In Appreciation – Brian K Vaughan

Brian K Vaughan writes some of the most convincing, funny, and moving dialogue in comics today.  I’m starting there because he’s one of the most interesting and frustrating comic writers.  Moreso even than Grant Morrison.

Vaughan doesn’t rely on being impenetrable, like Morrison.  Nor does he consistently go for the weird, or the gross-out, like Ellis, or Ennis.  Brian K Vaughan is a simple, straight-forward author who writes intriguing plots, excellent dialogue, and never comes right out and tells you what the fuck is going on!

That said, he’s my favorite author of monthly comics.  I followed Ex Machina from issue 30, until its conclusion at issue 50, and I’ve been picking up the singles of Saga since issue 1 (though it was sold out until I was able to pick up issue 3!) and… that’s all I’ve really picked up from comic stores on a monthly basis.  That should tell you how high I hold Vaughan’s work as a writer.

Hell, I’m even buying his digital-only comic series Private Eye and I never purchase digital content with my own money (a gift card? maybe… a free download with a movie I bought? sure!).  Given the pay-what-you-want structure behind Private Eye (even nothing!), the series is easily worth the money every month(ish) they release a new issue.

But what are the best things Brian K Vaughan has done?  He’s been busy since 1996 and has written for Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine, and Doctor Strange for Marvel.  Vaughan spent time at DC working on Batman and Wonder Woman.  He’s also done Swamp Thing for Vertigo and a veritable crapton of stuff as an independent creator of comics properties.  Below I’ve compiled a Top 5 list of my favorite Brian K Vaughan titles.

5. Pride of Baghdad (2006), Illustrated by Niko Henrichon

Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad tells the story of a pride of lions that escaped from a Baghdad zoo during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.  I went into this graphic novel not knowing what to think… and it was a really fantastic allegory.

Vaughan manages to portray the suffering of a country with lions people! And Henrichon’s art also manages to convey a humanity and a beauty, even amongst the darkness of war-torn Iraq. Definitely a must-read!

4. Ex Machina (2004-2010), Illustrated by Tony Harris et al.

Ex Machina is an excellently weird mash-up of science fiction and political commentary that would probably be higher on my list if it weren’t for a fairly disappointing ending.  The story follows Mitchell Hundred, the sitting Mayor of New York who was previously a superhero known as The Great Machine.

As The Great Machine, Hundred could communicate with machines, which made his jetpack\ray-gun set-up pretty much ideal… except for the fact that he’s not very skilled.  His career as a superhero is over before it begins… until he stops the second plane from flying into the World Trade Center, an act that catapults him to the Mayor’s house.

The story jumps back and forth in time so that each issue generally starts with a brief flash-back of Hundred’s time as The Great Machine, then following up with a scene from his life as Mayor.  The dichotomy is done very well and Vaughan is able to strike a great balance between superhero antics and political satire.

A great series that would be made greater if it was kind enough to give you more answers when you get to the end.  I know that’s kind of his thing, but… this was a lot more frustrating than the end of Y The Last Man.  Still, a well written mash-up of political intrigue, superhero pathos, and sci-fi madness.

3. Runaways, Illustrated by Adrian Alphona, et al. 

Runaways is, above all else, a whole lot of fun.  A simple story of a group of teens who find out that their parents are the head of an evil secret society called “The Pride” and go on the run to try to fight against the injustice their families want to bring down on Los Angeles.

The only real downside to this series for me is that it is a Marvel title, meaning that it has to tie into the Marvel Universe.  The guest spots with Captain America and Wolverine don’t bug me as much as my general confusion that comes from years of not reading much in the way of Marvel comics at all.

Even with that confusion, the series is worth reading.  Vaughan’s dialogue is (of course) snappy and witty and it is definitely the most fun comic of his that I’ve read.  Beatles references are fast and furious as well, and Vaughan’s not afraid to tug on some heartstrings… In fact, I haven’t read Joss Whedon’s continuation because of how badly Vaughan broke my heart…

2. Saga (2012-present) Illustrated by Fiona Staples

This may be unfair as the series is still in progress (it currently is on a brief hiatus at issue 12), but it is really, really fantastic.  The emotional tie-in is there from the get-go and Fiona Staples is doing such stellar work that I’m willing to call this one right now.

