Monday, September 22, 2014

Some picture books of note:

Baboushka and the Three Kings (Parnassus Press; 1960): Writer Ruth Robbins adapts a Russian folk tale about one of Europe's many Santa Claus-like gift-giving Christmas Eve visitors, with gorgeous illustrations by Nicolas Sidjakov that look like they were created through a woodblock technique and painted in a simple palette of yellows, blues and reds on mostly black and white pages (with a few exceptions). Their book won the Caldecott Medal in 1961.
Baboushka is a little old peasant woman who lives in a little old hut. One night, a procession lead by the Three Kings of the Christmas story tradition arrives at her hut and asks her to join them as they pursue a star to find a Babe (All references to the one they seek, be it Babe or Child or just plain Him, are capitalized, the only indication that they're looking for Jesus or the Christ child, neither of which name is ever used).
Baboushka, who hasn't yet finished her daily chores, asks them to stay the night with her, and she will leave with them in the morning. They refuse, and leave her alone in her hut. Before the night is out, she becomes consumed with a desire to see the Child and give him a gift ("The wamrth of the fire reached into her heart," Robbins' text says, "And she felt a sudden tenderness and joy for the new born Child").

Baboushka then sets out with a few "poor but precious gifts," in the hopes of finding the three kings, whose trail has been covered up by the snow. She travels from house to house and village to village, but never finds the kings of the child they sought; instead leaving her little gift on the doorstep of every child she does find.
It's a nice-looking package, and at 7 X 6 3/4-inches, it's perfect for child hands. I'm not sure if kids will appreciate the artwork as much as grown-ups, although if the book won a Caldecott a few decades ago and is still in-print, I'm imagining kids have embraced it just fine. If you're looking for a nice, tight, religious but not overbearingly evangelical telling of the Baboushka story, and would rather get it in a book than from Wikipedia, this certainly serves the purpose. It ends with the same story in verse form, set to music, which I can't read, because I am dumb.

Catch Me If You Can! (Green Light Readers; 1999): Not to be confused with Frank Abagnale's biography that was the source of the Steven Spielberg movie, nor this book with a shirtless, smooth and hairless muscle man on the cover, Bernard Most's Catch Me If You Can is a very simple story about some dinosaurs, with a clever little twist that's just clever enough to power an 18-page narrative.

A large, rather scary-looking carnivorous theropod—"The biggest dinosaur of them all"—looks as if he has a couple of young, little herbivores cornered behind a rock. The cartoon-simple background of identical white boulders and little prehistoric trees each hide groups of tiny dinosaurs, all seemingly shaking with little motion lines.
Most's dinosaurs are certainly classic in their design, with scaly, slightly mottled-looking, reptillian skin. They also have the upright posture of old-school dinosaur conceptions, and he gives them very simple, almost inscrutable, comma-shaped eyes.

Most's brief narration informs us that,
The other dinosaurs were afraid of him. When the biggest dinosaur went by, the other dinosaurs quickly hid.
Most then recounts the various scary things about the biggest dinosaur—tails, claws, teeth, etc—until we meet one tiny little dinosaur that is not the least big afraid of him. This little dinosaur defiantly lists the supposedly scary things about the biggest dinoaur—tails, claws, teeth, etc—dismissing each as something she is not afraid of, while calling after each dismissal, "Catch me if you can!"
Eventually, the big dinosaur does catch the little one, and we learn why the little one isn't afraid of the big one, which should be apparent to most readers, given the two dinosaurs'—shall we say—familial resemblance.

Cowy Cow (Abrams; 2014): This is a barely-there new book from Chris Raschka's "Thingy Thing" series, which includes Whaley Whale, Lamby Lamb and the like. These are tiny, square hardcovers featuring a super-cute and rather rough, almost sketch-like paintings; here, it's star is a cow, with a twisted-up tail and splotches of color that don't always stay within the lines of her body.

There are relatively few words in the 15-page book, with each page consisting either of a large image of Cowy Cow over a blank, green background, or a sentence or so of prose over a blank, green background, from a narrator addressing the reader (or listener) and Cowy Cow.

Cowy Cow has 100 ideas, we're told, and the book shares two of them, the second of which, #34, is this: "If you chew grass long enough, it might taste like a gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookie."

I don't know if that's true, and Cowy Cow turns out to be ill-qualified to offer such a theory herself, but, having consulted with a gluten-free friend, she assures me that Cowy Cow may be on to something there.

The book is lightweight to the point of being flimsy, but what little art there is in it is really cute, and what few words are there proved funny enough.

Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs (Harper Collins; 1989): Byron Barton's Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs is something of a modern classic—at least, I think it's safe to apply the word "classic" to the book, since it is now 25-years-old, even though I'd rather not refer to books published when I was a teenager as classics, because it makes me feel like a dinosaur.

It's a great "first" dinosaur book for kids, its just-under 100 words telling the most basic story of dinosaurs. That is, that they lived a long time ago ("A long time ago, there were dinosaurs") and that they came in many, many different varieties ("There were dinosaurs with horns and dinosaurs with spikes. There were dinosaurs with clubs on their tails and dinosaurs with armored plates").

That is pretty much all there is to the story, if one can call this simple picture book a story at all, but Barton does get into their emotional or behavioral states a bit, my favorite of these laster sections being when he mentions "fierce" dinosaurs and "scared" dinosaurs, and the Tyrannosaurus rex (mentioned by name only on the end-pages, which give the dinosaurs' names and their correct pronunciations) figures in both.

