Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wandering Thoughts

Here's a little grab-bag of items that don't seem to merit their own blog posts, but are still interesting to me!

I attended the midnight release party for Haruki Murakami's new book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Like the last release party I went to for 1Q84, it was hosted by Green Apple Books; unlike last time, it was held in their brand-new Inner Sunset location instead of their classic Clement spot.

It was a really fun event! The new bookstore looks (and smells) wonderful. They're sharing the space with the video store that used to have the whole building, but have built it out for themselves, with extremely tall ceilings and a great use of space. It was a good turnout; I'm bad at estimating crowds, but I'd guess somewhere around 200 folks showed up. Even though the footprint of the new store is much smaller, it seems to be more open, usable space, and so it didn't feel quite as cramped as the 1Q84 event had three years ago. They did a great job at running the event, including some competitions like a Mad Libs twist on Murakami passages and a trivia contest; the winner of that one correctly answered 7 out of the 15 questions! I do kind of miss the Sapporo beer from last time, but there was still a really nice spread of snacks and drinks.

The vibe was really interesting. Reading is such a solitary activity that we pursue in isolation, and a touchstone moment like this is one of the few times that readers emerge from our shells and socialize with one another, bonding over our shared love of something we each experience individually. It's kind of a weird juxtaposition of stimuli, though... the streamers and buckets of beer say "party!", while the stacks of books say "you're in a library, please speak quietly!" Everyone seemed to have a good time, I got to chat with some new folks and old friends, and I even walked away with a signed copy of the book. I'm batting two for two and loving it!

In other reading news, I'm approaching the end of Alan Moore's run of the Swamp Thing. I don't think I'll give that a full write-up, but will mention that I've really enjoyed it. It's much more of a horror book than I had expected, and gets really shockingly macabre at times. The series started before DC started its Vertigo imprint (and, if I remember correctly, it started Vertigo largely because of the rise of mature stories like Swamp Thing), and it can be far more gruesome than even titles like Sandman or Transmetropolitan that later ended up on Vertigo.

But, of course, Swamp Thing isn't mainly remembered for its very effective scares. Even today, it feels fresh and revolutionary; at the time, it must have seemed mind-blowing. It's all the more impressive that it manages to be so creative while working within the constraint of following a character who Moore didn't create in the first place: but, Moore completely tears down the Swamp Thing, acknowledging everything known about him up until that point, then rebuilds him into an entirely new creation. The story becomes thrillingly abstract for long stretches of time, dealing with timeless themes and celebrating concept like patience and acceptance. It always seems a little jarring when, say, Batman shows up for a crossover issue. Swamp Thing seems incredibly far removed from the standard superhero plots of hero-versus-villain.

The influence of Swamp Thing on Sandman is abundantly clear. Preludes and Nocturnes, in particular, with its many experiments in horror, seems to draw inspiration from Swamp Thing (even including an indirect crossover in the person of John Constantine). I've also recently read Miracleman, another Alan Moore title that has finally come back into print after decades of legal wrangling. Miracleman also shares many similarities with Swamp Thing; however, Miracleman and Sandman have almost nothing in common, which is interesting... the transitive property isn't particularly strong in comics.

MINI SPOILERS for Miracleman

Miracleman is a bit like Swamp Thing (and I guess technically Sandman for that matter) in that it's a reboot of an established, classic, but not-very-popular comic-book character. I'm a bit fuddled by all of the intellectual-property controversy around the title, but I think the character was initially known as Marvelman, and was changed due to copyright reasons or something. Anyways, that's not important. The Marvelman book starts off with a perfect pastiche of a 1950s comic: the very two-dimensional art, static images, confidently bold exclamations in speech bubbles, and so on. These lay out the story of the Miracleman family, focusing on an incident when they repel an invasion from the future.

I didn't really appreciate how well-done the art was until it shifted into the next part of the story, set in "modern" times, picking up the story of Miracleman. I don't want to spoil exactly what happens, but it's an absolutely brilliant approach to the reboot, one of those rare cases where they perfectly honor all of the canon of the existing story, while also creating a perfectly blank slate for telling whatever new stories they want to going forward. (The effect is on par with the great reboot of Star Trek, although the underlying technique is quite different.)

The content of the story itself isn't quite as intriguing to me as Moore's other stuff, but I think this is another case where it was much more important at the time it came out; it can be hard to recognize sources of innovation when you've grown up in a world influenced by that innovation. Miracleman seems to do a particularly good job at accepting the tropes of the superhero comic (secret identity, rivalries with supervillains, assisting a mundane civilian populace) and dealing with them as if they were real problems (can two people of vastly different status share a meaningful relationship? does the government have a right to manipulate in order to serve a greater good?).

The book also includes a really interesting set of comics that deal with the Warpsmiths, a bizarre and very alien interstellar race. They remind me a bit of some similarly strange outer-space races that Swamp Thing encounters late in his story.


So, yeah... Miracleman isn't quite as mandatory as Moore's other work, but is still definitely worth checking out for anyone else who enjoys his writing or is interested in the history of comics. I'll probably pick up the second volume after it comes out later this year, and hopefully continue on to the stretch that Neil Gaiman wrote.

Speaking of comics: Guardians of the Galaxy is really, really good! Like almost everyone else, I hadn't even heard of these characters before the movie came out. Honestly, that might have helped. People already have preconceived notions about how, say, Spiderman or Batman are supposed to look and behave, and may get distracted or irritated if a movie strays too far from that baseline. But I have absolutely no idea how, say, Drax the Destroyer is supposed to behave, so the filmmaker has much more leeway in crafting the character to the movie and not the other way around. In any case: it was a really fun movie that combined beautifully imaginative sci-fi settings, quippy humor, and a strong sense of camaraderie and adventure.

I think that's it for now. I'm about 200 pages into S and 2/3 of the way through a replay of Dragon Age 2, so expect posts on those in the not-too-distant future, as well as the Murakami. Cheers!

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