Thursday, April 17, 2014

Comic shop comics: April 9-16

Poor Fabok draws the whole damn issue, and three "consulting writers" are billed above him on the cover.
Batman Eternal #2 (DC Comics) Well, I thought this second issue of the new Batman weekly comic was a substantial improvement over the first, which consisted only of a pair of action scenes, both poorly told by artist Jason Fabok, and a bookend teaser of some terrible events in the future, also somewhat bumbled by the artist.

Fabok's art is still lazier than I'd like here, but the worst bits in this issue are simply an obvious recycling of an image between two consecutive panels (page 10, panels 1 and 2), and the scene near the end where Batman hears someone sneaking up on him and responds by throwing four razor-sharp projectiles hard enough that one embeds itself in the wall; it's Catwoman, who appears with her goggles up and her zipper down, and she manages to pose her way through the barrage (It looks like he repeats images on the last page too, somewhat awkwardly, but its such an extreme zoom-in that it's difficult to be sure).

If this first issue involved a big, splashy, status quo-changing incident and gave Batman a mystery to solve (and it did), then this issue serves to give some suggestion of the size and scope of the cast. Last issue, we met the New 52 version of Jason Bard, and saw Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Professor Pyg and Harvey Bullock, Maggie Sawyer and another police officer who might be a bigger deal in the series as it unfolds.

In this issue, a whole bunch of characters cameo, some more unexpected than others. So we see Batgirl, Jason "Red Hood" Todd, Batwoman, teen roboticist Tim "Red Robin" Drake, Lucius and Luke "Batwing" Fox, Cullen and Harper Row and the aforementioned Catwoman (So the entire extended Bat-Family save Dick "Nightwing" Grayson, who must totally have gotten killed in the yet-to-ship Forever Evil #7). But wait, there's also Vicki Vale (and wouldn't it be nice if writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV spent the year trying to turn her back into Batman's Lois Lane) Doctor Phosphorous, and a trio of big surprises, which I will now proceed to spoil, so quick, click away if you don't want to know yet.

Who are these surprise characters? Look...

It's Jim Corrigan, AKA The Spectre! Probably! (Seriously; the shadow may not be much of a reveal, but he's also wearing all green, The Spectre's favorite color, and he does that thing with his eyeballs where a skull appears in them. I'm not clear on the "rules" of who belongs to what Earth, as, by rights, The Spectre should be relegated to Earth-2 along with the rest of the Golden Age heroes, but whatever).

And who's this, the ghost of Deacon Blackfire?! (From 1988's Batman: The Cult...? Is that still in-continuity? What the hell guys? You excised "Batman Year Two," "Batman Year Three," "Lonely Place of Dying," Oracle, Cassandra Cain and God knows what else to fit all of Bat-history into just 5-7 years, but you kept The Cult?)

And Carmine "The Roman" Falcone! (Where's your tie, hippie? His appearance would be immensely more exciting to me in the "old" continuity; as it stands, I have no idea how much if any of Batman: Year One or Long Halloween or Dark Victory still "count," so there's a tension between thinking, "Oh cool, it's that old-school villain set-up as the symbol of a corrupt, crime-riddled Gotham City before the advent of the superhero and supervillain" and just thinking, "Hey, it's just some guy with the name and scar of another comic book character from other comics I read!").

Anyway, this issue certainly promises a big story, one involving Batman's whole army of fellow vigilantes, and some traditional crime elements as well as supervillainy and supernatural shenanigans, and it's therefore much more promising than the first issue.

After the "Next: Gotham Goes To War" tag at the bottom of the last panel of the last story page in this issue, there's the two-page ad-vertorial "Channel 52" feature promoting the new direction of The Flash, by a new creative team that includes pencil artist Brett Booth, whose two splash-pages make up the majority of the feature.
Brett Booth...where have I heard that name lately...

Oh yeah.

So here's the thing. All-around nice person Janelle Asselin, who writes about comics for some of the places I write about comics, in addition to having worked in an editorial capacity at both DC Comics and Disney, wrote a guest column at Comic Book Resources criticizing a shitty cover for a shitty-looking comic book, New Teen Titans #1.
In the process, she pointed out some of the weak anatomy in the work of Kenneth Rocafort, who is actually one of the better artists on DC's payroll at the moment, some of the ickiness that comes from over-sexualizing teenage girls and the general boneheadedness of DC continuing to chase the same, very small demographic of adult male readers, despite plenty of evidence that they are leaving plenty of money on the table by doing so (Teen Titans was just canceled for low-ass sales; check out David Carter's analysis of DC sales at The Beat, where he notes IDW's all-ages, little girl friendly My Little Pony outsold all but 24 of the however many books DC shipped last month...which is about 52 in their main superhero line, plus all the other stuff. Teen Titans was not one of those 24 comics).

Now, she's right, of course.

As a reader, as me personally, I don't mind the sexualization of teenage characters in my comic books (For example, one of my favorite manga series at the moment is Yoshinobu Yamada's Cage of Eden, which rarely passes up any opportunity for up-skirt or down-blouse staging, and there's generally at least one bathing scene per volume), but I do recognize that there's a place for such content, and an all-ages, DC superhero comic book featuring characters that simultaneously star in a children's cartoon probably isn't that place (Cage of Eden is of course a translated version of a Japanese comic, sold only in digest-sized, $11 trades and rated "Older Teen, 16 and up," if you care).

