Romance, Westerns, Superheros – DC Comics’ SOLO Collection

I can safely say that, as of late, DC Comics has been a bit disappointing.  Sure, they’ve got Sandman: Overture starting up in October and some Vertigo titles are still pretty great (I’m looking at you Unwritten!), but as a whole… The company seems to be, creatively, headed for a valley.

The New 52 is sputtering like an octogenarian gumming his way through breakfast, Before Watchmen was a horrendous misfire that didn’t stir up sales as much as controversy, and their new plan of having a Frank Miller-style battle between Batman and Superman is… distressing to say the least.

But, after nearly seven years, DC Comics has finally collected their bi-monthly series Solo into a very nice Deluxe hardcover.  How does this collection fare?  Read on, read on…

Written and Illustrated by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Michael Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Damion Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy
DC Comics
June 5, 2013
568 Pages

Solo The Deluxe Edition Cover

Solo, when originally released, was published bi-monthly and done as a sort of artist’s showcase with some of the finest illustrators working in comics.  Just check out the list above and you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to enjoy in this volume.  And the best part?

It isn’t all DC continuity!  In fact, probably less than half of the stories had anything to do with DC Comics characters.  Batman shows up quite a bit, as to be expected, but that’s about it.

The biggest surprise was a brief story written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen and starring Boston Brand, the Deadman (proving once again that the Brits will invariably go ass over elbow for the Silver Age of comics), but Darwyn Cooke’s entire issue was top-to-bottom fantastic, Tim Sale’s issue is pretty great (even with the terribly uneven Jeph Loeb), and Sergio Aragones is (expectedly) fantastic.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, at least for me.

Despite how cool it was to see some Western comics, many of those kind of blend together for me and are, at the end of the day, forgettable.  The same goes for the adventure comics as well.

Similarly, some of the art just didn’t do it for me.  Artists like Brendan McCarthy, whose cover art I loved in the Vertigo Shade, The Changing Man series, was too weird.  Much of looked to me like Grant Morrison fucked R. Crumb in a psychedelic love-nest.  But it didn’t work for me.  I’m sure someone who actually knows anything about art would have found more to enjoy.

But if I were to whip out my biggest complaint, it would be that there’s a very small amount of female creators involved in the project.  None of the twelve issues focuses completely on any female artists.  Thankfully, Laura Allred shows up to assist in the writing and coloring of her husband Michael’s issue… But we couldn’t get Jill Thompson in there?  Amanda Conner, or Pia Guerra?  I know that much of comic books is (unfortunately) a man’s world, but certainly there could have been at least one female artist brought on board for this project.

Couldn’t there?

Despite this painful oversight, this still warrants a buy vote from me.  Michael Allred’s issue reads like a bizarre love-letter to the Silver Age of comics (and his story “Batman A-Go-Go!” is by far the best deconstruction of the character as it exists in a post-Miller world) and Darywn Cooke’s issue shows why he’s one of the best working in the business today.

Even with several of forgettable stories, this is a strong collection with a good mixture of serious, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking comics that show that comic books are more than just muscular dudes in tights.

Sometimes, it’s also Batman doing the batusi.

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Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source:

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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There’s A Downstairs In Everybody – Making Sense of The World With Sandman

I wasn’t sure I was going to come back this time.

My brain’s always so fried this time of year, but I had a whole slew of posts lined up and ready to go (well, in my head at least) and was all ready to have a productive, if predictable  December.  Blogging about comics (maybe finishing A Naked Singularity) and just kinda coasting through the rest of the year.

And then on December 11th, there was a shooting at the mall I work at.

I came out of the back room around 2:20.  Maybe twenty seconds later, I heard what sounded like a series of electrical shorts.  Maybe a clumsy electrician dropping a pack of light bulbs.  Somewhere between eight and ten pops, echoing from down the way.

Just seconds after that, I heard screaming and people were running.  A couple of employees and I herded some customers into the receiving area.

I then received a call on my store phone telling me to go close the gates to the mall.  I’m somewhat ashamed that someone had to tell me, but I’m also sane enough to realize that I was in a bit of a panic at that point.

Gates closed, we made sure the store was clear and retreated to the break room for just under two hours while we waited for the police to clear the mall itself.

Two people were killed that day.  In the three weeks since the shooting, I haven’t been over to where it happened in the food court.  In fact, I’ve only been out into the mall just once.  Having sat waiting for the mall gates to close, I feel as if I’ve spent enough time in those areas for a bit.

