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Books To Look For
Mage: The Hero Denied 00-02, by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner, Image, 2017, $3.99 per issue, comic book.
Motor Girl 01-06, by Terry Moore, Abstract Studio, 2017, $3.99 per issue, comic book.
A couple of my favorite comic book creators have new series this year, both of which should be of interest to readers of this column. I'm speaking of Matt Wagner (Grendel) and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), both of whom write and illustrate their own work.
Wagner's Mage started in 1984, predating the current crop of urban fantasy book series by decades. There were three planned story arcs, each running fifteen issues.
The first was The Hero Discovered which, as you might guess from the title, introduces us to Wagner's vision of our world through the eyes of his reluctant hero Kevin Matchstick.
Looking at the back cover of the Starblaze trade paperback collecting the last five issues of the first series, I found a quote from myself written way back when:
"Mage is firmly rooted in the Arthurian/Teutonic/Celtic myth cycles, updated to the present day. The lead character, Kevin Matchstick, appears to be the proverbial Everyman, but after meeting with the mage Mirth, comes to realize that he has a higher destiny—something Kevin is not quick to accept. Wagner's characters are enjoyable, from the trickster-like Mirth and streetwise Edsel to the fascinating array of villains.
"Mage is, in part, a voyage of discovery…and has the quiet strength of the best fantasy novels."
I remember trying to convince anybody who would listen to read The Hero Discovered. There were a few of us writing this sort of mythic fiction at the time, but nobody was doing it in an illustrated format. And while today the sorts of character archetypes in that first Mage book might seem a little overused, at the time of its initial publication, they were fresh and innovative and woke a real sense of wonder in readers.
The second series, The Hero Defined, came out eleven years later. When we catch up with Kevin in its pages, we find he's been fighting supernatural bogeymen in the company of other heroes. His traveling companions are Coyote (here depicted as a skinny dreadlocked black man named Joe Phat) and Hercules (Kirby Hero, with the personality of a frat boy). Oh, and of course there's another mage, because Mirth has disappeared.
This time he's a street bum named Wally Ut. Kevin doesn't take him seriously. The only thing he does take seriously is his mission to rid the world of nasty creatures, and, since he's accepted the idea that he's the Pendragon, with his baseball bat the current incarnation of Excalibur, he's under the impression that he's supposed to lead the other heroes, much like King Arthur did with his knights.
That doesn't go well. A lot of things don't go well, but by the time we reach the end of book two, he learns that he is the avatar of more than one mythical hero, gains a better understanding of what he's supposed to be doing, and has met his future wife—Magda—who with her two siblings appears to be an aspect of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.
(As a side note, all the chapter titles from book one are taken from Hamlet, book two from Macbeth, and book three from The Tempest.)
It's been eighteen years since the last book ended, and Wagner has finally returned to the final chapter of Mage with The Hero Denied.
Kevin's now married to Magda, they have two children, and he's keeping a low profile to protect his family. But domestic bliss doesn't make for epic storytelling. The few issues that have appeared so far bring the world of Faerie and monsters back into his life and return him to the fray he's been trying to avoid.
Wagner has described the Mage series as "an allegorical autobiography, with the character of Kevin Matchstick very obviously standing in as my literary alter-ego. All the other characters he encounters and situations he endures are metaphors from my own life…told through the lens of a fantasy adventure. And yeah, it's taken me a while to work my way through the various stages of my life and how to describe and depict them."
This is the strength of the series. It's not about distant heroes and gods, glittering in their storied histories. It's about how the Hero's Journey of Joseph Campbell can relate to the story of our own lives.
I can't wait to see how Wagner wraps it all up.
Wagner's worked on everything from Sandman's Mystery Theatre and Madam Xanadu to Batman and his own Grendel, but I'm pretty sure that Mage is the work for which he will be remembered.
I first ran across Terry Moore's work in 1993 in a trio of indie-produced black-and-white comics called Strangers in Paradise. In some ways it can be considered a complicated romance. Francine's best friend is Katchoo. Katchoo is in love with Francine. Their friend David is in love with Katchoo.
While that remained a constant throughout the series, by the time we got into the second volume, Moore wove in elements of the mystery genre, thrillers, international intrigue, and sometimes just plain silly fun. Offhand I can't tell you how many issues it ran, but the complete collected works edition is one hefty tome, and it's long been considered the comic to give people who think they don't like comics.
The reason for this is that Moore's big strength is character development. These two dimensional creations become so real to readers that when you think back on what you've read, it's as though you're remembering encounters you once had with friends.
This gift of characterization carries through his other books: Echo (an SF-ish tale of a young woman photographer who finds a high tech battle suit while shooting pictures in the desert), Rachel Rising (a horror story about a young woman who finds herself waking up inside a grave after she's been strangled) and the current series, Motor Girl.