And DC's decision to pursue their current strategy with the Teen Titans comics is, let's be honest, completely fucking bonkers, as has been most of their decisions to revamp their characters and books far, far away from their popular, easily recognizable versions into more niche, more adult versions.

So the Teen Titans characters, who have been appearing in cartoon shows—and attendant DVD collections, videogames, toys and comic book adapations—for about 10 years now (Teen Titans was 2003-2006, Young Justice 2010-2013 and the Teen Titans derived Teen Titans Go 2013 to present), appeared in the New 52 looking not like this
...or this...
but this
Giving themselves an opportunity for a do-over, DC comes up with that Rocafort image that Asselin assessed.

Now, at least Beast Boy is the same color as he is in all of his cartoon appearances (When he was first introduced into the New 52 line, in the almost-immediately canceled book The Ravagers, he was red).

The person whose face is mostly encased in some sort of stone/bone visor? The one with the claws? That's apparently Raven, if you're wondering.

Asselin's piece did not sit well with Booth, who is not the artist who drew that shitty cover, but instead drew the far, far shittier cover for Teen Titans #1, the cover that, when first revealed, made me think this whole "New 52" thing must be some kind of demented joke.

So Booth, on the eve of his debut as the new artist for The Flash, where he'll be replacing the critically acclaimed and universally beloved art team of Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, went on a social media charm offensive in which he picked a fight with Asselin, said many, many, many very ignorant things and revealed himself to be not much for spelling or grammar (The Outhousers collect a lot of Booth's tweets, and those of his followers, here).

This sort of thing always boggles my mind, because Booth went pretty far out of his way to make himself into a (comics press, comics social media) news story, and he doesn't look very good. Again, on the eve of his new run on a new comic book. Now, a lot of people were going to avoid reading The Flash anyway because Booth is drawing it, rather than Manapul (or a good artist, period), but I imagine Booth has cost himself (and thus his book, his collaborators and his publisher) a lot more sales this week just by being as ass in public.

I don't know how much that sort of behavior factors into the purchasing decisions of the folks who encounter it, but I can't imagine how it could do anything other than hurt Booth and his book/s.

She-Hulk #3 (Marvel Entertainment) For the third issue in a row, She-Hulk takes on a legal case and ends up fighting killer robots. This time, the particular case is that Kristoff Vernard, the son of Dr. Doom, is seeking political asylum in the United States. So, naturally, the killer robots she fights in this issue are all Doombots.

As in the previous issues, this new iteration feels like a sort of compromise between Dan Slott's early Ally McBeal-in-the-Marvel Universe volume of She-Hulk and Mark Waid and company's previous volume of Daredevil. The mixture of superheroics, the practice of law and, especially, Javier Pulido's art really makes the book read like a funnier version of the Waid-written Daredevil.

SpongeBob Comics #31 (United Plankton Pictures) Another issue, another 33 ad-free pages of funny gag comics by a wide and unlikely variety of cartoonists and comics creators, this time including contributions from Joey Weiser, Vince Deporter, David DeGrand, Gregg Schigiel (Sharkbeard, a pirate who is a shark with a bear, is an awesome creation), James Kochalka, Maris Wicks and Elanor Davis. Oh, and there's a 10-page Mermaid Man story by Chuck Dixon and Ramona Fradon.

My favorite part was the back cover though (above); I just can't get over how cute Davis' Sandy is...

Please note: None of these characters appear in this issue
Superior Foes of Spider-Man #11 (Marvel) Marvel continues its bizarre campaign to try and get Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber's excellent Superior Foes of Spider-Man canceled.

You may recall the last issue shipped just one week after the issue before that, and it was a fill-in issue.

This issue is also a fill-in issue, but unlike the previous fill-in issue, it doesn't even feature any of the characters from the regular cast. Instead it focuses on two different not-so-loveable losers among Spidey's rogues—The Grizzly and The Looter—who are at least given some tangental connection to the temporarily abandoned narrative of the book by having them appear and tell their stories in the Villains Anonymous type support group that Boomerang attended in issue #3.

And it was at this particular point Marvel decided to jack the price of the book up 33%, to $3.99 for 20 pages (that have nothing to do with Superior Foes). Tom Peyer wrote the Grizzly story, while Carmen Carnero and Terry Pallot drew it. The Looter story was written by Elliott Kalan and drawn by Nuno Plati. They're both fine, but I don't think they're worth $2 a piece instead of $1.50 a piece, and I'll be damned if I know what they're doing in this book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Aronofsky's Noah (the movie) vs. Aronofsky's Noah (the graphic novel)

There's still some eight months of 2014 left, but I'll be surprised if the rest of the year manages to include a less likely film than Noah, a $125 million, special effects-heavy, major studio-produced Biblical epic co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose filmography includes small, dark, strange films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wreslter and Black Swan.

Aronofsky and his regular co-writer Ari Handel pulled off a pretty neat trick with the film in that it's pretty faithful to its source material (at least as faithful to the book of Genesis as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was to the Gospels), not subtracting much of anything, but merely adding, and adding between the lines, so that while the Bible story may not mention Noah lashing himself to the door of the arc and fighting off men trying to force their way on board, it doesn't say that didn't happen either, you know?

Aronofsky's visualizes his story in a way that's pretty mythical: The antediluvian world of Noah could be that of Genesis, so many generations after Adam and Eve left their garden. It could be set somewhere in the far-flung future, after our civilization has fallen and was forgotten. It could take place on another planet. Aronofsky's practically pre-historic world has a moon and stars that are always shining in the young sky, day or night, and the animals are all slightly off...out of the corner of a viewer's eye, they look like the animals of our world, but you won't be able to identify particular species.