I like his "fierce" face, with his child-like, diagonal-line eyebrows representing anger, and the way it transforms into a curve on the very next page, with even his sharp, scary teeth and claws apparently retracting when the lightning bolt flashes from a storm cloud.

All of Barton's dinosaurs, and their environments, are depicted with these stencil-simple shapes, their expressions indicated by the shapes of their eyes mouths and eyebrows in black upon their solid-colored bodies.

The best, though are his baby triceratops, which combine the basic cuteness of his average dinosaur drawing, with tininess:

I love those.

Death, Duck and the Tulip (Gecko Press; 2011): This short, simple, striking fable by German writer and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch, originally entitled Ente, Tod und Tulpe, chronicles the highly unlikely relationship between Duck, a duck, and Death, Death.

Duck is a particularly slim and upright duck, just barely anthropomorphized at all—just a little around the face for the sake of expressions, really. And Death, though called by male pronouns, resembles the skeleton of a little girl in some sort of red gingham dress with a blue checkered smock over it, and dainty little shoes. His head is that of an elongated skull, only with a toothless line of a mouth, and he's the same size as Duck. He always carries a black-ish tulip with him.

The story begins:
For a while now, Duck had had a feeling.

"Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?"

"Good, said Death, "you finally noticed me. I am Death
Understandably uncomfortable at first, Duck shies away from Death, but the two eventually strike up a tense but ultimately sweet friendship, as Duck learns that all the negative things we associate with death aren't really parts of death, but parts of life.

"Life takes care of that," Death says, when Duck asks him if he's there to make something happen that could lead to her death.

The story ends as every story ends, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a more elegant, matter-of-fact, life-affirming, death-is-just-a-part-of-life story. Tonally, much of what Erlbruch's Death said and how he behaved reminded me a bit of what Neil Gaiman's Death from Sandman said and did and was like—the point-of-view of the creators on Death's personification share a great deal in common—but here, of course, Erlbruch gets it down much more quickly and to the point, and it is the focus of the story he is telling, not one element of a grander narrative.

His artwork is particularly interesting. The two main characters seems somewhat roughly drawn and colored with colored pencils, and then cut out of the pages they were drawn in, to be inserted on other pages, where scant, collage-details form the settings; a wall and some black and white pictures of flowers on the first page, a picture of a bush and a tree later on, and so on.

I imagine the content would make the book one that an adult would likely need to be careful which child they shared it with, but I can't think of an adult who wouldn't enjoy and even benefit from reading it.

Francis The Little Fox (Kids Can Press; 2013): This rather substantial (88 pages!) picture book is the work of two creators, although I'm unsure how the division of labor worked. One is Veronique Boisjoly, who works at "a digital publishing and design firm specializing in apps and ebooks," and who created a French-language app that this book is based on. The other is Kathy Maurey, an illustrator and graphic designer from Montreal.

I am sure that the art in this book is lovely, cute and accomplished, and the matter-of-fact, somewhat meandering story is relentlessly engaging.

The world of Francis is one in which animal and human live side by side in the big city—you'll find all sorts in big cities, after all—and, oddly enough, some of the humans keep pets, which always feels weird to me, settings where there are both anthropomorphic animals and animal-animals.

In this case, we follow the Fox family, who visit a laundromat run by the human Li family, and the Li family has a cat named "Mouse." (Oh, and Mr. Li's laundromat, Small Socks Laundromat, has an enormous pair of caribou antlers hanging in front of its window. Later in the story, we see a deer or caribou of some sort with a pair of antlers still attached to his head riding on a city bus...wonder what he thinks of Mr. Li's decor when he rides past it...?)

Francis, we are told, is "A handsome and mild-mannered fellow...always well dressed. Even on laundry days." And indeed, he does wear a little suit coat and bowtie. But no pants. So more like half-dressed, if you ask me.

This is a laundry day story, and, for the Foxes, laundry day is Saturday.

Boisjoly and Maurey tell us a little about Francis and his father and their typical laundry days, in which they go to the laundromat and do their laundry, with Francis drawing and father reading the paper. While they get along great with the Lis, Francis doesn't get along so well with Mr. Li's little granddaughter, Lily Rain Boots, who gets up to all kinds of mischief when trying to play tricks on Francis and others.

In this story, she inadvertently scares Mouse away, causing all of the characters to spend a great deal of time running around downtown looking for the lost cat. It all works out okay, and Mouse is eventually found, and the Foxes return home, only to find one last, pretty funny trick that Lily played on them.

The art feels very airy to me, something I think is attributable to the lack of solid black outlines around the characters and objects, the edges of which tend to just stop when they hit the white or off-white of the background pages. There's also a lot of space, with the occasional blank page or page with nothing but a few words on it.

Go! Go! Go! Stop! (Alfred A. Knopf; 2014): This has got to be a fun book to ask for by name in a book store or library.

A new picture book by author, illustrator and occasional comics-maker Charise Mericle Harper (the Fashion Kitty and Just Grace series, Cupcake, The Power of Cute, etc), it involves lot of cute little cars, trucks and construction vehicles, plus a couple of cuter-still little solid-color circles.

It begins with one such circle, who bears a simple little Harper face on his all-green body/head, and is emanating green lights. This is Little Green and "One day," the narration tells us on the first page, "Little Green said a word."

His word is "go," and it's his only word, which he says over and over and in a variety of volumes. Little Green, who is about the size of a stoplight, bounces into town, shouting his new word, and coming to rest at a construction site, where all the various vehicles were just awaking from their naps.

