Lou Pride’s I Won’t Give Up, Ex Machina (Comic), and The Venom Business – Quick Takes

I Won’t Give Up by Lou PrideI won't give up

Chicago bluesman, Lou Pride, played clubs around the country for over 40 years. When he released this album in 2000 he was already a veteran. From its packaging, the album looks like a homemade vanity project but, when you put the record on the stereo, the tracks sound big and full. His lyrics reveal swagger and confidence.

The title track is, as you might expect, all about preserving in the face of adversity. Being a club act can’t be an easy life, “People try to tell me I ought to get a job,” he complains. That might not sound like bragging, but it is. I stumbled across this album when my wife brought it back from work at Space in Evanston.

I couldn’t love it more. It’s a manual on how to be an excellent front man. Read more

The Will to Whatevs by Eugene Mirman, Book Review

Will to WhatevsI laughed so much reading this book my wife wouldn’t allow me to read it in bed. I laughed so much reading this book on the train that people looked at me as if I were a crazy person. I laughed so much that when I found that the leaf containing page 205 and 206 had been torn out of my library copy,  I wanted to punch a hole in the sun.

When I was reading this book alone, I was always looking around for someone to read the jokes to.

The Will to Whatevs is structured kind of like a self-help book and the humor is absurd. It’s full of little asides and jokes inside of parentheses. The style is the odd meandering style of Mirman’s stand up comedy and the ads he keeps buying in newspapers. I found when I read the book to myself I could hear Mirman talking and that only made the book better. Read more

SuperMutant Magic Academy – Review

I don’t know that I remember when newspaper comics were important or good. I read Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and The Boondocks (published in the last gasps of the medium) but I think they were already in reprints or collections. Most of my memories of newspaper comics come from my parents explaining how important they used to be.

But, if there were an alternate timeline in which Sunday comics hadn’t sunk with the newspapers, in that world, everyone would be reading SuperMutant Magic Academy.SuperMutant Magic Academy

This book is sweet, subtle, and smart. If you miss a joke, it’s not because the humor’s not in there, it’s because the jokes are delicately constructed and reward close attention. SMMA’s characters are careful refinements of the classic archetypes. They have a unique vision of superherodom laid over top of them. A more real version of super powers, that’s not about fighting evil but instead concerned about how to be an artist or what it’s like to have a gay crush on your straight best friend.

Jillian Tamaki’s story doesn’t capture the entire high school experience, it tackles a very specific high school experience and that makes it so much more compelling.

Summer Reading List

Apparently, people read more in the summer. Maybe it’s because they are students or educators, maybe nice weather gets people out from behind their computers, or maybe on the beach a book is better YouTube – whatever the reason is, yay reading!

Book Things

Makers

Robert Heinlein knew that engineers were inspiring super-heroic figures, who should be the protagonists of science fiction books (and while Heinlein’s politics are in many ways the opposite of Cory Doctorow’s) Makers is a great book in the tradition of heroic engineers. It takes many of the technologies on the cusp of existence today* and puts an adventure on their terms; terms by which we will all soon live. This book is so readable you could finish it in a day and so full you could spend the next day reading it again and count that day as happy and productive.

King Killer Chronicles: Volume 1 The Name of the Wind

You know that Game of Thrones is great (If you didn’t it’s great. If you like political intrigue, read it.  If you like war epics, if you have the stomach for good guys getting shit on every once in a while, you will love it.) It takes real critical bravery to recommend a slightly lesser known, critically beloved best seller.

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind follows a cocky jack-of-all-trades who ends up getting as good as he gives. It’s funny. It’s scary. It’s large scale.  After writing this I realized I have already written a longer review of this so whoops.  Anyway friendly reminder, this exists and is good.**

The World’s Strongest Librarian 

I also just reviewed this, but the quick and dirty recap is: it’s an autobiography about trying to be a Mormon, read a lot of books, lift a lot of weights when you’ve got bad bad Tourettes. Sorry that’s so reductive Josh, but the book is real good.

The Power omakersf Habit

I’m reading this now, and I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s already changed the way I think about most of the things I do in a given day.  Aristotle did the best thinking on habit when he said, “Guard your habits for they become your character.”*** But, the second best thinking is Charles Duhigg’s. Whether you’re triying to get your university to run better or trying to eat fewer Cheetos it’s hard to find a more useful and engaging book.

