For a while there in 2009, reporting on books and publishing basically involved firing up the old internet-box on a daily basis and looking around to see which magazines were going out of business. Thankfully that crisis has passed, but we still lose good magazines every now and again. National Journal's print publication is going under at the end of this year; the publisher says "News in DC now moves too quickly for a weekly publication." Layoffs may follow. The publication will still live online, though the transition to online-only is not always an easy one. National Journal always presented a smarter, less tabloid-y version of Politico's DC insider-rag schtick. It was not always the best magazine on politics, but you could at least always tell the staff cared about their topics, and about the importance of good writing.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The possibility of an Island

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)


Serialized anthology comics are tough. They’re a pain to coordinate, for starters, and it’s hard to find an audience for a series of short, ongoing stories by a wide array of artists. I want to support anthology comics — Monkeysuit, a lively anthology back at the turn of the century was a particular favorite — but I have to admit that I often can’t be bothered when a new anthology starts up. Too much of an investment, too little return. For the most part, they disappear before they even really get started.

So I wasn’t planning to pick up the first issue of Island, the new anthology edited by Brandon Graham, but, hell, you try to ignore it. It’s a massive book for a monthly comic — over a hundred pages, squarebound, drawing in your eye the way light gets sucked into a black hole. The cover kneecapped me, with its intricate drawing of an island made up of many parts (a forest, a sci-fi spaceport tower, a temple, a sailing vessel straight out of Moby Dick moored to one side) and its moody blue-gray color palette. Nothing else on the stands looks like this. I had to have a copy because it was a beautiful object and sometimes it feels good to own a beautiful object. And even at $7.99, a dense, full-color comics anthology feels positively European, the kind of artistic endeavor you should want to support.

Like all anthologies, some of the stories in Island hit me harder than others. My favorite story was the one that opens the collection, “I.D.” by Emma Rios. A support group meets in a coffee shop. Rios tells her story in tightly cropped panels, claustrophic and tinted only in shades of red. Gradually, we see that the story is set in the future — people start discussing an interplanetary mining colony operation — and we learn that the support group is for people seeking body transplants. “My metabolism doesn’t allow me to be the man I want to be,” one character says, adding “I can’t stand being this weak anymore.” Just as the story starts picking up, something happens and then it’s To Be Continued time. It’s an excellent first chapter to a longer story, ending not on a shameless cliffhanger but at a point of change for the characters.

Comics author Kelly Sue DeConnick contributes a four-page prose essay about a friend who helped her become an author. “I was newly sober, which is a lot like walking around with no skin on,” DeConnick writes. The account is honest and raw and as earnest as DeConnick undoubtedly was, back in the days when she walked around everywhere carrying “a notebook and How to Write a Novel in 90 Days, the cover purposefully displayed."

Graham’s contribution is beautiful — just in terms of pure density, nobody draws a more rewarding comics page than Graham, with characters slouching around cityscapes packed with details and wordplay and corny jokes (on one street, a home is marked “Tori’s House,” with a tower down the street labeled as an “Observe a Tori.”) I’m not sure what, exactly, is going on in the story beyond a couple going to a restaurant that only serves whale, but I want to examine these pages, with their diagrams of cups of pudding and digressions about pornographic currency (“barely legal tender,” of course,) until a story makes itself obvious. With Graham’s work, the digging is the treasure.

The final story, a skateboarding (kinda) superhero adventure by an artist named Ludroe, is rougher than all the others — you get the sense that Ludroe is a graffiti artist who hasn’t quite adapted from Sharpies to a more nuanced tool — but it feels like an attempt to create an urban mythology. Maybe if someone tried to invent Marvel Comics in the New York City of today, it would look something like this.

So, yes. There’s no real connective tissue between these stories besides the fact that they appear between the same covers, and Brandon Graham decided to show them to you. Sure, the stories share some artistic flourishes — a European sensibility, a progressive vibrance — but they’re distinct works by distinct artists. Maybe that’s why Island works so well. It doesn’t try too hard to sell an aesthetic beyond pure cartooning ambition. In this case, that’s more than enough of a unifying theme to win my allegiance.

Cartoonist Matt Bors just announced that his online cartooning hub The Nib has parted ways with blogging site Medium. Of the split with Medium, Bors simply says "our ambitions diverged," and he promises that "I don’t think it will be long until I have something to announce" in terms of The Nib finding a new home. Let's hope not; The Nib has been publishing some great comics on a regular basis and in its short year and a half of existence, it became a destination for those in search of good comics on the web. This is something the internet desperately needs.

