Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: Saga Volume 3

Saga, Volume 3Title: Saga Volume 3
Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrator: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: spoilers ahead for both this and the previous volumes. You have been warned.

Saga is one of those stories where I gobble the installments up like goldfish crackers — chowing down on handful after handful, aware that I’m nearing the end of the current supply. And then, when I do hit that end, I think to myself: that’s it?

When I read volumes 1 and 2 last year, they were so fresh and inventive that they kept me in a perpetual state of delight. I would make assumptions about the world of the story only to have those assumptions upended, like so:

  • This comic features people with horns and people with wings. That means that this must be an angels vs. demons kind of thing going on, right? Oh, and there’s a star-crossed couple, one angel and one demon, who have a kid, the existence of which poses a threat to both civilizations – does that mean it will be like Demonology 101? Cool! I love fantasy stories!
  • Oh wait, there’s an intergalactic war going on. That means it’s space opera, not a fantasy!
  • Oh wait, there’s this weird guy who looks human except for the fact that he’s got a TV for a head. Um…is this still space opera, or are we veering into satire?
  • Oh, and there’s an assassin who’s half-woman, half spider, and there’s a planet devoted solely to prostitution, and then there are…romance novels? And ghosts who wander around, showing off their viscera? And now there’s a giant talking cat who can only say something when it knows you’re lying?
  • Sweet lord, what the hell kind of world is this taking place in? And where can I get more?

Part of the fun of the first two volumes was seeing my SF reading protocols get tossed up and hurled at the wall to see what would bounce off and what would stick. Of course, there are the human elements of the story — Hazel’s retrospective narration, the amazing single-page panels used for emphasis, and Marko and Alana’s love story at the heart of it all.

But the third volume dispenses with a lot of the stuff-to-the-wall-throwing and instead tries to force a confrontation between all of the various parties at play — Marko and Alana’s family vs. Prince Robot vs. Gwendolyn and The Will and Slave Girl/Sophie. At first, I was looking forward to these confrontations. But then they got cut short and resolved too easily to be satisfying, like when Gwendolyn finally came face-to-face with Marko, her ex-fiance. I felt like this story was promising me I would climb Mount Everest, only to drop me off at the base of The Alps instead – still cool, but not as an extreme a trip as I was promised.

There’s a definite sense of table-setting coming into play with this volume. You’ve got the  introduction of the journalists chasing the clues that the government has hidden about Alana, Marko, and Hazel; the introduction of The Will’s sister; the kind-of-tacked-on burgeoning romance between The Will and Gwendolyn; and the introduction  of The Circuit, some kind of underground entertainment network that’s really an open secret.

This is all part-and-parcel with the fact that this is an ongoing series. The end is probably far away, since Brian K. Vaughan has stated that it will run longer than Y: The Last Man, which ran for 60 issues. My bet is that in the coming issues (which resume publication this month), Marko and Alana will join The Circuit and use their broadcasts as a way to inform the world about their relationship (and their daughter) by framing it as an anti-war allegory. But that is just what I want to happen. Staples and Vaughan have been very good at confounding my expectations so far.

That said, there are moments of beauty and grace in this volume, like when Sophie/Slave Girl and Lying Cat (Oh my god, can I tell you how much I love Lying Cat? I even have a shirt with her face on it!) share a moment on a hillside, with the former telling a series of truths and then a lie, only to have the latter interrupt with her trademark exclamation. Or when Marko’s mother, Klara, shares a conspiratorial moment with Oswald Heist over a board game. There are so many good moments here.

The problem, to me, is that these things are moments, not the sustained awesomeness of the opening volumes – the first of which rightly won the 2013 Hugo for Best Graphic Story. On it’s own, I would give Saga Volume 3 only 3 out of 5 stars. In context with the preceding volumes, though, I’m bumping my rating one higher. Here’s hoping that the next volume will get over the bump in the rode that this volume represents.

Book Review: Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon

Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a WeaponTitle: Hawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon
Author: Matt Fraction
Illustrators: David Aja, Javier Pulido, and Alan Davis
Format: Print
Publisher: Marvel
Rating: 3 out of 5

Despite my enjoyment of superhero-comic-inspired movies, I’m not a huge person for the comics themselves.  However, the buzz surrounding the new Hawkeye series has been pretty hard to ignore – it’s been praised elsewhere for its verve and playfulness. This book collects the first 5 issues of the series, as well as a tie-in issue from Young Avengers.

Playfulness I will definitely give this volume, but otherwise I’m a poor judge when it comes to books like these. I was spoiled last year by the balls-to-the-wall gonzo beauty and emotional heft of Saga volumes 1 and 2 last year (I am so happy it won the Hugo), so this is a big change of pace.

