Revival Does Diversity Right

Revival, Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends

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These days there’s a lot of discussion around diversity in comics, both on the page and in the creative teams. There’s also a lot of noise about the “right” and “wrong” ways to add diversity to stories, most of which have more to do with personal taste than any objective standards of success. In light of all that, I want to nominate Revival as a series that is getting it right in all the best ways and pulling a cool twist on the nearly done-to-death (no pun intended) zombie genre.

One day in rural Wisconsin, the dead came back to life, but they don’t come back as zombies. The dead come back as themselves –  confused, disappointed, amazed and scared as everyone else around them. They are dubbed “revivers” and when a murder takes place at the same time as the revival, it’s unknown if these revivers really are who they appear to be. The event isn’t widespread; it’s limited to a single, sparsely populated county. The area is put under government quarantine as national media, religious zealots and conspiracy theorists descent gather to fan the flames of fear. We follow Officer Dana Cypress as she tries to solve a brutal murder and keep a lid on the mounting pressures of her community, family and personal life.

Author Tim Seely’s set-up is clever because it allows him to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of zombie stories. Everyone in the world of Revival already knows about zombies. They’re all aware of the Romero films, so Seely doesn’t need to waste any story time on characters struggling for a metaphor to understand what is happening. This frees Seely up to focus on the far more interesting personal struggles and conflicts his characters face. He also wisely limits the scope and duration of the revival event, which means that the story doesn’t get sidetracked with the possibility of everyone who dies over the course of it coming back to life. At the outset of the story there are a limited number of revivers. This allows Seely to switch the tension from panic over a growing horde of revivers to paranoia over undiscovered revivers hiding in the quarantined community. The fear is no longer of outsiders or others. The fear is that the familiar faces neighbors, friends and loved ones are harboring a dark secret. Who do you trust? Do you judge people by what you see on the surface or do you judge them by what you fear lurks beneath the surface?

In shifting the source of fear in Revival, Seely creates a story framework that emphasizes the relationships between characters, and in turn, the characters themselves. This is exactly the type of set-up that could be hampered by a lack of diversity in the cast. Every new gender, ethnicity, role, religion or class provides a new type of conflict or doubt between characters, another reason for characters to questions each others motives or to misunderstand their attempts to help. Seely chooses rural Wisconsin as his setting, an area where the population is usually assumed to be whiter than the snow that covers it all winter. In reality, the Midwest has a large Hmong population. Seely includes a Hmong community in the quarantined zone and fully incorporates it in the story. He also includes a Muslim man as the liaison from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing him to bring up the very real generalization and fear happening in the US today. Three of the main characters (Dana Cypress, her sister Em and the reporter, Ms. Tao) are women and none of them are one-dimensional. They each have complex lives with shifting responsibilities to family, job and self-satisfaction.

What is most impressive is how diversity adds to the organic nature of setting, character and conflict created in Revival. The central conflict – that the dead have risen – is not new, but it’s just a starting point for the story. The setting defines what type of characters can populate the story. Diversity of characters increases the possibilities that can come out of the main conflict. Each of these three elements acts upon the other, working together to create a single story and in Revival, that story is an imaginative twist on a familiar tale.

I also need to throw in a few words of praise for artist Mike Norton. His style is clean and expressive. I love the resemblances he gives family members. Norton also rewards those of us who “read” the pictures as much as the text by providing visual clues (Keep an eye on those police patches!) and visual irony (On her way to investigate a murder Officer Cypress passes a sign that proudly proclaims “The City of Wausau is a CRIME FREE COMMUNITY.”). And the cover is great. Look at it up there, dripping with black & white noir and the cold desolation of a Wisconsin winter.

That’s all the raving I have in me for today, so if you want to know more go pick up Revival!

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Armageddon in Retrospect

Title: Armageddon in Retrospect
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
ISBN: 978-0-425-22689-6

     I’m always wary of any posthumously published works by my favorite authors. That’s why I approached Armageddon in Retrospect, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays and short stories, with caution. Being a great writer isn’t just knowing what words to leave in a story, it’s knowing which words should be left out. If Vonnegut chose not to publish these works while he was alive, he must have felt that they were not his best. Part of me prefers to honor the body of work that Vonnegut chose to show us, not what he left on the cutting room floor. Still, there’s much to be learned about the craft of writing by seeing less polished pieces from talented authors. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think Armageddon in Retrospect does it well.