The Rent is Too Damn High

Cities should be denser. People live too far away from each other and we waste too much of our lives driving back and forth.  This sprawl makes us poorer in a hundered ways.  Read this book by Mathew Yglesias then send it to your alderwoman or alderman.

Internet Things 

Doing frivolous things on the web is my most pernicious habit, and I expect the same is true for people who read these recommendations. So I hesititate to send anyone around the internet for entertainment.  I say that to say this, these things are so deserving of your time, they’re worth the temptation of the Lotus-Eater-Island that is online amusement.****

The Idea Channel

This is a fantastic series of videos about modern life and culture produced by PBS. Sounds boring right? It’s not I promise.  It’s fast and funny, but accessible enough that clever 10-year-olds could enjoy it a lot.  I recently some of The Idea Channel’s videos to my father (a professor) because I thought it would be a useful source of inspiration for someone trying to write engaging lectures. The best thing I can say about The Idea Channel, or probably anything, is that it is not dumb. The Idea Channel is terrifically not dumb.

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Mr Money Mustache

“Don’t spend more money than you make.” That’s a nice thing to do/aspire to, but the many ways to achieve that goal are rarely more simply and entertainingly put than they are by Mr Mustache.  I can honestly say that the blog has changed my thinking and more importantly changed my actions.

There are a bunch of other things I’d like to recommend but these are the best of the best.

OK actually here are a few more things I will recommend: Jason Aaron’s Scalped, riding a bike, Seth Godin’s podcast, OakMark International Fund, XKCD, buying things used, and Lake Street Dive.

 

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* There’s a lot about the implications of 3D printers, that do exist, but were barely visible on the horizon when this book came out in 2009. It’s best thinking I’ve seen on the subject.

** Also there’s a sequel and it’s going to be a trilogy, so fair warning, you may get sucked into a beautiful story and have a more rewarding life if you start reading this.

*** Aristotle’s writing on habit from the Nicomachean Ethics is often distilled to this paraphrase: Guard your thoughts because your thoughts become your actions, guard your actions because they will become you habits, guard your habits because they become your character, guard your character because it will become your life. This paraphrase while bumper sticker appropriate, does not appear in the Nicomachean Ethics which while seminal and beautifully considered, if we are being honest we can admit, is dry and slow. The best quote  on the relationship between habit and character is this “In a word, all habits are formed by acts of like nature themselves and hence it becomes our duty to see that our acts are of a right character. For as our acts vary, our habits will follow their course. It makes no little difference, then, to what kind of habituation we are subjected from our youth up; but it is on the contrary a matter that is important to us, or rather all important.”

****As I read this passage again it sounds very techno-skeptical. That does not reflect my real position here.  I love the internet it has brought so much joy, knowledge and social interaction into my life that I find it hard to remember the world that existed before it.  That said, there’s some truth to the “You’re welcome, I’m sorry.” thing from Reddit. {{Citation needed}}

 

 

World’s Strongest Librarian

Josh Hanagarne is a great blogger and a good friend to me.

He wrote a book called World’s Strongest Librarian. I like Josh a lot, so there’s no way for me to write an unbiased review of his memoir.  With that caveate here’s my very biased review: it’s fantastic. The parts about lifting, self control and Tourette’s are full of rare perspective into a world that is totally alien to me; then there is the part about his Mormon upbringing.

If you’re interested in Josh’s work (and if you’re not interested in a bodybuilding librarian with Tourette’s who are you?) you can check out the interview I did with him in two parts, read his post on this blog, or just get the book already.

The Name of the Wind

This book is as addictively readable and exciting as any fantasy I’ve read. It’s different from a lot of that stuff for a number of reasons, one that stands out is there’s no fellowship in The Name of the Wind.

There are love interests and side characters, but it’s not the story of a troupe. It’s a kind of fictional autobiography of one man, Kvothe. This character is the meat and meade* of the story, which swells and crashes with his fortune. It’s painful when Kvothe is in a destitute world of urban poverty, energizing when his luck or intelligence pulls him through a tight spot, and crushing when his arrogance pushes him back in.

