Category Archives: alternate history

Novels about other ways history might have turned out.

Review 223: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

LL 223 - Kavalier and ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I have long been a reader of comic books, as you probably know by now if you’ve been following my reviews. Ever since I was a kid, comic books have been there, reliably giving me my costumed heroes and world-beating wonders, storylines that wrapped themselves up in a few issues or less. I could – and still can – recite the secret origins and backstories for hundreds of characters at the drop of a hat. [1] The comics universe was a place where I would gladly live, assuming the powers and physique came with it.

What I didn’t know anything about, during those formative years, was the actual creators of comics. It wasn’t until I started to really pay attention that I noticed who the writers and artists were, and names like John Byrne, George Perez, Dick Giordiano, John Ostrander and their colleagues came to have meaning for me. I was soon able to see a little better the work that went into making comics, and the art that doing so required.

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

What took me longer to learn, however, was the history of comic books, and how all of these wonderful worlds came to be. The history of comics, as it turned out, is a fascinating story full of brilliant characters, amazing achievements, jaw-dropping betrayals, and vast shifts in cultural and literary attitudes. Names like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster – these were not the names I grew up with, but they are the ones who made my childhood possible.

Michael Chabon has managed to give us a glimpse into that history through his book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a history of comic books from a slightly different point of view.

The titular characters, Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, are cousins from opposite ends of the world. Kavalier, a young Jew from Czechoslovakia, has escaped certain death at the hands of the Nazis and come to America to seek his fortune. Sam Clay is a young man of great ambition, but few means. Apart, they are lost and wandering, but together they become a force that changes culture as they know it.

Stan "The Man" Lee

Stan “The Man” Lee

Armed only with a few ideas, bravado, and a good helping of talent, Sam and Joseph break into the newborn world of superhero comic books, creating a character that catches the imagination of readers all over the country. Soon, the Escapist – a master of the art of escapology – is popular enough to rival Superman, and has the potential to make Sam and Joe very rich men.

What follows is a complex, interwoven dual biography as the team of Kavalier and Clay find fame, break up, find love, risk death, and eventually settle into something resembling happiness over the course of several decades. Along the way, the complicated and adventurous history of comic books is a constant in their lives, from the heady days of wartime superheroes to the dark era of Senate hearings and Frederic Wertham’s crusade against the comics.

As one might expect from Chabon, it’s a narrative that covers a lot of ground. It wanders and moves about, going off into places that the reader might not expect, from an Antarctic military base to a men’s retreat on a posh Long Island estate. In that sense, you would think it would be heard to pin down what this book is actually about. It’s about family and friendship, it’s about art and creativity and risking everything for the one big chance at success. It’s about facing your fears and accepting your choices. It’s about so many things, all at once.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

But what it’s most about is freedom. With the character of the Escapist as the book’s central metaphor, we watch a cast of characters search for freedom. It might be political freedom as Joe tries to get his family out of Europe, or creative freedom as Sam looks for a way to make the ideas in his head into real things. It’s freedom from the restraints of a publisher, and from the responsibilities that come with being a friend and a partner. Everyone in this book is searching for freedom at one time or another, and those searches are neither easy nor short.

There is a certain quality to Chabon’s writing that I wish I could emulate, and the problem is that I can’t say exactly what that quality is. Perhaps it is the way he selects details that so perfectly illustrate a character. Perhaps it’s turns of phrase that linger in the mind, or moments of natural emotion that might have you smiling or worried or – if there’s some dust in the room perhaps – wondering where you put your handkerchief. The characters are vivid and real and interesting, as is the world they live in. His use of detail, his manipulation of both time and space through the use of flashback scenes, make the book great entertainment.

250px-Michael_Chabon_Presents_the_Amazing_Adventures_of_the_Escapist_01It’s not perfect, certainly – there are places where the book slows down, and you want the focus to return to one of the other characters, to examine a new question, but those moments of clear beauty make it all worth it to me. What it all amounts to is a group of wonderful characters who are all looking to find a place where they can settle down and stop escaping from themselves.

—-
“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
– Kornblum, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
—-
[1] The Boyfriend has learned to be wary of asking me about comics. If I’m not careful and very, very succinct, he’ll just walk away while I’m still talking…

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Filed under adventure, alternate history, comic books, family, friendship, Michael Chabon, super-heroes

Review 183: Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”

There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.

Enter Craig Thompson and Habibi

It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.

The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.

This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.

In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.

The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.

It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.

The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.

It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.

And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.

That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?

I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.

What I do know, however, is that he did a ton of research to make this book, and it shows primarily in the art and the stories that are told as the book progresses.

The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.

It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.

On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.

