Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Comic Review - Hack/Slash Omnibus 1, by Tim Seeley

Just look at how ridiculous and awesome this cover is. This is the kind of cover that I wouldn’t really carry under my arm in public, and in fact, I was a little embarrassed having it on my bedside table. Still, I couldn’t pass this up after finding out about the book’s concept, and while it’s a bit of a hot mess, I’m glad I gave it a try.

Hack/Slash is an Image title that began life as a sporadic indie comic, which chronicles the episodic adventures of Cassandra Hack and her hulking, disfigured companion, Vlad. When Cassie was a teenager, her mother committed suicide after being revealed as a serial killer, only to rise from the grave as a vengeful undead “slasher.” Cassie was forced to put her own mother out of commission a second time, and has roamed the country ever since, seeking out other slashers and ending their respective reigns of terror.

This collection is about as over-the-top as one would expect it to be. I’ve seen other readers lambaste this title for being shallow and tawdry, and I’m forced to wonder what they were expecting when they picked it up. For my part, I got exactly what I thought I would: B-flick plotting, campy dialogue, pointless sexual titillation, and plenty of gore. In short, everything that horror movies used to be. There are even crossover one-shots that star Evil Ernie from the eponymous horror comic and Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, along with additional “movie trailer” shorts, to drive that particular point home. It’s definitely not going to make you think, and could rightly be identified as vulgar or even sexist. But it’s a rough-hewn blend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a Troma film, which does just fine by me.

I did have a problem with this omnibus, though, and it’s bad enough that I almost knocked another point off. The art, generally speaking, is atrocious. As in, occasionally edging past the line of so-bad-it's-endearing, but more often just plain bad. Seeley recruits a number of artists, including himself, to pencil these early Hack/Slash entries. Some of them are decent, but others may as well have been doodling in their textbooks during algebra class. This is less of a problem when there is a single unifying art style, but in the last story of the collection, the artwork literally changes from page to page as different artists take the helm for a few panels. There are a couple of bright spots, most notably the stylized, nightmarish work in the Evil Ernie crossover. However, these are negated by some amateurish and truly ugly panels elsewhere.

All told, though, this was a great junk-food read. I wish things had come together a bit better, story-wise, and I legitimately hated a good portion of the art. I enjoyed the book like I would any of the slasher movies that inspired it, though, and the concept is fun and interesting enough that I will probably pick up the next omnibus. I hope there will be more of a story arc as I get into the run of the continuing comic, but at this point I’d be satisfied with another dose of increasingly weird slashers and unapologetic butt-kicking.

Verdict: 3.5 / 5

Book Review - The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I was going to start this review with a recollection of how I ended up in a hot tub with Brian Selznick, but I think I’ve dropped that particular name enough for one lifetime, so I’ll just leave it at this: librarianship can make for some pretty weird anecdotes.

Anyway, at first glance, this book seems hefty for a children’s story. Opening the cover reveals an ethereal mix of hand-drawn sketches and sparse, elegant prose that unfolds like a mix of picture book, fable, and silent film. I can’t think of anything else like it.

The story is deceptively short enough that I don’t want to give too much away. Hugo Cabret is an orphan that lives in the walls of a Paris train station, taking care of the clocks and stealing food to survive. Every now and then, he visits the toymaker’s booth in the station and makes off with small windup animals, which he cannibalizes for parts to repair a miniature figurine he keeps in his room. The mysterious automaton is the only memento Hugo has left of his father, and he is convinced that if he gets it working it will impart an important message. When the toymaker catches him one day, it sets off a chain of events that connects Hugo’s mechanical man with the dreamlike movies his father used to talk about, and forever alters the lives of both Hugo and the toymaker.

The most striking elements of the book are the two-page illustrations that frequently intersperse the narrative. They can be disorienting at first, until the reader realizes that they are integral to moving the story along. They are scenes in themselves, rather than mere accompaniment. The pictures are wonderfully drawn, and framed in such a way that something almost like animation emerges if you flip through them in just the right way. Selznick’s prose is simple and straightforward; all of the charm and wonder resides in these visual interludes.

The only complaint that I have with the book is that things get a little anticlimactic near the end. Selznick builds so much fantastic wonder, especially in the beginning, that the resolution feels exceptionally earthbound. This in itself is a bit of a brilliant stroke, though, as the story was inspired by a real turn-of-the-century filmmaker and his odd collection of automata. Taken as a whole, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a paean to how extraordinary the little quirks and foibles of ordinary life can be, especially when you are twelve years old. Despite its impressive page count, this can be read in a day, and is filled with enough enchantment to hook readers of any age. I plan on putting it in my son’s hands as soon as he’s able to read on his own.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

This is one of the many books that I should have read a long time ago, and I finally picked it up in honor of Banned Books Week. For some reason, I can never get the teens in my library interested in this one. After reading it, I’m going to redouble my efforts; this is a powerful, funny, and heartbreaking book.

