My 2020 Reading Stacks #6

Siler Raina Bob!

Siler. Telgemeier, Defendi. Keepin’ it random. Keepin’ it real.

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. Again.

20. Luther M. Siler, Tales: The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 3. The first two novels were lighthearted SF romps with occasional deadly serious notes. This short-story collection charts the further misadventures of the starring trio, two married gnomes and their half-ogre assistant, in the interstellar errand-running business. Entertaining times all around, but the best, most hilarious short by far is “The Ursine Abduction”, in which our gnomes are tasked with recovering a MacGuffin that’s bigger than the two of them combined and…rather fluffy. The mental image of their struggle is a sheer delight.

Pause here for a minor MCC housekeeping note: longtime readers know much of what’s recounted in these entries represents things I’ve bought from writers, artists, and creators in general that I’ve met at the various comic cons we’ve been attending every year. Between Siler’s book and the last two Reading Stacks (which were posted out of reading order — Siler was neither last nor least by any means), I’ve now officially finished reading every single object I’ve ever had autographed. I set that goal for myself back in late 2018 and I’ve attained it at long last…thanks in part to this year’s tragic wipeout of our entire convention schedule and the Artists Alley meet-‘n’-market opportunities lost. A Pyrrhic victory was not what I had in mind, but it’s my victory nonetheless.

21. Bob Defendi, Death by Cliche.. A popular RPG designer begrudgingly meets his #1 fan, a geeky wannabe who’s angry that his idol has rejected his personal submission, a derivative clump of misbegotten hackwork. After the fan shoots him in the head, Our Hero wakes up to his worst nightmare: new life as a hapless NPC trapped within the fan’s own crappy RPG. Now sporting fantasy armor and weapons, he’s compelled to undergo a poorly constructed quest with a team of avatars acting on behalf of actual players out in the real world. As the pop culture references zig and zag left, right, and askew like lasers in a Mission: Impossible vault, things turn even weirder as the other NPCs each begin coming to life, like we’re watching Toy Story merchandise awakening one by one, except less cutesy and more horrified self-awareness a la Buzz Lightyear resigning himself to tea time with Mrs. Nesbitt.

The first 40-50 pages felt like an out-of-body experience to me. Defendi clearly loves all the same satirical works I do, has seen all the same films and then some, and draws upon many of the same influences. This may sound weird and self-serving, but honestly, if I’d sat down in my 20s before I got old and had committed to writing a longform fantasy spoof in the tradition of Douglas Adams or even The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, it would’ve sounded a lot like this, down to his mockery of chapter-header quotes, which reminds me of that time back in college when I discovered John Barth and later did a project that was probably warped by my brainwaves’ corrupted confluence of Piers Anthony and Ambush Bug. I’d merrily go the rest of my life without hearing the same six Star Wars quotes recycled in “funny” contexts ever again, which is why I tense up at the merest sighting of meta-geek “parodies”, but thankfully Defendi’s reference points are chosen from a much broader sphere of consumption than the average internet user. (I mean, really now, who name-checks JAG? Like, ever?)

Once I got past those first fifty pages, I got over myself, settled in, and let the ride carry me away. Eventually the wink-winkery and nudge-nudgery takes a back seat as Defendi tosses more monkey wrenches into the works, other NPCs begin having existential crises, and Our Hero has to figure out how to defeat the crazed fan who’s also Worst Dungeon Master Ever and how to take down the in-game Big Bad whose newfound penchant for self-analysis threatens to disrupt the shoddily world-built game from within. Tropes are trampled, old saws are de-toothed, and of course the spiritual ancestry of The Princess Bride is invoked time and again, up to the outlandish final battle that’s far more satisfying than Prince Humperdinck’s last stand. Or last sitting, rather.

Raina Telgemeier Guts 96-97!

A gentle reminder that fear of illness was a thing long before 2020. (Art by Raina Telgemeier and Braden Lamb.)

22. Raina Telgemeier, Guts. The most recent bestselling autobiographical graphic novel from the celebrated creator whose massive audience dwarfs the entire American population of comic-shop fans that dream of having one-tenth the reach that Scholastic Books does. Just as her previous winning effort Smile relived her experiences in dental disaster, Guts explores her issues with preteen fears and worries, whose symptoms first manifested as bewildering gastrointestinal disorders. While her parents and teachers are stumped by her inexplicable stomach flare-ups, she doesn’t have the capacity to admit to them or to herself that her root causes are deeper in nature and won’t be settled by a handful of Tums.