I pretty much dropped most of what I was doing with my life at that point.  I stopped reading the couple of novels I was reading, I stopped work on crafting a Christmas gift for my wife, and I generally found myself to be more tired and irritable.  Especially when customers were back in the store and complaining about the long lines, or long waits for returns.

But, thanks to an excellent team of co-workers, I’ve successfully navigated another holiday season.  At this point, I’m hoping it’ll be my last retail holiday season, but… I’m not making any decisions at the moment.

In the interim, my reading has been two things: Matt Fraction’s fantastic Invincible Iron Man comic (seriously, I love this!) and another revisit to the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Why Sandman?  Well, in addition to it being the first long-form, on-going comic series that I loved… I always turn to it for good quotes.  Usually, I’ll find something in it (or in one of the two Death miniseries) that will help me with whatever I’m struggling with.  That and I can count on finding something new that I missed before.  A panel of art, a word or phrase… sometimes bits of foreshadowing, or callbacks that I didn’t recognize the last time I read it.

But there’s always something.

So I decided… I’m going to read Sandman again… but this time, in whatever order I come to it.  So I pulled the second volume of Absolute Sandman off the shelf and read the “Game of You” arc first.  I’ve loved this arc the most since I first read the series.  In fact, just before the following picture was taken, I thanked Neil for writing it and told him it was my favorite arc in the entirety of Sandman.



So Sandman it is.  I’ve learned that there’s a TON of people at my work who love Gaiman himself and Sandman more specifically.  I’ve learned that the Absolute copies of the series are just as heavy as I remember them… and just as great.  I still love the recoloring!  I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn about just about anything…

I’ve also learned that there are going to be triggers for me.  Putting up, or down, the mall gates.  Seeing groups of ambulances congregated in the same places.  Hearing fireworks outside of the house…

I may have learned more.  Right now I’m content with the feeling that things are getting better in my head.  I feel more well aligned than I have in more than a month.  I feel more positive about my life, my body, and my soul.  Most of all…I feel ready to take a short stroll around the mall…

Thanks Neil!  For Sandman, American Gods… pretty much everything.  Thank you for helping me in getting my mind refocused and back to as normal as I can.

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All Trenchcoat and Cigarettes and Arrogance – The End of Hellblazer

DC Comics just announced that they were cancelling Hellblazer after 25 years of publishing (300 issues, some mini-series, a few original graphic novels, and one really awful film) to add the character of John Constantine back into the DCU via a New 52 series (is it really that New after more than a year?  Maybe? OK… why not?).

I’m trying to be upset about this, but… I haven’t been completely keeping up with the series, but the issues\arcs I’ve read over the last few years have been hit-or-miss.  I also don’t have the same love for the series that I do for, say, Sandman.  If they announced they were rebooting Sandman… I’d be pissed.  Here, I’m more curious to see how it all goes down.

That said, there’s a lot to celebrate in the twenty-five year run that Hellblazer’s had.  And the most important aspect thing to talk about is where it all got started…

Way back in the late 1980s, Karen Berger, an editor at DC Comics, culled together some of the most brilliant writers from across the pond to write for DC and try to repeat the success that DC Comics found with Alan Moore’s stellar run on Swamp Thing.

These writers, then unknown, are now a Who’s Who of comic writers: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan.  A second group brought us both Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis (among others).  Another name, not quite so well-known, is Jamie Delano.

Delano hasn’t gone on to the same acclaim that others like Gaiman and Morrison have… but his run on Hellblazer was instrumental in the creation of Vertigo Comics, a DC Comics imprint that also housed Sandman, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol.

In 1988, Jamie Delano was handpicked to be the guy who wrote a newer iteration of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing character, John Constantine.  The character of Constantine was a big mystery… a modern-day wizard in a trenchcoat who was unafraid to manipulate the Swamp Thing into doing what needed to be done… and was also unafraid to sacrifice others to save the world from evil.

When the series began in January 1988, fans were in for one hell of a ride.

Though you could tell that the deaths of those close to him was affecting in the Swamp Thing stories, in Hellblazer Delano finally pulls back the curtain on an incident that occurred in Newcastle, that was only hinted at in the pages of Swamp Thing.

At Newcastle, we discover that Constantine was responsible for a demon possessing and killing a young girl… and Delano shows how much that failure affects the character.  His incarceration in a mental institution and subsequent, continual feelings of guilt give Constantine a much more tragic backstory and instantly make him both more likable and more despicable.

