My 2019 Reading Stacks #3

American Born Chinese!

Racism: ruining classroom experiences since nearly forever. Art by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections I’ve read throughout the year in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time. Some more.

11. John Shirley, Borderlands: Unconquered. Over the past 4½ years the Borderlands series has become a bit of a fixation in my PS3 retro video gaming. In 2017 the second one was, without hyperbole, the only game I played all year. I got excited when I learned there was a trilogy of prose novels set in the unforgiving, Mad-Max-esque world of Pandora (not to be confused with James Cameron, Greek myth, or streaming services I haven’t used in a while). Knowing the books were by an author I recognized from the ’80s cyberpunk crowd of my teenage years was extra credit. I didn’t mean to start with the second book in the trilogy, but I gathered I didn’t miss too many nuances from Book 1. Sadly the cross-media tie-in isn’t quite the same experience. The original characters are as snarky as ever and the new additions hold their own, but bombastic sci-fi gunfights are a tricky thing to nail without visual accompaniment (though one car-chase sequence fairly crackles), the complete removal of all the throwaway pop-culture references was understandable but no less disappointing, and, really, a sizable part of the game’s charm is the satisfaction of immersing in its scuzzy world and winning it myself, not sitting ringside.

(As print versions of the game go, the Fall of Fyrestone graphic novel I read last year, written by one of the game’s own key contributors, was the superior carryover of the milieu, its repartee and its explosions.)

12. Mariko Tamaki and Joëlle Jones, Supergirl: Being Super. It may or may not count as part of official DC “Rebirth” continuity, but it’s the best coming-of-age story for Kara Zor-El that I’ve ever read. Our teenage hero has two best friends, a rich high school life, firm but loving adopted parents (her Earth father could be Ron Swanson’s cousin), and secret superpowers she’s learned to keep in check. When an earthquake impossibly strikes their small Midwest town, Kara’s first attempts at lifesaving end with a tragedy, heart-rending self-recriminations, and a mystery that will change her life forever. My only gripe is, while the final page leads up to the perfect historical moment, the final conflict ends with a dissatisfying To Be Continued because that’s Big Two comics for you today. Excluding that point, it’s a new Supergirl classic.

13. Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese. Shout-out to our local Barnes & Noble for finally stocking the award-winning graphic novel on their brick-‘n’-mortar shelves where I could find it. In the present, a Chinese-American kid moves to a new school and tries to fit in, but reacts to another new student, a Taiwanese immigrant newly in-country, by perpetuating the cycle of schoolyard spite and “punching down”. Meanwhile in ancient history, the Monkey King is outraged that the other gods won’t respect his godhood and aims to show them what’s up in the stubbornest fashion possible. Also meanwhile, another teen appears to live in an Adult Swim sitcom in which he’s forced to hang out with his visiting cousin, literally a living embodiment of every Chinese cartoon stereotype ever. All three storylines converge at the end, though it was impossible to guess how ahead of time. A funny, layered, emotionally jaw-dropping examination of teen alienation, the deep-seated need to belong, and the egregious sins we’ll sometimes commit just for the sake of “fitting in”.

14. Thomas E. Larson, History & Tradition of Jazz. After my son graduated from college he let me have a few of his books that couldn’t be sold back to the bookstore. Ever since our 2015 road trip to New Orleans I’ve found myself tired of failing to keep up with Top 40 and increasingly interested in learning more about this whole “jazz” thing that my elders, my father-in-law, and the late Harvey Pekar used to speak highly of at length. My son took a class about it one semester out of his own independently derived curiosity and to fill a hole in his schedule, and passed his textbook on to me. For absolute know-nothings it seems a sufficient primer covering the broad spectrum of jazz types over the past century. The book and his professor refused to cover smooth jazz altogether, so I like to think that counts as street cred.

Each section also provides listening suggestions, 95% of which I was able to find on YouTube and bop, swing, or groove along. I’m an extremely long, long way from being someone who can say, “I know a little about jazz” instead of “I know little about jazz”, but it’s something. Baby steps, if you will. (Side note: SiriusXM’s “Real Jazz” remains one of my most commonly clicked preset stations, and it’s thanks to them that I practically jumped up and down with zestful pride a few months ago when I knew the answer to a Final Jeopardy! question was “Take the ‘A’ Train”.)

15. Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta, Outcast vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him. I’d imagine most exorcists who aren’t John Constantine don’t encounter multiple cases of demonic possession in their lifetime. Kyle Barnes, reluctantly proficient at casting out netherworld nemeses, knows something fiendish is going on when he encounters two such cases within his immediate circles alone. It’s hard to stay heroic and chipper when you suspect Hell is gunning for you and you aren’t living in a superhero universe where you can just call other IP headliners for backup. Disturbing horror properly complemented by the crisp, moody art of Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitweiser is, if I’ve done the math right, the best Kirkman work I’ve read in years. Granted, my Kirkman reading experiences have varied radically. I can’t recall the most recent positive one before this (I drop-kicked The Walking Dead after the odious fifth volume), but I’m pretty sure this one now qualifies as “the best Kirkman book I’ve read in years” albeit by default. But a win is a win.

(Side note: I’ve never seen the TV version because we don’t have Cinemax, and it’s not really on my wish list. Sometimes it’s cool to enjoy reading matter within the original, singular medium sans concern for how or whether it translates elsewhere.)

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2]


Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways. Art by Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitweiser.

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