in the third book, even though the story itself stands alone. Rather, it is the result of Cameron’s character growth up to that point. It is beautifully understated, and cathartic to read, at least for me.

The only complaint I have with this book is the same complaint I have with every omnibus edition I read, and it has to do with the cognitive dissonance of reconciling the chapters of a collection to actual standalone books. As I mentioned, my infatuation with this book was a slow burn, since I was a little nonplussed by The Underdog and didn’t warm up to it until well past the halfway mark. If I were reading the standalone novel instead of this compilation, I don’t think I would have hung around for the following books, and that would have been a terrible loss. But as always, I can’t decide whether that speaks to a failure in the writing, or with me being psyched out by reaching the end of the “book” even though I have hundreds of pages left to read in the volume I’m holding. Suffice it to say that the first book is considerably more freeform and light on actual plot than the other two, so it pays off to stick it out if that bothers you.

But besides that small issue, this is a fantastic little smorgasbord of coming-of-age vignettes. It effortlessly brought me back to my own struggles with my self-worth as a young man, and it has the mark of a truly great read: the more I ruminate on it after finishing it, the more I love it. I would particularly recommend this to teen guys, who I suspect would not object to a little stealth introspection hidden amongst a tale of girls, fighting, and making fun of stupid little yappy dogs.

Verdict: 4.5 / 5