A story about one person is an important break from the Tolkien template, which so much of fantasy riffs on.  The readers not following a group of dwarves or The Fellowship of the Ring makes a big difference in the way the world comes across.

It’s a fantasy world, but it’s a very lived-in one. People work a great deal in the book and that is something that is missing in a lot of literature.  Kvothe is an actor, singer, barkeep and student at different times in the story and he deals with each job not in the high-flown magical way (though magic does exist) that we might imagine in some idealized world. He and the other characters in this book really work, sometimes just for drinks and tips.

There is real work throughout the story.  The book gives time to every phase of Kvothe’s life, and by the end it is clear the story will not end that life before the book is finished. That’s not to say there’s no climax. The book builds and uses all of its pages and adventures to reach an exciting conclusion to a base story and a narrative without pausing for information dumps.

It’s a classic adventure story in that it wrestles with the same themes and ideas as many of the great stories, featuring an orphan seeking adventure and love in a magical world, but it’s the realness of the world that makes the book most exciting. Kvothe is a hero of legend and song, but he still has to pay rent and try to get girls to pay attention to him.  And I was as excited about that as any dragon or dagron slaying (or whatever the name of the creature that exists in this world is). The dagron slaying is good.  The way that a very real world supports and builds the story of a single character is better.

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*I stole this expression from George R. R. Martin who has also written glowing reviews of the book.

Update: What’s Going On

Beloved blog readers,

I’m working on about a million projects right now, so this is a quick roundup and link dump.

I have been writing graphic novel/comic book reviews for Josh Hanagarne over at World’s Strongest Librarian.  It’s the spiritual stepchild of the Book a Week project on a site that a lot more people read.  My first two reviews are of Sweet Tooth and Blast Furnace.  I’m thinking the next entry will be on a collection of some of my favorite black and white comics.

I also just turned in an interview with Irish tenor Paddy Homan for New City, and continuing the Irish theme I’m writing  a cover story on St. Patrick’s Battalion for Extra. I hope both will run St. Patrick’s day week.  If they do, I’ll post links in the comments.

There are a number of other projects I’m working on, including a couple original comics of my own. I have written scripts for these, but I need a comic artist. So, if you have an interest in that or know somebody who wants to draw a comic about a goat in the cutthroat world of ingredient purchasing I would be happy to talk to them about that. Also in the comic book vein, I recently interviewed great penciler Emma Rios, and I’ll be covering C2E2 for Extra again this year, so look forward to that.

Finally, H for Hombre is back in action.  We played a show back in February. We recorded a down and dirty, quick and dirty mix-tape/album, that maybe you’ll be able to buy (for cheap). We will play at my brother’s wedding next week (holy crap, my brother is getting married next week). We will play a show that you all can come to on April 7th at Goose Island in Wrigelyville.

Thanks so much to anyone checking in on this site and my writing. I ain’t quit yet, I got more stuff for you.

 

A Gentleman’s Game by Greg Rucka (Book a Week 13)

Quick hits:

  • Greg Rucka’s A Gentleman’s Game is a stomach tightening thriller, especially its climax, and never uses clumsy phrases like “stomach tightening.” The book made me care about its heroes and villains and guess (wrongly) at how complex but visceral situations would play out.  This bears repeating, it made me eager to see how things come out for a group of imaginary people, the task of any good work of fiction.
  • There were some bits I liked more than others.  The beginning isn’t slow but there is a lot of setting the pieces in place.  It is the first novel in the Queen and Country Series whose first installments were graphic novels, so there is some time spent catching up new readers on the characters and the setting.  Those characters are the most engaging.  There are multiple points of view but the story is most exciting when it focuses on the characters that the series has built in the past.  A Gentleman’s Game is less engaging when following a westerner who has become a terrorist in Egypt.
  • The research that went into this story shows. It feels as real as news and easier to believe.
  • The way the struggles and conflicts of the situations tie together is elegant and surprising.  Each plot point sets off the next conflict.  The speed with which the situations change makes the book crackle to the finish.
  • I read the last 100 pages in a lump, the story was so good I couldn’t leave the couch.  That might no big deal for you, but dyslexics don’t read 100 pages in a row unless they really want to.

 

I like this book a great deal and it deserves a real review, but today it will just get a couple of bullet points blame a scattered mind and a  couple other projects that I’m are calling my name.

