My 2021 Reading Stacks #5

George Takei and Gene Luen Yang!

Once again, patterns emerge from this year’s pile: in this case, Asian-American graphic memoirs.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read lately that was published in a physical format over a certain page count with a squarebound spine on it — novels, original graphic novels, trade paperbacks, infrequent nonfiction dalliances, and so on. 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, though I do try to diversify my literary diet as time and acquisitions permit.

Occasionally I’ll sneak in a contemporary review if I’ve gone out of my way to buy and read something brand new. Every so often I’ll borrow from my wife or from our local library. But the majority of our spotlighted works are presented years after the rest of the world already finished and moved on from them because I’m drawing from my vast unread pile that presently occupies four oversize shelves comprising thirty-three years of uncontrolled book shopping. I’ve occasionally pruned the pile, but as you can imagine, cut out one unread book and three more take its place.

I’ve previously written why I don’t do eBooks. Perhaps someday I’ll also explain why these capsules are exclusive to MCC and not shared on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites where their authors might prefer I’d share them. In the meantime, here’s me and my recent reading results…

16. George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker, They Called Us Enemy. Most Trek-related memoirs have the luxury of the TV show being the single most memorable part of their story. Hikaru Sulu may be the most celebrated aspect of Takei’s own, but the eventual Starfleet captain doesn’t comes to life till twenty pages from the end, one of many happy grace notes after his childhood years spent in one of America’s WWII internment camps. His tale isn’t a nightmarish concentration camp horror show, but neither is it a generous, fair, or excusable situation, perpetrated as it was in a time when paranoia struck deep and racism could exacerbate any and every baseless fear in a poorly shepherded mob, much as it still can today. His blessedly resourceful parents and a handful of other key adults made the best of the situation, but they shouldn’t have had to. The lessons he can still teach from that experience make this graphic autobio far more valuable than the “why Shatner sucks” tell-all some seedier fans might’ve preferred.

17. Gene Luen Yang, Dragon Hoops (2020). Some folks love sports movies but hate sports. Watching an ordinary game on TV can be a chore to an outsider like me (less so if you’ve won free tickets and can watch in person with live stadium refreshments), but when you confine the narrative to a singular contestant or team, we can relate to that distillation of the more fascinating elements from any given competition, physical or otherwise — the spark that ignites their love of the game; the training montages to become the best, or at least not the worst; the pitfalls and heartaches standing in their way; the toughest opponents that have to be knocked down; and a celebration of the defining qualities that either clear a path to victory or keep them standing proud despite the pains of defeat. The best sports stories will suck you in and have you rooting from the sidelines even if only for the space of that story. It’s not whether you love or hate sports; it’s how they play the game.

Comics about sports are far more common in Asia than they are here in the U.S. (and what few we’ve had…uh, don’t ask), but a contender for Best American Sports Comic Ever found a welcoming audience during the pandemic while real sports were canceled or scrambling to soldier onward. Yang, the acclaimed writer/artist of American Born Chinese, Superman Smashes the Klan, and other upstanding works of genius, completed a new memoir drawn from his experience as a high school teacher who spent one school year getting to know the basketball team, an odd choice of assignment for someone who hated sports as a kid. He confesses to the irony on page one, panel one, balloon one. As he finds himself drawn into the everyday drama of each player’s life and the risks they’ve overcome to do what they do best, Yang charts his own risky side quest in which he’s being tempted to give up his steady paycheck and benefits in favor of doing comics full-time with the Big Two publishers.

As the players test the boundaries of their comfort zones and draw inspiration from their exchanges with him, their accomplishments in turn inspire him to be bolder in his own life choices. Fans of Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, and other basketball classics, who can see the ending coming from miles away yet relish the anticipation anyway, can enjoy common ground with Yang’s fans who already know where his story goes, which it does as engrossingly as ever.

For comics by comics!

Two books about comics, but with more words than pictures. In one, essays by old-school comics fans; in the other, interviews with longtime comics pros. Yay comics!

18. Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson, ed., All in Color for a Dime (1997 reissue). Before social media became the primary arena for comic-book chitchat, before the message boards and Usenet that predated them, and well before comic-book movies eclipsed actual comics in pop culture, in 1970 a cadre of the medium’s superfans and fanzine pioneers compiled their own anthology of essays about Golden Age comics history, to share their knowledge and love of their hobby. In an era where reprints were next to nonexistent and graphic novels weren’t an American thing yet, their scholarly summations of ye olde funnybooks of yore represented some readers’ first and only exposure to past publications that they feared could be lost and forgotten forever. Then reprints and graphic novels came around in the 1980s, but their efforts were nonetheless a solid starting point for what would one day evolve into Comics Journalism.

Topics covered in this volume with varying degrees of contemporaneous limitations include but aren’t limited to:

  • Their frank opinions of Golden Age artwork, much of which was not great (in some cases barely meeting junior high art class standards), including some scribbles by historically important names
  • A eulogy for the Shazam! mythos, written after its original publisher went defunct and years before their courtroom conquerors at DC Comics would pluck the IP catalog from their charred remains
  • An unconvincing argument that the trivia title of “very first superhero in America” should belong to Popeye
  • A rundown of Timely/Marvel’s original World War II heroes, not the ones Roy Thomas made up in the ’70s and not just good ol’ Captain America (as reviewed harshly and hilariously by co-editor Thompson, who went on to co-run Comics Buyer’s Guide with his wife and fellow hardcore comics fan Maggie from 1983 until his sudden death in 1994)
  • A history of the JSA that taught me some new factoids and added still more context to that Dragon Con panel we attended
  • An essay by the Harlan Ellison, which he typed entirely during a flight after blowing two prior deadlines, extolling the virtues of George Carlson’s absurdist cult classic Jingle Jangle Tales (I have a couple of reprints; it isn’t my thing, but Ellison’s exuberance for it cannot be denied)

…and more, more, more. As a CBG subscriber from 1985 to 2005 (give or take a year), I enjoyed this throwback to that periodical’s glory days of publishing long articles about obscure four-color gems and dross.

19. Kirk Chritton, Comics Career: Tales from the Titans! (2020). A freebie from a related Kickstarter campaign, this compilation of interviews focuses on advice and experiences from a variety of comics pros at various points in their careers, conducted over a long time span for Chritton’s own Comics Career Newsletter. Participants include former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, retired DC/First Comics editor Mike Gold, former publisher/columnist Cat Yronwode, indie storyteller Derf Backderf (whose horrifyingly historical OGN Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio was among my favorite books of 2020), and now-departed talents such as Marvel’s Mark Gruenwald and DC’s Dick Giordano. Among other insights, I was surprised to learn from collaborators Monica Sharp and Dave Garcia that their obscure ’80s anthropomorphic-history drama Panda Khan is soon to be an animated series if all goes well.

Nothing in this volume made me wish for a time machine more than Chritton’s conversation with legendary painter Dave McKean (he of those beautiful covers for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman), conducted circa 1990 when he was just revving up for Cages, a ten-issue labor of love that would take him seven years to complete. A young McKean was excited to be working with an upstart company called Tundra Publishing, which he foresaw as the Next Big Thing in the field based on his dealings with them up to that moment. Little did he know within a few years Tundra would become the Entertainment 720 of its era. If only someone could’ve warned him.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1: the one with Kickstarter rewards | Stack #2: the one with Trebek | Stack #3: the one with Stan Lee | Stack #4: The one with Gaiman and Lemire]

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