My 2019 Reading Stacks #6: The Penultimate Pile

C2E2 Graphic Novels!

Some art samples, if you will.

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.

Wow, was I lousy at keeping up with myself. I need to catch up with the 2019 pile, shrink down some of the capsule reviews to even smaller doses, and clear the decks for more dedicated writing diligence on these in 2020. Let’s see how much I can manage here before I pass out for the night…

22. Nick Harkaway, Gnomon. The longest, knottiest, most challenging book of my year, the best piece of speculative fiction and the #1 reason we’ll soon note my total items consumed for 2019 is way down from last year’s. In a future where the citizenry of London have voted to give up privacy and make any and every thought and action recordable and accessible at all times, somehow a suspected contrarian has died mysteriously at police HQ after her arrest. This isn’t the obvious sort of modern story where the culprit is the police who turned off all devices and went hog-wild, but it’s up to Inspector Mielikki Neith to discern what’s actually happened by descending into the voluminous recordings retrieved from the victim’s mind — all her memories, all her thoughts, and, most curiously, a series of first-person memories and histories lodged in there that aren’t hers.

A seemingly open-and-shut case of crime-drama SF branches out across multiple characters and eras, from sexist Phoenician society in the first millennium B.C. to latter-day Greece when its economy crumbled like pottery sherds, to a game-dev company in near-future Ethopia designing the world’s most awesome new game based on paintings, to a disembodied voice seemingly nowhere and yet everywhere at once, and not in a benevolent way. Also there are symbolic stops along the way for shark fins and the number 4, among other oddly congruent motifs. Imagine if Inception had been a five-season series instead of a relatively succinct film, or if Legion had digressed into even better hallucinogenics and hadn’t been forced to center on one selfish prat. I treasured the rewards of dense plotting, threads that took months to coalesce, and my frequent need to put down the book and Google the new vocabulary words I’d just learned from it such as “apocatastasis”, “catabasis”, and “steganography”. The latter came in especially handy as it factored into the season-12 premiere of Doctor Who. Novels like this make me want to raise the bar higher on everything else I consume.

23. Andrew MacLean, Head Lopper & the Island or a Plague of Beasts. It feels mean forcing fun barbarian fights to go next, but something had to follow up Gnomon. Granted, I could’ve simply saved Gnomon for last, but it was the thickest book in my read-but-unreviewed stack and therefore lowered the stack all the more satisfyingly upon its removal. It felt like an accomplishment to watch that two-inch descent. Every little bit of self-encouragement helps.

Anyway, yes, barbarians. In a fantasy world full of monsters located snugly between Jeff Smith’s Bone and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, a swordsman named Norgal travels the lands in quests that invariably involve stabbing, hacking, slashing, poking, and, you guessed it, decapitating fiends and frights. Accompanying him is an immortal witch’s severed head in a bag, who’s sometimes useful to him, mostly annoying, and almost never on his side. I’ve never been a big Conan fan, but Norgal the head-severin’ sentinel was strangely a blast. I was doubly excited when he guest-starred in a recent issue of Image Comics’ Rumble. I’m glad I read this first for better appreciation. And, to a different extent, for the head-loppin’.

24/25. Stephan Franck, Silver Vols. 2-3. From a four-volume series about vampire hunting, which I can take or leave, but its writer/illustrator is a former animator working in stark black-and-white. The two-tone imagery leaped off the convention shelves in contrast to so much stiffly computer-colored self-published fare out there.

Gnomon hardcover!

The midway point of today’s list, give or take two inches, is brought to you by Gnomon and the number 4.

26. Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz, Frank Cirocco, and Terry Austin, Alien Legion: Footsloggers. Once upon a time in the early ’80s, Marvel had their own imprint for creator-owned properties called Epic Comics, from which Alien Legion was the third regular series launched after Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar and Steve Englehart’s Coyote. “French Foreign Legion but they’re aliens” is a high concept that hit the ground running, only to plow into quicksand because even by ’80s standards the dialogue leans toward large, ponderous captions that don’t leave much room for the underrated art of Cirocco, who graced the medium for only a short time before escaping to the video game industry. The series got leaner and meaner in later years when old pro Chuck Dixon took the reins, but this was my first opportunity to view their earliest adventures, reprinted from back in the days when I was limited to drugstore comics spinner racks and hadn’t yet discovered the wonderful world of comic shops.

27. Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton, E-Man: The Early Years. More obscure reprints! 1970s publisher Charlton Comics was best known for the bright batch of super-heroes that were sold off to DC Comics after their demise — Blue Beetle, the Question, Judomaster, and so on. E-Man was among the Charlton heroes that DC left out of their shopping cart. An optimistic alien made of pure energy comes to Earth, adopts human form, and becomes a very Plastic Man sort of shape-changing super-hero and has wacky adventures with varying levels of satire and spoofery, aided and abetted by a human lady friend named Nova Kane, which tells you the state of random punmanship in that era. A few old E-Man comics somehow found their way into my possession before I began collecting comics officially at age 6, so I’ve had both a soft spot and a confused curiosity about the character since before I was enrolled in school. Discovering his roots here was a nice way to answer some 40-year-old questions.

28. Cecil Castelucci, Marley Zarcone, Ande Parks, and Kelly Fitzpatrick, Shade the Changing Woman. Among the final wave of Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint at DC Comics, this identity-bending SF series about an alien living in a usurped human form was an aptly titled sequel to Shade the Changing Girl, which in turn was a relaunch of one of Vertigo Comics’ first series in the ’90s, which itself was a madness-inducing reboot of a 1970s character created by Steve Ditko. It’s pedigreed, it’s psychedelic, it’s very modern-minded, and, unlike 97% of what’s out there from major publishers today, it’s eminently poetic and lyrical across its otherdimensional landscapes.

29. Tini Howard and Nick Robles, Euthanauts: Ground Control. While we’re on the subject of dead comics imprints, former DC/Vertigo editor Shelly Bond curated IDW Publishing’s Black Crown label for a couple years’ worth of distinctive idiosyncrasy, nearly none of which was carried by my local comic shop before the line was shuttered by the end of 2019. Finally making its way into my clutches through the magic of C2E2’s Artists Alley was this uniquely disturbing horror-SF jaunt into the realm of death, presented as another dimension that’s extremely, precariously, scientifically difficult to infiltrate and then exfiltrate, but not 100% impossible if you find the motivation and line up the right team of talents. Parts of it are, shall we say, “SEXY!” in ways I ordinarily steer around in my shopping, but the lively ensemble and the unorthodox approach to metaphysics are distinguishing, and the art fluidly transitions between square ordinariness and jagged unreality with tremendous dexterity. Both creators’ names are definitely ones to keep tracking to wherever they head next.

30. William Gibson, Zero History. Don’t get me started on the hundreds, possibly thousands of series and authors on which I’m well aware I’m lagging far, far behind the rest of you. Reading the first and second books in Gibson’s Hubertus Bigend trilogy out of order wasn’t the best move, but I’m glad to have finished at last, and nearly jumped out of my seat in excitement when I recognized Cayce Pollard’s return from Pattern Recognition and her cagey entrance into the proceedings. Even though the narrative driver is a quest involving shady military designer pants, of course this oldie from 2010 easily clears the Gnomon bar-raising.

31. Dino Stamatopoulos and Leah Tiscione, Trent: A Light Tragedy with Music. A selfish young father takes the baby out for a freezing wintertime stroll. The baby dies. Mom is shell-shocked beyond the edge of sanity. What ensues is…well, um, if you must, imagine a Weekend at Bernie’s sequel from the makers of Baby’s Day Out and there you have it. There are indeed songs with lyrics written into it because it’s based on a musical from the long-ago Chicago improv days of its author, who confesses in the afterword, “I wrote this when I didn’t know anything about relationships, let alone having a baby.” Its black humor is suitably tasteless in a way that doesn’t quite reach “edgy” in a good way, yet it’s notable as a historical document in the artistic development of the man who would become Star-Burns from Community and a staunch member of the Dan Harmon Entertainment Universe.

More to come! Lord willing, I think I can even finish the rest of the 2019 stack next time.

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3 | Stack #4: The Wuthering Heights Special | Stack #5]

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