My 2020 Reading Stacks #13: The Finale

The Seeds and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Two of the best graphic novels of 2020.

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. One last time for 2020.

48. Ann Nocenti and David Aja, The Seeds. Previously on MCC one year ago, I was pacing back and forth waiting on the final two issues of this four-issue miniseries that began in 2018 but saw interminable delays from the same artist whose later issues of Marvel’s Hawkguy suffered similarly lengthy publishing gaps. Once all pages were completed and in their editorial clutches, Dark Horse skipped releasing the last two singles and sent the full story straight to trade.

That was a smart move. It’s a slim but dense wallop of SF that benefits from having all its pages in your hands at once so you can flip back and forth between the arcs and the hexagonal motif as it appears both in nature and in visual conceits. In a future where some of humanity have fled technology to go live in their own DMZ, a jaded reporter goes undercover in search of a story about aliens who travel the universe copying genetic code from other races, watch them go extinct, then profit off their rare copies. Or is it all a hoax? Or is it only a hoax until she writes about them and makes them real? Quests for truth, ideological purity, and interspecies love intersect among vacuum-packed nine-panel grids in which Aja’s encapsulates Nocenti’s observational poetry about our foibles, our busyness, and our self-drawn boundaries.

49. Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North, and Albert Monteys, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade. In tenth grade English class we were assigned to write an extra-length book report about one American novel of our choosing. I don’t recall exactly how I landed on Vonnegut — maybe because he’s also from Indiana, maybe because my grandma told me she once worked at his family’s store, though this did not lead to any “Brush With Greatness” anecdotes from her.

I started with Cat’s Cradle because the school library had it. It differed so radically from any literature I’d ever experienced — certainly far beyond the realms of my comics collection up to 1987 — that over the months I kept tracking down more of his novels at our local libraries. I couldn’t decide which one should be the focus. The longer I remained undecided, the more I kept reading. By the semester’s end I’d read all twelve novels he published from 1952’s Player Piano up to the latest 1987 release, Galapagos, which had a pretty blue cover. And I’ll never forget hearing snickers from fellow teens as I carried a copy of 1982’s Deadeye Dick atop my schoolbooks.

I ended up writing the paper on his second novel, 1959’s The Sirens of Titan, because its comparatively straightforward sci-fi was easier to explain in my own words. I got an A, which was nice. Non-Hoosier readers know him best for Slaughterhouse-Five, the 1969 classic that’s one part roman à clef about Vonnegut’s experience as a WWII POW during the Dresden bombing and one part time-tripping humanist commentary on the senselessness of war and the banality of death, plus there are aliens. And now there’s a graphic novel version! Large portions of Vonnegut’s own words are preserved verbatim, which is fine by me. Others lend themselves to imagery that’s at turns cutesy and horrifying, exactly like our own world, courtesy of Spanish satirist Albert Monteys and Canada’s own Ryan North, co-conspirator behind the great and powerful Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Billy Pilgrim’s pretzel-twisted simultaneous voyage through every moment in his life arrives via skillful hands in the same medium where Doctor Manhattan once stole his shtick to differently wide acclaim.

4 random graphic novels.

More graphic novels. Three 2020 releases and one older yet worthy.

50., Jeff Jensen, et al., Firefly: Watch How I Soar. Comics anthology starring Alan Tudyk’s Wash, my favorite character on the show until the film did a crime and evoked the loudest gasp of my life. I didn’t know this was all short stories and might have thought twice about buying it new if I had. A few of the tales veer into the Solo error zone and over-explain secret origins for fun character bits that never needed origin stories. (Where did Wash’s comedy dinosaur toys come from? There’s a non-comedy origin for them, for some reason.) As with any collection it’s a mixed bag, though Wash superfans might love an alt-timeline tale of “what if Wash and Zoe had a daughter and it was time for driving lessons”.

I was most enamored of a tale by Giannis Milonogiannis (Ronin Island) that’s just Wash, Malcolm, and Kaylee squabbling amongst themselves while dealing with potential bandits. The Meaning and Purpose of Wash is okay in concept if we simply must go there, but I’m happy with sweet camaraderie against a backdrop of intermittent space explosions, a sort of poetry unto itself — like, this is how a normal Firefly episode might’ve felt in later seasons if Fox would’ve paid them all enough to stay on board that long.

(Also, parenthetical to the book designers: a table of contents with page numbers for each story is next to worthless if none of the pages actually have numbers on them.)