Kids and adults who’ve ever dealt with chronic interference from personal anxieties may recognize bits of themselves in li’l Raina’s ordeal, and cheer for her in later chapters as she not only gets help she needs from a different source, but also begins to realize she isn’t the only youngster struggling to cope with emotional conflicts from within. We’re each the narrators of our own stories in our heads, and when we’re too busy listening to our internal monologues like they’re awesome podcasts, we run the risk of drowning out other people around us who need to be heard. Guts is eight months old, but among the Morals of the Story that are timelier than ever in today’s extra-broken world is: You Are Not Alone.

Marvel vs. DC!

Meanwhile from the Marvel and DC piles…

23. Robbie Thompson and Niko Henrichon, Meet the Skrulls. Timed for release concurrently with Marvel’s big Captain Marvel movie, the shape-changing aliens introduced to mainstream audiences as misunderstood innocents go back to their classic Lee-and-Kirby roots here as bad guys in disguise. In this occasionally amusing pastiche of The Americans, five Skrull agents on an undercover Earth assignment pose as a happy human nuclear family, but it’s not long before Meanwhile Behind the Scenes, Things Fall Apart.

Though the tale uncovers some heart when the true MacGuffin is revealed at the end, the road to get there is conspicuously shortened. A common problem in comics arcs that run a maximum of five or six issues, not much time is allowed for exploring the concept in depth, little space afforded to dawdle in sidebars or tangents, and by the end all must be swept aside to usher in the requisite all-out demolition spectacle and lightspeed wrap-ups of as many plot threads as possible. The core family show signs of life and sequel possibilities, but the antagonists barely register a single dimension apiece. The worst distraction is a gratuitous cameo by a beloved Avenger near the end, whose entrance signals to the reader that Marvel doesn’t trust the main characters to merit their own story unless at least one movie star shows up to certify them as Official Marvel Product and prompt you for applause.

24. Brian K. Vaughan, Scott McDaniel, Scott Kolins, et al; Batman by Brian K. Vaughan. Whenever a writer reaches a certain level of fame and occasionally fortune after years of laboring and hopefully honing their craft to higher performance levels, publishers are prone to scraping their archives for earlier works and anthologizing them for a few extra bucks. Fans who only discovered the writer after they became famous may have totally missed out on their formative years. Sometimes when a new talent is discovered, impressed readers are overcome with the urge to read literally everything that writer has written, regardless of quality levels. Sometimes retracing their steps can be fun. Sometimes it’s a reminder that every writer was once a newcomer who had much to learn. A few old stories later, the new fan begins to realize why the writer didn’t become immediately famous at first sale.

Before he ruled comic shops with such works as Saga, Marvel’s Runaways, Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and more, Brian K. Vaughan spent part of the early 2000s pinch-hitting on random DC Comics titles, a common training method for rookies when they first break into the Big Two. In 2017 some eagle-eyed editor checked his DC bibliography and noticed a handful of his earliest one-off jobs either starred Batman or were Batman-adjacent. Hence this compilation of four tales of varying length and value with the word “Batman” slapped on the front because that’s the name that matters to DC most.

The lead tale, a three-parter sharply drawn by Scott McDaniel, subjects the recurring Matches Malone alter-ego to a round of Everything You Know Is Wrong, but culminates in Batman and Nightwing letting a man who’s been shot in the stomach narrate his entire life story for several minutes and then die from his untreated wounds, instead of interrupting his prattle to call 911 or at least offer up a Bat-Compress. Arguably the tale that stands up best is a Mad Hatter escapade admirably abetted by artist Rick Burchett in ye olde Animated Series style, but hinges on a licensed psychologist failing to realize that a yarmulke counts as a hat, and expects me to believe Batman can’t recall all the verses regarding the “vorpal sword” in “Jabberwocky”. Then come two issues of Wonder Woman that pitted her against classic Bat-foe Clayface, guest-starred Nightwing, allowed Tim Drake’s Robin to pop in like a helpful Urkel, and probably confused any 2017 readers with no idea who Troia was.

Capping off the collection is a quickie about a would-be upstart villain named the Skeleton who might’ve been a contender in the Bat-Rogues Gallery if only Vaughan had stuck around and become head Bat-writer, which in turn might’ve meant his best works never would’ve existed. Thus the Skeleton’s relegation to obscurity benefits us all, and his lone appearance sadly became a waste of a secret identity that promised to be totally shocking yet never happened; a training exercise for artist Marcos Martin before his later, far superior collaborations with Vaughan; and a source of amusement for the writer himself, whose unregulated mischief required me to go look up what “niton” was so I could decode the punchline of the dirtiest joke ever implied in an all-ages DC Universe comic.

The volume also has an intro from Vaughan himself, but it’s reprinted from another Bat-collection published nine years prior. Because some nitpicker behind the scenes really needed this to be the absolutely complete Vaughan Bat-oeuvre, you see.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3 | Stack #4 | Stack #5]

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