My Life as a Weapon follows the lives of Clint Barton, the Avenger known as Hawkeye, and Kate Bishop, his protege also known as Hawkeye. The two take part in the usual superhero escapades – falling off of buildings, fighting gangsters, thwarting evil plots, covering their own asses when things go south, etc – but their adventures are distinguished by a refreshing focus on the small scale. Clint goes into a seedy little warehouse casino, and after bullying a gangster, rescues a dog (aka: Pizza Dog) caught in the crossfire. Clint’s attempt to buy a classic muscle car from a pretty redhead turns into an all-out car-chase against even more gangsters. And so forth.

What really separates this book, though, is its experimentation with panel layout and narrative. Perhaps the best example of this is in issue #3, the one with the car chase. As the images show the story happening in chronological order, the narration from Clint reveals that this is all a flashback, and provides commentary upon the events in reverse chronological order. Interspersed throughout are small circular callout panels with close-ups and descriptions of the variety of arrows that Hawkeye uses – arrows that, of course, will come into play as the chase ensues.

I think the Young Avengers tie-in issue at the end is the weakest part of the book. The shift in tone between it (straightforward superhero’s-journey stuff, with a helping of romance) and Hawkeye proper (arch and kinetic) is profound. Ultimately, colour me intrigued about the series; I’m particularly looking forward to the Pizza-Dog-centric issue #11 when Volume 2 rolls around.

Up next: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Book Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun TanTitle: Tales from Outer Suburbia
Author: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

In a conversation published by the Guardian in 2011, Shaun Tan revealed that his original intention was not to become an illustrator, but a writer. However, his writing was poorly received, and he changed tracks when he realized that professional illustrators were in short supply in his home of Australia.

Thank god for that realization, because the world is a richer place for his whimsical, surreal, beautiful, heartbreaking drawings.

My first exposure to Tan’s work was about 4 years back when I read The Arrival. A story about one man’s life as he immigrates to a new land, it was remarkable because it was told entirely without words. The facial expressions of the main and supporting characters, as well as the detailed setting, were eloquent enough on their own.

Tales from Outer Suburbia doesn’t take quite the same tack, but the words that do exist here don’t crowd out the lush images. Instead, as Tan describes in the above-mentioned article, they are like “grout in between the tiles of the pictures.”

This book is a collection of illustrated short stories. Some are longer, like the one of the grandfather talking to his grandson about how he got married. Others are one-page vignettes, like the story of a bunch of neighbourhood dogs coming together to punish an abusive dog owner after his house burns down.

All are surreal in their own way, but my three favourites are of the longer variety. However, these stories, like the rest, are really brought to life by Tan’s drawings, especially the two-page spreads. In one, a garden of unearthly flowers grows from nutshells and bottlecaps inside a pantry cupboard. In another, a paper ball made of discarded poetry looms in the sky. In the third, an interdimensional doorway in an attic leads to a serene grove of trees.

These drawings made me ache with longing and delight. I wish I could live inside one of them for a day.

However, they need the stories to give them weight – to counterbalance the beauty with something more mundane. Luckily, Tan’s writing style is simple yet evocative. The narrative voice sounds natural and even somewhat blasé, which is what gives the pictures their impact.  Here’s an example of such writing, in a story about a sea animal suddenly showing up on a suburban front lawn:

The arrival of the rescue truck was an almost unwelcome interruption, with flashing orange lights and council workers in bright yellow overalls, ordering everyone to stand back. Their efficiency was impressive: They even had a special kind of hoist and a bath just big enough to comfortably hold a good-sized seagoing mammal. In a matter of minutes, they had loaded the dugong into the vehicle and driven away, as if they dealt with this sort of problem all the time.

The production values of this book are also excellent – but they really have to be, in order to be worthy of the drawings within it. Even the copyright page and the table of contents are done up to look like they’re part of the narrative. In fact, I was so caught up in the images that I didn’t even realize that the table of contents was one until I was nearly done the book.

All in all, I think this is a lovely book that builds upon Tan’s previous work, and presents a skewed world of whimsy that people of all ages will appreciate (in fact, I think it’s got many layers kids may not get upon the first reading) despite the name of a “kids” publisher being on the spine.

Book Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Title: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Author: Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I bought my copy of Fun Home at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a riotous celebration of the comic arts that happens at the Toronto Reference Library every May. This was around the same time that the book’s sequel, Are You My Mother? was published.

About the book: Alison Bechdel’s father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.

Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce – and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.

Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.

What I liked: Bechdel’s analysis of her and her father’s lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile’s distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel’s depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals – nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.

What I disliked: I don’t know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” but Fun Home‘s authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household – indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds – but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author’s explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.

The verdict: Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I’ve read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn’t fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father’s death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it.

Up next: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Correction, July 8th: I originally stated in my review that Alison Bechdel learned her dad was gay only after he died. However, she learned this soon after she came out to her parents, months before his death. The “About the book” section has been updated accordingly.