Friday, 28 June 2013

Eye On Hawkeye #11 Pt. 1

Or the amazing collaborative effort to give us a dog's perspective in Hawkeye #11
By Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Matt Hollingsworth, Marvel Comics

Hawkeye #11 is a comic about Lucky aka Pizza Dog, the loveable animal sidekick of Clint Barton and pizza affectionado, solving a murder. Pizza Dog is the star of this comic and the entire issue is written from the dog's perspective. It is, frankly, an amazing comic with the fun gimmick of starring Lucky. 
There are going to *SPOILERS* here, so do yourself a favour and read the damned book if you haven't yet.

Let me first state a pretty dramatic bias here: I love dogs. I grew up with them, and my currently family thing contains one small  four legged canine creature. His name is Marls T Barkley, although I frequently tell people his name is Steven Google (because it is hilarious). My partner and I would have more dogs if not for finances and an apartment with a one dog rule. These hypothetical additional dogs would be named for Law and Order characters and Noble prize winning Biochemists and one of which would be a Chip-it (or Whihuahua if that's your preference). What I am trying to say here is that I would enjoy a comic about a dog solving crimes pretty much guaranteed and that I am an extraordinarily cheap date for this comic.
That said, this comic is fucking incredible.
Like, no joke, one of the best, most unoprthodox single issues of a comic that I have ever read. Like Apollo 11, but with dogs. Which makes it better. It's remarkable in any number of ways. 
But, beyond simply gushing, I think this issue does an astounding job of conveying the perspective of a dog. Team Hawkguy does makes some really smart, innovative choices to really sell the story's central gimmick. And I would like to highlight some of them for you.

Dialogue: Hawkeye #11 is largely without dialogue, since dogs cannot really understand human speech, and cannot speak themselves (the Speak! trick does not count). Instead the majority of the story telling relies on body language, posture, and visual info-graphics to convey the narrative. What human dialogue the comic does feature is garbled and hand written with only certain, simple words a dog might recognize being legible. All of this is just such a smart, instant way to establish the comic as being from Lucky's perspective.

Perspective: Probably the most obvious and subtle dogiffying choices of the comic is one of perspective. While most comics alternate between torso/head close-ups for emoting and wider view establishing shots for setting and action, Hawkeye #11 sets its sights a little lower. Dog height to be specific. Basically, Hawkguy #11 is a comic with a viewpoint shifted about three feet lower than most. As a result, we see more legs, ankles, and shoes in this comic than any other comic I can remember and we get a narrative perspective much more canine than human. It's subtle, but again, the change in perspective really helps cement the difference in viewpoint character.

Body Language: If you have spent any time around dogs, especially groups of dogs, you know that body language is super important to them. Dogs communicate with one another through posture, tail position, and probably even facial expressions a little bit. Hawkeye #11, does an amazing job or portraying dogs that look, and act like dogs. I mean, there is some anthropomorphizing (the salute, for instance) for storytelling reasons, but there is also a lot of dogs looking and acting like dogs. And it really made the comic work for me.

Colouring: Another very subtle tweak that helps cement Lucky as our viewpoint character is one of colour. Dogs, as you no doubt know, are colour blind. Now, this doesn't mean that they do not see colour at all, but rather that they probably perceive the world like a colour blind human. Let me explain, humans have coloured light sensing cells in the retina called cones. In "normal" humans these cones express some combination of three colour sensitive proteins that allow the eye to distinguish Red, Green, and Blue light. This is called "Trichromatic Vision". Because some of these colour sensitive proteins (opsins) are encoded by genes on the X-chromosome, mutations in these genes cause a percentage of men (between 2 and 10%), to be unable to distinguish the difference between Red and Green. These colour blind humans have "dichromatic vision" that essentially sees things mostly in shades of Blue and Yellow. (Some women, may actually have "tetrachromatic vision" because of crazy X-chromosome genetics... but that's still kind of up-in-the-air). Dogs, like colour blind humans, have "dichromatic vision" and are generally considered to be Red-Green colour blind. As such, it is thought they also see the world in shades of Blue and Yellow. (</Science Talk>.) It is super subtle, but the colours in Hawkeye #11 are skewed away from Green and Red and heavily feature Yellow and Blue. It's kind of hard to see unless you hold up a previous Matt Hollingsworth coloured issue and compare, but all of the Purple's are now Blue for instance. Even the Tracksuit Draculas, the one Red thing in the issue, are a more muted, grey/brown red than in previous issues. Essentially, Hawkguy #11 is coloured as a dog would see the world and this is a super, super, subtle decision is just absolutely brilliant. If ever you need proof that colouring is an essential component of a finished comic this is it.