Most of what will seem most head-scratching to many audiences actually is in the the Bible. There are many-limbed, stone-giants referred to as Watchers, which could correspond to the Nephillim or "sons of God" mentioned in a few cryptic lines of Genesis 6 1-6 (In Noah, these are angels who voluntarily fall to Earth in order to aid mankind, and are thus cursed by God; they nevertheless strive to teach mankind all they know). The villain of the piece, Tubal-cain, is mentioned briefly in one of the genealogical passages, specifically Genisis 4: 22, which refers to him as "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." And so on.

Aronofsky's biggest departures seem to be in service of making the story more "realistic," changing the dimensions of the ark into something that would actually be able to contains a pair of every animal on Earth, maybe (the Bible dictates its size at about 450-feet long, 50-feet wide, and 30-feet high), and solving other logistical problems (How did Noah and his sons build such a huge ship so quickly? The Watchers helped. How did they keep the animals obedient, fed and not eating one another? Herbal magic-induced suspended animation).

And then, of course, there's the weird third act, in which Aronofsky's Noah goes crazy and decides God wants to wipe all of humanity off of the Earth, and had only spared Noah and his family so that they could save the animals. When one of his daughter-in-laws, thought to be barren, is miraculously revealed to be pregnant, Noah swears to stab the child to death himself if its a girl, and thus capable of propagating the species. If all the fight scenes weren't enough to convince a viewer, this Noah is hardcore.

Looked at from one angle, this climactic plot seems a little silly, given there's certainly enough drama already in the story at that point, what with all of humanity consisting of just seven humans trapped on a wooden ship while the whole world is flooded. Looked at from another, Aronofsky is apparently looking at Noah as God's deputy and stand-in within the narrative, conflicted over whether or not to wipe all of humanity off the world or not.

Probably wisely, but controversially, Aronofsky chose not to put God in the film as a voice with spoken dialogue, the way he appears in Genesis. Rather, he communicates to Noah via dreams and visions, which may not be quite as clear as giving Noah particular measurements in cubits, but is certainly more cinematic, and relieves the filmmakers of having to depict God.

Paramount was apparently nervous about the way the film might be received, and screened three different cuts of the film to test audiences...without Aronofsky's knowledge All tested poorly, and, ultimately, the version that made it on to the screen was the version Aronofsky wanted. (This according to The Hollywood Reporter).

Or so he says. There is another version of the film available, one that is free of any budgetary concerns or input from actors: Before Noah the film was released, Noah the comic book, written by Aronofsky and Handel and lavishly illustrated by Niko Henrichon, was released.
While the basic story is the same, there are some very, very dramatic differences between the two, and while there's no reason to believe the graphic novel represents a more pure version of Aronofsky's conception of Noah, even if it predates the final film, it is interesting, if not revealing, and would at least seem to suggest concessions, compromises or choices that need to be made in a big, collaborative project involving hundreds of people versus one that involves just three.

Noah isn't the first Aronofsky film project to also become a graphic novel. Aronofsky's original script for The Fountain was adapted into a 2005 graphic novel by artist Kent Williams and released on DC's Vertigo imprint. At that point, the in-and-out-of-development project had stalled out...before Warner Brothers (the studio and corporate parent of DC Comics) resurrected the film, which ultimately saw release in 2006.

Something similar happened with the Noah graphic novel. Aronofsky and Handel gave Henrichon, the artist of Pride of Baghdad, a draft of the script, which he then began working on...years before they started production on the film. That accounts for many of those differences between the two.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy differences I noticed...

1.) Henrichon's Noah is basically Conan. I suppose the artist began designing and drawing before an actor was attached—and according to the IMDb trivia page for the film, Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender were offered the part and declined—but I was struck by how much the Noah he draws resembles the comic book version of Robert E. Howard's barbarian creation.

In the film, Noah's appearance changes rather radically several times. In the beginning, he has a short-ish beard and long hair, much of it pinned up and out of his face. When the time comes to build the ark, he has a close-shaven head and a big, bushy beard. And by the end of the film, his hair has grown out and turned gray-white, as has his beard.

The graphic novel Noah remains this big, hulking, heroic figure throughout, although he eventually sheds the superhero cape he's shown wearing in the earlier scenes.

2.) Noah's first fight. When the film opens, Noah and his two eldest sons are hunting for herbs when they spy three men chasing some kind of dog-like animal down for food. This is a bit ambiguous in the Bible, the most common reading is that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve at only plants, and lived as perfect vegetarians. It's not until after the flood that God gives humanity "dominion" over the animal kingdom, and permits them to eat flesh. Noah and his family are vegetarian, while the rest of the people are meat-eaters; it's one of the ways Aronofsky contrasts Noah and his family's way of life with the decadent life of the descendants of Cain (i.e. the rest of the world).

So in the film, three men corner a strange creature that looks a bit like a wild dog with scales or dull feathers of some sort on it. Russell Crowe's Noah kicks their asses and totally kills the three of them.

In the graphic novel, the scene is quite different. There's a huge hunting party of men, and their prey is some sort of wooly rhinocerous, a once extant, now extinct animal (in contrast to the fantasy dog-creature). And as that first panel shows, they are seemingly after the ivory of the cratures' horns, moreso than their flesh ("One beast could feed them all, but they hunt for the only useless part," Noah tells his sons. "They think it has power. But it is just like our hair, our nails. Dead flesh. They kill life for this dead thing.").