Here we meet Samantha, a loner mechanic operating a garage by herself in the desert. Her main companion is an imaginary friend, a six-foot-tall talking gorilla. Early in the series, Samantha helps some aliens fix their spaceship, which has crashed in the junkyard behind her garage, and she soon becomes the go-to for other aliens needing repairs on their spacecraft. Complicating matters is a nearby research facility that is desperate to get ahold of one of these aliens and will stop at nothing to do so.
This probably sounds far quirkier than many of you might be interested in reading but let me assure you that Moore gets the tone just right, alternating between scenes of drama and great humor.
And remember what I said about his gift with characters?
Well, Samantha's backstory is that she was a Marine and did three tours of duty in Iraq, shipping back Stateside after she was wounded, and then the ambulance she was being transported in got blown up. She has a piece of shrapnel still stuck in her head that's going to kill her sooner rather than later, but she refuses to have the surgery to get it removed.
By the time you get to issue eight and understand what the gorilla means to her, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel for her.
Although the details of this story are very different from Strangers in Paradise, the tone is similar, seamlessly mixing humor and drama. And the art is some of the very best in the medium. Moore continues to work in black and white, which might seem a quaint choice in these days of digital art and the bright shiny colors of most comics, but every panel is gorgeous. Honestly, a few pages in you won't even miss color any more than you'd miss it in collections of classic daily strips like Calvin & Hobbes or Pogo.
Fantasy readers are going to appreciate Wagner's Mage, particularly those who like it in a contemporary setting. If the stories told in The Dresden Files is your thing, then you're going to love what Wagner is doing here.
But Moore's work is for everybody. There's a reason that so many readers get hooked on comics after being handed a trade of Strangers in Paradise, and Motor Girl is more of the same. The lives of the characters unfold beautifully in a medium where you might not expect to find such resonant and meaningful stories.
Both are highly recommended.
Gather Her Round, by Alex Bledsoe, Tor Books, 2017, $27.99, hc.
Every time Alex Bledsoe publishes a new Tufa book I think to myself, okay, this one's the best. So at the moment my favorite of them is Gather Her Round. And what's not to love? Beautiful prose, hillbilly faerie (Bledsoe calls them Tufa) in the Appalachian Mountains, music that's integral to the story, and a sense of wonder that never quits, whispering merrily along—even in the mundane scenes—like an underground river.
Now oddly enough, the first touchstone that came to mind as I started the book was Joe R. Lansdale's The Boar, even though Lansdale's book and Gather Her Round are so dissimilar. YA and adult novel. East Texas and Appalachian setting. Early part of the 19th century and present day. And really. Could their prose styles be less alike?
But Lansdale's book is what popped into my mind when the young Tufa woman Kera Rogers is attacked by a nine-foot-long wild pig while out for a stroll in the woods. And the reason that touchstone stayed with me was the Moby Dick intensity with which the characters of each book pursued their giant wild pig.
Kera's death leaves a figurative "trail of murder, suicide, and dismemberment behind it" as one character says, describing love stories. And this is a love story—or at least it's driven by love and jealousy, both of which bring out the best and worst in people.
Gather Her Round is mostly about new characters to the series. Kera's two boyfriends, Duncan and Adam, only one of whom knew about the other. Duncan's sister Renny. The game warden Jack Cates. Janet, a reporter for a high school newspaper, and her friend Ginny. New readers should have no trouble jumping right in.
But if you've been following the series, it's the appearances of the regulars, the deepening of their connections, the tension of their struggles, their growth and lack thereof, that will add icing to an already delicious cake.
This is the first of the Tufa stories—at least that I recall—to use a framing device. In this case the main body of the narrative is being told from the stage of a storytelling festival. The storyteller is Janet Harper, who tells her audience that she has a small part in the story she's about to tell. Her preamble sets the tone as effectively as any good introduction should, and once her story begins, you quickly forget the framing device as the novel proceeds in a narrative style to which we're accustomed.
So why bother? You find out in the last chapter, which brings us back to the storytelling festival and the end of Janet's performance. It doesn't provide a big dramatic moment, but I really appreciated the final scenes.
I said above that this is my favorite of the Tufa novels and that holds true—or at least it will until the next one comes out.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North, PS Publishing, 2017, £50, limited edition hc.
I missed this when it was originally published in hardcover in 2014 by Redhouse, but I'm so glad I've had the chance to rectify that ignorance, because this is a genius time travel story. I know, I know. Throwing around superlatives doesn't make it so. But I've never run across this particular concept before, and Claire North (a pseudonym of Catherine Webb) does an outstanding job of bringing it to life.
Here's some cover copy describing the book:
"Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.
"No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
"As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'
"This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow."
It begins in rural England, in 1919. In his first life, the child Harry grew up in poverty—the bastard son of a local landowner, raised by the groundskeeper and his wife—so he's not given much chance to shine. But through subsequent lives he quickly begins to figure things out, helped out by a member of the Club, made up of August's peers, since they all go back to their birth when their lives end. They call themselves kalachakras, and there are branches of the Club in many cities, on many continents.