Senses: Dogs have kind of crappy vision, but like Daredevil this weakness is compensated for by their amazing other senses. Compared to humans dogs have much more sensitive senses of smell and hearing. And, as a result, the way dogs interpret the world is much more dependent on these senses than they are for humans. Of course, this presents a challenges to the comic medium. How do you convey intangible senses like scent visually? How do you show the importance of sound without having sound effects everywhere? Team Hawkguy solves this problem in a really effective, really smart way. What they do is to build this information into infographics which visually represents how important these elements are to Lucky's interpretation of events. It is absolutely brilliant comics.

Internal Dialogue: Much of comic story telling is dependent on the thoughts/narration of the characters as they interpret the narrative. Now for humans this is pretty straightforward, people think in language. As such, narrative captions and thought ballons can have a person going "These are abusive jerks". Dogs do not have a faculty for language and therefore can't have a language based internal monologue. It is instead thought that dogs think more in a image/concept way since they do not have a language to construct their thoughts around. Team hawkguy brilliantly uses infographics formatted in this image/concept format to convey Lucky's internal monlogue without resorting to words. It's pretty great stuff.

So, Hawkguy #11 is a brilliant example of collaborative synergy creating a comic that manages to let is audience experience life as a crime-solvin' Pizza Dog. It is absolutely fantastic.


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

So I Read Criminal: The Sinners

A 250 word (or less) review of Criminal: The Sinners
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Icon Comics

There is something endlessly, luridly fascinating about crime comics. It’s something I have difficulty explaining: I like to think of myself as a moral person and I’m certainly law abiding to the point of being boring… but give me an empathetic protagonist and drag me into the fucked up, lawless world at the margins and I’m hooked. Criminal: The Sinners is a perfect embodiment of the kind of crime comic that I love. In it, Tracy Lawless (returning from Criminal:Lawless) is reluctantly working as an enforcer for local crime boss Mr. Hyde to pay off his dead brother’s debts. Unfortunately Tracy is a loose canon with a conscience, which makes him a liability to his employer. So Hyde gives him one final job: to investigate and eliminate whoever has been murdering high-level criminal figures around town. Tracy must find away to catch this killer as he negotiates his employer’s temper, avoids capture from the law, and hides his own dirty secret. Criminal: The Sinners is exquisitely balanced: an immersive Noir world of crime brilliantly written and sumptuously drawn.  It’s a comic that weaves together its various story elements with an effortless ease that would probably be delightful if The Sinners wasn’t so starkly brutal and tense. Criminal: The Sinners is exactly the kind of well-crafted crime comic that takes me to the margins and hooks me, morals be damned. Give it a try and you might be leaving your morals behind too.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age Are Good Books

Or why you should read the novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson 

Neal Stephenson is kind of a big deal to me. As might be apparent if you've been following my nonsense at all, I kind of love novels that look at some aspect of life or technology, and just pick it apart in an entertaining way. For me, Neal Stephenson is the master of this kind of discursive, insightful analytical approach to fiction. He has this... perfect way of taking something straightforward, canting it to reveal an unseen facet, and then bombarding it with absolutely unexpected spectra of imagination to uncover something ideal about the concept. It's like making things more real through fiction. I am always entertained by his novels and, in the process, enlightened, somehow. It's pretty great.

Now, I enjoy all of Stephenson's novels. However, like most creative forces, there is a certain arc to his output. His most recent novels are heavily refined works of a master writer, and reflect his experience, while his very earliest novels are fossils of someone still developing their voice. But in between the two are these novels that are kind of magical; the Cambrian Explosion of Stephenson fiction, where the raw experimentation met craft and created these sublime moments of prose. For me, these novels are Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and they are among my very favourites.

Snow Crash: Is this perfect realisation of a cyberpunk retro-future, that centres around the intersection of Metaverse VR Hackers and the linguistic magic of the ancient Sumerians set in the fragmented, Burbclaved dystopian remnants of the United States of America. It focuses on Hacker, swordsmen, and sometime Costra Nostra Pizza Deliverator, Hiro Protagonist and teenage Skateboard Kourier Y.T. as they form a partnership to gather and archive intelligence for the Central Intelligence Corporation (a merged byproduct of the CIA and Library of Congress) which pits them against an ancient curse, a fanatical religion, and an Aleutian nuclear power with Poor Impulse Control. It is one of the craziest, rawest, and most insightful things I have ever read.