In the follow story, “The Fear Machine,” also by Delano, is one of the best of the first fifty or so issues.  There’s magic, mystery, romance, and horror (like much of Delano’s run!) and the length, a bulky 9 issues, lets Delano play a longer game… and the pay-off is great.

But the best of Delano’s work on Hellblazer is, for me, in “The Family Man” story.  Some of this comes from the connection to Gaiman’s “The Doll’s House” arc in Sandman, but the story itself is creepy, suspenseful, and just great from start to finish.

The best news?  All of Delano’s stuff is collected in trades, so they’re easy to track down and read.  Other highlights are issue #27 by Gaiman and McKean, Garth Ennis’ run, the bits of Warren Ellis that I’ve read, and pretty much every issue I’ve read by Mike Carey (but I haven’t read all of Carey’s or Ellis’ runs, so… y’know, don’t bit my head off).

OK, I know… I”ve been doing a lot of comics lately.  I will try to remedy that.  In fact, right now I’m off to read more of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and after that… well I’m midway through Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run, I’m about to begin on the new book from Danielewski (even with how disappointingly gimmicky Only Revolutions was), and… God Help Me… David Barker’s Death At The Flea Circus.

God Help Me because I can’t believe I’m starting another book… Death At The Flea Circus is actually quite good (and I’ll have a post about it at some point in the “near” future).

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10 Books I Wish I Could Read For The First Time… Again!

Inspired by an older post on one of my favorite blog reviewers (seriously, Greg Zimmerman over at The New Dork Review Of Books does fantastic work! And he has great literary taste too!), I’ve decided to do a pair of lazy posts in a row.


I expect to be back in 3-5 days with a new post about… something a little more thoughtful than a Top Whatever list. But I make no promises.

So… Inspired by this post, I’m going to briefly discuss the top books I wish I could re-read again… for the first time.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children is one of my favorite novels… and I’m fairly certain I’ll never read it again.  I had to read it for a multicultural lit class in college and loved it… But I think I only loved it because the class went over every nuance in the novel, every metaphor… just exhaustive.

And every time I’ve tried to re-read it… I’ve failed.  Maybe next year?

9. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Much like The NDRoB, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy reading this book whenever I try to revisit it.  After being frightened to the point of quitting several times through college, when I finally finished House of Leaves… I felt accomplished.

It was scary, mind-bending, and almost indescribable.  And I highly recommend it for everyone.  Just be warned that you may not want to reread it.

8. Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I distinctly remember this novel being one of the ones that convinced me that I had made the right choice in being an English Lit major.  Despite the Oprah Book Club designation… this book excited me.

I was laid out, sick as a dog at a girlfriend’s house and I didn’t feel like doing anything but finishing up this novel, even though the class I was in had only been assigned the first six chapters.  I finished it in a single sitting and took another drive at finishing it.

7. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I made the almost unforgivable mistake of watching the movie first.  It wasn’t an intentional decision, but it happened.  I’m not proud of it, but there you are.  For awhile, I preferred the film, until I really dug in and got more of the subtext of the novel.

The infection is so bad that any time I read anything by HST, I usually end up with Johnny Depp’s voice in my head instead.

6. Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Simply put, I was too young when I read this.  I was 20, thought I knew everything, and didn’t fully appreciate the novel for its humor, or its brilliance.

The strong, short sentences.  The heartbreaking story.  The man, the myth… Chinaski.

Boy I sound like a tool…

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This was one of the first comics I read when I was trying to get more into the medium, and I was completely blown away.  I’ve read it nearly half a dozen times in just a few years, but I always get more out of it.  I especially love rereading the fourth issue, when Doctor Manhattan contemplates his past, present, and future from Mars.

Just the same, the shocking reveal of the unlikely villain, the moment you find out who Rorschach really is… the giant squid… all of that.  I’d love to experience all over again, especially with my now greater appreciation for comic books.

4. Catch-22 by Joseph Hellar

If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I love Catch-22, that Hellar’s novel is one of my favorites.  And that is true.  Mostly.

But I’ve also never successfully re-read the novel since I first read it about a decade ago.  For some reason, every time I sit down to try to read it again, I just can’t do it.  And I don’t know why.  Maybe the timeline confuses, maybe I don’t like the characters as much as I used to, maybe I just plain don’t enjoy the novel any more… but I’d love to read it fresh and unspoiled again, to try to recapture that magic.