Noah scares most of the hunters away by throwing bags of something-or-other that explode like fireworks. A small group of armed men remain, and Noah fights them. He kicks their asses, but doesn't kill them...they run off.

3.) The city. One aspect of the film I found disappointing was that it told us off great cities of man that were draining the life from the earth and spoiling all around them, but we never actually see any of these cities...only from a satellite's point-of-view on a computer-generated imager of a globe.

In the graphic novel, after he has his first vision of a drowned world and realizes The Creator means to destroy the world, Noah takes it upon himself to worn his fellow man, despite knowing that, as his wife tells him, they won't listen.

He journeys with his eldest son to "Bab-ilim," "A city so vast it took a planet of spoil to stuff its ravenous maw. And in the center, a great finger poking at the heavens: The tower."
If that sounds a bit like another story from Genesis, I'm sure that's no coincidence.

This is the city that Tubal-cain rules as king. The graphic novel features a seven-page sequence in which Noah visit the city to address its people—some of whom call him "The Mage"—and warn them of the coming judgement. Tubal-cain interrupts him, tells him off, and has him thrown in the gutter outside of town. Tubal-cain and his men mount big, fat, weird, spotted horses. "Your visit to my home is over, Mage," Tubal-cain tells Noah. "Next, I visit yours."

They burn down Noah's camp and slaughter the animals he and his family keep in a sort of makeshift animal hospital, but Noah's family have hidden themselves, and are safe and waiting for Noah to return. Nevertheless, Noah takes his family on their journey to Mount Arrart to see his grandfather.

I'm not sure why this scene wasn't included in the film, as contrasting Noah and his family's way of life with that of the rest of the humanity seems like a pretty important part of the conflict, and, as I said, the film alludes to such cities without ever showing them. I can only conclude that it was a budget thing.

In any case, it's one of the many examples of the graphic novel working as a supplement to the film, showing an interested party things that didn't make it into the film—for whatever reason.

4.) Noah's wife doesn't have much to do. In the film, Jennifer Connelly play's Naameh, Noah's wife. When their family discovers a badly injured, dying girl named Ila (Emma Watson), Naameh looks at her wound and heals her. Throughout the film, Naameh is portrayed as a healer and an expert with herbs and potions—she's the one who concocts the suspended animation incense and, later, an pregnancy test made out of a leaf, water and blood.

In the graphic novel, Noah does all the healing and all the herbalism and magic stuff. It doesn't necessarily hurt the graphic novel that this is the case, but as to why the change was made, I have to assume that at some point someone figured that it was a little weird that the only female characters in the movie were basically just there to have kids and/or occasionally stand by their men; that, or Aronofsky or Paramount or whoever decided if they were gonna have Jennifer Connelly in their movie, they might as well give her something to do.

5.) The Watchers. That's what The Watchers in the graphic novel look like. They are flesh and blood creatures, and very humanoid in appearances, with eyeballs and nostrils and teeth and muscles and fingers and loin cloths and tattoos and jewelry.

The Watchers in the movie are rock giants, stone versions of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. I didn't care for the design (I don't care for this design, either), but their appearance made a sort of sense: As one of them explains when telling Noah of their fallen angel origins, they were once beings of light, and when they rebelled and fell to Earth, they landed like meteors, their bodies of light melting the stone around them into molten rock, which cooled around their angelic bodies, trapping them in awkward stone prison-like bodies.

The scene with The Watchers plays out rather differently here as well; it's longer, and involves a visit to their home, which is another elaborate set that didn't make it into the film.

6.) Methuselah. So, that's the guy they cast Anthony Hopkins to play.

As with Jennifer Connelly's character, he has quite a bit more to do, and quite a few more lines, in the film than the graphic novel. Again, I suspect that has something to do with the fact that they didn't want to hire Hopkins and then only give him two scenes and 25 lines.

7.) The kicking of Ham's "wife" to the curb. Because they too are human, every member of Noah's family has some sin, some blemish, some imperfection about them. Ham's is his envy of his older brother, and his older brother's relationship with their adopted sister, Ila (who, remember, looks like Emma Watson).
He wants to find a wife among the throngs of people camped near the ark, and sets off to do so just before the storm starts.

In the film, Noah runs out into the makeshift refugee camp of humanity in order to find his son and get him on the ark in time. When Noah does find Ham, he has already found, befriended and apparently convinced a young woman to come with him and be his wife. When they are recognized, they are chased back to the ark, and, on the way, the girl's ankle is caught in a booby trap Noah had set to keep people away.

He tries for a second or two to save her, but abandons her to save himself and his son, and she is trampled to death.

In the graphic novel, his responsibility for her death is a lot lets equivocal. Noah rides the shoulders of a Watcher into the camp and rescues Ham and Ham's would-be wife (who were previously rescued by Tubal-cain), and brings them back to the ark. But when the time comes to seal the ark, Noah throws her out to die with the rest of humanity. When Ham protests, he simply responds like a frustrated parent sick of the front door slamming open and shut on a summer afternoon: "In or out?"

Ham stays in.

So here, Noah not only doesn't provide a wife for Ham, he not only fails to save the one Ham chose for himself, but he actually sentences her to death, kicking her off the ark.


8.) The scene where Noah tells his family the first creation story in the Book of Genesis is much more beautiful in the film. Both take the "days" as metaphors, and are pretty blatantly pro-evolution, but it looks a lot cooler the way its presented in the film, as we follow evolving life as it travels over a changing world, rather than these static images.