51. Jeff Lemire, Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz, The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage. The former Charlton Comics hero remains one of the very, very few superhero headliners whose comics I’ll buy on sight regardless of the creative team. The 1987 post-Crisis reboot by Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan was another milestone for mature-readers comics following in the wake of the 1986 Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns/Maus sea-change trifecta. It was also one of the three best martial-arts comics ever, and for some of us younger fans it was an intriguing intro to concepts of Zen Buddhism and shades-of-grey moral quandaries.

This latest reinvention brings back Cowan and Sienkiewicz (a frequent cover artist on that three-year run from my “golden age”), but Jeff Lemire is not Denny O’Neil. In the world of DC’s “Rebirth” phase, the Question now appears to be a “legacy” hero who recurs in different eras under different names, either through straight reincarnation, coincidental regifting, or total hallucination. One version is quite clearly a return to Steve Ditko’s original vision as a black-and-white moral extremist who doesn’t believe in gray and will punch you for your sins right after rescuing you. Then of course there’s a Western version, and a hard-boiled detective version, and so on. None of it may be real, always a possibility in Lemire’s usual realm of figurative ambiguity. Though the art looks amazing as ever, ultimately this lineup of multiple Vic Sages doesn’t invite my Vic Sage. I’d be fine with that if the latest version(s) didn’t feel like ordinary antihero fare.

52. Gail Simone, Clayton Henry, and Marcelo Maiolo, The Flash: United They Fall. Comic shop owners were enraged when DC began publishing all-new stories as Walmart exclusives. For those of us who never venture into Walmart’s book department, which used to be just magazines and dozens of unsold Left Behind sequels, this trade handily collates two separate arcs from that marketing experiment. One introduces Barry Allen’s notorious Rogues’ Gallery; the other spotlights his most dangerous enemy — Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash. Both arcs are friendly to new readers and cover all the basics that longtime Flash fans remember well while checking DC’s continuity baggage at the door. They also happen to be delightful romps in their own right, a throwback to days of yore when mainstream superhero comics used to be “all-ages” and they managed to be great anyway. If you know someone who wants to get to know the Flash without requiring 700 other comics or 133 episodes of a TV series, this is a great starting line for their own race through Barry Allen’s world.

53. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca, Street Angel. My first encounter with the homeless skateboarding martial-arts hardscrabble heroine was a 2018 Free Comic Book Day one-shot that never left my mind. After two years of me failing to follow up, this year’s pandemic wanderings brought me near a comic shop that carried a copy of this 2014 collection of early Angel shorts. Printing the entire book on pink paper did not stop this old man from enjoying her battles with ninja hordes and other baddies, all immersed in the sort of urban idiosyncrasy that spawned past indie heroes such as Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot and Bernie Mireault’s The Jam.

Out of Sight and Annihilation: the books.

For the fans of pictureless novels out there.

54. Elmore Leonard, Out of Sight. Another vintage souvenir from our meager 2020 road trip. I average one Leonard novel every three to five years because if I read them too closely together, they shame other authors who waste words like Americans waste plastic containers. I’ve never seen Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation, but I’m afraid to now. I settled for reading the Wikipedia recap and noting what they changed, including the Easter-egg cameo at the end. The book has to be better and I will brook no proof to the contrary.

55. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation. Okay, so Alex Garland’s maddeningly inventive film adaptation was better. The standoffish device of refusing to name the characters — despite the in-story reason why not — enabled a grimy veneer that permeated everyone’s pores until all notes were washed away but one: Concerned Scientist. Garland also wisely ditched a core element that would’ve had Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character playing puppeteer to her subordinates via post-hypnotic suggestions and command phrases, a complication that would’ve been deeply dull compared to, say, Skull-Bear, who is shockingly not in this book. Removing her Ringmaster powers also meant losing a scene that explains the title’s context, but I didn’t mind “Annihilation” being open to interpretation until I found out it had a literal use, and now I wish I hadn’t found out.

…and here ends the year! Coming soon: 2021! As soon as I make time to finish a book.

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2: Becoming Superman | Stack #3 | Stack #4 | Stack #5 | Stack #6 | Stack #7 | Stack #8 | Stack #9: Antkind | Stack #10 | Stack #11 | Stack #12]

Slaughterhouse-Five Dresden double splash of a bombed Dresden.

Bonus pinup: Dresden after the bombing, from Slaughterhouse-Five. Art by Albert Monteys.

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