———-
“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27

All illustrations by Craig Thompson

Habibi on Wikipedia
Craig Thompson on Wikipedia
Habibi on Amazon.com
The Habibi homepage
Craig Thompson’s homepage

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Filed under alternate history, art, Craig Thompson, fantasy, friendship, gender, graphic novel, identity, Islam, religion, sexuality

Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

———————————
“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
——-

[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 99: Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

History is like an exquisite jewel. It has many facets, and it will glitter differently depending on the point of view of the person looking at it. We see it change as we shift, as we shine the light differently upon it, but for the most part, we confine ourselves to a few simple views of history and convince ourselves that what we see is the truth of what the gem is.

But what happens when we remove the jewel from its setting and look at the faces we have never before seen? In that case, a whole new history may emerge, one that we find difficult to understand or even believe.

Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. We all think we know who he was: a hard-working, honest young man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, became President, saved the Union, and was assassinated for his troubles. Perhaps no other President in American history has been as carefully scrutinized and examined as Lincoln. You would think we had nothing left to learn about him.

You would be wrong.

You don’t know about the vampires.

From the early days of the United States, the vampires have been there. They were there when the first ships pulled into Virginia, when the nation won its independence from Britain, and when the nation went west. They had their hands in the growth of the nation from day one, playing a long-term game to build a vampire paradise far from Europe, where the people there were wise to their evil and knew how to destroy them. Vampires were something that had always been talked about in the early days of American settlement. Strange tales of people dying mysteriously, sometimes their faces locked in a grim visage of fear. But no one really believed them of course. I mean really – vampires? Please.

The truth was, however, that they were out there. They were lurking in the shadows, waiting and planning and laying the groundwork for the land they would eventually come to rule.And from his youth, Abraham Lincoln was pulled into their nefarious scheme.

Born the son of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, Abraham suffered from his share of the vicissitudes of 19th-century life. Rural poverty was rampant, and his father was not the most skilled of laborers or diligent of workers. But he loved his children, as did his wife. That made it all the harder when those children started dying of a strange wasting disease. When his wife followed suit, it was tragedy upon tragedy. For Abraham, it was the beginning of a need for vengeance that would drive his entire life.

As he grew up and discovered the existence of vampires, he became a skilled and terrifying vampire hunter. He was so good at his vocation that a dissident group of vampires, led by a man named Henry Sturges, chose him as their instrument against their own kind. With Henry’s guidance, Lincoln began to cut a swathe through the vampires in the United States.

But being the chosen one, as Buffy would attest, is not all it is cracked up to be. Plagued with doubts and depression, Lincoln tried many times to cast off the mantle that had been thrust upon him. He married, went into business, and did his best to live the normal life he thought he deserved. But destiny had other plans. The vampires were preparing their endgame – the establishment of a nation built on the backs of slaves, where humans would be cattle to the vampires. In time, they would take the United States and use it as a staging ground to spread their sickness around the world. They had to be stopped, and Henry and his fifth column knew only one man who could stop them.

Abraham Lincoln, the greatest vampire hunter the nation had ever known.

Written by the same author who did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this book was far more entertaining. Probably because I like Lincoln a whole lot more than I like Jane Austen, but probably because he did a much better job at integrating the Lincoln we know with the Lincoln he had created. He invents a vampire-system that would explain how they could manage to maintain influence over humans, and presents a reasonably plausible explanation for how vampires could be at the root of the Civil War.

More importantly, he keeps his Lincoln true to the character of the real Lincoln – a complex, driven man, beset by tragedy, lifted by hope, and motivated by a duty to a greater good. Perhaps a bit romanticized, of course, but we all romanticize Lincoln. It’s hard not to. What’s important is that we see a character who tries to fight his destiny, but in the end realizes that there are bigger things at stake than his own happiness. He has a nation to save and evil to defeat, and even if it should cost him his life, he will see that evil eradicated.

The only thing that bothered me was a bit of unfinished business in the book. The conceit of it was that Seth Grahame-Smith had been given the complete set of Lincoln Diaries – the real ones, mind you – by Sturges, so that he could tell the true tale. According to the introduction, this was a project that cost him his job, his marriage, and nearly his life, and after a fairly dramatic and mysterious introduction, we never hear anything from Smith as the author again. I would have liked for him to have explained some of the things he merely alluded to in the introduction – especially the eleven “individuals” he was instructed to talk to over the course of writing the book, but he didn’t. It’s a little detail, but one I wish he had taken care of.

It’s a fun read, good for any vampire/Lincoln lover, or aficionado of alternate history.

————————————————–
“I can see a man’s purpose, Abraham. It is my gift. I can see it as clearly as I see you standing before me now. Your purpose is to fight tyranny… and mine is to see that you win.”
– Henry Sturges

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter on Amazon.com

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, alternate history, Civil War, horror, Seth Grahame-Smith, vampires