Hearing his encouraging repetition of "Go!" they all get up and go to work, highly motivated. But eventually, they've heard "Go!" too many times, and are going too much and too fast. And Little Green is powerless to stop them or slow them down; the best he can do is say "go" quitely.

Good thing then that Little Red rolls into town and shouts "Stop!" just then.

The two "were exact opposites," but they try to work together, and after a great deal of trial and error to find the perfect amount of go and the perfect amount of stop, they strike a balance that keeps everyone working together just right. And, well, if something seems to be missing from the stoplight, as if there was space for another Little Someone-Or-Other, don't worry—Harper's last page introduces a third character.

The vehicles and construction equipment are all super-simply drawn, and appear only in profile. They have faces, generally just eyes and smiles, that appear on their windows, and that works perfectly well, as we don't ever see them from different angles. Between all the cars and trucks and cranes and such, and all the shouting of some of the first words kids learn, this has got to be a pretty fun book to share with little ones, to read to them, or have them read to you, or just watch them look at. My nephew seemed to like it okay, and the only books I've seen him enjoy before are Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site and that one book about dinosaurs.

Godzilla Likes to Roar! (Random House; 1998): This is the other kids picture book published by Random House when they were producing Godzilla books, right around the time that the so-called King of the Monsters was set to make his highly-anticipated appearance in a Hollywood film for the first time (The other one, Who's Afraid of Godzilla?, I discussed in this previous installment of this column).

This one is also illustrated in a highly realistic, faithful-to-the-original-films style by Bob Eggleton, and has a credited writer with a less suspect name in Kerry Milliron (A "Di Kaiju" was credited for writing Who's Afraid...).

This one has a bit less pathos, and no conflict or dramatic arc comparable to that of Who's Afraid...

"Godzilla likes to roar, to shake the sky and wake the sun," reads the first of the two-page spreads, as a rather scary-looking Godzilla rises out of the sea, approaching an island, "Godzilla likes to roar, then greet his friends and have some fun."

These friends are Rodan and Anguirus, and an unnamed Manda and Varan appear later. The text describes Godzilla's day, which, like a little kid's, mostly involves playing with his friends or siblings, eating, napping, playing some more, and then going to bed for the night. He and the other four monsters spend their day on an island, perhaps Monsterland or Monster Island, doing things of dubious fun and/or monstrousness.

"It's fun to join a monster crew, there's always something new to do," starts one pair of rhyming couplets, "To go exploring in a cave, or see what's washed up on a wave." Eggleton's painted picture on this two-page spread shows Manda crawling into a cave, with Godzilla hauling a shipwreck out of the water, and Varan looking on.

The book does answer one question that's been bugging me as I've been watching my way through the Showa series. What do the monsters eat...? So far, I've only seen Rodan eat a dolphin or fish of some kind in a Godzilla film (and Rodan ate cattle, livestock and humans in his own film, prior to becoming enveloped in Godzilla mythology), and I've seen Mililla eat some sort of large island fruit.

Here, Anguirus and Godzilla both prove to be herbivores, or at least omnivores, somewhat surprising, given their sharp teeth:
"Coconuts are tasty treats, and all the tress are in their reach," reads one of the couplets on a spreac in which Anguirus clutches a coconut tree, while we see Godzilla's fist reaching from off-page to grab a tree himself.

Well, that answers that. I think. I'm not entirely sure how authoritative these books are of Toho kaiju behavior. For example, I never expected to see these two cuddling together for a nap like this—
—certainly not after I saw Godzilla bite through Anguirus' throat in Godzilla Raids Again! and then set his corpse ablaze with atomic fire before kicking him into the sea.

If I Had a Raptor (Candlewick Press; 2014): This extremely engaging picture book is the work of cartoonist George O'Connor, who will be better known to many readers of this blog for his work on First Second's often outstanding The Olympians series of graphic novels. The premise is as simple as it is satisfying. The little girl narrator, seen on the cover, speculates what it would be like to have a pet raptor, which, as you can also see by the cover, O'Connor renders covered in blue feathers and/or dino-fuzz.

She lists all of the behaviors of her hypothetical raptor, which, it turns out, are exactly the same as those of a house-cat (which, like a raptor, is a predator by nature). So essentially O'Connor starts with "If I had a raptor, I'd want to get her as a baby, when she's all teensy and tiny and funny and fluffy," and ends with "If I had a would be the best thing ever."

Between the two statements, he rattles off various basic cat behavior: Basking on sunny window sills and clean laundry, sleeping all day and creeping around all night, staring at nothing at all and seemingly stalking its owner, and so on.

The humor simply comes from O'Connor calling the "cat" a raptor, and drawing in it's place a large blue dinosaur with a collar with a bell on it:
There are some instances where a raptors peculiar physiology differentiates it from a cat or other house-pets...
...but for the most part, it's a matter of degree more than anything else.

O'Connor uses pencils and watercolors to render the charming book, which should please adult fans of cats, dinosaurs or, most especially, cats and dinosaurs.

My New Friends Is So Fun! (Hyperion Books; 2014): The cover of the latest Elephant & Piggie book prominently features Piggie, her smiling mouth open as if declaring the title, with her arm around a...nother animal (I originally took it to be some kind of aardvark, or an exotic mammal from Australia or Madagascar, but it turns out his name is Brian Bat, so I guess that's a gigantic bat).