But more than that, Snow Crash is this perfect realisation of the early 90's. Sure, it's a time I barely experienced (given that I was a child at the time), but Snow Crash absolutely encapsulates my sense of the decade. This is one EXTREME novel, with car-harpooning skateboarders and sword fights in virtual reality and The Deliverator and mini-guns and nuclear powered cyborg attack dogs. America has been broken into franchised nation states run by corporations with all of the subtlety and style of Dominos Pizza and 7-11. There is religious fundamentalism influencing power brokers, and poorly understood sexually transmitted diseases, and drugs that are barely invented, and stickers with "Smooth Move Ex-lax" written on them. Even as our present diverges further, and further from the future portrayed in Snow Crash, the novel lives on as this snapshot of the 90s zeitgeist. This is a novel that absolutely everyone has to read.

The Diamond Age: Or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: is, appropriately, a much more refined and elaborate kind of novel. The novel portrays a very distinct, very original concept of a future where nano-technology using societies are organized intro self-selecting tribes based upon ancient cultures. The Diamond Age takes place largely within the various enclaves of the Chinese Coastal Republic and begins when Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, a high ranking noble of the Victorian tribe worrying about the effects of orthodox education, commissions Bespoke nano-tech engineer John Percival Hackworth to create a wondrous new book/computer for his granddaughter Elizabeth. Hackworth, guided by paternal hopes for his own daughter Fiona, steals a copy of the design for The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer and enlists Dr. X, an illicit technology broker of the Celestial Kingdom, to build a duplicate. Unfortunately, Hackworth is waylaid by street ruffians and the magic book falls into the hands of Nell, a poor tribeless Thete sired by the cyberpunk thug Bud and born of the unmaternal Tequila. Complications ensue, and what follows is a tale of social class, education, family, the war for the future of China, and the development of a new and awesome technology.

The Diamond Age is kind of perfect. Where Snow Crash is this raw, amazing time capsule, The Diamond Age is prisitine and timeless. It is immaculately engineered prose and ornately crafted ideas carved into an emotionally arresting narrative. Less fist pumping jawesomeness, and more dream architecture. It deals with the gonzo fallout of cultural collision and identity, social class and philosophy, and the every-more-relevant concepts of self-selecting communities and friction between ideologies. But more than that, The Diamond Age meditates on the universal themes of education, the magic of imagination, and the power of these to shape lives in just a really beautiful way. In many ways, I think The Diamond Age is the Ur-Stephenson novel: while Snow Crash does set up many of his favourite themes, The Diamond Age realizes them in this mature way that is utterly recognizable in his later works. It feels very much like the foundation of our contemporary Neal Stephenson.

I would recommend these novels to everyone. Snow Crash is just such an absolute kick-to-the-nuts of prose that is simultaneously this incredible cultural artifact of the 90's. It is, most deservedly so, one of those 100 novels everyone should read and in my view absolute canon for any Science Fiction fan. The Diamond Age, should also be a book everyone reads. Its themes are timeless, and if anything, more relevant today than when the novel was originally written. But beyond that, The Diamond Age is just an absolutely fascinating construct... like crystallized imagination. It is a bit challenging but well worth the effort. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Perplexing Case Of How I Got Saga Vol. 2 Before The Private Eye #2

Or some thoughts about the differences between completely independent digital comics publishing and print comics consumption.

I really like Brian K Vaughan comics. He is a very talented writer who collaborates with some great artists, and as a result, great comics happen. Currently, Brian K Vaughan is involved in two comics: Saga with artist Fiona Staples and The Private Eye with artist Marcos Martin. Both are gorgeous comics, with neat concepts, and are absolute obligate comics to read. They are also published, and therefore consumed, in completely different ways. 

Saga is a print comic being published by the creator-ownederish Image Comics and is being distributed in comic book and book stores both in a monthly magazine format as well as periodic trade paperback collected editions. The Private Eye, in contrast, is a purely creator owned affair being published monthly digitally and sold exclusively in a pay-what-you-want manner through the creators web storefront. From a consumer perspective, what this means is that we have to buy these comics in completely different ways. In my case the plan is to buy the collected Saga volumes as they arrive in stores and purchase The Private Eye digital files as they are made available online.

Or at least this is the theory.

In reality, it hasn't quite worked out that way. And I think this might be interesting.