Thus far Saga tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko, two lovers from two different alien races.  They’re on the run from all sorts of people who want them dead… and they’re bringing their newborn child along.  Think “space opera Romeo & Juliet” but with main characters who aren’t completely insufferable twats.

The next issue comes out in about a month and I’m super-excited!!!

1. Y: The Last Man, Illustrated by Pia Guerra et al.

If Runaways broke my heart, Y The Last Man shattered it and turned it to dust.  Lots of people will complain about the lack of a clear explanation by the end.  Heck, it certainly frustrated me not that long ago.  And it still does.

But I don’t think the plague that wipes out all men is the point of the story.  I mean… that’s just the impetus for Yorick to get off his ass and make something of himself.  The plague drives Agent 355 and Yorick together, but their story that comes after it is so much more interesting than any explanation for the plague could be.  It happened and the world moved on.

But the ending… Oh, the ending.  I’m not going to spoil it.  I know the series is old at this point and if you haven’t read it, you should have… blah blah blah.  But I just can’t.  The last few issues are precious and really need to be experienced with no hint of what’s to come. But when you’re finished reading the series… come back here and we can have a nice cry together.

This list is obviously only including Vaughan’s creator-owned properties.  His Batman stories are just OK, his Wolverine mini-series is decent, his Mystique run is pretty great, and his run on Swamp-Thing would have been better if it hadn’t been cut off at issue 20… Well, maybe.  It definitely cuts off too abruptly.

What’s next?  Hopefully not another list!  I’ve recently finished Doughnut by Tom Holt, Silver Linings Playbook, Gaiman’s new one, and I’m just digging into The Shambling Guide to New York City.  Yay reading!

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In Appreciation – John Fante

College is where I made many of the literary connections that have come to shape not only my reading tastes, but also my development as a person…  Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Naylor, Hubert Selby Jr, and others. I’ve said that before college, I was mostly mired in a sea entertaining-but-mostly-brain-dead slop… Dean Koontz and other pop-lit travesties that I’m not mostly ashamed to have wasted my time on.

Even into my freshman year, a newly kindled interest in T.S. Eliot and my first of three attempts at reading Ulysses (a-ha ha ha, someday, right?) weren’t enough to completely break me from my old reading tendencies.

Then, in a story I’m fairly certain I’ve related before, I was introduced to John Fante in the fall of 2002.  In an AOL Chat Room, of all places.  Some random young woman from Italy told me that, even though I’d never heard of him, he was the greatest author in the English language, and was revered as a god in parts of her home country.

While I still doubt the veracity of her second claim, but I cannot say enough how much I love Fante’s prose.  Every time I read the opening chapters of Ask The Dust, I get chills down my spine.  Every time.  I could pick it off the shelf, flip to a random page, and find a passage that will give me the same reaction.

Before even getting into novel-writing, though, John Fante built up a helluva reputation as a short story writer.  His first, and most frequent, publisher was HL Mencken’s American Mercury, which published “Altar Boy” in August 1932, a full six years before his first novel was published.  Three collections of Fante’s short stories exist: Dago Red (1940), The Wine Of Youth (1985, comprising Dago Red and some later stories), and The Big Hunger (2000).

After years of short story writing, Fante hit the scene with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), which was also the first time readers met Arturo Bandini.  A great first novel, but not nearly as polished, sparse, and beautiful as Ask The Dust (1939).  Ask The Dust is by far his most well-known… and his best written novel.

But Ask The Dust was not the huge success Fante wanted it to be.  His publisher, Stackpole & Sons, published an unauthorized version of Mein Kampf and was sued by Hitler.  Seriously, what an asshole, right?  All of Stackpole’s advertising budget went into their defense fund and Fante’s sophomore novel was limited to only about 3000 copies.

Frustrated, Fante found his way into writing for Hollywood.  The easy writing and easy money appealed to Fante.  His letters indicate that he intended to write long enough to make enough money to support a family.