The real stars, however, are the two characters in the background; Gerald the Elephant and the snake character from Can I Play Too?, the book that contained my favorite joke in the entire Elephant and Piggie series, whose name is simply Snake.

Gerald and Snake pass by one another, and start to talk about the fact that Piggie, Gerald's best friend, just met Brian Bat, Snake's best friend, and the pair are now playing together.

Gerald and Snake both love their best friends, and are both extraordinarily proud to be able to call their best friends their best friends.

But then a thought creeps into their minds; what if Piggie and Brian have too much fun together, and end up having so much fun with one another that they no longer need Gerald and Snake? What if they become one another's best friends?!

The elephant and snake rush off to investigate, and there's a nice suspenseful section where their worst fears seem to be coming true, before the probably not that surprising (to grown-ups) reversal at the climax.

As always, it's expertly cartooned, wonderfully paced and genuinely funny. And while there's no Snake gag here to rival that of Can I play Too?, there is a snakes-have-no-arms gag, which comes when Piggie and Brian offer to show Gerald and Snake their "Best Friend drawings."

My Rhinoceros (Michael Di Capula Books; 2011): Jon Agee's boy narrator wanders into an exotic pet shop and buys the rhinoceros in the window before the title page of the book, a book that features a very swiftly-moving story.

"When I bought my rhinoceros, I didn't really know what I was getting into," he tells us as he walks it home. At first he is quite disappointed by his new pet, which was "quiet, shy" and "kept to himself." At one point he consults with "a rhinoceros expert" that looks suspiciously like she might just be his mom, and the expert tells him that rhinos only do two things: Pop balloons and poke holes in kites.

The boy is worried about this when he takes his pet for a walk through the park, but the rhino proves very well-behaved.

And then they come across a very unusual bank robbery, of the sort that The Flash or Batman might have had to deal with in the 1960s, and our young protagonist discovers how right his mother and/or hat rhinoceros expert was.

That, and that his pet has a third, even more spectacular trick, which Agee presents as a sort of punchline ending, perfectly timed to answer the question that will have formed in a reader's head by the time it's explained.

Penguin In Love (Walker Books; 2013): We've seen Salina Yoon's penguin character Penguin make friends before in Penguin and Pinecone and Penguin on Vacation, but here the cute little knitter makes a new friend who turns out to be more than just a friend.

One day he finds a beautifully-knitted mitten and goes seeking out its owner among the local penguins. None of them seem to have lost a mitten though. So Penguin starts to knit a match to the mitten, when a pair of puffins alight, and one of them is wearing a "beak cozy" that looks just like a penguin mitten; the "mitten" Penguin thought he found was actually the other puffin's lost beak cozy. They were knitted for the puffins by another penguin. A girl penguin.

The puffins conspire to bring Penguin and Penguin's friend Bootsy (who looks just like Penguin, save she wears purple boots and a little pink bow on her head) together. Or, as Yoon puts it, "The puffins hatched a secret plan to help the penguin find his own perfect match."

They do this by stealing Penguin and Bootsy's yarn, and then laying out two crazy-long, twisted trails of the yarns, trails that are laid out side-by-side. Penguin and Bootsy do seem perfect for one another. They're both penguins, and they both have a passion for knitting ("Bootsy was busy knitting cozies," Yoon's narration tells us at one point, "Knitting warmed her lonely heart").

The penguin pair follow the trail together, knitting it as they go, and gradually fall in love...even, or perhaps particularly when circumstance forces them apart for a while.

Yoon works in broader, more obvious metaphor than usual here, and this particular outting lacks some of the subtlety of the two Penguin books of hers we've previously discussed here, but the artwork is still darling, and the story still quite charming and cute.

The Pigeon Needs a Bath! (Hyperion; 2014): Mo Willems' latest pigeon book is perhaps the best of the several sequels to his original, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus!, which is probably unbeatable not only because it was the original, but also because of the incredible absurd premise.

This one does follow a pretty identical format, with the bus driver (drawn in a bathrobe and shower cap, with a towel slung over his shoulder) deputizing the reader with a pigeon related task on the opening pages—"I could use your help, because: The Pigeon needs a bath!"—and then leaves it to the reader to argue with The Pigeon for the remainder of the book.

And so we experience The Pigeon's side of the conversation, in which he argues the various reasons why he does not need a bath, or why he doesn't really smell that bad, or that "All of these flies buzzing around me are purely conincidental." It is up to the reader's imagination/and or the yelling children being read the story to conduct the other half of the conversation.

Suffice it to say that the pigeon is eventually prevailed upon to take a bath, and after a 26-panel, two-page spread in which he tinkers with the bath—"Too cold...too luke warm...too hot..."—he eventually dives in and, as it turns out, he loves taking a bath.

Willems' art is, as always, delightful, and, also as always, he wrings an astounding amount of versatile emotions from his super-simple design (on the pigeon, it's basically just a couple of circles, a sometimes there, sometimes not eyebrow, and a simple beak made of two tiny crescent-like shapes). The amount of filth on the pigeon is pretty interesting in its rendering, as the pigeon and his environs look to be drawn of pencil and crayon, but the dirt and stains all look real, as if applied from photos through computers, or perhaps Willems smeared dirt on his original art.

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath (Candlewick Press; 2014): As a history-minded Ohioan, I naturally have an interest in President William Howard Taft, one of several presidents produced by our great state, and the great-grandfather of former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who governed the state of Ohio (generally poorly) during my entire career as a newspaperman.