Today, in case you can't tell from the flurry of posts on the internet and on this site, is the official release day of the To Kill a Mockingbird sequel/prequel. If you're frustrated by the overkill, I promise it will all be over tomorrow. But until then, Quartz has discovered that significant portions of Watchman very closely resemble significant portions of Mockingbird. Of course, self-plagiarism is no crime — and by all accounts, Watchman was an early draft of Mockingbird, which explains the overlap — but it again raises the question of why Watchman even exists.

If a large chunk of the book has already been cannibalized to create another (most likely better) novel, why should anyone bother to read the cannibalized version? It's like putting all the stone chips left over from the sculpting of Michaelangelo's David on a pedestal and calling it Not David. The art isn't in the scraps used to make the art. The art is what's left after you do all the cutting and shaping and merging. Art is the product of intent, not the happenstance of creation.

OMG, this headline: "Harper Lee Announces Third Novel, ‘My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune.’" So cruel, so funny.

Tolstoy's unhappy family moves to the Northwest

Published July 13, 2015, at 11:44pm

Paul Constant review Megan Kruse's Call Me Home.

Raw, naked, and unadorned in its language, Kruse's Call Me Home takes us inside a violent family from multiple points of view.

Read this review now

In letters to the Justice Department, authors and booksellers allege that "Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.”

Republican presidential candidate/human idea toilet Ted Cruz just published a new memoir to promote his presidential campaign. The New York Times refused to put the book on its bestseller list, saying its sales numbers were inflated due to "strategic bulk purchases." Now Amazon and the book's publisher, Harper Collins, are both defending Cruz, saying they see no sign of bulk purchases.

I mean, the dirty secret of all bestselling political books is that they're manipulated by bulk purchases. Getting "New York Times Bestseller" on the front of your book is a cheap way to earn credibility and popularity. All sorts of authors and pubishers do this.

If you want a look inside how this kind of thing happens, you should read about the scandal that erupted when it was revealed that former Mars Hill preacher/human hairgel farm Mark Driscoll's book Real Marriage only landed on the bestseller list due to bulk purchase manipulation. Blogger Warren Throckmorton published a copy of the contract Mars Hill signed to land the book on the list, and it's full of little tricks: the agency in question uses "over a thousand different payment types” to buy multiple copies of the book and “requires a minimum of 90 geographically disperse (sic) addresses” to ship those copies to, in order to make it seem like the book was a spontaneous success. I have no doubt that agencies like the one Driscoll hired are still in operation and still gaming the system. This gig is too lucrative for them to give up. Is Cruz's campaign using one of these firms? I have no way of saying for sure — I certainly have no proof — but it's pretty damn likely.

While everyone in Seattle is currently freaking out about Kathryn Schulz's excellent New Yorker article detailing how we we're overdue for an impossibly bad earthquake, I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you to read Sandi Doughton's excellent Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. Doughton gets into detail that the New Yorker simply doesn't have room for, explaining all the various fault lines and different kinds of earthquakes that could strike Seattle in specific and the Pacific Northwest in general. It's an excellent book that will leave Seattleites stricken with insomnia for days.

Your week in readings: The best literary events from July 13-19, 2015

MONDAY: Elliott Bay Book Company hosts Seattle Times reporter James Neff, who debuts his new historical account, Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa. This one’s got some good blurbs. Seymour Hersh says, “This is not a book about a good Bobby versus a bad Hoffa. It is a study of two men who always got what they wanted staging a shootout on the streets of Laredo. And, as Neff tells it, there were no winners.” And Erik Larson — Devil in the White City Erik Larson — calls it “a triumph of investigation and revelation.” That makes it well worth your time.

TUESDAY: Might as well have a pajama party in Elliott Bay Book Company all night Monday night, because they’ve got the best reading of Tuesday, too. Lidia Yukanvitch, the brilliant Portland author of Dora: A Headcase, reads from her new novel, The Small Backs of Children.

WEDNESDAY: Ada’s Technical Books hosts a comic book reading with Anders Nilsen and Marc Bell. Bell presents his first “full-length graphic novella,” which seems like a weird designation — what is the fullest length a graphic novella can reach without hitting novel-size? For that matter, what’s the official size of a graphic novel? Anyway, in Stroppy, the protagonist “hopes to win big in a songwriting contest organized by the All-Star Schnauzer Band.” Nilsen, who has made some great comics including the terrific Charles Schulz-meets-Tolstoy bird epic Big Questions, celebrates the publication of a new collection of his sketchbooks. It’s titled Poetry Is Useless, which is a great title.

THURSDAY: Up at Ravenna Third Place, Jody Bower reads from her book Jane Eyre's Sisters, which “argues that Joseph Campbell's model of the hero's journey does not work for women.” Instead, Bower thinks books about female heroes “need a different model to do justice to a woman's experience of moving beyond the expectations of conventional societal roles to find her true, creative self.” This is a fascinating argument.