     The book contains both fiction and non-fiction pieces like speeches and letters. The non-fiction in Armageddon is classic Vonnegut:  a dose of rueful humor to sweeten the moral outrage. His speeches seem like the ramblings of an old man, circular and humorous. By the time he’s ready to make his point Vonnegut has touched your humanity, opened your heart just enough to feel what he’s saying rather than just hear it.

     The best piece in the book is the letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 after escaping a German prison camp. It is amazing.  Vonnegut takes only two pages to talk about his experience, covering all the facts up to where he is at the moment. It’s one of the most efficient pieces of communication I have ever seen. More than that, it appears to be the birth of his use of refrain.  When describing the death of some of his fellow soldiers Vonnegut says, “Many men died from shock. . . after ten days of starvation, thirst an exposure. But I didn’t.” The “but not me” refrain runs throughout his letter home, screaming his survivor’s guilt without ever addressing the topic directly.

     Most of the short stories in the collection are from early in Vonnegut’s career. He had not yet developed his trademark humor or learned to employ speculative fiction elements (like time travel) in to his work. Vonnegut’s anger in these early pieces is raw and often barely disguised by plot. These stories are not the easiest things to read. Still, they offer hope to struggling writers. If Vonnegut started out like this, it’s possible to keep working, to keep searching until you develop a style that allows you to tell even the most complicated of stories.

     Ultimately, I enjoyed Armageddon and recommend it to all Vonnegut fans. I enjoyed Armageddon – now how many people can say that?

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

Title: Meanwhile
Author: Jason Shiga
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8423-3

Chocolate or Vanilla? This one mundane choice is what launches you into a world of time travel, mind reading and mad science in Jason Shiga’s book Meanwhile. Shiga, the winner of the 2003 Eisner “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” award, lives up to his reputation as one of the most innovative storytellers working today.

Meanwhile is deceptively simple. The story is told in clean, spare panels strung together in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. With thick, glossy pages the book looks almost like a children’s book. Each time you make a choice the panels diverge and you must follow a twisty line to the next episode of the story. The lines double and re-double, forcing you to trace them across the page with your finger before following them to a new page. This format creates a book that is not just read, it is played. The reader is an active participant in the telling of the story. At some points the act of going back to the last break in the string and choosing a new path can be a bit tedious, but the results are rewarding. There are 3,856 story possibilities in this 80 page book. If you stop at 5 or even 10 story possibilities you will end up missing much of what this book has to offer.

In creating a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book Shiga could have given his readers a galaxy of choices. After all, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books were great for the fantasy and science fiction genres, allowing readers to hop through vast and strange new worlds. In Meanwhile Shiga does the opposite, leading his reader to three key choices in the form of machines to use: time machine, kill-box or mind-reading device. By setting these limitations Shiga creates a closed loop of a world that is anything but boring. The story, like the lines between panels, starts to double and re-double, creating a sense of déjà vu. Keep going. It only gets stranger.

Ultimately, Meanwhile isn’t just about showy page layout or leading readers through a trippy adventure. It’s an open invitation to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (No joke!) and an exploration of the power behind the tiny decisions we make every day.  It’s a special book and well worth the read.

The Engineer: Konstrukt

Title: The Engineer: Konstrukt
By: Brian Churilla (author/artist) and Jeremy Shepherd (author/colorist)
ISBN: 9781932386547

The Engineer: Konstrukt starts fast, laying out the central conflict on page one of the book. An immense, ancient entity of the Lovecraftian variety is devouring the universe. One thing can stop it: the Konstrukt, an equally ancient device of mysterious origins. The only catch is that the Konstrukt is broken, its many cogs and wheels scattered throughout the fabric of space and time. The Engineer is one man tasked with finding these pieces and reassembling the Konstruct, enabling life as we know it to go on. With that out of the way, the rest of the book is monsters, action and weirdness.

