My 2020 Reading Stacks #1

Library Books!

Our first two books, brought to you by our local library. LIBRARIES: Ordering Stuff We Might Not Buy Ourselves Since Sometime B.C.!

A new year means it’s time to make new stacks.

Every year, each and every squarebound work of qualifying length that I’ve read gets a capsule review apiece, because my now-canceled 29-year subscription to Entertainment Weekly got me addicted to the format. 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. 2000-word essays on old works tend to be in severely low demand by the fly-by-night search-engine users who are MCC’s largest visitor demographic.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections 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 still pop up here and there, albeit in an outnumbered capacity. 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.

1. Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, Scott Hampton, and Paul Chadwick, The Problem of Susan and Other Stories. Once again Dark Horse Comics presents a round of Gaiman short-work adaptations illustrated by artists who’ve been doing lovely work since my childhood. The eponymous tale is a sequel to a world-famous book series, and a critical response to the original author’s ambiguous yet seemingly unfair sidelining of one of his own main characters. Extrapolating from the scant clues offered, Gaiman questions whether the final fate enjoyed by all the other heroes truly was the paradise beloved by millions of readers or, rather, its darkened mirror. In a similar vein to his renowned Snow White riff “Snow, Glass, Apples”, this poetic yet disturbing fanfic is not for kids and not exactly aimed at hardcore fans of the more innocuous original.

The other shorts are comparably more benign. “Locks” celebrates oral storytelling as a loving means of preserving traditions and life lessons for our descendants who need them, particularly those inclined to break into bear families’ houses. “October in the Chair” imagines what if avatars of the twelve months gathered ’round a campfire to tell stories that suited their moods and seasons. Every page in every tale is worth framing (well, I wouldn’t hang up the NSFW ones), but my favorite is the short but sweet closer, “The Day the Saucers Came”, featuring my first sighting of Concrete creator Paul Chadwick in years. Told entirely in phantasmagorical splash pages, the Gaiman/Chadwick tag team ponders what could possibly capture our attention hypnotically enough to distract us from all the ends of the world as they happen around us in all manners and sizes.

2. Prentiss Rollins, The Furnace. In a world where authorities contemplate disciplinary alternatives to overcrowded prisons, one man invents a machine that might revolutionize crime and punishment: personal surveillance drones shaped like medieval flail-heads, built the size and ominousness of a Dungeons & Dragons beholder, and equipped to follow their prisoner around and cloak them from passersby at the same time. The net effect is vaguely reminiscent of an element from Black Mirror‘s “White Christmas”, except in addition to the programmed shunning, there are giant, intimidating ball-drones floating around wherever a convict lives and walks. And that’s not the worst side effect to haunt our main character, an alcoholic scientist who in his youth was among the drones’ original penetration testers.

I first knew of the author as an inker back in the ’90s for Milestone Media and other comics companies, but time has passed and he’s leaped forward while my back was turned. Every bit of the heavy-metal weight from those looming machines evinces themes of heartless science, progress making wrong turns, unforeseen consequences, and human disconnection, rendered with copious use of what we old folks used to call “crosshatching”. I remember when some pencillers and inkers used to shade their own pages that way instead of expecting computer coloring to convey all the sense of depth.

(Special thanks to Henry Chamberlain at Comics Grinder for the heads-up on this one, literally the only place I saw any mentions of it upon release. It goes without saying I need to visit more sites like his that regularly spotlight great books like this.)

3. Ron Randall, Ron Randall’s Trekker Omnibus. When Dark Horse first opened their doors in 1986 with an intent to sell creator-owned comics, Randall — a reliable artist with credits at Marvel and DC — was among the early boarders. His character Mercy St. Clair is a ruthless bounty hunter in a distant future where the government is cool with freelancers like her as long as someone is getting the job done and taking criminals off the streets and away from all those sci-fi skyscrapers. The earliest stories were straightforward, hard-boiled gunfights and double-crosses, but after 200 pages or so, Randall allowed more personal details to inform who she is and what she does, adding deeper dimensions to her later adventures, if not quite happier endings.