 
 

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (Book a Week 12)

Escapist fantasies take many forms: superhero books, scifi stories, swords and sorcery tales, and romance novels.  They don’t all do the same things, but they can scratch the same itch. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere has something in common with Chuck Palaniuk’s Fight Club they both follow pushovers, bored and worn down by the world they submit to and they both tell exciting, violent, and unpredictable yarns.

It’s probably a good thing that we don’t walk around punching dudes in the face everyday, but that doesn’t mean we all wouldn’t like to take a little less shit.  Neverwhere‘s main character Richard Mayhew takes a lot of shit.   He gets it from his fiancé, his colleagues, his boss, even his boss’s secretary.  The story gets rolling when he finally defies the wishes of his controlling fiancé by helping an injured vagrant (your typical manic pixie adventurer from a parallel world). From there the curtain comes up and the show is on.

Mayhew escapes.

Here I would like to pause and define a term.  I worry that someone is going to read “escapist” and think less of the work.  On the contrary, escape is only possible in a fine work. It implies a level of engagement on the part of the reader that a poorer story can’t hope for.  Neverwhere is as rich and tempting, as Jasmine from the Aladdin was when I first saw it at eleven.

Let me set up a straw man here because I can hear the complaints.

You say, “What about the real world? We live in it.”

I say, “Yes.”

You say, “We need perspective on this world.”

I say, “Yes.”

You (well not you, but some less thoughtful reader) say, “An escape is a waste of time we should be spending paying attention to it.”

I say, “Hell No!”

That’s the beauty of escapes, they have to talk to us, the people of the real world, fictional characters are great, but they don’t read their own books.  The escape only works if we can see and understand the characters we need to be able to get their situations in order to care or escape into them.

A fine fantasy novel is like a similarly.   Neverwhere is a fine book, as visceral as hunting a boar the size of an ox with a bladed weapon.

If that sounds good you might also like Fight Club.

“The Bigger and More Obvious the Flaw the Better” – Interview with Jason Aaron (Week 11 – Book a Week)

Born in Alabama but currently living in Kansas City, Jason Aaron is the comic book writer, co-creator behind the gritty crime thriller Scalped.  Earlier this year, he announced that Scalped (which has already run four years) would end its story and its run at issue #60.  During its run of over four years, this story of reservations, casinos and meth has been nominated for the Eisner and Harvey the two most prestigious awards in comics.

Aaron also writes Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and the X-men, and Punisher Max for Marvel.  Both Hulk and the new title, Wolverine and the X-Men, launched number one issues November 2 the week Newcity got to talk to him.  We started the conversation by asking how he felt about those two comics and the response they had gotten that week.

How’s the response been to the books that came out this week?

I am really happy.  Both books seem to be getting a great response, especially X-Men.

Yeah, I enjoyed that book myself. It’s a new direction for Wolverine. He’s wearing a suit and running a school, instead of just carving people up with those claws.  Is it fun to do something new with Wolverine?

Sure, that’s one of the problems with Wolverine.  He’s been around for a long time, he appears in a lot of books, he’s been in a lot of different kinds of situations, it’s hard to find something brand new to do with him.  I love the chance to put him in a situation we’ve never seen before, especially one he’s not comfortable in.

It’s cool to see how you have this rebellious character that has to deal with bureaucrats and such.  How do you keep Wolverine in this interesting new world and keep him kicking ass?

Well, I am not changing who Wolverine is.  I’ve been writing Wolverine for about as long as I’ve been in comics and I just came out with one of the darkest Wolverine stories anybody’s ever done.

It’s not that I’m trying to neuter Wolverine or change who he is or what people have always enjoyed about him.   It’s just putting him in a different environment.

In some sense, it’s an evolution of the character and we’re watching him embrace the new responsibility that he’s never had before but he still going to be the guy he’s always been.  If anything, he feels like it’s only more important that he’s going out and doing what he does.  Keeping problems from ever making it to the doorstep.

Bringing up that story with the dark ending,  (Wolverine’s Revenge, a story that involves Wolverine unknowingly killing his illegitimate children) do you purposely try to tell very different stories and stretch the character?

With a character like Wolverine, sure.  He’s one of those characters that you can put in lots of different kinds of stories.  Just in the Wolverine stuff I’ve done in the last few years, you can see that I try to do a lot of different genres and tones–very different sort of situations.