9.) The climax. This is where things really depart quite dramatically from the film. If you've seen it—and I'm assuming you did, otherwise this post is really just going to spoil the experience of watching it—then you know that Tubal-cain has snuck aboard the ark, and that he's conspiring with Ham to maybe kill Noah or something (In the film, it's not clear how far Ham is willing to go—in the film, Noah wasn't as directly responsible for the death of his would-be wife as comics-Noah was).

And, at the same time, Noah's developed ark madness, and is pissed at his wife for having Anthony Hopkins magically repair Ila's womb, which is now full of a girl baby.

In the film, Ila and Shem plan to set sail on their own two-person ark before her baby is born, so Noah can't kill it, as he says he will. Noah sets their little boat on fire before they can leave. Here, a monstrous fish eats it.

God, it seems, is on Noah's side here...or at least the animals are. In the comic, things get weird.

Now, these plots are all resolved more-or-less at the same time in the film, whereas in the comics, Tubal-cain's attempt to kill Noah and Noah's attempt to kill his newborn grandchild are two distinct beats.

In the comic, when Ila's about to give birth, she and Naameh hole up in a specially prepared corner of the ark. Jap and Ham have lined it with pointed stakes, and stand guard in front of it with weapons. Noah, meanwhile, prays, ritually cleanses himself, puts on a robe and then stalks toward Ila's babies—twin girls, it turns out—with an army of animals.
In the course of the battle, several species go extinct.

If, for example, you're wondering why there aren't any saber toothed cats around anymore, well, this is why:

The animal army takes the birthing chamber, with some big, scary ape-things breaking through the wall and holding down Shem—
—Gigantopithecus, maybe?

Meanwhile, smaller, less savage animals like birds and lizards and a pangolin hold the women down, while Noah takes the two baby girls to the roof of the ark to slay them and...shows mercy.

It's extremely different from how this all plays out in the film, with the exception of the fact that Noah intends to kill the baby girls and relents, convinced by Ila's love for them at the very last moment.

He then retreats into drunkenness—in the graphic novel, his Watcher friend Og gifts Noah with a grape vine-in-a-box, to help him dull the pain he knows Noah will face after his ordeal—here having a bit more to come to terms with.

The bit with animals is cool in that it shows the animals, who are oddly passive and confined to the margins of the film, and so damn weird, but I think it's awfully ambiguous, as it seems to imply that God is right there with Noah every step of the way (particularly the presence of the boat-eating monster fish, which couldn't be under any sort of herbal mind-control in the same way the ark animals might have been).

Of course, not long after this story of the Bible, God does tell Abraham to kill his own son, just to tell him not to at the last moment, so maybe this was simply God moving in those mysterious ways of his?

Anyway, it's quite different than how it goes down in the film, which makes it a welcome and interesting part of the comic.

10.) No rainbow. Actually, the "rainbow" in the movie is replaced by strange rings of rainbows pulsing from an orb. Here Henrichon just draws Noah taking his wife's hand, and a pretty sunset.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Wolverine and The X-Men Vol. 7

Couldn't find a good cover image, so here's this chart.
After the six issues included in this particular volume, which collects Wolverine and The X-Men #30-35, there are only seven issues left of Jason Aaron and company's Wolverine and... series (Although it was relaunched just one week later with a new creative team and a new #1). But of those seven issues, two are spent on the "Battle of The Atom" crossover, and unlike the many issue of this series spent on tying-in to the Avengers Vs. X-Men event series, "Battle" completely took over the title for a few issues, replacing whatever story Aaron might have otherwise wanted to tell in Wolverine and... #36 and #37 with chapters of the "Battle" (I reviewed the book collecting the entire "Battle of the Atom" storyline at the bottom of this post, if you're interested).

I'm not sure what Aaron does with the last five issues of Wolverine and The X-Men (#38-42)–the trade collecting those final issues hasn't been released yet—but I have to imagine it consists of some kind of denouement, because this trade sure as hell reads like a climax for the entire series. It includes the five-issue "Hellfire Saga" story, drawn by Nick Bradshaw (with inks by Walden Wong as well as Bradshaw himself) and a one-issue "Hellfire Saga Prelude," primarily drawn by Pasqual Ferry.

Aaron's Hellfire Club, a group of four super-brilliant, ruthless tweens who are in the business of selling mutant-hunting killer robots, have been the primary antagonists throughout the series, and while they might seem like an odd fit in terms of archenemies for Wolverine, the fact that they are unsupervised kids make them ideal antagonists for Wolverine the teacher, providing an example of what can become of extremely gifted kids who don't have the likes of the X-Men teaching them to use those gifts properly.

Over the past few volumes, the Club has been embarking on a gradually revealed new strategy, and in this volume it is fully revealed: Hellfire Academy, an evil opposite, villains' equivalent of the Wolverine and The X-Men's Jean Grey Academy. Staffed entirely by X-Men villains, some traditional foes like Mystique, Saberteooth, Sauron, Windigo and a version of Mojmo, and some pulled from throughout this particular series' past storylines and Aaron-written Wolverine comics, like Dr. Xanto Starblood, Dog Logan and Lord Deathstrike.

New students include young mutants Infestation, Mudbug, Snot and Tinman, although Hellfire Academy also has its share of turncoats from the Jean Grey Academy, including teacher Husk, janitor Toad and students Glob Herman, the still brain-damaged Broo, Idie and Quentine Quire, who is there mainly to save Idie.

