Katabasis : Catherynne M. Valente : “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.”

Katabasis is the Greek word for descent, often associated with sojourns in the Underworld. It’s the “biggest” word to be found in Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,” but it’s hardly the only one that will tax young readers. I say: “Good.” I say young readers should get a dictionary.

ABOVE: Revel revel

The sequel to “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland” finds young September a little more grown, a little more uncertain in her actions (a heart has appeared at the core of her being.) She returns to Fairyland to find that her friends’ shadows are being sucked into Fairyland-Below. Katabasis Time! Accompanied by the shadows of A-Through-L, (the Wyverary), and Saturday, (the Marid), September travels deep into this Underworld, where her own shadow, the Hollow Queen, is creating trouble. Or is she? As in the first book, the motivations of the “bad guys” are not always what they appear to be. Indeed “bad guys” are not of particular interest to a series this mature. The focus is less on conflict than on the succession of wondrous creatures.

Once more, Ana Juan’s excellent illustrations fix the look of Fairyland in our heads. If there’s any nit-picking to be done, surely it’s with the occasional didactic intrusion. It’s too Victorian an affectation. The Fairyland series is too strong to need that kind of linguistic tether to J. M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. I’m actually looking forward to Valente’s adult work more than I am to part 3 of this series. I want to see what she does without the Oz/Wonderland/Neverland constraints, because the display of imagination here is extraordinarily rich.  Almost excessively so: the characters crowd for our attention, from Aubergine the Dodo to the Duke of Teatime and the Vicereine of Coffee and Belinda Cabbage. It’s harder to love a crowd than it is to love a couple of friends, which is why this book is a small notch below the first.

ABOVE: Crow, crow, crow your boat

RATING : COOL!

POST-SCRIPT:

Ana Juan’s art site has samples from her non-Fairyland work. She’s an astonishing, instantly recognizable Spanish illustrator.

ABOVE: And it’s not all for children.

 

Everything is Better With You Than Without You : Manu Larcenet – “Ordinary Victories”

ABOVE: Extraordinary

Actually, the title of Manu Larcenet’s powerful graphic series is “Le Combat Ordinaire” (“The Ordinary Combat”) which is more about struggle than the falsely optimistic name it has gained in the English translation, (“Ordinary Victories.”) By any name, this is a very moving work, sad, funny, youthful and wise. It won the 2004 Angouleme Prize for Best Album, deservedly.

The starting point is familiar: Marc is a young artist panicking existentially, unable to cope with adulthood, trying to figure out how to relate to his girlfriend, his family, his work, and his society. As a friend once put it: “People in their 20s and 30s always write about people in their 20s and 30s figuring shit out.” True, but Larcenet does what the greatest of story-tellers do: he convinces you for a few hours that the story has never been told before, that this is THE portrait of the artist as a young man.

The protagonist of “Ordinary Victories” may be immature, but the artistry in display here is anything but. Any comics fans whose reading expands beyond spandex will appreciate this. I CAN imagine a reader who might feel that Marc is fighting too many internal battles which are never resolved. But I say that’s fine. How COULD they be resolved?  These are combats, not victories. What was that from that Faulkner book?

“Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

ABOVE: She looks so cute when she’s drawn angry

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

Strike Two : J. K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith – “The Silkworm”

Actually, this is more like it! A remarkable improvement over “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, J. K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” takes care to fix many of the problems of the previous book in the Cormoran Strike series. The fixes go from the major ( the “reveal scene” here is far from perfect but improves over the last one) to the minor (Rowling/Galbraith noticeably stops referring to Asians as “Orientals,” which, yay!)

ABOVE: Wormtail is NOT a character here, unfortunately

Controversial “artsy” writer Owen Quine has gone missing after a public row with his publisher, and soon it becomes apparent that his disappearance may be permanent. Quine has written a roman-a-clef called “Bombyx Mori” in which he has slandered half of England’s literatti… or told the bitter truth about them. In any case, there’s a long list of bruised egos who would do anything to stop the book from seeing the light of day. And so we have another investigation by Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott (who’s soon to be married to her jealous, unsympathetically moody boyfriend Matthew – OR IS SHE?)

The real reason why “The Silkworm” is a far more assured crime novel is that it unfolds in the publishing world, far from the tabloid cliches of “The Cuckoo’s Calling”. Rowling is at ease here, where the McGuffins involve unpublished manuscripts, the suspects are novelists and editors, the riddles are literary (each chapter is illuminated by lines from Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge tragedies by the likes of Thomas Kyd, John Webster, and the Beaumont / Fletcher duo.)