You can’t do that with every character, he’s one of those that you can and I am always going to try and take advantage of that.

With the #1 issues, how do you make sure they’re accessible? 

I am always trying to do that with anything I’ve done.  Going back to my first big Marvel gig with Ghost Rider.  Ghost Rider’s got as convoluted and complicated a back-story as any character in comics.   It was a struggle to make it fresh and accessible without throwing out everything that had come before.   And I always try to do that with everything.

There’s no secret recipe, there ‘s no special formula.  I’ve been reading comics for years but. even I, don’t remember the back-stories and all the history of most characters.

You don’t just completely rewrite history you got to understand that other people have written these characters before you and other people will write them again after you’re gone.  And you’re just kind of a caretaker of these characters. You’re not the be-all-end-all.

There’s no trick to an issue #1? It doesn’t have to have X,Y and Z components?

No, I don’t think so.  I’ve written a lot of issue #1’s that are all pretty different from one another.  It just depends on what kind of story your trying to tell

In your other #1 this week, the Hulk story, you have the Hulk separated from Bruce Banner (the hulk’s human identity).  How did this idea, get percolating?

It was just me wanting to do a new take on the Hulk-Banner dynamic.  I wanted to do something that was fresh and accessible to people who hadn’t been reading Hulk the last several years but still honor that core dynamic that has driven Hulk stories for decades.

Let’s shift gears and talk about Scalped, is it true that you’ve been writing Scalped for as long as you’ve been in comics?

Yeah, pretty much.  It wasn’t the very first thing.  I won a Marvel Talent Search contest and the first thing I wrote was a short little Wolverine story and the first 22-page comic I wrote was The Other Side for Vertigo, but Scalped started coming out alongside The Other Side or it may have been two issues afterword.

Now, 53 issues in, do you feel excited to be putting this thing to bed and moving on to other characters and projects or is it hard to be putting aside this opus you have been working on for several years now?

I am certainly not bored, it’s not that I’m bored.  I still like writing these characters.  But it is exciting to be wrapping things up and bringing these arcs to their end point.  Telling stories I have had in my head for year now, I am excited for that.

Once I get to the end and realize I don’t get to write these characters anymore, it may be a little sad or surreal.  But for now I am still excited.

How many issues ahead of us are you?

Just a couple.

Are you loyal to an original outline or, as you’re writing these issues, do you find yourself saying, “Well, now that I am writing it, the story should take this turn or contain this detail?”

Sure, that always happens and I don’t think you can be beholden to an outline that you came up with years ago just because you did come up with it years ago.  For the most part, I stuck pretty close to the way I had the ending planned out.  I’ve had the ending for most characters mapped out pretty early on in the process, and I’ve stayed pretty close to that, but I always try to leave myself room to go with things as they come to me as I’m writing.

After Scalped wraps up at issue 60, do you have anything in the works that would be creator-owned or away from the whole capes and cowls world?

Yeah, you’ll certainly see me do more creator-owned stuff.  Probably not until Scalped wraps up.  But as long as I’m in comics, I want to be doing creator-owned work in some capacity or another.

I love what I do at Marvel.  I’m very happy at Marvel but I will always have my hand in creator-owned work as well.

In terms of writing a crime comic in this gritty world where horrible things are done to people,  how do you get your head into these characters?  How do you write these folks?

Those are the kind of characters I’ve always been interested in as a writer and as a reader, the bigger and more obvious the flaw the better.  That’s the stuff I’ve always been attracted to.

Those kind of tortured characters are the ones I gravitate toward.  Those are the kind of characters that are at the heart of noir.  Characters who are flawed and oftentimes realize what their flaws are but still can’t help but succumb to them.  Often, you know how things are going wrap up and you know they’re going to be bad but you want to stick around to watch the train-wreck that’s going to happen.

In some ways that’s what Scalped is.  There are twists and turns but it’s not a book that’s going to dazzle people with plot mechanics.  It’s very much a character-driven book and I think that’s what people have latched onto and it’s why we’ve been able to do 54 issues.  People love these characters as much as Guerra (penciler for Scalped) and I do.

 

This interview was originally published by NewCity and is also available on their website.

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