During the Ferry-drawn prelude, we see the Academy making its final recruitment push for faculty and students, while the X-Men begin a worldwide manhunt for the Hellfire Club. And then the "Saga" proper starts, and Aaron and Bradshaw give us a nice, fun tour of this school that is every bit as big, crazy and funny as the Jean Grey Academy, only, you know, evil (Their school uniforms, for example, are less prep school and more Hitler Youth, right down to funny hats and arm-bands.
Fun fact: "Flamin'" is Canadian for "Fuckin'"
By the time the X-Men finally find them and invade, there's a nice Everyone Vs. Everyone climactic battle, made all the more satisfying because it includes so many pay-offs from so many long-running sub-plots: Toad and Husk's relationship, and where the villain-turned-janitor's loyalties really lie; Idie's seeking vengeance for what happened to Broo; the state of Broo's mind; Kid Omega picking a side, and doing so for noble reasons; and the (likely temporary) final fates of all four Hellfire Club kids, two of whom end up forcibly enrolled at the Jean Grey school. Hey, it worked for Quentine Quire...
The volume ends with a tease about Nightcrawler and The Bamfs, which looks like Aaron will actually pick up in Amazing X-Men rather than Wolverine and The X-Men Vol. 8, but I guess we'll see. But as I said, this sure reads like the climax, if not the actual end, of the years in-the-making, 30-some issue epic storyline. It was a blast, and it's rather careful construction also made it narratively satisfying to read.

I'd kind of like to declare this the best run of an X-Men comic I've ever read, but I'm not exactly sure how to rate it against the Morrison run, given that Aaron's Wolverine and... was built on some of Morrison's particular innovations (like turning the Xavier School into an actual school), and that Aaron's run was visually superior, thanks to far fewer artists than Morison's run dealt with.

Whether it was actually better or not though is, I guess, irrelevant: It was an excellent series, and I'm going to be a little sad to read the next and final collection of the series, even knowing there's a kinda sorta continuation of it in the first arc or so of Amazing X-Men.

I did read the rebooted, "All-New Marvel Now" Wolverine and The X-Men #1 by Jason Latour, Mahmud Asrar and Israel Silva which, at least in title, promises to continue this comic book, but I didn't like that first issue at all, and now, a few months later, can't even remember anything that occurred within it, except that Quentin Quire had a conversation with Idie.

This "Animal Variant" of a cat dressed in a Wolverine costume for the first issue of the new series was awesome, though:
(Not sure why he didn't go with a wolverine wearing a Wolverine costume).

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I liked this brief exchange between Sabertooth and Dog:

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The Doop vs. Lady Mojo fight sure is...
...something.

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I had to Wikipedia both The Siege Perilous and Master Pandemonium; the latter of whom seemed so ridiculous I was sure he had to be a recent creation of Jason Aaron's, but I was totally wrong on that count.

I was catching up on this series in trade at the same time I was catching up with the Rick Remender-written Uncanny X-Force in trade, and it was kinda weird that both overlapped in certain ways, including the presence of the Siege Perilous, Sabertooth and Mystique joining a group of villains, and Sabertooth finding himself working with one of Wolverine's blood relatives.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Some picture books of note:

Buddy and The Bunnies In: Don't Play With Your Food (Hyperion; 2014): This typically delightful new Bob Shea book shares a little in common with his previous works Cheetah Can't Lose, in which the big guy is tricked by some much smaller, much cuter guys, and the Dinosaur books, as monster protagonist Buddy shares the bean shape of Dinosaur, as well as some of Dinosaur's enthusiastic growling, roaring disposition.

Buddy is a big, angry, hungry, furry, orange, striped monster, first seen on the end pages, running through the forest, knocking down trees and roaring "Rahhhhh!" He proceeds to run and roar through the title page and indica and into the story itself, yelling "Outta my way, trees!" and "Dry up, lake!" and so on at everything he passes. He eventually stops when he finds a trio of little white bunnies, each shaped like mittens with two thumbs, with ears, faces and cotton tails attached, playing checkers. Buddy tells him that he's going to eat them.

The bunnies are bummed out, as they were just about to make cupcakes.

Now Buddy may be a monster, but he's not a monster: He lets the bunnies make their cupcakes first, deciding to eat the bunnies for dessert, and he plays hide-and-seek with them while the cupcakes bake. When the cupcakes are ready, Buddy eats nine of them, and is then too full to eat the rabbits.

He returns the next day to eat the now five little white bunnies, but they again have another, more fun activity planned, and Buddy joins them, failing to eat them once again.

This goes on for several days: Buddy shows up to eat the bunnies, but the bunnies change his mind through some form of distraction. On the third day, Buddy starts to notice there are more bunnies each time he arrives. This isn't integral to the story, but makes for a pretty funny riff on the fact that rabbits are always multiplying.

You can probably guess the resolution, as it's the title of the book. When the bunnies have run out of tricks and Buddy is ready to finally eat them, they happily tell him that he's not supposed to play with his food, which is what he's been doing for days! This makes Buddy realize that the bunnies must not be his food after all, and thus no one gets eaten. (Well, no one that isn't a cupcake, anyway.)

So it's a little like the story of Shahrazad, only with playing substituted for storytelling. As with Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime, I imagine this is a particularly fun story to tell to children one-or-one or in largish groups, given that it involves lots of yelling and roaring.

And as with the last few books of Shea's of read, including Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great, it's full of beautifully, deceptively simply-rendered looking art, super-cute designs, remarkable cartooning and brilliant colors that make every page look like something that should be hanging on one's wall, rather than just lying there between the covers of a book, where visitors will have a harder time seeing those pages.

