book review: the surrogates

The Surrogates is a science fiction mystery set in a future where people can sit in the privacy of their own room and teleoperate a surrogate to go out and interact with the real world for them. When you’re operating the surrogate you’re feeling what it feels and doing what it does, but without exposing your real self to danger.

What makes this book great is how Robert Venditti gets into what this would mean for a world. It turns most of our major crimes into property crimes, since a murder of a surrogate is basically like totalling someone’s car. People took up smoking again because all of the carcinogens accumulate in the surrogate’s body, leaving the real you with lungs pink like the insides of babies.

The story follows a police detective on the trail of a murderer who might be a terrorist, and gets at the heart of what this technology means. There’s an anti-surrogate political group, and a murderer who can do things no one has ever seen before. Also, between each issue in the trade paperback there are news reports or advertisements or academic papers that help to flesh out the world (much like you might remember from Watchmen, though there’s no parallel pirate story going on here), which are done superbly.

Venditti and Wendele did a great job with this book. I know there was a movie version fairly recently but didn’t see it. It seems like it’d be very easy to simplify it too much for the sake of good visuals. If the movie’s worth seeing let me know!

Scott McCloud at Agnes Scott College September 16, 2008

scott mccloud’s talk at graphic 2011

Scott McCloud at Agnes Scott College September 16, 2008The Graphic Storytelling Festival made a bunch of headlines in the last week or so because of the Sydney Telegraph scaring off Robert Crumb. (Fuck You Sydney Telegraph.) But Crumb wasn’t the only draw. Scott McCloud made te intercontinental trek to give a talk called Understanding Comics, and I bought tickets for myself and Holly.

I figured this would be a good event for her, because she’s been reading a few more comics recently (Persepolis and the first Absolute volume of Sandman), but the only person blathering at her about how significant and important they are is me. And I get very scattered and distracted and haven’t been doing this since 1993. So having so good a blatherer about comics as Scott McCloud explaining the stuff I’m a lukewarm (but passionate) rehasher of, sounded perfect.

His presentation was less than an hour but packed with stuff about visual communication and its uses in education and the way we as humans live. He demonstrated the Grimace project which uses his facial expression diagrams from Making Comics. He showed sketches of the semiotics of comics and talked about how tragic it is that in school we’re taught about all the different ways writing can be used, but we restrict drawing to self-expression only, since it can do all sorts of amazing stuff. He said recently he was at a “second annual” Comics in Medicine convention, which was awesome and spoke to the educational nature of comics. He stressed how comics don’t reduce information, but concentrate it into easily remembered forms, like mnemonic devices.

McCloud showed loads of slides, but they were done really well in a way that was not a bunch of boring bulleted lists. He was using Keynote, not Prezi or anything fancy, just using the tools in a better way (lots of slides, little text) which helped highlight his points about visual communication, and how we should be approaching them as “tools of empowerment.”

That tied in well to his talking about libraries. In the Q&A I asked if he had any recommendations for libraries in dealing with comics. He had a few comments:

  • Libraries should put the comics-knowledgeable staff in charge of them, that that domain knowledge is really important to making a good comics section. Note that well, future employers of mine. This is what I was made to do.
  • Libraries just have to look at the circulation numbers to see if comics are a good idea. He gave the example of a great library in Alaska whose circulation numbers jumped by something like 800% when they committed to comics.
  • To work with comics in libraries we have to bypass the “at least they’re reading something” mentality. That wasn’t a terrible hook in years gone by, but treating comics as complex literature with many different layers, is better for comics as we go forward. Not everything is Watchmen, but in the prose section it’s not like libraries only have War & Peace either.

He also had some comments about creating better classification systems for comics in libraries. In his opinion people think in terms of form first, so it still makes sense to shelve the nonfiction Graphic Novels together rather than interfile them with the rest of the books on a subject. Oh! He also called graphic novels “a specific type, format and approach to comics,” which I appreciated. I’m one of those people who resists calling comics graphic novels just to confer some legitimacy on them through linguistic sleight-of-hand, so this fits my worldview and expands it a bit. Which is what you want out of a talk, right? That and an enthusiastic reading of his “really dumb” comic about MonkeyForces fighting zombies of MonkeyTown in an escalating to kaiju battle epic. (He said he was inspired to do something more performance-like by being in the Sydney Opera House.)

After it was over, Holly said she almost wished she was teaching so she could use some of that theory in her educational repertoire. It was a really good afternoon.

book review: in brightest day

Green Lantern: In Brightest Day is a collection of classic influential Green Lantern stories selected by Geoff Johns. (In Brightest Day is also the name of the “event” that’s been going on in Green Lantern continuity recently, but this isn’t that.)

As far as collections go, it covers all the different human Lanterns, not just Hal Jordan but Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Alan Scott. It has the first appearance of Sinestro and isn’t a bad bit of background. It doesn’t go into why Hal Jordan went crazy and killed everyone and what happened to him after that. I don’t know if that even happened anymore what with all the continuity punches that seem to be thrown around in the DC multiverse.

One of the reasons it’s good for me to read some of these older stories is to remember why people think comics are terrible. I mean, the writing in those old comics makes me cringe. There’s a reason no one took the medium seriously for so long. It’s good to remember that comics didn’t just start off with sophisticated work like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. There were loads of comics that had terrible writing, but still made kids happy to read them.

