Wildwood is Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel about Pru, a girl in Portland whose brother is stolen by crows. The crows take him into the Impassable Wilderness on the edge of town and Pru goes in to rescue him, along with a nerdy classmate. Within the wilderness there’s a world of talking animals and magic and politics, three nations plus bandits and coyotes and witches trying to destroy it all out of spite.
Meloy tells the story well, creating sympathetic characters who aren’t idiots. There are places where a lazier storyteller could have fallen back on cliches, but he generally avoids that kind of thing. Still, nothing feels terribly new. It’s predictable in the way an old story (or perhaps more appropriately for the lead singer of the Decemberists the way a song) is. The bandits aren’t as terrifying as they might seem, a hero is tricked but manages redemption, there’s military assistance when all seems lost.
It’s good. I enjoyed my time in the world of the book (whose atmosphere was helped by Carson Ellis’ illustrations). And though there’s a sequel, this didn’t end on a cliffhanger, so I can go about my life thinking of the story as its own little thing.
I first learned of Usagi Yojimbo, the anthropomorphic rabbit ronin, as a kid watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons disdainfully (as I deemed myself far too mature for such claptrap, especially if you tried comparing it to the majesty of Thundercats). It took years for me to learn that that was more of a crossover than Usagi being a spinoff character, and that Stan Sakai is a hell of a cartoonist. So I’m reading some of these classic stories now.
This volume, Samurai, has an extended flashback to how Usagi became a ronin. He tells the story of his first master and how his Daimyo was killed, forcing him into the wandering life. The stories move quickly, characters are well-defined and though there’s a lot of killing it’s all very un-gritty. Clean. Good stuff.
I’ve known about David Petersen’s comic Mouse Guard for a long time, flipped through pages in the bookshops and game stores but never taken the plunge. Now I have and man, Mouse Guard is everything I wanted Redwall to be.
Basically the gist of the setup is that there are communities of mice, who are small and easily preyed upon. They’re the kind of mice that walk on their hind feet and sometimes wear armour but no pants. They have communities that trade with each other. And they have the Mouse Guard, who defend mice (from snakes and crabs and the like) outside their settlements.
In this first book in the series, a spy is selling information about one of the communities to a faction that wants to control it. There are three mice who stumble onto this plot and have to try and save their society. It’s awesome.
The art is all in browns and reds and is incredibly moody. It feels old, like this is a tale from long ago and it works really well.
There’s also a roleplaying game based on Mouse Guard, which is also supposed to be fantastic. It uses modified Burning Wheel rules and I’ve heard it really captures the idea of being small and heroic in a world where anything can kill you.
Athos in America is a book of short stories by Jason (featuring his trademark anthropomorphic animals, naturally). There’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf” a science fictional story of a man and the head of his wife he’s keeping alive and trying to find a body for, “So Long, Mary Ann” a story of a prison escapee, “A Cat From Heaven” a reflexive story about Jason himself being a huge asshole to everyone, “The Smiling Horse” a noirish story of kidnapping and revenge and the titular story of Athos the musketeer hanging out in a bar talking up his exploits in the U.S.
My favourite story though was “Tom Waits on the Moon.” Each page has a character talking to him or herself for four panels, asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of self-doubting, and all coming together in the last page. It just worked really well (despite its lack of Tom Waits as a character).
Blacksad is a collection of three noir comics in a world of anthropomorphic animals. John Blacksad is a private investigator who is also a black cat. He does the standard noir detective shtick of solving crimes, working with people he doesn’t like and never coming out ahead.
The world has characters who fit into their animal roles, it’s not like there’s a bear society and a cat society; everything is a lot more individual than that. In the second story in the book there’s a Nazi in all but name group of white supremacists with polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls and weasels all dressed up in uniform with red armbands with a snowflake.
The art is very painterly with lots of detail and a colour scheme that makes me think calling this noir might be off. It isn’t filled with shadows at all, just muted colours. The edition I was reading was really big so you had a lot of room to really look at the art.
Very well executed detective stories which I liked a lot. They’d work even with lesser art, but with the great art it makes the book something special.
Good-bye Chunky Rice is Craig Thompson’s first graphic novel, from before Blankets became such a huge hit. It’s about a turtle who leaves home and his best friend, who is a mouse. He gets on his landlord’s brother’s ferry to take him away and the ferry captain cheats him and takes advantage of him and everyone is mean, and everyone everywhere is sad.
It’s a good little story about leaving home and why it’s something people have to do sometimes, even when it’s not the best thing for them to do. It’s obviously not the same kind of massive work as Habibi, but I liked it all the same.
Fabien Vehlmann and Jason worked together to create Isle of 100,000 Graves but since Jason is the one who drew it in his usual simple anthropomorphic animal style the only real noticeable difference from a regular Jason book is the slightly (very slightly) less oblique humour. There’s a bit more snap to the dialogue which worked very well.
The story is about a girl who gets a message in a bottle with a map to treasure. She heads out there looking for her lost father on a pirate ship and gets a pirate to buddy up with her. The island isn’t actually a lost treasure spot but has a more nefarious purpose: training executioners. There’s good infiltration and cleverness and it’s a pretty excellent, cleanly drawn, funny little pirate comic.
Brian Jacques died earlier this year and in the hubbub surrounding it I realized I’d never read any of the Redwall books. I’d recommended them tonnes, but never actually read them. I realize now that I’d thought there was an actual connection between Redwall and the Mouse Guard comic/RPG. There isn’t.
Redwall is about Matthias wanting to be a warrior while a terrible rat horde comes to attack the Abbey of Redwall, where the mice peacefully heal all the woodland creatures. Matthias has it in his head that he needs to get Martin the Warrior’s sword for some reason to defeat this horde. The rest of the animals don’t think this is a stupid idea. And in the end it’s just a sword. I mean, the point of him going off and solving all these riddles was to get a sword that yes he can cut rats in half with, but all he really needed was his confidence or whatever. Through the whole book he’s such a child of privilege it’s not even funny. Everyone just loves him and he makes friends with everyone.
The other thing I wasn’t a fan of was how easily the peaceful abbey of Redwall went to a war footing and how no one tried to talk Matthias out of following a warrior path. It was all very positive on the “violence as a way of life if it’s done with honour” shtick without any questioning of it. There’s just all this casual murdering that goes on that’s justified because of the uber-simplistic “they were evil” excuse. Bah.
Also, from this book I have no idea about the scale of anything in the world of Redwall. When they talk about a chair, that’s a mouse-sized chair, right, and a barn is a human-sized barn? But when the mice go fishing did they catch a fish that was ten times the size of a mouse, or one that could fit in a mouse’s hand? And how do the birds carry things when they walk around? It took me out of the story, worrying about these logistics, especially since they seemed very inconsistent.
Still, not a bad adventure story. Just the kind of thing that probably works a lot better for a younger audience (or one that has nostalgic memories of it).