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My 2017 in Books and Graphic Novels, Part 1 of 2

books! graphic novels! yay!

39 of this year’s 51 books read. My MIA selections were borrowed. As a getaway from online political wartime, Anne and I found ourselves looking to the library for leisure a bit more often this year.

Time again for the annual entry in which I remind myself how much I like reading things besides monthly comics, magazines, and self-promotion from internet users who have me muted. Despite the lack of MCC entries about my reading matter, I’m always working on at least two books at a time in my ever-diminishing reading time. I refrain from full-on book reviews because nine times out of ten I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it. I don’t always care about site traffic, but when I do, it usually means leaving some extended thoughts and opinions unwritten due to non-timeliness.

Presented over this entry and the next is my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections that I finished reading in 2017, mostly but not entirely in order of completion. As I whittle down the never-ending stack I’ve been stockpiling for literal decades, my long-term hope before I turn 70 is to get to the point where my reading list is more than, say, 40% new releases every year. That’s a lofty goal, but I can dream.

As with last year’s experiment, every book gets a full capsule summary apiece, because 28 years of reading Entertainment Weekly have gotten me addicted to the capsule format. The list is divided into a two-part miniseries to post on back-to-back evenings in order to ease up on the word count for busier readers. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we attended over the past few years. Onward!

1. Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts: Comics and Stories 1950-2000. The grand finale to the 13-year, 26-volume reprint series from Fantagraphics Books is all outtakes and DVD extras that Schulz drew apart from the 50-year daily strip — comic books, early Saturday Evening Post one-panel gags, tiny Hallmark keepsake books, and corporate shilling gigs for car companies. I learned Schulz himself sold out the Peanuts gang to the Ford Motor Company decades before his family would sell them out for new licensing bucks. Still funny to varying degrees. But at long last…it. Is. Finished.

2. Richard Price, The Whites. The celebrated author of Clockers and premium-cable writer (The Wire, The Night Of) employs the pseudonym Harry Brandt to tell a tale of third-shift Manhattan police, focusing on one middle-age cop whose old specialized crime unit disbanded years ago, but who find that their old unsolved cases — suspects who beat the system and got away with their crimes — are beginning to turn up dead. Price excels at seedy urban settings, moral ambiguity, and messy choices in lieu of gunfight climaxes. Although there’s one of those, too. He’s one of those writers who makes me want to cut back on other hobbies just to make more time for novels like his.

3. Luther M. Siler, The Sanctum of the Sphere. Self-published sci-fi that’s like Firefly but the characters are Dungeons & Dragons nonhuman races like gnomes, trolls, and half-ogres. It makes sense for a D&D universe to last for centuries and not have the humans as the sole survivors into the future, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it done. Light, fluffy adventure yarn with extra F-words.

4/5. Lee Cherolis and Ed Cho, Little Guardians, v. 2: The Anger Demon; v. 3: Tane and the Spirit Dragon. Collections of the ongoing webcomic by a pair of local creators we keep running into at conventions. Cartoony fantasy about monsters terrorizing villages, the teenagers meant to rise up against them, and the adults who keep failing at taking care of things themselves. Harmless fun, though in black-and-white some characters look too much alike and flashbacks can be tricky to discern from present-day scenes if you’re not intensely invested in distinguishing the characters from each other.

6. Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunleavy, Action Philosophers! Part straightforward education, part gratuitous explosions, totally about the world of philosophy. Mini-biographies of thinkers, ponderers, preachers, and heretics across the millennia from ancient Greece to wizened Asia to Reformation holiness to gloomy existentialism to that horrid Ayn Rand and beyond. You could waste a semester in a college class arguing The Meaning of Life with spooky loners and drunk frat boys, or you could settle for this far more entertaining and comprehensive primer in the comfort of your home.

7. Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, Letter 44, v. 1: Escape Velocity. A new President of the United States of America assumes control of the Oval Office only to find a note from his controversial predecessor outlining how he bulked up the country’s vast military budget for the sake of a special secret operation: a space mission to make contact with a mysterious construct floating millions of miles away. While the Prez negotiates with his aides and tries to figure who knows what and who’s on his side, the team of astronauts sent on a one-way quest try to make sense of the weirdness they find out in the great beyond. Interesting start, not sure exactly where its mysteries will lead yet.

8. George R. R. Martin, ed., Wild Cards: Suicide Kings. Soon to be a TV series someday maybe if I’m lucky! I’ve been following the long-running shared-world super-hero prose-novel series since ninth-grade, but I’m running a few years behind. The 20th novel in the series follows different groups of superhumans as they’re drawn into their alt-universe war-torn Africa, ruled jointly by horrid dictators trying to create an army of deformed kiddie super-villains and an evil Superman type with quite a body count to his credit from past books. R-rated and hyper-violent, but a vastly different take on the genre than any comics have ever attempted.