And writer Mac Barnett has come up with a pretty great declarative, near-rhyming title for this storybook, which is ably (if maybe a little too realistically, given all the naked, presidential man flesh) illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Taft had a great mustache, was from Ohio and is our fattest president of all time; being long-since dead, he is also a historical figure now, and it is therefore A-OK to comment on his fatness, without worrying about fat-shaming him or being sizest. He bathes with the angels now, and couldn't care less what we have to say about his girth.

I've always found it extremely charming that, for all of his accomplishments, some of which were quite negative, some of which were rather admirable, and one of which is particularly noteworthy (he was the only president to also serve as a chief justice of the Supreme Court), the one that he is best known for is, well, here's how the front flap of the dust-jacket of Barnett and Van Dusen's book puts it:
GEORGE WASHINGTON crossed the Delaware in the dead of night.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN save the Union.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT got stuck in a bathtub and then got unstuck.

This is his story.
Barnett starts off with a fine, catchy, reversal for a hook:
William Howard Taft was the twenty-seventh president of the United States. He busted monopolies, instituted the federal income tax, and became the only president to also sere as chief justice of the Superme Court.

But today President Taft is stuck in his bathtub.
That's accompanied by a turn of the page that similarly offers a dramatic reversal. The first paragraph is in a nice, fancy font beneath what looks like a presidential portrait of the bright, red, shiny skin of the walrus-mustachioed, five-chinned executive, and then you turn the page and find a double-page spread of a quite ornate and colorful bathroom, in the middle of which that same man is shown rather tightly wedged in a too-small bathtub, rolls of belly flesh hanging just over the rim. He wears a look of consternation, while soap bubbles float about his head.

"Blast!" he says. "This could be bad."

And, indeed, it is bad. Taft is, as the title says, stuck in the bath. His wife Nellie Taft* has an idea on how to get him un-stuck, but he interrupts her by calling for the vice president, who immediately offers to succeed him, now that Taft is stuck in the bath.

From there, we get a rapid succession of official people in Washington, all of whom want to try methods of extricating a large president from a too-small bathtub that relate to their fields of expertise.

So, for example, the Secretary of Agriculture wants to churn up enough butter to grease the sides of the tub, the Secretary of War wants to try TNT, the Secretary of The Treasury wants to "throw money at the problem," the Secretary of the interior tells him "The answer is inside you."

Eventually enough experts have been called in that there's a small army of men in the room with the shiny, naked president—whose modesty is concealed by his big belly and plenty of soap bubbles—that they can try Nellie's plan: To just all grab hold and yank on the president, similar to how Rabbit's relatives and relations were all able to get Winnie The Pooh out of Rabbit's hole.

The rather charming story ends with an author's note which explains the various rumors regarding Taft and the bath, and also the fact that he may not ever have actually been stuck in the bath. "What follows is what we know for certain," Barnett writes, before a little timeline labeled "Some Facts Pertaining to President Taft and Bathtubs."

Whether he was ever stuck in a bathtub or not and, if so, how many men it took to extricate him and what, exactly, was the method used, the important thing is that there's a story that he was once stuck in the bath, and that story's existence and persistence is what fascinated the author and, I imagine, will either fascinate or delight readers (and maybe a little of both).

There's a quote on the back of the book from Taft himself: "We are all imperfect."

We know that to be true of all the presidents of the modern era, but it's easy to forget of the presidents in the first century of America, and the further and further back in time we go, the easier it is for history to turn into hagiography. Taft was at an interesting place in history; far enough back that relatively little is known of him by your average Amerian, but not so far back that we think of him as some kind of Founding Father-like demi-god or Lincoln-esque saint.

And that's one charming aspect of Taft as a character; he was a deeply, obviously, visibly flawed man, who never-the-less was able to lead the United States of America, marry a pretty and pretty cool lady and go on to fulfill his actual life's ambition, being a supreme court judge.

He was also a big fat guy with a sweet mustache.

The Tiny King (Candlewick Press; 2013): The tiny king, assembled out of carefully arranged cut-outs, on the cover of this book may at first glance seem to be a rather large king, taking up the entirety of the cover as he does. But do note the parenthetical fine print, in the lower left corner of the cover: "This is the actual size of the Tiny King." Say, that is tiny!

The book, by Japanese artist Taro Miura, features an extremely simple story, offering a repetition of a single series of events, with a change introduced between them that transforms what is at first a sad or negative series of events into a happy series of events. It's as simple as the art, which is likely rather laboriously constructed of cut-outs but results in character designs that look like very simple, old-school video game sprites.

Each image stretches across both open pages, accentuating the bigness of the world the Tiny King occupies. (And, unfortunately for my purposes, makes it difficult to show decent examples of the interiors here).

The Tiny King lived all alone in a big castle. He ate alone at a big table, piled with much more food than a single tiny person could ever eat by himself. He had a huge white horse too big for him to ride. And, ultimately, each day ends with him in "a big, big bed":
But he slept in it all alone every night.

The Tiny King was so sad and so lonely that he never slept very well.

Everything changes when he fell in love with "a big princess." How big? Well, if The Tiny King were to lay on his side, he still wouldn't be as tall as her head was wide. They marry and have ten kids, each with its own little crown and each the size of the Tiny King.

Miura now repeats the same sequence of events, but the pages the art is constructed upon are no longer lonely, dark black, but a series of bright colors: pink, yellow, orange and so on.