It’s a great concept, but Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd fail to deliver an interesting story. Space travel and monster bashing are fun, but standard fare in the world of comics. There is nothing new or particularly fun in the Engineer’s character. The majority of the dialog in the book consists of the Engineer talking to himself while he fights monsters. Even he seems to get bored of his own running commentary and starts to repeat lines line “That wasn’t so bad!” and “How do like that?” Another problem is that the book has transition issues. While reading, I stopped multiple times and flipped back a few pages, thinking I had skipped a page or that I had missed a key panel, but that wasn’t the case. The story just makes awkward jumps from one scene to another. There’s also a running joke about chickens that falls flat. It seems to be an attempt at Eric Powell (The Goon) style humor, but it comes off as forced and a bit distracting.

The weakness of the writing is especially noticeable against the brilliance of the art in The Engineer. Churilla’s line work is great, clearly influenced by Mike Mignola, but not a slavish copy. There is a fluid quality to his drawing. His style has a smoothness that captures all the necessary detail, but omits anything that would clutter up the scene. There are no throwaway panels here – each one looks as if it could be blown up and made in to a poster. Shepherd’s colors add depth and emotion to the line work. The ethereal blue glow of the Konstruct parts is especially arresting.

Churilla and Shephard are clearly talented individuals, but ultimately The Engineer: Konstrukt is a book that makes for better viewing than reading.

 

The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock

Title: The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock
Author: Mike Carey (Author), Peter Gross (Artist)
ISBN: 9781401230463

If you haven’t started reading Unwritten yet, please do so at your soonest convenience. You are missing out on a New York Times best selling, Eisner-nominated bit of brilliance.  Unwritten is a meta-fantasy in the mold of Fables, focusing on the role that stories play in our lives and culture.  The protagonist, Tommy Taylor, is the adult son of an author who penned a series of children’s books similar in scope and fame to Harry Potter. Tommy’s father disappeared under mysterious circumstances and left his son a problematic legacy.

Dead Man’s Knock pushes the envelope of self-conscious fiction, exploring the idea of a literary franchise. After years of silence, a publisher announces that Tom Taylor’s father is releasing the long awaited final volume in the Tommy Taylor series. A media and fan frenzy ensues. Questions swirl – Is the book really written by Wilson Taylor? Will it be good? Will it be what the fans expect? – but no one asks, “Will the book sell?” In omitting this question Carey and Gross emphasize the raw power of a successful series. Of course the book will sell. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or whether or not it’s good. In a world of closing book stores and declining print sales, that sort of power is rare. In fact, it’s almost magical.

Carey and Gross outdo themselves in this volume, dedicating an entire issue to Lizzie Hexam’s origins. They deliver a compelling back story for her character told in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. It’s well worth the time to flip back around and follow all the story possibilities included in this Eisner Award winning issue.
Seriously people, get out and read this thing!

Streets of Glory

Streets of Glory
Garth Ennis (Author), Mike Wolfer (Artist)
ISBN: 1592910645

Streets of Glory is a perfectly serviceable “End of the Old West” story. Ennis gives us a grizzled but honorable old man, a fresh young kid, a savage Indian, an ill-fated love and the requisite railroad looming over a small town on the prairie. You can see how it’s all going to play out before the story is over. That’s the problem with Westerns – we all know that the Old West has gone the way of boom towns and the Pony Express. It takes a great deal of skill to craft a fresh and exiting story in such a well worn genre, skill that just isn’t present here.

Shameless Spousal Promotion

Picking up the Ghost is cool new novel set to publish later this year. It’s written by Tone Milazzo, a man who, through a series of coincidences and misadventures, happens to be married to me. Of course, this in no way colors my glowing recommendation of his book. Really. Check it out. It’s awesome.