My Saga consumption is more or less going to plan. I strategically avoid the Saga issues as they come out for budgetary reasons (while also fanatically evading Saga spoilers online) and then buy the trades on the weeks they came out. And it's easy to do. I am a weekly comic store customer: every single week I make a trip to my local comic book store and buy whichever of my ten-and-only-ten ongoing series comics have hit the stands as well as a trade for the week. It is a habitual process honed through the years and is now just a scheduled, expected part of my life. (And I am nothing if not a creature of habit.) Basically, Saga takes advantage of the existing comic book distribution system and is bootstrapped to our existent comic book fan behaviour. Which, is to say, it doesn't require us to do anything differently.

Where my consumption plans fall apart, a bit, is with The Private Eye. Despite very much wanting to buy The Private Eye as soon as it is published online, it took me more than a month to actually purchase the comic. This wasn't because I missed the announcement of The Private Eye #2, I follow an unhealthy amount of comics-related social media and noticed its release. The trouble is that getting The Private Eye #2 requires a non-habitual, special effort. Which, fair enough, is a fairly tiny one. But what I found was that I had difficulty prioritizing making the web transaction, when I thought of it I was always busy with work, or making dinner, or going to the comic book shop. Buying The Private Eye #2 became that thing-I-have-to-do-later that never actually gets done. 

I think there are essentially two reasons for this. The first is that by using a non-standard comics service, The Private Eye removes itself from habitual consumption habits. This requires people to effetively make a very small, special trip to their store which can be hard to remember and easy to put off. Procrastination is not a rational mode. The second reason I think I put off The Private Eye is a lack of reminders. The comics internet made a justifiable fuss when The Private Eye #2 was released,  and then went mostly silent about the comic. Moreover, neither Brian K Vaughan nor Marcos Martin maintain a social media presence. And I think this contributed to my not thinking about the comic in moments when I actually had the time to make the short transaction. Of course this might all be me being an inflexible consumer who spent the month of May frantically trying to prepare for the biggest test of my life.... 

Regardless, all I know is that I had Saga Vol. 2 before The Private Eye #2, despite the latter's one month head start. 

(Also, Paypal is actually the worst. I spent half-an-hour grappling with it to do a non-member credit card transaction from Canada... it was very buggy. And Paypal will not let me connect my credit card to my account for... reasons I guess? I used up my entire lunch break based comic reading time actually getting the comic!)

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

So I Read Gingerbread Girl

A 250 word (or less) review of the Gingerbread Girl graphic novel
By Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, Top Shelf Productions

Gingerbread Girl is a silly comic. In it Annah Billips, a young woman who is apparently a tease, goes on a date with be-afroed Chili Brandals doing those things trendy young women do in Portland Oregon on dates. Along the way we learn that Annah believes that as a child her father performed brain surgery on her to remove her Penfield Homunculus which he then grew into a clone sister called Ginger. It is also revealed that Annah is obsessed with finding Ginger. Of course this all might be a delusion on Annah’s part. Gingerbread Girl examines whether Annah is crazy or Ginger is real or whether it really even matters. There is a lot to like in this comic. Colleen Coover is an amazing artist, and just seeing her artwork is worth the price of admission. The way the story is told is also pretty nifty: a kind of picture storybook for adults with quirky narrators laying out the story directly to the reader. It’s pretty fun. Gingerbread girl does have some problems though. The lesser of the two is that a Penfield’s Homunculus isn’t what Tobin and Coover seem to think it is (full credit: they do acknowledge this kind of... but its still very distracting to me). The larger issue is that the story doesn’t really resolve itself in a very satisfying way. So, I’d say Gingerbread Girl is like its name: a sweet and delicious treat that isn’t all that fulfilling as a meal. 

Word count: 248

Monday, 17 June 2013

Kicking In Part 2

Or why Kickstarter really sucks if you are Canadian.

Kickstarter is, as I am sure everyone is aware by now, a web-based crowdfunding service that allows creators with an idea to appeal directly to their fans for funding. In an ideal world Kickstarter gives unknown or marginalized artists an avenue to bankroll their projects or a means for established creators to fund their most uncommercial dream projects. And there are certainly a bunch of these kinds of amazing projects getting Kickstarted. However, there are also the odd ludicrous ideas, borderline insulting bouts of arrogance, and straight up con-man thievery to be seen too. Kickstarter is a system not without its issues.

I think my biggest Kickstarter issue is the high cost of international shipping to Canada.