With the eleven additions to his household, the big, big castle, table, horse, bath and bed are now all the perfect size. "And the Tiny King slept soundly at last."
This book is so sad, and then so happy, that it just about broke my heart. The moral? The moral seems to be about the importance of family, and the transformative effect of a family on one's life, even one who seems to have it all, in terms of wealth, prestige and power.

That, or maybe something about how short guys shouldn't be so scared to ask out ladies that are much, much taller than them as you never know, maybe it will work out and you'll have ten kids.

*I once read and reviewed a biography of Nellie Taft for the Columbus-based altweekly I used to work for, if you want to read something from old, pre-EDILW Caleb. That review is one of relatively few things I wrote for that altweekly that survived their archive purge when they sold-out to Columbus' own Evil Media Empire that runs the daily paper and...well, everything else, last time I checked.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wonder Woman's costume changes in Wonder Woman: Futures End #1 and Superman/Wonder Woman: Futures End #1:

That's gotta be about as many as your average female pop singer during the course of a concert, right? The first two panels are penciled by Rags Morales, and rest by Bart Sears.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Marvel's December previews reviewed

Marvel Entertainment will, as of December of 2014, still be publishing and selling comics, because while it might not be the most lucrative business to be in, where are they gonna find the next Guardians of the Galaxy if they don't keep the comics division going as a Intellectual Property farm...?

What will they be publishing in the final month of 2014? You can click here to see it all, and read on to see only the few things I thought worth mentioning to you personally. Mostly so as to make bad jokes.

• Joe Quesada illustrates Grant Morrison’s lost Miracleman story, a disturbing confrontation prior to the Battle of London
• Peter Milligan and Mike Allred reunite for a new Miracleman classic!
• Plus bonus material!
40 PGS./Parental Advisory…$4.99

Okay, I give did they get Jeff smith to draw a variant cover for this dumb thing...? And hey, props for applying the term "All-New" to a comic produced from a "lost" (i.e. quite old) script.

Variant cover by SKOTTIE YOUNG
• All her life, Angela -- the finest warrior of Heven -- was raised to hate Asgard with every fiber of her being.
• And now Angela knows the truth about her identity: She is Thor’s sister. She is an Asgardian.
• Cast out of her home and wanting nothing to do with Asgard, Angela must now strike out on her own!
• But what does Angela have that both Asgard and Heven want? And why are they so eager to get it?
• Visionary writers Kieron Gillen and Marguerite Bennett team with the legendary art team of Phil Jimenez and Stephanie Hans to finally throw the spotlight onto the Marvel Universe’s most dangerous inhabitant!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

I like one of those writers and one of those artists a whole lot, but I am luke warm on the other writer an other artist.

I like the logo.

I love the Skottie Young cover.

I don't know why it has two writers and two artists.

I still have no idea why this title even exists; does a "created by Neil Gaiman" credit really move comics? Was Lady In Bikini With Sword and Very Long Ribbons a design so inspired Marvel HAD to have it, even if it meant re-writing her scant history and origin...?

AVENGERS & X-MEN: AXIS #7 & 8 (OF 9)
Issue #7 - ADAM KUBERT (A)
32 PGS. (EACH)/Rated T+ …$3.99 (EACH)

Not my dreams. The battle royale of my dreams consist of the Challengers vs. The Defenders vs. G.I. Joe vs. Transformers vs. The Marx Brothers vs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the fate of the universe.

Also, I have no clue who the "Astonishing Avengers" are. I guess Marvel finally launched so many Avengers books that I have now officially lost my ability to keep track of them all.

Looper variant by Paul Renaud
• Who will live? Who will die? Who will remain inverted? A shocking climax that promises to crack the Marvel Universe to its very core!
• An old foe must claim the mantle of his greatest enemy to save the lives of all he cares for!
• An X-Man’s horrifying fate! An Avenger’s appalling choice! If you read only one comic this century – This is it!
40 PGS./Rated T+ …$4.99

I appreciate the hyperbole. I like how it implies that Marvel read this one, and were like, "Fuck, we'll never top that! It will be at least another three generations before a writer and artist capable of topping this story will be born!" Also, "Hey, this puts Asterios Polyp and Fun Home and Los Bros Hernandez and all that arty shit of the last 15 years to shame, doesn't it?"

• We’re celebrating 100 issues of Carol Danvers’ high-flying, smack-talking, and butt-kicking adventures, thanks to you our beloved Carol Corps! Join writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artists David Lopez, Marcio Takara and more as we bring you a momentous (and over-sized) issue almost 50 years in the making!
40 PGS./Rated T+ …$4.99

Either you dropped a zero from the issue number, or fuck you and your terrible lies Marvel Entertainment! This is a tenth issue, not a 100th solo issue anniversary special, whatever the fuck that means. Show your math!

Props to Michael Del Mundo for a great Elektra cover.

Cover by ALEX ROSS

• Who are The Stark? What is their aim? Can the Guardians survive a lethal clash with such formidable entities? Action, cosmic wonder and some surprise allies, brought you by the Most Amazing Creators in the World, D and G....”
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

Who are The Stark? I don't know, but I'm glad they've got a Stilt-Stark.

So, I guess this series is Marvel's "Thanks for the millions of dollars!" gesture to Dan Abnett...?

I continue to like these Javier Rodriguez covers for Axis: Hobgoblin.