The story is a semi-autobiographical account of Alexie’s own childhood, told through the lens of a physically weak but fiercely intelligent 14-year-old American Indian named Arnold Spirit Jr. Having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation amidst rampant alcoholism and crippling poverty, Junior (as he’s known on the rez) clings to his flawed family and his rough best friend, Rowdy, and draws comics as an emotional outlet. A chance encounter with a teacher convinces him that in order to escape the downward trajectory that seems to afflict everyone he knows, he must attend Reardan, the affluent, all-white high school outside the reservation. His unprecedented defection makes him an outcast both at his new school and among his own people, and seems to bring nothing but further tragedy down upon his head. Even so, he is determined to stay the course he has set, relying on his wit and strength of spirit to find new friends and make peace with the upbringing he is trying to escape.

This is a fairly standard Bildungsroman, and follows a familiar course as Junior breaks into adolescence and emotionally matures. The book stands out, however, in the voice of the boy telling the story. The story started as an anecdote from Alexie’s own childhood, and it shows; Junior’s diary bleeds with emotion, by turns furious, despairing, and prematurely world-weary. That being said, this book is consistently funny. Between Junior’s sharp, self-effacing wit and his satirical comics (adeptly drawn by Ellen Forney), his story is buoyed by absurd vignettes, made poignant by the earnest seriousness of his circumstances.

While the plot itself is standard YA fare, the depiction of life on an Indian reservation isn’t. Alexie paints a picture of desperation and racial tension that is unique to one particular group of people that remains mostly underrepresented. Most importantly, he showcases the issues that a boy of Junior’s culture must endure while still making him universally relatable. Arnold Spirit Jr. is a 14-year-old boy, and ultimately faces the same trials any 14-year-old boy must face.

I feel like I’m ranging all over the place while trying to review this book, but that might be appropriate. Junior’s story whipsaws between hilarious and heartbreaking, and doesn’t waste words while doing so; this is a slim book and makes for a very quick read. It’s worth a look for anyone, though, regardless of age. At its most basic level, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a diverting, visually interesting, and bittersweet little story that also serves as a primer for Alexie’s other works. Also, it’s frequently challenged by parents who think it will introduce their preadolescent children to the concept of masturbation. So, if you don’t find that as amusing as I do, at least read it because all banned books deserve to be read.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Comic Review - Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory, by Greg Broadmore

I got this one by winning a stack of Dark Horse books in a raffle at this year’s ALA Annual Conference. I didn’t think much of it at first; it’s very short, and looks like a novelty piece or an offshoot of a larger work. I was hooked by the second page, though. The humor alone is worth picking up Doctor Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory.

This is essentially a fanciful catalogue of intricate, highly dangerous ray guns and other equipment for manly men who want to conquer the moon people and impress at social gatherings. There is no story to speak of, beyond the common elements of an alternate retro-futuristic universe where rugged, mutton-chopped adventurers traipse across the solar system, pillaging planets and seducing space vixens. The weapons, gizmos, and robots share a distinct H. G. Wells vibe, and bristle with random tubes, antennae, bulbs, and unpronounceable pseudo-scientific elements. The book is capped off by a richly illustrated vignette of Lord Cockswain’s adventures hunting exotic Venusian wild game with even more exotic weaponry.

Even though the book is slim (it’s even shorter than it looks, thanks to the thick cardstock pages), there is a lot of content packed into each page. The print is small, and the format perfectly emulates an old-timey pamphlet. There is a mix of illustrations and actual photographs of the products (designed and built at Broadmore’s day job: special effects powerhouse Weta Workshop) and each entry comes with both specifications and marketing copy. These little articles are the reason to flip through this faux-brochure; they are drenched in wry, bawdy humor that starts out hilarious and gets progressively more absurd. Offhand descriptions of violent intended use and horrific side-effects sit alongside meaningless retrotechnobabble and meathead slogans that could fit in an advertisement for “natural male enhancement,” all with subtle world-building and steampunk-esque gewgaws in the background. It’s a rollicking mess that’s perfect for reading in bite-sized chunks. The mini-comic at the end doesn’t add much, but the artwork is gorgeous, and it presents a nice thematic punctuation mark.

I don’t usually offer more than a middle-of-the-road rating for story-light companion pieces like this one, but I bumped it up a bit just because I found it so funny. The sense of humor is reminiscent of the violent buffoonery and bravado of the video game Team Fortress 2; sure enough, as I discovered, you can get “Grordbort packs” in the game for the Soldier, Engineer, and Pyro, with more on the way. Absolutely perfect.

Verdict: 4 / 5