book review: pax romana

I loved the concept behind Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana, but the execution was kind of lacking.

The idea is that in the future a couple of scientists figure out a way to make time travel work, but their research has been paid for by the Vatican who use it to make history better. They send a team back to Constantine’s time to get the Holy Roman Empire set up correctly, with enough advanced technology and wealth and foreknowledge of the future and science to ensure some form of success.

It’s a great idea for a book, and the characters who are sent back in time are excellent, in theory. The way the book is done though, really distances you from any of the characters. That’s part of the point (the story is being told as a history lesson to a new emperor in a space ship) but it feels like they left out a lot of the bits that would make it an insanely cool story. You see characters doing very little. Each chapter has two page dialogue scenes that have a small picture of the people involved, and that’s where the majority of the interesting stuff happens. Everything else is interesting layouts and use of whitespace, but not a lot of storytelling.

Jonathan Hickman used infographics really well in The Nightly News, but by the time you get to the end of the book and see the cool timelines of how history went between the timescales of the story, I was disappointed that those events weren’t told as dense little one page comics instead of sentences on a line.

The story we got was good enough and the pages were laid out prettily, but everything was so sparse it became a little frustrating to look at everything left untold.

book review: the nightly news

Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News is a comic about journalism, but unlike DMZ or Transmetropolitan this book’s journalists aren’t the (tarnished) heroes: they’re the enemy. The Nightly News is about revenge-killing journalists for their crimes of fucking with people. It’s also about cults and American politics being owned by media companies, and there’s a lot of Chomsky. It’s pretty awesome.

“Well, pardon me for being frank, but Chomsky’s a fucking retard.”
– Senator M. Jay Rector

One of the awesome things about it is how the pages are designed. There aren’t really many panels, but overlapping images in black white and monocolours/pages (oranges & browns for the present timeline, blues for the various other times). Infographics are interwoven through the pages, too. It doesn’t look like a regular comic book.

It gets a little over-the-top at times (the running joke with the media conglomerates/senators using quotes from famous Nazis that get mistaken for McLuhan and Chomsky is great, though). The characters we’re following are kind of terrible people. I appreciated the references at the end of the book, where Hickman explains some of the references being made and how it all got put together. The subtitle for the book is A Lie Told in Six Parts, but he still has to explicitly state “I am not the Voice in this book. This is a story, not a sermon.” (It reminds me of Warren Ellis having to state every once in a while that he and Spider Jerusalem aren’t actually one and the same being.)

I got this book from the library but I think I’m going to want a copy when I return to the Northern Hemisphere.

manlibcon 2010 day 2

Tuesday was the day my workplace paid for me to attend the conference, so I wasn’t working. The keynote speaker was Gerry Meek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library system. His talk was on transformative partnerships and the beginning was filled with management-speak kinds of cliches. “We can’t just be A to B; we’ve got to be B to A,” that kind of thing. I almost panicked. Is this what all the conferences I’ll be going to in my career will be like? Bullet. Skull. Brain. But! When he started getting into the stuff that the CPL does to act out these little turns of phrase, it got really interesting.

He was talking about branding our libraries and how we can shape our communities. The branding that the CPL does would terrify our library as inappropriate. They have ads saying “Spent all your money? Come to the library.” and “Cheap and Easy.” They have partnerships with some grocery stores to advertise on their shelves with their “Everything you’re into” slogan. It was interesting. The other interesting bit was how the CPL “applauds bold failures and frowns on mediocre successes” and encourages mavericks within their system, and looks for what their staff is passionate about. That’s kind of the opposite of how our hidebound, terrified of anything bad happening administration works.

Now, I don’t know how it works in practice at the CPL. If I were to hang out with my equivalent from their system, maybe they’d denounce that as just propaganda to boost their library image that has nothing to do with how their employees experience the library. Meek did make a couple of jokes about being careful what you get your staff into, so who knows how it actually plays out. Noble sentiments though.

My next session was Beyond the Newsletter: Social Media Solutions for Library News presented by Carol Cooke, Tania Gottschalk, Mark Rabnett, a crew from the University of Manitoba Health Sciences Libraries. This was talking about how they integrated a bunch of tools so they wouldn’t have to update everything (facebook, twitter, the U of M website, flickr) individually. It was a little more technical than I expected, talking about how they hook their RSS feeds up through different services to update everything. They were big proponents of Posterous. And they talked about the importance of having a policy for the library’s official presence. I asked if they also had a policy about what individual staff members do with their personal accounts on these networks. They thought that made no sense at all. Just like me!

In the afternoon I went to a Manitoba Book Blitz, which was a dozen publishers pitching books. It was interesting enough, but not having the power to actually buy books for my workplace, not terribly useful to me. I felt bad because one publisher was doing her pitch with the author of the book she was pitching there, and she was by far the worst salesperson. Kind of cringeworthy really. He helped a bit. In general though, it was a fun session, with Charlene Diehl being a great host. She was described in the program as effervescent and I have no problem with that description.

Last session was on Designing Dazzling Displays and it didn’t really go well. There were supposed to be two presenters, Dawn Huck from a local publisher, and someone from McNally Robinson, where they do excellent displays. But the second person didn’t show up till 25 minutes in, so Huck was forced into engaging in dialogue with the attendees and she was showing us some things that she does, which was good stuff (she’s more focused on trade shows and the like). But it seemed like she was supposed to be the sidekick to the presentation and wasn’t really prepared to take this lead role. The audience was sharing their ideas and tips and tricks for library displays with all our limits and Huck was kind of just swept along with it. When the bookseller and her boxes of things showed up, she apologized for her extreme lateness, but I don’t think there was really any way she was going to win that room over.

She talked about the things she does for the bookstore and the presentation careened from very basic (arrange books in pyramids so you can see them all, which seemed sort of patronizing) to beautiful but impractical (a 5’6″ dragon built out of wood foil and papier mache for a Brisingr display). She made a chupacabra joke that might have gone over better in a younger crowd filled with geeks (I smiled), but she was talking fast, trying to make up for lost time and she wasn’t getting that bunch back. Especially not with comments about how often she gives things to her graphic designer. I wonder how it would have been if she’d been there at the beginning. It was kind of funny watching a room just be cold to a speaker. This was the only session I heard disparaging things about the next day. But she brought stuff for people to take, posters and things, and there were a few good DIY ideas for risers. I enjoyed the session and did pick up a few ideas, plus learned about why self-healing cutting mats are cool.

And then I went to work.