In addition to writing the book, Tone has created a website to promote the book. It’s pretty common these days to hand out a chapter or two online, but Tone prefers to make potential readers work for it, or even better, suffer for it. So if you visit his website the first chapter is free, but to unlock the next three you’ll have to solve a series of puzzles. Visit the site now and you’ll be able to say you knew about Picking Up the Ghost before it was even published. Get on it:

http://pickinguptheghost.tonemilazzo.com

Dreadnought (Clockwork Century #3)

Title: Dreadnought
Author: Cherie Priest
ISBN: 9780765325785

Dreadnought is the third installment in Cherie Priest’s popular Clockwork Century series. The series is textbook steam punk, set in a world where the civil war raged on for another 20 years, where oil was discovered decades ahead of schedule and where zombifying poison gasses occasionally seep out of the ground in the Pacific Northwest.

Nurse Mercy Lynch is busy tending war wounded in a Virginia hospital when she learns of both her husband’s death and her estranged father’s dying wish to see her one last time. Mercy sets forth on a cross country trip by boat, dirigible, and trains, most notably the Union war-engine, the Dreadnought. Cherie Priest gives the reader many fearsome descriptions of the titular engine. For all the legend surrounding it, the Dreadnought seems to provide Mercy and her fellow passengers little protection. In fact, it seems to make them more of a target for raiders, spies and the Southern army.

While I realize that Dreadn0ught is a work of fiction, fantasy fiction at that, I was bothered by the key historical revision of this world: the South voluntarily freed their slaves and offered them land, just the same as white settlers. This revision doesn’t sit quite right with me. It treads the line of diminishing the cultural and historical impact of the real event and glosses over the cruelties perpetrated on an enslaved people. It’s damn convenient for Priest, who dodges the hurdle of creating sympathetic, pro-slavery Southern characters. In the world of Dreadn0ught, no one seems to know what the Civil War is about anymore, they just fight and steer clear of unpleasant political ideals.

Historical quibbles aside, Priest’s previous books have been real page turners, filled with well-drawn characters, engaging locations and actual conflict. Dreadnought is missing many of the ingredients that made the previous books in the series a success, leaving it a story with a lot of machines and gunsmoke, but not much impact.

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals

Title: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues
Author: Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
ISBN: 9781892391926

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a charmingly illustrated, pocket-sized bestiary. The selection of animals presented is eclectic and includes everything from the Mongolian Death Worm to E.T. Each animal is first described, then discussed by Ann VanderMeer and “The Evil Monkey” (her husband Jeff’s blogging alter-ego). The discussions are mostly humorous, but also quite informative. I was surprised to find that by the end of the book I was getting good at figuring out which animals were Kosher and which were not. Should I ever find myself throwing a dinner party in Narnia, I now feel confident that I could plan a menu to accommodate all my guests!

The Mystery Society vol. 1

The Mystery Society vol. 1
By Steve Niles (author) and Fiona Staples (artist)
ISBN:  9781600107986

Nick Hammond and Anastasia Collins are a husband and wife team and core of the Mystery Society. They are rich, cultured, madly in love and just as dedicated to exposing paranormal secrets around the world. In this volume they expand the Mystery society to include a pair of “atomic twins,” a robotic Jules Verne and an undead hit woman. Really, what’s not to love here?

The Mystery Society is refreshing in that it 100% unadulterated fun. There’s no psychological drama, physical trauma or social commentary. Dark themes have helped pull comics out of the realm of kids stuff, but they have also weighed down the medium, mitigating the fun and freedom of visual story telling. It’s great to see a witty, stylish, adult adventure.

Fiona Staples creates a chic look for the characters and their surroundings. Her attention to detail makes giving the panels a second look worthwhile. I especially enjoyed her depiction of the twins. They are often peeking in to frame, only their eyes and the tops of their heads visible. In other scenes Staples perfectly captures the body language of curious little girls, the craning necks and tiptoe gawking. Steve Niles keeps the pace of his story fast and the characters engaging. Nick and Anastasia have real chemistry, not just cute banter.

Being that this is only the first volume of the series, I didn’t expect much in the way of a larger story arc. Mystery Society vol. 1 does a great job of establishing character, setting, relationships and conflict all while delivering a fun read. Here’s hoping that Niles and Staples can expand on what they have created in the second volume.