FRIDAY: Back to Elliott Bay Book Company for a reading from Scott Dodson, who’ll read from his book The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dodson’s book couldn’t be any better timed, now that the Notorious RGB has become a style icon.

SATURDAY: No events today. You should probably set the day aside to either read Go Set a Watchman, which was released on Tuesday or — my preference — re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, instead.

SUNDAY: No readings today, either. It’s summer! Go read a book in the park. Recommend a book to a friend, and ask for a recommendation in return. Bury your face in the pages of a book and waggle your face around for a while.

The odd couple

Kurt Vonnegut was mortified by the idea of being considered a sci-fi author. You have to understand, this was a different time, before Michael Chabon and Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link started blurring the lines between literary fiction and genre. The “science fiction” classification used to mean an author would be stigmatized to the gaudy corner of bookstores where only children and misfits would browse, so you can forgive Vonnegut a little bit of grumpiness over an imaginary distinction.

I give you that context to explain why I actually gasped a little bit when I saw Vonnegut’s books shelved in the sci-fi section of longtime West Seattle used bookseller Pegasus Book Exchange. Vonnegut would have been displeased; it’s not hard to imagine him walking up to the counter and trying to register a formal complaint about it.

The shelves at Pegasus Books

Pegasus, located right in the Junction, is that kind of bookstore; it’s been run by the same family for so long that it’s developed its own sense of organizational physics. Some of those decisions make perfect sense — Perfume by Patrick Suskind is shelved in horror, where it belongs, and not fiction — and some of them are a little more suspect, like alphabetizing children’s books by title and not author. Books are stacked up every which way; on floors, stacked horizontally on shelves, on every flat surface. The buyers have secreted surprises everywhere, through years of accumulation. Every decade of from World War II until today is represented on its shelves, including books that likely don’t exist anywhere online. You shouldn’t go into Pegasus Book Exchange with any plan but to lose hours to some aimless browsing.

But some unadventurous people are too OCD to appreciate a nice, messy used bookstore. Luckily for them, there’s another used bookstore on the same block as Pegasus that will appeal to their organizational instincts. Merryweather Books is much more organized than Pegasus. It’s clean and quiet and the sections are clear and well-maintained. Merryweather doesn’t have the luxury of decades of business that Pegasus enjoys, so it has to be well-curated. So it is.

If you’re looking for a particular title — Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, say — you can walk into Merryweather, look around, determine where the literary essays are, and search alphabetically. Vonnegut is in fiction, where he preferred to be placed. Books are alphabetized by author. All is right in the universe, with no book out of place.

As for me, I love both kinds of used bookstores. Pegasus-like stores are great for intensive browsing, for conquering that nagging sense that you’ve seen it all done before. And Merryweather-like used book stores are perfect for the laser-like search, when you decide it’s finally time to dive into that author you’ve always wanted to read but never found the time to dig in. They’re a fascinating pairing, coexisting on the same street but living in entirely different universes. West Seattle is lucky to have them.

The Guardian just published the first chapter of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, on a page loaded with animation and "ambient sound" and an audio version of the text read by Reese Witherspoon. It positively reeks of overkill. And how's the chapter? As you may have expected, it's really not very good; some of the writing is painfully awkward.

“Hush, girl,” he said, holding her face in place. “I’ll kiss you on the courthouse steps if I want to.” The possessor of the right to kiss her on the courthouse steps was Henry Clinton, her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband. Love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her. Henry Clinton was Jean Louise’s own kind, and now she did not consider the dictum particularly harsh.

Ouch. So contrived and so repetitive; this has none of the simple charm of Lee's earlier work. I decided some time ago that I wasn't going to read Watchman. It's not that the experience would destroy To Kill a Mockingbird for me or anything so dramatic as that. Really, I'd just rather not have to write a negative review of a Harper Lee book.

Speaking of comics, I barely pay attention to the news that comes out of San Diego Comicon these days because it's become a big Hollywood PR machine. But the SDCC news that DC Comics' adult/creator-owned imprint Vertigo is launching 12 new titles this fall is very welcome. Vertigo used to publish wonderful comics series on a regular basis, but it's fallen into disrepair over the last decade or so. Some of these names — Darwyn Cooke! Gilbert Hernandez! Mike Allred! Gail Simone! — are very promising, and only one of them (Lucifer) appears to be a half-assed Sandman ripoff. I like those odds.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Saga, Split in Two

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

The single best ongoing comic book right now is clearly Brian K. Vauhgan and Fiona Staples’s Saga. No other comic comes close to matching Saga’s inventiveness, progressive attitudes, and sheer storytelling energy. Vaughan has written some pretty good comics in the past — Ex Machina and Y the Last Man were both flawed but generally excellent series — but his collaboration with Staples has produced something absolutely magical, an artistic and entertaining masterpiece unfolding on a (semi-)monthly basis. Which is how it should be; comics are a collaborative medium, so some partnerships are just better than others.