Okay, I want to talk about Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett's Kickstarter for Lady Sabre and The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether Vol.1 Kickstarter and how international shipping costs stopped me from participating. But before I launch into a bunch of whining, I'd like to first mention that Greg Rucka has become, over the last year, one of my favourite writers: his prose novels are just these masterwork constructions of suspenseful genre fiction and his comics work is pound for pound as good as anything else I have read. I just finished Stumptown Vol. 1, and it is easily one of the ten comics I would foist on anyone (particularly new readers). Like, I cannot understand why everyone isn't just running around gushing about this comic. Which is all to say I kind of think the world of Greg Rucka as an artist and very badly want everything he puts his name on. In that light, the printed (I am a monster for print media) collection of his and Rick Burchett's Lady Sabre and The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether webcomic (which I have not yet read) is something I very badly wanted.

The Kickstarted itself was made with the intention of collecting the first five chapters (192 pages) of the webcomic Lady Sabre and The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether (which you can read for free in its completeness here) in a prestige book format. Like all Kickstarters there are a number of levels of funding available, although for the purpose of the budget conscious the $10, $20, and $30 levels are the most relevant. At the $10 level, backers receive a DRM-free .pdf of all of the book contents. At $20 funders receive the book plus a bounty of digital extras.  At the $30 level, backers receive the actual physical, hardcover book, plus all of the digital extras. If you live in the United States this includes shipping. And if you think about it, this is pretty remarkably good value.

(The digital options in this Kickstarter are not for me, since buying file-versions of comics available online for free stikes me as not terribly budget conscious, so I will be focusing on the $30 option, which is what I would have participated at.)

But wait, there's more! The Lady Sabre Kickstarter also had a variety of stretch goals, unlockable if the total amount of crowdfunding pledged exceeds certain limits, that increase the value of the book. And Rucka and Burchett delivered a lot of pretty sexy bonuses: there is a paper doll set, pocket guide to the setting, annotated process book, professional grade setting map, and deck plans of Lady Sabre's ship, The Pegasus. The stretch goals also upgraded the quality of the hardcover book to include higher paper quality, end papers, and a cloth-wrapped cover, which if you are bibliophile like me is book crack. The stretch goals also included budgetting for an upgrade in the art hardware of Rick Burchett which would improve the quality of the Kickstarted book, but also invests in Lady Sabre going forward. Which is to say, plenty of value added to an already great deal.

(I would also like to point out that Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett laid out the costs associated with the project and where the money is going clearly, which is something else I quite appreciated.)

If you live in the United States of America, you can pay $30 and have a 192 page, lavishly crafted hardcover comic by Greg Rucka (!) and Rick Burchett (!) delivered to your door. Not only that, but this  lavishly crafted comic will come with a nearly equal weight in bonus material that is included in that $30 cost. Even if all you want is the comic, $30 including shipping is a very reasonable price for this comic.

If you live in Canada, the situation changes pretty substantially. To ship a physical book to Canada via Kickstarter, it costs substantially extra. In the case of the Lady Sabre Kickstarter this extra shipping cost is $20, which makes the hardcover book purchase $50. $50 for a lavishly appointed 192-page comic is pretty expensive, even factoring in shipping. This is mitigated somewhat by all of the value-added stretch goal material: $50 for a hardcover comic and a process book and a pocket guide, and other source material is much more reasonable. Although, at $50 all of this seizes to be bonus material and begins to be an important part of the package itself. Basically, the extra shipping cost changes participating in the Lady Sabre Kickstarter from an obvious choice, to one complicated by cost.

But beyond the simple arithmetic of costs, it irks me. If I lived an hour south of where I currently live, on the other side of a... imaginary, philosophical line, my book would cost 2/5's less. Instead I have to pay substantially more for the exact same thing. Which is pretty annoying. Not only that, but it costs the same under this Kickstarter setup to ship to Vancouver, Canada (a location closer by distance to where Greg Rucka lives than the majority of major American cities) than it does to ship to England or India or anywhere else in the world. Which is kind of crazy nuts. Like, I objectively understand the reasons for this... but, man, it just irritates me in the common senses and is contrary to how I would run the world were I its glorious dictator.

Now, whining aside, I don't blame anyone for this. Kickstarter as a service is about getting money to creators and not functioning as a publisher/courier to distribute funded projects. Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett are also blameless: shipping is expensive and even with a large print run, they lack the order sizes to get vastly discounted shipping (a la Amazon). And, because I am a wanker and actually checked this, even if Rucka and Burchett were to set up Canadian distribution by using a Canadian intermediate, flatrate shipping of their book would still run ~$15 by Canadapost. So I in no way blame the creators for this $20 shipping fee. It's really just a shitty element of a relatively new system that has not yet found a way to contend with shipping limitations. It just sucks because I don't get to be a budget conscious comics fan and play with Kickstarter as much as I might want to.