4. Ron Randall, Trekker: The Train to Avalon Bay. Picking up where the no-longer-complete omnibus left off, Mercy and her best friend Molly plan a vacation getaway from sadness and grief, but of course another adventure ensues. Intrigue aboard a space train segues into a chase across an alien terrains and past hostile lifeforms that include the most dangerous non-alien predator. (Hint: he is us.) Meanwhile between the dynamic action scenes, Mercy’s inner thought life is more alive and confused than ever. All told, my favorite Trekker tale so far. There’s also a backup story in which she teams up with special guest Johnny Zombie, a Karl Kesel creation unfamiliar to me. A quick, mostly silent diversion.

5. Ron Randall, Trekker: Rites of Passage. Full disclosure: I bought all three books from the creator when he tabled at a local con two years ago. This original graphic novel (no more reprints) follows up on Mercy’s inner turmoil from the last volume and assigns her the time-honored trope of a Job Escorting a Very Special Minor Through Danger. Neither Mercy nor I saw the twist coming, but I was too busy being irritated at the ludicrousness of a situation in which the new characters answer demands for explanations with “THERE’S NO TIME TO EXPLAIN!” because the exposition has be saved for the climax…but then the very next pages depict everyone taking a week-long spaceship ride — boring by their own cranky admission! — in which they had all the time in the world to explain themselves in excessive detail. But nooooo, they couldn’t because the time wasn’t right or whatever. Not my favorite Trekker tale.

Anyone!

In a world where fingerprints tell you which hands did the murdering, but not who wielded them…

6. Charles Soule, Anyone. One of today’s most prolific comics writers stepped away from Marvel for an hour-long lunch break and cranked out his second full-length novel. A cash-strapped scientist using corporate funds to research a possible Alzheimer’s cure accidentally invents technology that enables users to body-swap at will a la Freaky Friday. The potential applications are endless, as is the contract language that makes her findings the property of her powerful patron. Bitter struggles ensue between the creator who has the welfare of her husband and kid to consider, and the wealthy legal owner who has nothing to lose and everything to gain, as if he doesn’t already have enough.

Meanwhile in that future’s future, body-swapping is everywhere! For the right price, users can bypass obsolete inventions such as cars and planes, and simply forward their consciousness to a willing vessel. There’s no such thing as living vicariously when your brain patterns can go on instant vacations, experience new physical thrills, try on unfamiliar shapes as easily as trying on fancy clothes at the mall, go anywhere, see everything, and be…anyone. Or you can go through illegal back channels where your options are sleazier, your surroundings are grimmer, and your moral center may be a liability. One woman navigates that fluid underground on a vendetta to bring this world-changing system to a crashing halt.

Brisk and audacious and casually blindsiding the reader with new developments at every turn as we follow the two timelines, Anyone examines the sometimes obvious, sometimes tenuous connections between mind and body, which of our best and worst qualities belong to which half, how sensations determine our perceptions and vice versa, and ultimately what makes you “you” and how much of “you” are you willing or able to leave behind if given the opportunity or if backed into a corner. Questions arise over the meaning of “identity” when we have time to stop and ponder in between bouts of mourning for the consequences and casualties of unregulated progress. Anyone portrays a world where all our exterior qualities are transitory and interchangeable, are inadequate to define “us”, and yet are woefully misapplied as superficial criteria to dismiss or vilify others. Can widespread lifestyles of psychological musical chairs lead us to a more open-minded world of empathy?

I guessed one major surprise early on, but missed most of the rest, and couldn’t possibly have predicted the most jaw-dropping revelation, borne of a deeply sinister act. The unforeseen final pages hint toward new directions if Soule is of a mind to keep pursuing the questions where they lead next, though I confess I was knocked out of the book a little – right before the closing paragraphs – when one character pulls off a tricky move that reminded me very, very much of a story arc from DC’s Wonder Twins series last year. Each story yielded different results, but it’s interesting to see great minds thinking alike.

More to come!

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