3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists

There’s little I can say about this except that it was hard to choose between Sandman and Neverwhere.  I (obviously) love Neil Gaiman’s work, but I don’t think I fully appreciated Sandman when I first read it.  I sort of liked the first volume (and loved loved LOVED “The Sound of Her Wings”), but I found it difficult to keep up with the interlacing stories.

I know, I know.  I think I made it harder than it was because it was a comic book.

Just the same, I’d love to experience the story all over again.  One of the finest fantasy tales in literature, graphic or otherwise.

2. The Instructions by Adam Levin

This behemoth of a novel was a serious project.  I got a copy from the library and had three weeks to finish it.  No renewals because the queue behind me was rather long. So I told myself: no video games, no TV, no dicking around with my phone, nothing.

And I did it.  I rocked it out in two solid weeks of reading and loved pretty much every moment.  A re-read would be great (maybe some day…), but to be reintroduced to all the characters… and to get a chance to experience the climactic and violent final third of the book for the first time… that would be simply divine.

1. Ask The Dust by John Fante

This is the book, for me.  Seriously, the book.  If I could read one, and only one, book for the rest of my life, it would be Ask The Dust.  After picking it up as a completely random recommendation from someone I met in an AOL chat room late one night in college, I fell in love with John Fante’s sparse, beautiful prose.

I wanted to live in that Los Angeles, with smoky hotel rooms, drunken-yet-lovable neighbors, wild Mexican women.  I wanted to be a starving artist with a threadbare suit, a typewriter, and a dream.

Most of all, I wanted to write like John Fante.  I wanted to infuse settings with character and depth, like he did for Los Angeles.  I still haven’t reached any level of success toward this goal in my fiction writing, but whenever I need inspiration, I just flip to a random page and read.  My breath still catches, my eyes well up, and I’m captured again.

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The Dark, Twisted Other… For Kids! Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask

Ok, so longest title ever, right?

And longest time ever for not actually making a post!

I know, I know, I said I was getting better.  And I am…  Probably.  Got this one ready to go with three more lined up that I hope to spread out over the next week… until I get too suspicious of the spell-checker doing a piss-poor job and just give up entirely.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been here before, you may not know that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  I like reading him, listening to him, and even recommending him at the book store where I work.

More than anything, I like to recommend him at the book store where I work.


A lot of it comes down to knowing I’ll be giving some lucky person their first Neil Gaiman experience.

Mine… was Neverwhere about four years ago.  After being badgered by friends for close to a decade, I finally decided to try him out and fell in booklust.  After four years, several novels, almost countless short stories, and seriously crazy amounts of comics… I still am.

And if you team Gaiman’s writing skill with the illustrious illustrations of Dave McKean… My head might well explode.  And MirrorMask is no exception.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Harper Collins
80 Pages
September 27, 2005

MirrorMask is one of several of Gaiman’s collaborations with McKean that is meant for children, joining Coraline and The Graveyard Book as one of my favorite children’s books from the last decade.

I will also come right out and say that if you’ve read any of Gaiman’s post-Sandman books, you really know what to expect up front… A child feels that he\she (in this case, a she named Helena) doesn’t fit in and wants to go on an adventure to some place else (in this case, the Real World, instead of the circus she works in), but eventually discovers that she was happier where she started out.

I think we’ve been over this before.  Hero’s journey, monomyth… ringing any bells?  Heck, we could even go German and add in the bildungsroman (and I will someday not transpose the “i” and the “u” in that word).

This is, basically, all Neil Gaiman does.  And he does such a damn good job that if you don’t like it, you can just get right the hell out of my blog right now.

All ten of you.

Anyway… Our story presents us with plucky heroine Helena, who wants to run away from the circus and, “join the Real World.”  Which is monstrously funny.  Don’t try to admit it isn’t.  I laughed.  Heartily, even!

The plot is everything you’d expect from a collaboration between this pairing.  It starts out sweet, adds some drama, lightens the mood ever so slightly before bringing. The. Hammer. Down.  And then we’re off to a magical dream land where everyone wears masks and the Prime Minister of this City of Light thinks Helena is evil.

But of course, it isn’t Helena.  It was her doppelgänger from the Shadow of Shadows known only as The Princess.  While searching for a special mask known as the MirrorMask, Helena and her erstwhile companion Valentine get into the normal scrapes…

They ride insulted library books to their destination.  They’re almost eaten by strange animals.  At which point, they’re saved by the pages of a Really Useful Book.  And, when things are at their darkest, the pair is saved by a flying tower (of course!).

All in all… I loved this book!  I will readily admit to being biased… Gaiman and McKean could collaborate on a project about the lesser known turds of the Amazon Basin and I would find it fascinating.