The last two weeks have seen the release of first issues of new comics series from Vaughan and Staples, working separately. This creates a great opportunity to examine what each collaborator is capable of on their own. Last week, the first issue of a new series from Vaughan and horror comics illustrator Steve Skroce was published. It’s a war comic, and a dystopian future comic, and an opportunity to examine what it really means to be Canadian.

We Stand on Guard

No, that’s not a joke. We Stand on Guard tells the story of an elite paramilitary group of Canadian revolutionaries trying to defend the Great White North from gigantic, lumbering American war machines. As a first issue, Guard works well: it introduces a team of characters, gives them distinct personalities and motivations, and then sets them into action. The futuristic sci-fi elements are handled well, and they don’t overwhelm the essentials like characterization and plot. The people sound like people and not mirthless post-apocalyptic grimace machines. Vaughan’s script is expository without being clumsy, and Skroce’s artwork is clean and expressive. It’s not the slam-dunk that Saga #1 was — that issue practically bubbled with the dance between liveliness and possibility, while Guard has an air of staginess, of scene-setting — but it’s a decent start.

Meanwhile, this week Vaughan’s Saga co-star has a new first issue of her own, launching the first in a new series of Archie comic books with writer Mark Waid. Like most comics fans, I’ve always taken Archie comics for granted, assuming that they would take up space at grocery store checkout lines for years after I’ve grown cold in the ground. But a series of recent adult reinventions — zombie Archie, married Archie, murdered Archie — indicates that maybe the formula is in trouble. The hiring of Staples and Waid to reinvent the character seems like the latest drastic measure in a long line of drastic measures.

Archie #1

Happily, this particular drastic measure paid off. Archie #1 is a very fun comic book. It’s more realistic than the cartoonish stories that came before — Archie always superficially grew and changed with the times, but Riverdale has always felt like it’s stuck in some weird 1950s Twilight Zone — but it’s not some humorless Dawson’s Creek-style soap opera, either. The characters are still exactly who they’ve always been, but they feel more human than ever, thanks to Waid’s lively script. Archie talks directly to the reader, setting the scene (there’s been drama with Betty, and a new wealthy family, the Lodges, are moving to town) and easing us into daily life in Riverdale. It gives the book the loose air of a stage production, and it keeps the melodrama from getting too soppy.

Staples is an inspired choice for an artist on this series. Her characters’ body language and expressions are rich and personalized, and she somehow stays close to the original character models while adding something new. A few panels later in the book, when Archie is playing guitar, actually depict the way a human being holds a guitar in real life; it’s an object with weight and some awkwardness, not a cardboard prop. This may sound like a small touch, but it’s really quite significant in terms of reading enjoyment, and Archie is full of small touches like this.

Unfortunately, Waid authored another first issue out this week that does not fare anywhere near as well. Strange Fruit #1 — yes, the title refers to what you think it refers to — is a gorgeous book to flip through. You could lose yourself in artist J.G. Jones III’s painted panels for hours at a time; I’ve never seen coloring quite like this in a comic, and it sets the scene admirably. But the problem is that Waid and Jones are a pair of white guys telling a story about the history of race in the south, and they don’t seem equipped to deal with what that means. The book feels remarkably tone-deaf on race and then some sci-fi elements are dropped into the story and it all feels painfully wrong. I’d say more about it, but J.A. Micheline at Women Write About Comics has already explained the problem with Strange Fruit at great, satisfying length. Go read what she has to say about why this project could have used a lot more thoughtfulness and consideration. It’s 2015, and paying lip service to racial justice isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to demonstrate your commitment to racial justice, too.

I reviewed Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel Ready Player One on its release. I didn't like it. The book's boundless nostalgia for 80s nerd culture unsettled me on a deep level; hating the book kind of felt like self-loathing. In retrospect, I admit that my review of the book wasn't very good — I couldn't convey what I disliked about Ready Player One because I was wrestling with the issue of my generation's nostalgia on a personal level. So I'm thrilled to see Laura Hudson's excellent review of Cline's second novel, Armada, because she exactly articulates my problem with Cline's writing in specific, and with my generation's propensity for nerd nostalgia in general. Feast your eyes:

It's a valuable question for gaming culture—and “nerd culture” more generally—to ask itself: Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?

Yes, yes yes! This is exactly what I wished I'd said when I reviewed Ready Player One. Go read the whole review. And pity poor Hudson's Twitter replies feed; for the next few weeks, it's going to be full of angry nerds howling for her blood.

The only downside to covering the books beat is that you occasionally have to write a goodbye to a fantastic local bookshop. Miguel Otárola at the Seattle Times did a fantastic job of paying tribute to Cinema Books on Roosevelt.