(Perhaps there is a business to be had for someone to establish a Canadian distribution hub for Kickstarters that moves enough combined material to get cheap shipping? Or maybe we are stuck until 3D printers become ubiquitous?)

In the end I decided that what I was really interested in was the Lady Sabre comic and not the bonus material, and that I couldn't really justify spending $50 on a single comic (especially in light of some rather large purchases my partner and I have had to make recently). The good news is that I can rescind my productivity-based embargo of the webcomic and read it online, and if they ever release Lady Sabre as a collected edition via a publisher in a non-prestige format I'll scoop it up then. So, at the end of the day, I'm glad the Lady Sabre Kickstarter was funded and I am super jealous of all you Americans with your reasonably priced shipping.

But hey, my universal Healthcare is fucking sweet... so...

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Rapture Of The Nerds Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Rapture of The Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

The Rapture of The Nerds is a story set deep in the bowels of the Singularity on the homo sapiens nature reserve known as Earth. There, surrounded by a cloud of tiny computers assembled from the mass of deconstructed planets which are in turn home to the software minds of uploaded humans and constructed intelligences, a luddite potter named Huw eches out his stubbornly human life. That is, until he is selected for Tech Jury duty, a panel that rules on the safety of new, Singularity-begat technologies to the existence of Earthlings. Unfortunately for Huw, the particular piece of "God vomit" under consideration has a surprising affinity for him and his equally surprising yet itchy technovirus infection which forces Huw off on a quest with the very survival of respiring humanity at stake. A quest that he stubbornly barely accepts and which will confront Huw with the insanity of modern Tripoli, the hellish wasteland of the damned theocratic America, and the insides of his reviled Singularity, as well as his own technophobia and limited worldview. 

The Rapture of The Nerds is,  more than anything, a spectacularly confounding read. The novel displays a pleasantly demented sense of humour, and spends a substantial amount of time manufacturing outrageous and satirical extrapolations of our contemporary nonsense. Of course, The Rapture of the Nerds is not without a properly cerebral element: it is chock full of really big, really inspired ideas and many of the most ludicrous spats of satire are also deeply insightful. And the seamless fusion of these two essential natures makes The Rapture of The Nerds into something pretty fascinating. Every sentence of prose, taken individually, thrums with a kind of brilliant bit of insight, but when aggregated becomes a kind of nonsense. But this nonsense, taken one step further back, starts to become sublime, a kind of loving drone of madness and life with all of its insane facets. It's... the closest thing to having the internet ground up and forced, unfiltered through a great funnel plugged right into your language centres. It's perplexing, but also kind of great because, after all, the internet might actually be the rapture of the nerds.

I would recommend this book to any fan of Charles Stross, it has that perfect balance of mad glee and cutting insight that makes his best novels go. I suspect I would also be recommending this novel to Cory Doctorow fans, had I read any of his other novels for comparison. For what it's worth, I enjoyed The Rapture of the Nerds enough that I will definitely be trying out some of his books in the future. Also, given how much thematically and tonally The Rapture of The Nerds reminded me of the beloved Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, if you enjoyed the latter you ought to check out the former. Basically, if you like mad fun coated ruthless future satire and don't mind being periodically perplexed, you ought to give The Rapture of The Nerds a try.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

So I Read Chew: Space Cakes

A 250 word (or less) review of Chew Volume 6
By John Layman and Ron Guillory, Image Comics

This review will contain unavoidable *SPOILERS*. For a *SPOILER* free review of Chew please go here.

I often feel like one of the key advantages that creator owned comics have over mainstream books is their sheer originality. Chew, let it be said, has originality in spades. The kind of out of control originality that makes you pause and wonder if it might just be a bit mentally unbalanced. But, you know, in a charming, fascinating way. Chew is a comic about sometime FDA agent Tony Chu, a Cibopath who can gain psychic impressions from everything he ingests, as he pursues various forms of food criminals, from the low level poultry bootlegger to the exotic criminal with a food related ability. Space Cakes sees Tony out of commission and instead follows his twin sister Toni while he recovers. Toni is like a more fun and well-adjusted version of her brother: she is a Cibovoyant, able to forecast the future of any person she bites, and an agent of NASA. In Space Cakes Toni and other Chew staple characters investigate the disappearances of people with food related abilities. Oh, and Poyo the cyborg fighting rooster has a solo adventure. Chew: Space Cakes is one very fun and funny comic drawn in a delightfully bombastic cartoon style. This volume is also the first collection that really shows evidence of the hidden mechanism of the broader Chew plot: all this borderline insanity is finally feels like it's going somewhere. Chew, it's worth checking out because there isn't anything else like it.