Buster, The Very Shy Dog (Houghton Mifflin; 1999): I'm pretty sure there's a saying about judging books by their covers, but I'm equally sure it's meant as a metaphor in which books represent people, and that in actuality it's generally not that bad an idea to judge books by their covers. Certainly one can judge picture books by their covers, right?

I'm going to say yes, and Buster, The Very Shy Dog is my example of why this is okay.

It was the cover that got me to pick this book and take it home. I liked the juxtaposition of the title with the image, in which we see a dog so shy that he seems a little anxious to even be on the cover of a book about himself, and is sort of cautiously sneaking onto it, and only then because there appears to be some cake and ice cream there to coax him onto the cover.

It's a cute, funny drawing by writer/artist Lisze Bechtold. And what do you know, the book, like the cover, is full of cute, funny drawings!

The book contains a trio of super-short stories starring Buster, the new addition to a family that already has a dog who is his opposite in ever way, in her personality as well as in her visual depiction. Plus, they had three cats. These other pets were not shy, they were bossy.

The first is "Buster's First Party," in which there is a birthday party at their house, which makes it exceptionally hard for Buster to find a place to hide, as he usually does.
Eventually he finds a little girl who is sitting by herself, not having any fun at all, and he slowly approaches her and puts his head on her lap.

That's followed by "Buster and Phoebe," about Busther's relationship with the older, bolder Phoebe, in which Buster discovers the one thing he's actually better than at Phoebe, something he demonstrated in the previous story: He's a good listener.

And finally there's "Buster and Phoebe Meet the Garbage Bandit," in which the two dogs team-up to find out who it is that is disturbing the family's garbage cans every night (Not to brag or anything, but I solved the mystery by the time I read the title and saw the garbage cans: It's totally raccoons.

Like a good comic, Buster derives its comedic power and/or charm from the interplay between the words and images, the latter of which often illustrate a particular example of what the words say, without the words having to spell it all out.


A Child’s Book of Angels (Barefoot Books; 2000): I’m not entirely sure who this book is for, and/or what age of child would most appreciate it. I would have been interested at about any point in my life before the onset of adulthood, I guess, for the same reasons I was interested in mythology, demonology and any and all writings about fairies and monsters: The sense of a large body of ancient but new-to-me knowledge, the system of order and classifications.

In fact, that’s why I picked it up and brought it home, even though now that I’m an adult and these areas of knowledge seem less forbidden, less secret, less occult to me: On a flip-through, I saw a listing of the classic order of angels, something that used to fascinate me as a little kid, when angels were just angels, and I didn’t know there were different kinds. You know, Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, etc.

The book is written Joanna Crosse and rather lavishly—I’d even say overly—illustrated by artist Olwyn Whelan.

It’s awfully, even surprisingly New Age-y. The story, which is really just a framework upon which Crosse can lay out a bunch of information about angels, is that Matt, a young boy who suffers from nightmares, is talking to his mom about guardian angels before bed one night. He wishes he could see at meet his guardian angel and, no sooner does his mom turn out the lights, then he does: The angel Muriel is sitting on his bed, and takes him on a flight around the universe, introducing him to various angels of various kinds and functions.

They start with an explanation of the zodiac and its angels, and then move on to astrological signs. From there, it’s planetary angels, and then the aforementioned hierarchy, and a sort of animism, in which every thing has an angel of its own, from seasons and healing, to birth and death, to cities and houses, to plants and animals. Of these, Crosse includes “Devas,” who work hand in hand with “Many helpers, such as fairies, elves, brownies, sylphs and ondines.”

The book is also surprisingly non-committal about any religious articles of faith, as when Muriel answers Matt’s question about where the stars and planets come from with, “Nobody really knows”…surely this angel has read or had access to a science textbook right? Or could at least commit to a “God created them.” Or split the difference with “Some say this, others say that.” Teach the controversy, Muriel! (Not that there is a controversy; if there are all these angels, there’s gotta be a God, right? And God can be the author of the creation of the stars and planets, whether its described as magic or a scientific process).

Muriel never talks about God, but does say Creator-with-a-capital-“C” once. When discussing death, there’s a rather New Age-y passage about shedding the heavy overcoat of life and “all dying leads to new life,” and a “next cycle of existence.”

Reading, I was pretty constantly curious about Crosse’s sources, and she does helpfully include a two-page listing of 17 sources, but not in a rigorous, instance-by-instance way, and they all seem like secondary, tertiary or even further removed sources, with names like An Angel a Week, A Dictionary of Angels, Encyclopedia of Angels and so forth (and some titles that sound like they would only be found on the bookshelves of a New Age store, like Working with Angels, Fairies and Nature Spirits and The Crystal Healer).

Each page is packed with extremely colorful artwork, much of it quite elaborate in design, with borders around the pages and detailed patterns on the angels’ robes. It was flat and suggestive of ancient artwork, but fully-painted with gradiated shades of water-colors; I don’t now if the term “baroque Tomie de Paolo” means anything to anyone but me, but that’s what I thought while looking at many of the pages.

Clever Cat (Alfred A. Knopf; 2000): Peter Collington's book is a rather humorous story, but it's also a fable of sorts, premised as an explanation for why cats seem so lazy and why they are so helpless, relying on their human owners for just about everything—all while examining exactly what makes a cat clever or not. His highly realistic, painted art really sells the humor, as his cats look so much like real cats, so when the protagonist, Tibs, begins exhibiting human-like behavior, the absurdity is underscored. (I didn't care for many of his humans though, simply because they seemed so representational).