9. George R. R. Martin, ed., Wild Cards: Fort Freak. Book 21 shifted gears to the Manhattan district of Jokertown, home of all the most mutated, misshapen humans around. Crime drama and murder mystery mix with a host of old and new characters and authors alike. Best of Show goes to Paul Cornell’s “More!” about a weird detente between an aging fugitive who can duplicate objects and an off-Broadway actress who can duplicate superpowers.

10. David Rodriguez and Sarah Ellerton, Finding Gossamyr, v. 1. All-ages fantasy about a teen girl with an autistic brother, Mom ‘n’ Dad out of the picture, who get shanghaied into an alt-fantasy universe where math is magic and vice versa…which makes her li’l savant brother one of the most powerful people in town. Two parts Disney to one part real-world relationship struggle as Our Heroine finds herself crushed by the burden of trying and failing at surrogate parenting, not to mention keeping them from getting killed by the swordsmen and monsters in their path. Fun adventure and weighty emotion in equal measure, this deserves an actual audience.

11. Michael West, The Wide Game. Horror novel set in an Indiana small town about adults having a book-length flashback to that time in high school when all the kids were in on a secret game that turned out unexpectedly fatal for some of their classmates at the hands of a creepy Native American cornfield god. I know the author offline, so this is me recusing myself from review mode for the rest of this paragraph.

12/13. Trevor Mueller & Gabo, Albert the Alien v. 1: New in School; v. 2: The Substitute Teacher from Planet X. All-ages science action fun about an exchange student who comes to Earth from beyond and tries to learn our strange ways through everyday classroom life. Hilarity ensues, packed with pop-culture in-jokes, cute running gags, and a decent number of laughs. It’s like a Nickelodeon series but for the above-average kids.

14. Derf Backderf, My Friend Dahmer. Soon to be an indie film, though I had no idea till after I’d finished it and then saw a photo in Entertainment Weekly a couple weeks later. A graphic novel based on the cartoonist’s true story about how he knew Jeffrey Dahmer in high school and was among the few kids who hung out with him despite his off-putting social skills, whacked-out sense of humor, alcoholism, dead animal collection, and increasing air of creepiness about him that didn’t fully take form until after graduation. Backderf unknowingly had a front-row seat to the making of a serial killer, but could only add up the signs in hindsight. The story ends when their interactions do, before the deaths began, but their increasingly disjointed exchanges brings a dread that looms more intensely with each passing page. Disturbing, insightful, and a very rare instance of me finding a book impossible to put down.

15. Frank Conniff, Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever. Essays by TV’s Frank himself about the gig that made his TV writing career possible. Some are behind-the-scenes tales about how he was in charge of screening and picking the movies from seasons 2 to 6. Some are random stand-up comedy tangents. One has him apologizing profusely to us all for Manos: The Hands of Fate. A couple of brief political diatribes didn’t do much for me, but since he didn’t actually contribute to The MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, this is fans’ first chance to get his take in writing on some of the show’s most well-known episodes.

16. Warren Ellis, Normal. A bizarre sort-of mystery set at a special mental health facility exclusively for futurists and other theorists who went mad when they tried too hard to imagine humanity’s ultimate destiny and/or doom. It’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest except all the patients are geniuses and none of them is there by mistake. It’s borderline sci-fi, but rooted in pessimistic humanism and grim sarcasm that make it all the more disturbing.

17. Zack Kaplan and Giovanni Timpano, Eclipse, v. 1. In a world where Earth’s atmosphere is so far gone that exposure to sunlight instantly disintegrates flesh, humanity has gone underground and somehow excavated entire new living spaces under previously existing infrastructure without buildings collapsing and without explaining how they got cranes underground to finish their upper levels and roofs. One cop must solve the killings perpetrated by a dude armed with either superpowers or extra protective clothing, all while being surrounded by a bunch of inconsistencies as to what’s flammable and what’s not, to say nothing of the part where apparently moonlight is not lethal even though it’s just reflected sunlight. My head hurts.

18. Matt Hawkins, Bryan Hill and Isaac Goodhart, Postal, v. 1. In a small town whose deep dark secret is that they’re all convicted criminals living there as part of their weird sentence, the town mailman — a young guy with Asperger’s syndrome who was born there — tries to solve a horrible murder while negotiating life with his oppressive mom and doing what he can from within the boundaries of his condition. Based on my own anecdotal experience from knowing someone with Asperger’s, the protagonist here resembles him in so many ways that…well, I gather the creators know exactly what they’re doing. The crime-drama stuff was kind of secondary to that.

19. Marky Ramone with Rich Herschlag, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone. The autobiography of one of the few living members of the quintessential American punk rock band. From the streets of Brooklyn to the wild world tours and back again, Marky the drummer expounds candidly about what it was like working, playing, and putting up with Joey the severe OCD sufferer, Dee-Dee the unrepentant junkie, and Johnny the money-minded Republican. (Tommy gets occasional friendly mentions early on and then left behind; CJ doesn’t show up till fifty pages from the end; Richie’s two paragraphs are so scant that the words “Richie” and “Ramone” never appear side-by-side, and he’s not even listed in the index.) Sex, drugs, and rock-‘n’-roll go hand-in-hand, including his own bout with alcoholism that took him to darkest places and got him kicked out of the Ramones for several years until fate reunited them when he and they were both ready. Now a couple decades into sobriety, Marky and his co-writer serve up a detailed retrospective of life in the Manhattan club scene, as well as frank insight into what it was like negotiating with record labels and producers in the ’70s and ’80s. But the overall portrait of the band’s 30-year career is so dark and littered with unhappy endings that now I’m kind of afraid to read the other Ramones’ autobiographies.