• Moon Knight’s latest mission- BREAK INTO THE UNITED NATIONS BUILDING!
• Can he possibly deal with the consequences of these actions?
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

I'm still too grossed out by Brian Wood to, like, want to read his work anymore (it's the telling Rich Johnston thing that really boggles my mind; like that's the one step that took the Brian Wood story from Kinda Scummy to What The Fuck Kind of Human Being IS This?, but since he brought his dick up in the first place (like, years ago, to Rich Johnston, for a comics industry "gossip" column), I would like to point out that the creative team of Wood and Smallwood is kind of hilarious, if only from a dick-joke perspective.

• Meet the Jean Grey Academy’s new guidance counselor: Spider-Man!
• What’s a non-mutant doing at a school for mutants? What secret suspicion has fueled the formation of his special student class?
• And because you demanded it! Sauron and Stegron the Dinosaur Man! The villain team 65 million years in the making! You didn’t demand it? Well somebody did.
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Hey, good idea!

The one thing I rather liked about JMS's run on Amazing Spider-Man (aside from John Romita Jr's art, of course), was his making Peter Parker a teacher, which allowed the character to maintain his original connection to high school life while still allowing him to be an adult. I thought that was a perfect day job for an all grown-up, totally adult Peter Parker.

I have no idea who either of these creators are though, but Spider-Man teaching super-kids is a decent set-up for a series, I suppose, and I see Wolverine and The X-Men is not solicited for December, so I guess this takes the place of that series, becoming the place to read about the ongoing adventures of the student body at the Jean Grey School. I guess having a book called Wolverine and The X-Men without Wolverine in it, who is temporarily dead, would be weird, and yeah, I suppose Spider-Man and The X-Men is more likely to sell more comics than Storm and The X-Men or The Beast and The X-Men or Doop and The X-Men.

I don't have the book here in my apartment to check, as I read Jason Aaron's volume of Wolverine and The X-Men in library-borrowed trade collections, but I'm like 93% sure that Spidey already interviewed for a job on the Jean Grey School's faculty and was rejected by then-headmistress Kitty Pryde...

SPIDER-MAN 2099 #7
• Weird science with Spider-people!
• Spider-Man of the year 2099 and Lady Spider of the steampunk 1800’s team up to daringly dissect Daemos of the Inheritors!
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

Oh, it says "Weird science with Spider-people!," and not "Weird Science with Spider-People!"

 I was almost super-excited about this one.

• Spider-Woman & Silk get split up leaving Silk alone on her suicide mission.
• Spider-Woman doesn’t look like she’s in better shape, undercover in the most dangerous place in the multiverse!
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

Well, you can't see her butt in this one. Regular interior artist Greg Land just has her using her spider powers to dry-hump the corner of a girder or some indeterminate part of architecture instead.

• The Ultimate face-off you KNEW was bound to happen! All-New X-Men versus the Ultimate X-Men! But when both side are heroes, who can be the victor? And what side does this leave Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man on?
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

There are still Ultimate X-Men...? Huh.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Comic shop comics: September 17

Batman Eternal #24 (DC Comics) Is this the issue Stephanie Brown fans have been waiting for? I...don't know. I know a friend of mine who knows the character only from her volume of Batgirl asked to borrow just this issue of Batman Eternal, and was disappointed in how Ray Fawkes, Scott Snyder, James Tynion and company's Stephanie Brown was so different from Bryan Q. Milller's.

This issue, drawn by Andy Clarke, is essentially the climax of the Cluemaster/Spoiler conflict...for now, as one has to imagine we'll be seeing more of both and their conflict before it ends.

At one point, Cluemaster puts on a pair of glasses that read "CluE," and gets hit on the head with a wrench:
As he should. For wearing those glasses.

Also, Batman fights a ghost. With Nth metal. Is that from Batman: The Brave and The Bold...? That's the only place I've seen Batman fight ghosts with Nth metal before, but given how obsessed that show was with obscure DC Comics trivia, they certainly might have taken it from a 1971 back-up story somewhere.

Snyder and company are still playing he identity of Cluemaster's boss as a secret, keeping him in shadow at all times, which is strange, as Hush has been revealed as the puppet master behind many of the series' mini-bosses already. I'm not sure if this is a second mysterious puppet master, or if they just stuffed him back into the shadows for some reason (This guy dresses the same, so I'm assuming he's Hush).

I think this issue also introduces The New 52 version of Ratcatcher—the late '80s minor villain created by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle that Geoff Johns and company had killed off in Infinite Crisis—and his new design is incredibly terrible. But hell, it could have been worse: It could have been The Prankster's New 52 design, which is also seen in this issue.

The Multiversity: The Society of Super-Heroes: Conquerors of The Counter-World #1 (DC) At first blush, this comic with the way-too-complicated title looks an awful lot like a lost Grant Morrison contribution to the doomed, short-lived "First Wave" sub-line of DC Comics from a few years back, where they combined a rather random assortment of characters—Doc Savage, The Spirit, Batman The Blackhawks, Rima the Jungle Girl—into a new, old-school pulp inspired DC Universe that never went anywhere.

At second blush, it looks like Grant Morrison's pitch for a New 52 Earth 2 book that never came to pass.

But once you sit down to actually read the book, it's at once both more complicated and more simple than that. Morrison and his chief artistic collaborator on the issue, pencil artist Chris Sprouse, aren't simply confining their quoting and borrowing from a single era of comics, or shunting it all into a single aesthetic. Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Master, Watchmen, Young All-Stars and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern: Rebirth are as ripe for picking as the earliest super-hero comics characters taht DC would eventually acquire.

In other words, it's a fairly broad remixing of a random swathe of the DC intellectual property into a story-shaped, insignificant sound-and-fury with a charmingly-drawn interbellum aesthetic.