More than a decade after Ask The Dust flopped, Fante wrote Full of Life (1952).  The novel was published in Reader’s Digest and was sold to Hollywood and made into a movie starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte.  The money from this project bought Fante a house in Malibu while he continued to toil away in Hollywood, occasionally shooting off a short story, or newspaper op-ed piece.

Before his death in 1983, Fante only published two more novels:  The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977) and Dreams From Bunker Hill (1982).  Dreams From Bunker Hill brings Arturo Bandini back, after an absence of more than forty years.  Even though the novel was dictated to his wife, Joyce, the classic Fante prose is there.

Fante’s life was never particularly easy.  He grew up with an alcoholic father, never reached the literary successes he thought he should have, often hated himself for sucking a the easy teat of Hollywood, and only started receiving literary recognition after years of his own alcoholism had afflicted him with diabetes and eaten away his vision and his legs.

But reading Dreams From Bunker Hill… you can tell he remembers the good, early days.  The hungry days when he was starving, living in a filthy hotel and wondering where his rent money would come from.  The honesty and passion in his prose, especially when returning to his greatest creation, is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

Much thanks has to go to the authors Charles Bukowski and Ben Pleasants for their work in attempting to get Fante republished.  Ben Pleasants did a series of interviews with Fante in the late 70s which was then published as a short piece in the LA Times in July 1979.  This attention, coupled with Bukowski’s attempts at bringing Fante’s works back, are the reason why any random person can find Fante’s works without spending hundreds of dollars on editions from the 40s and 50s.

Bukowski referred to Fante as a god, a titan of fiction, and name dropped him consistently in his poetry and once in his novel Women (1978).  It was this novel that made Bukowski’s editor, John Martin, question about John Fante.  Bukowski found a copy of Ask The Dust for Martin to read, and Martin made every effort to get Fante’s work back in print.

Bukowski even wrote an introduction to the Black Sparrow Edition of Ask The Dust.  When I read it, I had no idea who either Bukowski or Fante were, but I knew I held a special novel in my hands.  And when I had finished the book, I knew for certain that I was holding a treasure of literature.

I knew I had to tell people.

I told as many people as would listen in college.  I even wrote an essay for a writer’s conference just so I could awaken more people to the brilliance of Fante’s work.  If you read nothing else, you should read Ask The Dust.  Fante packs so much into such a short novel that you’ll wonder how he did it.

Central to the story is Fante’s love for the city of Los Angeles, and the empathy and compassion he feels for the people struggling to make it on a day-by-day basis in the underside of the city.  Even today, Fante’s words echo and reverberate with meaning and potency.

READ HIM!  You won’t be disappointed.

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In Appreciation – John Green

In an attempt to give myself a few more days to polish off a novel (or two) to talk about, especially in light of the fact that I really shouldn’t post about yet another comic book, I’ve decided to make a series of posts about authors I really rather enjoy.

There’s a lot of authors I’ve come to enjoy over the years.  I mean, duh.  Of course.  But there’s a huge number of authors who probably aren’t going to ever be a part of the national discussion re: literature.

There’s also authors that I’ve come to appreciate recently that I feel haven’t been adequately represented in my blog.  One of those authors is John Green.

I first discovered John Green about two years ago, when my boss wouldn’t stop talking about him.  But, like a fool, I didn’t read him at that point.  Still, she insisted that he was a great author.  Oh and he had a vlog with his brother.  Oh and he always says cool things like, “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome!” or DFTBA, for short.

Then came The Fault In Our Stars.  In addition to the heavy accolades, much of the first edition was signed by the author, which was an exciting prospect for a collector such as myself.  But, like a fool, I didn’t start reading John Green then, either.

A month after The Fault In Our Stars was released, when I had caught up on all my backlist, I wasn’t re-reading Sandman for the umpteenth time, and I was starved for something to read…  It was time for John Green.  I started with Paper Towns and read all but the last thirty pages in a single evening.

I was hooked!

But I resolved myself to not reading all his books as once.  I read The Fault In Our Stars, finally, in July, and stumbled on Looking For Alaska at the library in September. Finally, I bought the whole damn box set of John Green and finished An Abundance of Katherines and now I’ve completely caught up (well, excluding Let It Snow and Will Grayson, Will Grayson… but I’m at least done with everything that John Green wrote alone).