20. Brian Azzarello, JG Jones, and Lee Bermejo, Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach. A double-shot of cash-grab prequel stories by one of my two least favorite writers in the biz, but it was a library find, so I figured why not since my money wasn’t involved. Both were as nihilistic and unnecessary as expected for prequels starring the two least sane, most brutal characters of the bunch. Rorschach at least has the benefit of fantastic art by Bermejo, but the Comedian’s ugliness has him gallivanting through 20th-century American history, playing football with JFK on the White House lawn, turning down Jackie’s flirting but then murdering Marilyn Monroe because she asked nicely, helping start the Watts Riots, single-handedly making Vietnam worse, and then personally assassinating his other BFF RFK. It’s Forrest Gump meets No Country for Old Men. Least favorite book of my year.

21. Michael West, Poseidon’s Children. First in a novel series about mutated descendants of the Greek gods finally being fed up with hiding from humanity for so long that they’ve decided a violent uprising is in order in their idyllic New England resort town. It’s like what if Percy Jackson reached a George R. R. Martin level of violence. I know the author offline, so I should recuse myself from review mode as I did above, but I question the wisdom of waiting till page 194 for the one black character to reveal he’s black by saying exactly one black thing and then going back to being any-race for the rest of the book, or of waiting till page 283 for the one Japanese character to reveal she knows a martial art. Also, when font sizes change from one paragraph to the next, that’s super annoying and makes me wonder if my eyesight has gotten even worse than I thought.

Gilliamesque!

One of my favorite covers of the bunch, a wondrous tome in general merely from a design standpoint, with “ME ME ME ME ME” written in red letters all around the outside edges. And it was a vacation souvenir!

22. Terry Gilliam, Gilliamesque. The heavily illustrated autobiography of the one American member of Monty Python, who later went on to direct such films as Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, Brazil, and more more more. Gilliam is candid about his former collaborators as well as his own flaws, and reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes trivia, drama, and pleasant successes. The book gives short shrift to any films for which he’s already done extended commentaries or summations elsewhere, which is frustrating if you haven’t already consumed those materials first, but he’s not one to repeat himself. His entire career is a must-hear for anyone who wants to know what it’s like to brave the grinding gears of the Hollywood movie machines with any of your ideals intact, if not necessarily your career.

23. Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Stones. Collecting the first several chapters of a longform graphic novel about life in Germany beginning in 1928 and leading up to the eventual Nazi regime. The narrative skips around from one character to the next, weaving in and out of each other’s lives — sometimes shifting viewpoints within the same page and back again — at a time when Germany struggled after the Great War with its identity as a nation. Lutes averages roughly one completed chapter per year, so this one is still in progress and a bit far from closure.

24. Gwenda Bond, Lois Lane: Double Down. YA novel about the intrepid Daily Planet reporter as a nosy, diligent, 21st-century teenager working for the school paper but making real headlines anyway. The second book in the series has Our Heroine contending with a shady experiment involving two sets of twins — one natural, one not so much — while juggling her schoolwork, her suspicious principal, and her online best friend she knows only as “SmallvilleGuy”, with whom she holds clandestine chats in a hidden space inside their favorite MMORPG. If you have to update 80-year-old characters for a new millennium, this isn’t a bad way to do it.

25. Ransom Riggs, Tales of the Peculiar. If you found Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine adaptation as annoying as I did, you can take comfort that the books themselves remain unharmed. Riggs follows the first trilogy with a short-story collection that boasts so few firm connections to the “Peculiar” universe that this could basically be a set of Twilight Zone pitches. They’re largely fun reading, but only two of them offer any official backstory to existing characters. Most memorable to me was “The Girl Who Befriended Ghosts”, in which a young lady with ties to the undead decides she really, really wants to have ghosts for friends and so sets about trying to move to different houses and asking them, but they keep running away. In essence, a reverse-Casper. I may have been more amused than I was meant to be.

26. Kate Leth and Brittney Williams, Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat, Vol. 1: Hooked on a Feline. One of the sixty-seven different series that Marvel canceled in 2017, the heroic Patsy (who technically appeared in Netflix’s Jessica Jones) and a nearly all-female supporting cast come to life in the current internet art and humor styles, bring back a few faces from her original 1950s heyday, and make me LOL several times in good ways. The series failed to participate in any major Avengers of X-Men crosssovers and therefore was doomed from the start, like a lot of other dead Marvel books that have freed up space in my budget this past year. Pity.

To be continued!

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