Word count: 240

So I Read Chew Volumes 1-5

Monday, 10 June 2013

Anniversary Post 1

Or I have been writing this nonsense for a year!

Hello internet people, I have officially been writing this blog for a year! This is the equivalent of 164 posts, including 55 comics reviews and 30 novel reviews, and 79 more process or opinion based essays. Which, if I say so myself, is a pretty substantial amount of content for me to have written in my spare time. I'm kind of proud of myself for sticking with this thing.

In this same period of time in my real professional life I've managed to publish my first two Scientific papers in the Journal of Cardiovascular Research and the Journal of Biological Chemistry (which is open source). I've also, as of last Monday, just passed my Comprehensive Exams, which are the one test you have to pass during a PhD at my university and are kind of this awful, stressful oral-exam-before-a-panel-of-experts thing. But hey, I passed, so I am now a "PhD Candidate". (Which is why things have been a bit Review heavy lately, sorry.) Also, this is all striking evidence that you can blog about comics without completely destroying your professional life.

Actually, I started this whole nonsense as a way to practice writing for career reasons. The weird thing about being a professional student/scientist is that you spend months and months conducting experiments before suddenly being expected to turn out glorious prose... and well, unused muscles atrophy. So I decided that a regularly updating blog would be a great place to keep at the whole writing thing. And while this blog is much more colloquial than any academic writing should be, there are a lot of small parallels between the two. For example, my comics reviews are 250 words or less partially because a Scientific Abstract is nearly always 250 words or less and writing that concisely is a giant pain. So, if you are an academic (or anyone) struggling with writing, start a blog. It's fun, and a good way to make yourself get words down every week. And as a bonus: my writing has actually improved a bit!

And yeah, writing this has been wicked fun! I don't have many comics friends in real life so having a forum to gormlessly prattle on about eye-guiding line art by David Aja in Hawkeye is pretty great. And the fact that some people out there read all of this is downright amazing! (Thanks you people: one timers, and regulars all!) Another pretty cool aspect of blogging, especially if you are like me and are trying to focus on the good media, is that some of your favourite authors and artists and creators get to see you respond positively to their work. It's kind of a nice feeling to be able to say thank you, in a way, to people who craft the stories that mean so much to me. (Which is a pretty sappy sentiment...) Anyway, keeping Atoll Comics going has not only been valuable writing practice, but is a pretty fun hobby.

And now for the most important part: if you have read any part of Atoll Comics, thank you. If you read it regularly, a giant thank you! As much as I'm writing this for me, having an audience is pretty rewarding. If you have ever linked to, or retweeted anything from this blog, thank you. You have really turned this from me shouting alone at the internet to a website that has actual readers and that is endlessly cool. If you have ever commented, thank you. It's always nice to actually hear from people, especially ones as civil and articulate as those of you who have commented. And lastly, if you make any of the media that I enjoy so much, thank you. I never would have written a word of this without all of these great comics and novels. I frequently feel like the remora to your mighty shark, and I appreciate the feast of your imaginations.

If you are a regular (or casual) reader, I would love to hear from you in the comments section. Particularly  I'd like to hear what you have enjoyed and what you would like to see more of going forward.

Friday, 7 June 2013

A Fistful Of Rain Is A Good Book

Or why you should read A Fistful of Rain by Greg Rucka 

A Fistful of Rain is another emotionally guttering and thrilling novel by Greg Rucka. In it Miriam "Mim" Bracca, the lead guitarist and creative force behind popular rockband Tailhook, finds herself the target of blackmailers and criminals after her band sends her home home to get sober. Mim must discover who is out to ruin her while struggling with her drinking and coming to terms with a past as broken as she is. 

According to the Wikipedias, A Fistful of Rain is a distant cousin of the other Atticus Kodiak novels and it definitely shares a great deal of common DNA. While not a straight action thriller like the Atticus Kodiak novels or a grinding Crime Noir slog like A Shooting at Midnight, A Fistful of Rain definitely delivers the lean excitement, suspense, and action of the series coupled to devastating emotional empathy. The novel is really mostly a Detective/Mytsery novel coupled to a pretty complicated character study. The plot of the novel may be who is fucking with Mim, but the real emotional core of the novel is will Mim be able to survive herself. Although, I would say both elements of the novel are executed quite well, played off each other brilliantly, and concluded in properly satisfying ways. A Fistful of Rain is overall a very well written novel.