The first half of the book is utterly fascinating as Claire North explores all the intricacies of what it would be like to be in Harry's situation. It's told in first person from Harry's point of view so that the language and cadence of the speech all have a charming turn-of-the-last-century feel to them. This is an element that might throw off a reader who prefers the flow of contemporary prose, especially since the story moves a little slowly, with many asides. But that is what I liked about it.
The second half picks up the pace to follow the plot hinted at in the cover copy. Vincent, one of Harry's fellow kalachakras, has decided he knows how to make the world a better place and begins to work through a Machiavellian series of events over many lifetimes to make it happen. Unfortunately, for all his good intentions, this is exactly what the little girl has come to warn Harry about. The end of the world is coming sooner and sooner, and Harry realizes that it's because of what Vincent is doing.
The Clubs divide over the issue, and then those standing against Vincent begin to die, which is accomplished by going to before a kalachakra's birth and changing things so that they are never born.
I'll leave the plot description there.
If you like to think about things as you read—in the sense of the best speculative fiction—you'll find a wealth of ideas and provocative what-ifs in these pages. Harry's growth from a simple rural boy to a highly competent twentieth-century man is a fascinating journey, and Vincent makes an excellent, fully rounded protagonist. He may have the best of intentions, but he has sociopathic leanings and a horrible way of getting things done the way he wants them.
In other words, it's all fodder for a complex and riveting story, which The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August most certainly is.
Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey, Thomas & Mercer, 2017, $24.95, hc.
FBI agent Will Brody is in an abandoned church on the trail of a terrorist when a homemade bomb goes off, an explosion of glass and debris that tears into him before his world goes black.
When he wakes, there isn't a mark on him. The cover copy goes on to tell us:
"The building is in ruins. His team is gone. Outside, Chicago is dark. Cars lie abandoned. No planes cross the sky. He's relieved to spot other people—until he sees they're carrying machetes.
"Welcome to the afterlife."
Yup, he's dead, leaving behind his boss, Claire McCoy, head of an FBI task force, who also happens to be in love with him. And he with her.
But she has no time to mourn his death since the terrorist they've been chasing is still on the loose and is more dangerous than ever, having gone from being a sniper to setting booby-traps.
Eventually the two of them work the case from either side of the boundary between life and death. That would be interesting enough, but author Marcus Sakey has more ambition than to simply tell some variation on a story we've seen before. I don't want to spoil the surprise of where he ends up taking his story (what I described above is only the first few chapters). Let's say it just gets weirder and stranger, and ultimately because of that, more satisfying than it might have been otherwise.
How much you like this book will depend on how willing you are to suspend your disbelief. I've seen a few negative reviews, but they all seem to be by people expecting a traditional thriller, or something with just a small difference (agents working a case from either side of the grave). Instead what we get is cosmic.
I'm the sort of reader who will buy into an author's premise, no matter how outlandish, so long as the internal logic works. Naturally the characters need to be interesting, the story has to keep me guessing, and it should be well-written. Afterlife meets all those criteria, so the book fired on all cylinders for me.
Manga Art: Inspiration and Techniques from an Expert Illustrator, by Mark Crilley, Watson-Guptill, 2017, $22.99, tpb.
I've long had mixed feelings about manga. On the one hand the big eyes, tiny noses and slit mouths bug me. On the other, I love the energy that's on constant display, the whimsy of the characters, and the often bright colors. So I enjoyed flipping through this book, chock full of sketches, works-in-progress, and finished pieces.
But what had me paying closer attention was the text, because I'm a sucker for any and all descriptions of the creative process, especially when they're conveyed as personably as they are here with Mark Crilley's easygoing prose.
At first glance Manga Art, subtitled "Inspiration and Techniques from an Expert Illustrator," is a how-to book, and while there certainly are a lot of technical tips, the heart of the text is how the artist describes why he made the choices he did in the various pieces of art on display in the book's pages. A budding artist could certainly learn a lot, but the information also conveys a deeper appreciation to the casual reader. The choices of mediums for various pieces, the play of light in a drawing or painting, the color—or lack thereof—all make sense under his tutelage.
As I continued to study the art, I found a certain familiarity—especially in the pieces that combined traditional manga with Western techniques. A quick look at Crilley's bio told me why. He's the author of an utterly charming series of graphic novels called Brody's Ghost, in which the titular character—a reluctant hero recovering from a broken heart—comes to the aid of a young woman named Talia, helping her with a task she's been set that will allow her into heaven upon its completion.
The story is a delight and the art really sings, showcasing his own take on manga which happily—for this reader—includes more realistic facial features. The books are in black and white, and his line work is superb, detailed and rich with expression.
In other words, Crilley knows what he's talking about when it comes to art, so following the suggestions laid out in this book would serve the budding artist well.
I'd recommend Manga Art to anyone wanting to know more about this art form, but I'd recommend Brody's Ghost to anyone who can appreciate a quirky, fun story that's rich in both characterization and adventure.
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