ABOVE: “My Jacobean Revenge Tragedy is bigger than your Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy!”

“The Silkworm” is not exactly flawless. The “revenge tragedy” angle could have been more substantial – the allusions are seriously undermined by the fact that the “Bombyx Mori” is NOT a revenge tragedy, but a “Pilgrim’s Progress”-style allegory. Also, Rowling belabors Strike’s surfeit of  traits, padding the novel with constant, mostly irrelevant references to his stump pains and his celebrity dad and his estranged brothers and his Army days and his shaving habits and, worst of all, to his psychologically unlikely relationship with a glitzy/ditzy ex-girlfriend. I suspect all those things will pay off in future volumes – (if Rowling hasn’t carefully outlined the next five or six books of Cormoran Strike, I would be shocked) but at this point, they’re annoyances.

Overall, though, this is shaping up to be one of those series that perch themselves on best-seller lists automatically for as long as the writer bothers to release them. (*cough cough* Lee Child James Patterson Sue Grafton John Sandford *end cough.*)

RATING : COOL!

Bug Out : Simon Oliver – “The Exterminators : Bug Brothers”

“I’m not the Henry James from ‘The Exterminators'”Henry James, “The American,” 1877

ABOVE: Roacheerios

Henry James has had some non-glamorous turns in his life, and he’s paying his dues as an exterminator with Bug-Bee-Gone. But the pests in the nastier L.A. hoods are turning violent, and it’s all tied to a chemical named DRAXX, which basically functions as ‘roids for roaches. Maybe the fault lies with an Egyptian Scarab cult, or with a shadowy corporation called OCRAN (because NARCO would have set some alarms off with the IRS and the FBI.)

I may never find out.

Something about “The Exterminators” failed to lure me in and I had to trudge to finish the first volume. Not sure why. The premise is clever and questions are raised left and right. Simon Oliver’s writing is fun enough. I am less enamoured of Tony Moore’s artwork, but here as in “The Walking Dead” he knows how to draw disturbing corpses.

So why do I feel no need to continue at the moment? Why am I retreating like I would from a bug infestation?

It’s a mystery. Maybe I’ll be back?

( See, that was a Terminator reference.)

“Terminator means the same as EXterminator? What a country!”

(And that’s a Simpsons reference.)

ABOVE: “Hmmm, how about we go out for dinner tonight?”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH technically, SHRUG and retreat from me.

Raising Cain (James M. Cain, That Is) : Jordi Bernet : “The Nature of the Beast”

ABOVE: Bernet at work

It’s unfortunate that Jordi Bernet’s fame in the United States comes from his work for the Jonah Hex comic; no particular slander on that venerable Western series, but it obscures Bernet’s major contributions to the European graphic form- which are in the form of, shall we say, comic erotica. In classic series like “Bang Bang” and “Clara by Night,” (about a hooker whose heart is exactly composed of the element you would imagine) Bernet  deploys an astounding range of inventive, expressive tricks in the service of crude sex gags; he is like a salacious Will Eisner.

ABOVE: Clara By Night

1989’s “The Nature of the Beast”, from Bernet and Enrique Sanchez Abuli, tells a straight-ahead crime story, deliberately reminiscent of the twisty works of noir hero James M. Cain, to whom the graphic novel is dedicated. There is plenty of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in the tale of a bomb-shell who seduces an ex-boxer under the watchful gaze of her rich, older Southern gentleman of a husband… and there’s also echoes of William Faulkner in the character of Toby, an innocent who is one confusing time-slip away from turning into Benjy from “The Sound and the Fury.”

As always, Bernet is the star, not Abuli, (his writing collaborator in the classic “Torpedo” gangster saga, which was reissued by IDW Comics not too long ago.) Abuli  re-heats James M. Cain’s left-overs, but one never feels cheated because Bernet’s drawings are so very good. They do what the word suggests: they DRAW us into a convincing reality. One forgives familiarity from a good drawing, specially a good drawing of a beautiful woman. Bernet draws classically, like a man who’s studied the funny pages and Steve Canyon and Modesty Blaise – but he goes to all the places Steve Canyon and Modesty Blaise didn’t dare go, places that most of his American counterparts STILL don’t dare go in 2014.

ABOVE: Hatchet job

RATING: COOL!