Here's a world, Earth 20 if you wanna go by the cover design, where a cape-less, pistol-packing Doctor Fate in jodhpurs—"I prefer 'Doc'"—assembles a Society of Superheroes (S.O.S., get it?) consisting of Immortal Man (who was also Anthro), Green Lantern Abin Sur (whose face now resembles that of a sleeker version of Etrigan's, and who wears a more elegant and less color-blind costume inspired by that of the Golden Age Green Lantern), Al "The Atom" Pratt ("The only person who ever completed the Iron Munro bodypower course," and whose blue face mask now has the same atomic symbol that Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore gave the blue-faced Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen) and The Lady Blackhawks (The Blackhawks...only ladies!).

What have they been assembled to do? Combat an invasion from a neighboring "Counter-Earth," apparently consisting of only villains, who are kinda sorta vaguely the opposite numbers of the S.O.S. team...? Maybe...? (Some of the evil opposites are more obvious than others; Shiva, for example, seems to mainly share "being a woman" with the Lady Blackhawks). These are Vandal Savage, "Doctor" Felix Faust, Lady Shiva, Blockbuster and the nattily-dressed Count Sinestro, who has under his power Parallax, "The Fear-Beast" (This Parallax is a particularly great design by Sprouse and/or Morrison).

There's some mention of the Monitors, Nix Uotan and the haunted comic from Multiversity #1, but the book mostly stands on its own, and even then only as a sort of exercise in character redesigning. Lots of fun rethinking goes into the characters, in terms of origin, characterization and costuming, but the story basically just boils down to A) An introduction to the heroes, B) A narration summary of a war between the heroes and the villains, C) An introduction to the villains, met in the process of being bested by the heroes, D) The end.

It's fun, and I enjoyed reading it, but it's not good comics, if that makes any sense at all. It's a very well drawn, completely produced pitch for a comic that will likely never come to pass, of course, because no one really does Morrison as well as Morrison (not anyone that DC can get to work for them at the moment, anyway), and Sprouse seems either too expensive or too distinctive an artist to produce a monthly for DC.

Morrison has always trusted his readers a lot, and left a lot of the actual story off the page, leaving it to the readers to write in their own imaginations and only putting the important and/or cool bits on the page. I wonder if, at this point, Morrison's gotten a little too good at that trick, as this is all cool bits and the basic mechanics of a story, but it doesn't say or do anything at all.

Morrison can still write a good kick-in-the-balls joke, though:

No matter how disappointing a project of his might be, or how uncomfortable his obsession with tugging at Alan Moore's beard might make you, you can't take that away from him.

The New 52: Futures End (DC) Don't let the cover fool you: The Joker is not in this issue. Not the Joker from the modern DCU, or the Joker from the "Five Years From Now" DCU, nor the one from the "Thirty-Five Years From Now" DCU. Well, the teeth of that last Joker might be in this issue, during a grotesque slideshow that 2049 Brother Eye shows 2049 Mr. Terrific, but who can tell for sure?

I guess they put him on the cover, because what else could they put there? Fifty-Sue talking to her Cadmus Island buddies? Bearded Tim Drake talking to Lois Lane? Bearded Tim Drake talking to his girlfriend? 2019 Mr. Terrific talking to Coil and The Key? A lot of talking in this issue, really.

Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #2 (DC) This is the second issue in a row where I've found myself pretty disappointed in the contents, despite really liking the fact that the comic exists at all, and finding myself wanting it to be good (I don't remember the launch of the similar digital-first anthology series Legends of the Dark Knight and Adventures of Superman being quite so rocky, but both series produced some good comics during their short runs).

Under Gene Ha's cover of New 52 Wonder Woman lifting something are two standalone Wonder Woman stories, the first seemingly set firmly in pre-New 52, Phil Jimenez/Greg Rucka continuity, the latter being set during Wonder Woman's youth (Sadly, she is not Wonder Tot in it, but one hopes they'll get around to a Wonder Tot comic before the series' cancelation).

That first one is a pretty basic, fill-in feeling story by writer Ivan Cohen and artist Marcus To, in which Wonder Woman faces Dr. Psycho...and the Barbara Minerva, were-cheetah version of The Cheetah. It was nice to see more familiar versions of Wondy and Doctor Psycho, even if the latter is a little more...Law and Order: SVU than my favorite incarnation of him (The original Golden Age iteration, by his creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter).

It's still early enough in the series that its unclear what the exact premise will be. Of the four stories DC has published, two were apparently post-Crisis, pre-New 52, one was set in the New 52 and the fourth could probably fit in any Wonder Woman continuity. With Adventures, the Superman stories were almost exclusively post-Crisis, pre-New 52, but generally continuity-lite enough that they simply felt like classic Superman stories. Wonder Woman's more complicated history of reboots has saddled her with a few more iteration signifiers than Superman or Batman though, so it's quite possible these stories will end up reflecting certain eras in exclusion of others. It remains to be seen.

Anyway, the Cohen/To story is fine. Unremarkable, but therefore not remarkably bad, either.

The back-up, by writer Jason Bischoff and artist David Williams, is a much more elegant-looking piece, with Williams' art evoking that of Stuart Immonen or Sara Pichelli or Olivier Coipel here and there—good company, aesthetically speaking. The story is a tad generic, but effective: Queen Hippolyta narrates of her love of her child, and how she once inadvertently challenged young Diana to defeat her, which lead to a childhood-long quest to best her in combat.