It isn’t hard for me to figure out why I like John Green so much.  It isn’t just that his dialogue is funny and clever (though it is).  It isn’t just the plots he writes that fit together so wonderfully (though they do).

I’ve said in previous posts that I enjoy when a writer is able to transport me back to my awkward, uncomfortable high school years… and John Green does this very well.  Most of his characters are socially awkward, slightly-to-very geeky, and uncommonly verbose and clever.

I was two of these things in high school.  Try to guess the two!

John Green’s characters remind me of the times during high school that I’d either a) remember forever or b) never remember.  Either way, I appreciate his insight into the psyche of teenagers… even if they’re often too clever for their own good.

Seriously, they’re incredibly funny, verbose, and well-read.  No teenager (maybe with few exceptions) has ever spoken like the teens in a John Green novel… yet they seem so honest, that I can believe they existed somewhere… just probably not in my high school.

And you know how I love lists!  So I’m going to do a quick round-up of John Green’s books… Here we go!

4. An Abundance of Katherines

This book is freshest in my mind, as I just finished it.  It stars a prodigy named Colin and a semi-strict Muslim named Hassan. Our two heroes go on a road trip (definitely a bit of a plot device in John Green books) and end up in the town of Gutshot, TN, a rural town claiming to be the burial site of Archduke Ferdinand.

The cause of this road trip to the middle of nowhere?  A broken heart, of course!  Colin is attempting to get over being dumped by yet another Katherine.  The nineteenth Katherine he has dated up to this point in his life, in fact.

Colin spends most of the novel attempting to write a theorem to predict how a relationship will end, which he ends up developing by the end of the book.  Does it work?  You’ll just have to read it and find out.

I will say that this is my least favorite novel.  It has the endearingly awkward characters and funny prose that I enjoy… but the plot is almost entirely predictable.  There’s a couple of surprises along the way, but the novel plays out much as I expected through-out, unlike my third pick…

3. Paper Towns

I already wrote a long-form review of Paper Towns almost a year ago, so I won’t be overly descriptive here.

This book was my first of John Green’s and the best part of it to me was just how unpredictable it was.  Margo’s dead!  No she isn’t! Maybe she is?  Maybe not? I JUST DON’T KNOW!

And that was great.  I’ll be sure to re-read this in the coming year.

2. The Fault In Our Stars

This book should, by all rights, be number 1.

But it isn’t.  And I don’t have a particularly good reason.  If you ask me in a week, maybe I’ll have reconsidered and switched the two.  But for now, The Fault In Our Stars just barely gets edged out by Looking For Alaska.

The book is just your typical love story… boy meets girl (at a cancer survivor meeting for teens), boy and girl bond over reading, boy and girl fall in love…

You know.  That old chestnut.

With alternating humor and sadness, John Green tells the story of Hazel and Augustus (Gus) and their experience with young love.  I was skeptical… I mean, kids with cancer?  Come on!  But Green’s talent allows him to tell a story without being too maudlin, or saccharine.

A touching, wonderful tale that also includes a number of great allusions to much of the poetry I loved when I was younger.  In a week’s time, this could be number one again.

1. Looking For Alaska

The top two was a big debate for me.  This could easily have been The Fault In Our Stars. By all rights, it probably should be.  But there’s something about this story that speaks to me on a deeper level than The Fault In Our Stars.

In this story, Miles “Pudge” Halter is sent from his relatively normal high school in Florida, to Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama.  He rooms with a guy named Chip who is nicknamed “The Colonel” and finds himself inextricably infatuated with a young woman named Alaska Young.

The book has two sections: Before and After.  Without delving into spoilers… Green really blindsides you with the “after” portion.  He builds up what you think it’ll be and then… BAM! Unexpected, heartbreaking, and it comes off without a hitch.

After this post, I may do another “In Appreciation” post… but by then I may also have finished either Fobbit, That’s Not A Feeling, or Boy Meets Boy.  Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get into Matt Fraction’s entirely too great Invincible Iron Man.  Seriously, best superhero comic I’ve read in the last year (sorry Ultimate Spider-Man!).

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