But for all the familiarity to the characters and the various tropes that Gaiman is so incredibly willing to fall back on… There’s a sweet little story about a girl growing up… paired with frightening illustrations of giant floating elephants, evil queens, and an entire world made up of people with masks who don’t look quite right…

If you’ve read the book… see the movie!  If you’ve seen the movie… read the book!  I read the children’s version (and loved it), but I’m also away of a twice-as-expensive adult version that contains a crapload of extra stuff, so… it is always good to have a dream to chase.

Or a nightmare…

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Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 6 – Scaring Kids… And Adults! #2 – The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
Harper Collins
320 Pages
September 30, 2008

I’m dispensing with the introduction on this post because… well, it was meant to be a part of the previous post on Coraline, but… then the monomyth took over and it went a bit overlong and I knew I had a bit to say about this book too, so… we’ve got our own post.

To start:  The Graveyard Book is a little bit scary. I would argue that it isn’t as scary as Coraline (which I finished in one sitting and found it difficult to sleep after reading).  The Graveyard Book is also a more mature book than Coraline in that a lot of the lessons presented are meant for older children (though they could certainly apply for younger children as well).  Similarly, the language used in the book is also aimed at older children, so keep that in mind if you’re considering this book for your little one.

As I stated in the Coraline post, what I particularly enjoy about these books is that Gaiman doesn’t shy away from difficult scenarios or situations.  To wit: the start of this novel has a mysterious man named Jack murdering our protagonist’s entire family.  Our protagonist, Bod, is but a baby (about a year old) who toddles away from the house and into a nearby graveyard.  The baby is taken in by a pair of ghosts who, with the help of the rest of the cemetery, raise him to adulthood.

I should say now that The Graveyard Book bears many similarities to another book with a similarly simplistic title, The Jungle Book.  For instance, the idea of a toddler being taken into the care of a non-human group that raises him.  And, like The Jungle Book, each chapter is a separate story (though all of the stories in Gaiman’s book have the same protagonist, unlike Kipling’s which have multiple).

Unlike Coraline where I felt the best part of the story was showing children that difficult situations can be overcome, the best part of The Graveyard Book is easily the heart.  The characters are easy to make an emotional connection with, especially Liza Hempstock (by far my favorite secondary character in the novel).

The good characters are good, the evil characters are evil and there isn’t really a lot of gray… and it works really well.  Instead of having some kind of sympathetic villain, we have Jack (or in reality, a whole group of Jacks, calling themselves the Jacks of All Trades).  They’re a large organization of people who are looking out for their own best interests and, through a series of murders, magic, and secret planning, are looking to keep it that way.

One thing I particularly enjoyed in the novel is how it treats creatures that would normally be frightening.  For instance, Bod’s guardian in the graveyard, Silas, is the only non-ghost that lives there.  Though it is never stated outright, the observant reader can easily intuit that he is a vampire.  Similarly, one of his teachers (Miss Lupescu) is a werewolf, and they are both part of a group called The Honour Guard who fight to protect the world when necessary (the group also includes a mummy and an ifrit, two other mythological creatures that could be scarier if they weren’t on the side of good).

In the end, though, much of what I appreciated in Coraline are the same things that I appreciated in The Graveyard Book.

Gaiman isn’t pulling punches just because he’s writing for children:  The book starts with a murder and has a lot of unscrupulous people (adults and children) who are trying to pull one over on Bod (or even trying to kill him), and there are many fearsome creatures that Bod encounters that wouldn’t be out-of-place in adult novels (though some are treated in a humorous way).

The two protagonists are also similar in that they generate a lot of sympathy for themselves.  Coraline is a stronger character, by far, but Bod pulls his own weight and it really is enjoyable to watch him grow up, and see him dealing with rather everyday ideas in a more fantastical way.  Each chapter is its own self-contained story and most can be read as a separate entity (though the penultimate chapter does require knowledge of the previous ones to make complete sense) and Bod is one of my favorite characters from children’s literature because I see a lot of myself in him (which is probably the point).

So that’s gonna tie up Neil Gaiman month here at Books & Bits.  The American Gods posting I was going to do just won’t fit in… so maybe next month, maybe later on in the summer.  April will bring Poetry Month, some bits to make up for missing Small Press Month here in March, and a feature or two one another favorite children’s author, John Bellairs.

From there?  The moon.  More books, more 8-Bit Rage… Even a book\video game double post of likes the world has never seen!