Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: The Mighty Thor by Walter Simonson

Continuity is both the best and the worst thing about superhero comics. It’s a huge part of what fans love about these stories, but it’s an even bigger part of what leaves new readers confused and annoyed. In fact, “continuity,” as I’m using the word here, is an obscure enough idea that I should probably back up and define it a bit.
thor #365.jpg

In comics and other long-running serialized stories, continuity is the history of the world and its characters, the idea that everything that’s come before is still true and still matters. This isn’t fundamentally different from what we see in a long-running TV show -- ideally the folks writing season 14 of Grey’s Anatomy remember what happened in season 1. If they write in some sort of callback to the early stuff, like an old character showing up, longtime viewers get a thrill of recognition and feel rewarded for the time they’ve invested. But, on the other hand, 14 seasons is a lot to keep up with and new viewers might be put off by the fear that they won’t know or remember everything they need to really appreciate a story.

Now let’s return to comics and take Marvel’s Thor as an example. Thor’s been in comics since 1962, which is a long time during which to accumulate a fictional history of friends, enemies, battles, and life changes. He’s had a few different love interests and secret identities. He had a robot arm for a while, turned into a frog once, and died (but not for long). Sometimes writers have misremembered things and contradicted each other about how something happened or what Thor’s magic hammer can do. Sometimes they’ve written “imaginary stories” that share details with the “actual” continuity of Thor but aren’t meant to connect with or change it. It’s a big thorny mess, but it’s full of really great stories, and, just like with the Grey’s Anatomy fan we imagined above, there’s a special joy in reading something that you understand is building off of a shared creative universe decades in the making.
frog thor.jpg

I picked Thor as my example here not because his history is especially old or complicated (in the grand scheme of things, he’s pretty average in terms of continuity baggage). But he’s got a movie coming out soon, Thor: Ragnarok, that looks like it will be pretty fun, and a good superhero movie usually leaves folks asking which comics they should read to follow up on a character they’re newly excited about. This can be a hard question to answer, but for Thor it’s easy.

Walter Simonson’s time as the writer on The Mighty Thor lasted from 1983 to 1987 and his is widely considered one of the all-time best collections of superhero stories. Carnegie-Stout owns them in a nice five-volume reprint from a few year ago.

Simonson’s stories are grand, heroic, and mythic. He shows us fearsome dragons, unstoppable fire demons, and armies of frost giants. He clearly knows and loves both Norse mythology and all the Thor comics that came before him, but peppers in these references with a deft touch that won’t alienate readers who don’t share his background.
Through most of his time as writer, Simonson also drew his comics (which is pretty uncommon in mainstream superhero books). He’s got a great eye for design and an obvious love for the ornate techno-fantasy aesthetic that’s been central to Thor since the character was introduced. This may seem an odd detail, but he’s especially great at enormous and improbable hats that somehow manage to look great on the page even though they clearly would never work in real life.
These five volumes contain multiple smaller storylines that build together to a grand and satisfying conclusion. It’s dashing, exciting, and optimistic in a way that’s not always been fashionable for superhero comics. The good guys face long odds and terrible trials, but they succeed through determination, teamwork, and the strength of their ideals. These comics are fun, fast-paced, and thrilling.

Now, I know I wrote above about how you can enjoy these comics without knowing every bit of background. But I also know that having some of that background can make these things more fun. Maybe more importantly, I know plenty of folks who have a hard time letting go of the fear that they’re missing something important, even after they’ve been assured otherwise. So to go along with these comics I’ve got a special extra-credit podcast recommendation: Thor: The Lightning and the Storm.

This 14-episode podcast came out over the summer of 2017. Hosts Miles Stokes and Elisabeth Allie read and discussed their way through Simonson’s whole Thor run. Each episode covers a few issues of the comic and provides some recap and explanation and a whole lot of background, lore, and critical analysis. It’s like being in a very small book club with two fun and knowledgeable friends who are super-excited to tell you the abbreviated history of each little minor character who pops up or to explain how any given plot point relates back to things that happened in the comic twenty years before. Miles has read these comics over and over since childhood and brings boundless enthusiasm. Elisabeth is new to Thor (though not to comics as a whole) and brings a fresh pair of eyes, catching and remarking on things that Miles has lost to familiarity. It’s a really good format and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to dig into background info and comics trivia.

And if you enjoy The Lightning and the Storm and want to dig even deeper into a truly tangled web of superhero history, then you can move on to the other podcast Miles co-hosts, Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, but that’s a whole other can of worms we’ll need to open in a later blog post . . . .

~Andrew, Adult Services

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Staff Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

I was browsing YouTube a few weeks ago, as one does, and I stumbled upon a channel called Ask a Mortician. There were video titles like "American Mummies" and "ICONIC CORPSE: The Preservation of Eva Peron." I fell down the rabbit hole of videos, hosted by a woman who looks like someone I would be friends with. Caitlin Doughty, with her Bettie Page bangs and bold lipstick, doesn't look like the stereotypical mortician. However, she is the face of the alternative death industry. Her memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, reveals how she got started in the industry and what she learned along the way.

This was a fascinating read. I definitely learned a lot about the death industry, and it made me confront my own mortality in a good way. This book and Caitlin's YouTube channel challenge you to think about your own after-death wishes and tell you about more than the American standard of embalming and being buried in a box. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in death or the death industry, anyone who watched Six Feet Under, and anyone who likes witty creative non-fiction essays. Fans of Mary Roach will particularly enjoy this.

Be sure to check out Ask a Mortician and Caitlin's website. Her new book, From Here to Eternity, was just released and I can't wait to read more.