Actually, one of the things I found most interesting about the novel is its treatment of alcoholism, especially when contrasted with A Shooting At Midnight's treatment of heroine addiction. In A Shooting At Midnight, it's more or less accepted by all of the characters that drugs are bad and that even addicts are aware of how disgusting and wrong their drug habits are. In A Fistful Of Rain, alcoholism is treated with more acceptance, more self-deception, in what I think is a really effective way. For one, I understand alcohol in a way that I will probably never understand heroine: I drink, occasionally to excess, and a few times in my life to illness. This makes me much more able to relate to the drunks in the novel, and see parallels to their behaviour in myself, which is, well, uncomfortable. What's more, the handling of alcoholism in A Fistful of Rain gives some pretty sharp insight into how people with addiction problems lie to themselves, which in a fiction-as-empathy-generator kind of way is pretty powerful. I now maybe understand alcoholics a little better, and will maybe be on a better look out for this kind of behaviour in loved ones going forward.

If you like any of Greg Rucka's other novels or comics, then you will undoubtedly enjoy A Fistful of Rain. It's a stand alone novel that delivers an exciting and interesting story that packs a literal and emotional punch, which also makes it a pretty good jumping on novel for anyone who has never tried a Rucka novel. So really, I would recommend A Fistful of Rain to just about anyone.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

So I Read Daybreak

A 250 word (or less) review of the daybreak graphic novel
By Brian Ralph, Drawn and Quarterly

The zombie horror subgenre is pretty popular; it's veritable boom times for shambling corpses with a hankering for cerebrum. It's a genre defined by a few distinctly well-imagined stories that stand out from the legion of mediocre, unimaginative clones that dominate the landscape. Kind of like zombie survivors among the undead. Daybreak is a zombie comic. In it a one armed survivor and an unseen "you" band together out of a sense of common purpose to stay alive during the zombie apocalypse. Plot wise, Daybreak is zombies' greater hits: all the must have genre tropes are dusted off for our viewing pleasure. Which doesn't exactly give Daybreak the most original story. This shortcoming is rescued by the art. The comic is drawn in an old-school cartoon style that is tremendously inviting. In a zombie comic with some pretty brutal and bleak visuals this cartoony style creates an emotional tension that is deliciously creepy. Daybreak also makes really great use of perspective: it's drawn in a six-panel grid of very tight first-person views. This creates a profoundly claustrophobic, atmospheric, and, during action, chaotic feel to the comic. It also really draws the reader in: the unseen "you" character becomes you the reader. Daybreak is a simple zombie comic executed in a really interesting and creative way. Based on how much I was dragged into the Daybreak world and emotionally invested, I'd say the end result is very effective. Daybreak, therefore, is one of the worthwhile survivor comics of the zombie genre.

Word count: 250

Monday, 3 June 2013

So I Read The Unwritten: The Wound

A 250 word (or less) review of The Unwritten Volume 7
By Mike Carey and Peter Gross; Vertigo Comics

This review will contain numerous unavoidable *SPOILERS*. For a *SPOILER* free review of The Unwritten go here.

The Unwritten is a comic series about the power of literature and fiction to shape societies. The series centers around Tom Taylor, the real life inspiration for a Harry Potter-esque boy wizard novel series, as he learns to tap into the power of the Leviathan, the personification of humanities collective imagination. The previous collection, Tommy Taylor and The War of Words, felt like the end of an act: Pullman was defeated, the cabal was damaged, although the victory was tempered by the apparent demise of Lizzy Hexam and wounding of Leviathon. In short, it was the end of many of the comics established storylines. The Wound picks up a year after the events of the previous six collected volumes and picks up with Tom and Pulitzer Prize winning Vampire, Savoy trying to heal an injured Leviathon and save Lizzy Hexam. The Wound also introduces us to "Didge" Patterson, an Aborigines detective from Queensland, who is investigating a Tommy Taylor cult and Daniel Armitage, a former member of the Cabal, looking for a new life, as they are brought into the crazy world of Tommy Taylor.  In many ways The Wound is the start of a new story set in The Unwritten. I was concerned that The Wound would feel like a tacked on sequel to a series that should’ve ended, but I’m pleased to report that this collection feels like a natural progression of the story. If you’ve enjoyed the comic thus far, The Wound should please too.

Word Count: 247