The best parts of this book were the Tales of the Green Lantern Corps. I love all the other Green Lanterns. The alien guardian thing is really cool and makes for good one-off sfnal stories. Like the Alan Moore tale of Mogo, and Tygers, the backstory to Abin Sur’s demise. Those were excellent.

book review: sven the returned (northlanders vol 1)

Brian Wood writes good comics. His book DMZ is one of my favourites. I knew he wrote a Viking book too but I don’t really have a huge hankering in my heart for Vikings. On the cover of Sven the Returned there’s a quote saying “Finally, Vikings done right!” I have never really felt the lack, nor have I seen Vikings done poorly, so yeah. But I like Wood’s characters and reading it from the library required little from me. If I was going to read Viking comics Northlanders would be the ones I’d read.

This book is about a guy Sven from the Orkney islands returning home to claim his inheritance from his scheming uncle who stole it. There’s a lot of killing people with swords and arrows and shit. It covers a lot more time than I would have expected, and I gather that the later story arcs aren’t Sven’s further adventures.

Reading it though, I couldn’t put the roots of comics in pulp fiction out of my head. I suppose it’s the Watchmen effect, like how in that world they had Pirate comics instead of superheroes. And I read Old West comics. I don’t know. I just felt like I was in some other world where Viking comics were the norm for tales of people being badass.

Man, I haven’t been able to write a coherent review or anything else in months. I’m sorry.

book review: from hell

When you talk about important comics, Watchmen usually gets mentioned, but From Hell (also by Alan Moore) is probably the better book. It’s a Jack the Ripper story in 14 chapters, but it’s really about the birth of the 20th century (which makes it a bit more significant historically than rewriting the superhero genre).

I remember borrowing a buddy’s copy years ago, and not knowing much about Jack the Ripper beforehand I came out a little underwhelmed. On my re-read I think there were two reasons for that. 1) I was concerned mainly for who did the killing and the mundane mystery of it all, which the book pretty much dissipates early. I felt like I was missing something, and I was: the significance of everything that was going on. 2) I tried reading the appendices all in one shot after finishing the story. This time I read each chapter’s notes directly after finishing the chapter and it worked so much better. I also could linger more (since I didn’t have my whole “what happens next?” portion of my brain dragging me through) and appreciate all the interesting things they did with time (which is where it’s easiest to tell this is the same guy as the writer of Watchmen).

Anyway. This time I let the chapters seep into my brain where they could slosh around with everything else and they’re doing much more good this time around. Though really, it’s the appendices that make the book. As I am not a Ripperologist I love that feeling that Mr. Moore is sifting through all the detritus and pulling out the most interesting bits and forming it into how he thinks the story may have gone. And then demolishes the entire idea of there being any way to talk about anything having one solution.

movie and book review: watchmen

So I saw Watchmen this afternoon, and am happy to report that it didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out, but it’s really not as good as the comic. I don’t know that I ever expected it to be and I was kind of relieved it wasn’t.


While it was neat to see a bunch of the stuff on screen, it felt like it was a lot of eye candy but with like a salmon flavour (possibly tunafish). Just off somehow. Like Veidt is trying to get society off fossil fuels, when in the book he’d already done that and it hadn’t really helped the world. And Rorshach kills the kidnapper/killer with a cleaver instead of letting the guy make his own compromise to save his life or not. There wasn’t really a reason to care about anyone in the movie apart from the fact that it was a great book (which might have been the metatextual point).

The pace of the thing was wrong. I mean wrong for a movie and wrong for the book. In the book the simultaneity of the arrangement of panels on a page means that the whole Dr. Manhattan episode is actually happening all at once. It’s all right there and you can go with it back and forth, instead of being pulled through flashbacks. A movie goes forward even when it doesn’t really. But the structure of the thing needed to be handled differently. Movie flashbacks aren’t the same as comic book flashbacks. I know I’m probably just parroting a bunch of Alan Moore stuff here (it seems I a lot of my “views on comics” are the most easily understandable bits of his interviews), but I think in the end I do agree that it was unfilmable. (I do stand by my previous assertion that the best possible adaptation would have been as a 12-episode HBO miniseries.)

That’s not to say it was horrible. They did a good job with what they could do. There are lots of bits I missed seeing but they’re all still in the book. I just checked. No pages were erased by the existence of the film.

book review: watching the watchmen

Watching the Watchmen is primarily a collection of Dave Gibbons’ thumbnails behind Watchmen (one of those comics that you should really read even though or possibly because they’ve made a movie version of it). It’s not a really super detailed look behind the scenes, just some interesting anecdotes. There are no crazy scandalous things revealed. But I love looking at the sketches and the detail involved. In the Mars issue when the perfume bottle is rotating through space there were charts mapping out the positions of the stars as the bottle moved. I also found the colourist’s brief interlude very interesting as I didn’t know what the difference between the Absolute and regular editions of Watchmen might be. The Absolute edition does look much better. I might be able to justify buying that copy to replace my old-style TPB. Someday.

And did I mention my copy of Watching the Watchmen is signed by Dave Gibbons? That’s the best part of friends living in London. Cool people actually do things there.