-Libby, Youth Services

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

Victoria Jamieson is one of my favorite middle grade graphic novelists. She wrote the Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, and I've been waiting for another book from her since I first read it. Jamieson is back in the middle grade world with a new graphic novel: All's Faire in Middle SchoolI really enjoyed this book.

Imogene (Impy to her family) has been home-schooled her entire life. Her family works the local Renaissance Faire, and it's her favorite thing in the world. She can't wait to work as her father's squire and actually help in the show this year. First, she decides to prove her bravery by going to middle school! Public school is a lot different than she thought it would be, and Impy has a hard time fitting in. I won't tell you too much more, because that would give away the plot.

As in Roller Girl, Jamieson perfectly captures what it is like to be in middle school in All's Faire in Middle School. Puberty and cliques and hormones are all throughout this book, and the way it is portrayed rings true. I would recommend this book to any fan of Raina Telgemeier or Jennifer L. Holm.

- Libby, Youth Services

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Staff Review: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's not a rocker, he's a religion -- to my mind. I worship the guy and his music, having been baptized in the church of Bruce one night in Madison years ago at a concert on his Darkness tour. The evening was life-changing; I went home a believer.

That said, let me now proceed to an honest and objective review of Springsteen's 2016 memoir, Born to Run, named after his greatest album. Well, I have to say, Born to Run is a mighty fine book, which is hardly surprising because Springsteen is, above all, a storyteller and his life makes for quite a story. He's also a lyrical poet, so his words rest polished and powerful on the page.

His memoir traces the entire course of his life, focusing in particular on his troubled relationship with his father, an unhappy, hard-drinking, verbally-brutal factory worker and the model for many of the hopeless characters in Bruce's songs. Sorting this relationship has been an abiding struggle for Springsteen, especially given that he himself has been tormented by the black melancholy that so often consumed his pop. Bruce's battles with depression are probably the revelation of the book.

Front and center, however, is the music. Springsteen's life has been spent in active, if not obsessive, service to his music: his songwriting, his performing, and his fans. He's famously hardworking and exacting of his bands; no one would argue with the contention that he may be the hardest working performer ever to grace a turntable or stage. Now 68, Bruce is still putting on high-energy, high-intensity, no-breaks, nearly-four-hour shows -- and lots of them. For many readers, the memoir pages dedicated to his musical inspirations, his creative habits, and the arduous practice schedules to which he and his band adhere will be ample reward for reading the 500-page book.

But there's plenty of personal detail too. Who else but Bruce can provide the honest-to-God truth about the failure of his ill-advised and brief first marriage, his dovetail-joint of a bond with second wife Patti Scialfa, and his love for his three kids. Even when recounting the history his hardcore fans already know, Springsteen does so in such a heartfelt, humble, and often humorous way that we're happy to hear it all over again. An added bonus in these troubled times is that unlike with so many rocker bios, we're left not with an overwhelming sense of the guy's decadence and debauchery but rather his profound decency. The man's a testament to integrity.

I wish I could catch Bruce on Broadway, where he's currently doing a series of one-man shows, which include acoustic songs and readings from this book. Springsteen recently extended his Broadway run by another ten weeks after the initial run sold out in a day. Hail the Boss! May he live forever! Read this book and then catch one of his shows.

~Ann, Adult Services

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

There is no shortage of acclaim for the perfection of Tetris*. Its cultural impact cannot be overstated. Tetris has wormed its way into the life of anyone who’s been in proximity to a computer, Gameboy, Nintendo, arcade, etc. Despite its influence, the Tetris story has not been properly canonized. Box Brown succeeds in doing so with Tetris: The Games People Play. He begins with Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov and his friend Vladimir Pokhitko musing on the origin of games and puzzles, their connection to art, and their capacity to enhance our humanity. He then goes through an in-depth history of the politics, business, and controversy of Tetris. The story is surprisingly deep and convoluted for a game so simple in design. The tale, warmly colored in yellows and blues, is constructed fluidly with mixed styles that fit together like squares. The book succeeds alongside other great graphic novels in that the arrangement of the story seems like it could not have existed in another medium.

Outside the historical narrative, Brown discusses the purpose and role games have. They exist not just to escape, entertain, or pass time. Brown poses that the experiences and strategies used extend to our higher-order thinking (namely the prefrontal cortex); we assess a task, accomplish it, and feel good from it. He further argues that games are about connection and the depiction of human drama, all in the pursuit of fun. Tetris: The Games People Play pushes in the much-needed direction of games as art and culture. As Box Brown says, games “define our human identity.”

~Garrett, Circulation

* see: if you need convincing

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

#ComicWednesdays: CatStronauts Mission Moon by Drew Brockington

Do you love cats? How do you feel about outer space? I love cats and I also love space, so CatStronauts Mission Moon by Drew Brockington was perfect for me.

The world is in an energy crisis! Worldwide blackouts have alerted the President that the world is running out of power. Since switching to battery-use only is not a long-term solution, he consults the World's Best Scientist who comes up with a plan. Build a solar plant on the moon! Sending the CatStronauts to the moon is their best bet for clean, renewable energy. (I wish it worked like this in the real world.) Our CatStronauts are the commander Major Meowser, pilot Waffles, inventor Blanket, and science officer Pom Pom. We follow them as they train for their mission and blast off to save cat-kind!

Cat. Astronauts. CatStronauts. I feel like I don't even need to say anything else, because that sounds so awesome on its own. This comic is perfect for all ages.There's a lot of puns and funny imagery to keep younger kids interested, but there are some jokes for older folks too. (The Neil Armstrong cat cameo comes to mind.) Basically, if you like cats, space, or both cats and space, check out CatStronauts Mission Moon. And then check out CatStronauts Race to Mars. Be on the lookout for CatStronauts Space Station Situation in October.

- Libby, Youth Services