Tibs is a pretty typical cat, waiting every morning outside his front door for one of the humans he lives with to let him in, and then standing in the middle of the hall, waiting to be noticed and fed breakfast. Finally, after every other family member rushes past, late for school or work, Mrs. Ford notice hims and says, "Why can't you feed yourself,you great fat lump? You always make me late."

Sick of always waiting for the humans to feed him, and perhaps taking Mrs. Ford's words to heart, one day he climbs up to the cupboard, takes down a can of cat food, opens it with a an opener and standing on his hind legs, eats it from a plate and spoon.

Impressed with how clever Tibs is, Mrs. Ford gives him his own front door key and, the day after that, a cash card, as she forgot to buy him cat food, but he seems clever enough to go buy his own.

The neighbors see Tibs walking home on his hind legs, carrying two cans of cat food, a house key and a cash card in his front paws, and remark that they wish they had a clever cat like Tibs, rather than the lazy cats they have, who just lay there sunning themselves. Those cats simply wink at each other: Perhaps they know something the reader doesn't?

Tibs gradually becomes more and more a cat of the world, dining in cafes, going to the movies and so on.
Eventually, the Fords take the cash card back and sit him down for a talk. Since becoming clever, Tibs has also become expensive, so they tell him he needs to get a job, and pay rent. He gets a job as a waiter at the cafe he likes, and he soon finds himself living exactly like a human: Working long, hard hours, and turning over most of the money he earns for rent and bills, so that he's left with only enough money to buy himself cat food to eat.
Arriving late for work one day, he loses his job, and the Fords aren't happy (There's an illustration of the scene where he's told that he must find a new job immediately by his masters-turned-landlords that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, as he covers his eyes with his little cat paws while showers of tears pour out of them).

Then he notices all those other cats dozing in the sun, and realizes what it is exactly that makes a cat clever. And so he plays dumb again, and goes back to his life of leisure, where his only problem was having to wait for someone else to feed him.

Goldilocks and Just One Bear (Candlewick Press; 2011): Leigh Hodgkinsons' riff on Goldilocks and the Three Bears starts out as a pretty simple reversal of the classic story, with a bear—wearing boots and a scarf—getting so lost that he soon finds himself no longer in the woods, but in a noisy, scary, confusing big city. He flees the street to find refuge, and ends up in an apartment in the Snooty Towers building. He's hungry and tired, and looks for something to eat and somewhere to rest, where he repeats Goldilocks' patterns in the home of the three bears—sort of.

"This porridge is too soupy," he says while dipping his spoon in the fish bowl. "This porridge is too crunchy," he says while spooning up cat food from the dish on the floor labeled "Le Chat."

When he dozes off in a just-right bed, three blonde human beings come home—a daddy person, a mommy person and al little person. Mid-way through the human family's freak out, the book takes a rather unexpected twist, when (spoiler warning!) the bear thinks the blond mommy person looks a little familiar to him, and the blond mommy person thinks the whole accidentally wrecking-the-joint sceneario seems familiar to her:
"Baby Bear?" said the mommy person.

"Goldilocks?" said the bear.
And so it was that the grown-up Goldilocks and the grown-up Baby Bear were reunited under strangely coincidental circumstances. After the family serves the bear some porridge, they send him on his way, with a map back tot he woods.

Hodgkinson's art is extreely charming, flat, simple and rough in design, but very busy and very colorful, with an almost collage-like quality to the juxtaposition of coloring and textures in the various objects in the fuller panels.

I'm a Frog! (Hyperion; 2013): The first thing one notices about Mo Willems' latest Elephant & Piggie book is the uncharacteristic contraction in the title, the I'm in I'm a Frog! rather than an I am. Perhaps due to their being books for starting readers, these rarely if ever have the characters speaking in contractions, which was, for me at least, at first somewhat off-putting, but the grand, emphatic way in which the characters spoke eventually became part of the humor (Scanning the list of other Elephant & Piggie titles at the back of the book—19 already!—I see one other has had a contraction in the title, Let's Go for a Drive!, while I Am Invited to a Party!, I Will Surprise My Friend and others eschew contraction opportunities).

So the plot of this one is that Gerald the elephant is surprised one day when Piggie hops over to him ribbit-ing and, when he questions her behavior, she explains that she is a frog (Contrary to her name, her appearance and what Gerald knows of her).

She explains that she's pretending to be a frog, and most of the book is taken up by her trying to explain the concept of pretending to Gerald, who is hearing it for the first time (contrary to the events of some other books, but whatevs, let's not nitpick continuity in standalone starter reader books; that's much more fun with superhero comics).

There's a nice, sharp bit where Gerald seems somewhat alarmed by the concept of pretending. "You can just go out and pretend to be something you are not!?" he asks, and, when Piggie assures him that everyone pretends, he follows up with, "Even grown-up people?"

Piggie looks out at the reader, her eyes narrowed and one eyebrow raised, as she says out of the side of her mouth, "All the time." Gerald, follows her gaze, looking at the reader, a single eyebrow raised in curiosity.

The concept of pretending eventually makes sense to Gerald, and he joins in, in one of those neat little almost-twist endings Willems excels at in these books. But the grown-ups diss is probably the the most noteworthy aspect of the book, a little bit of fourth-wall breaking meta-commentary of the sort that permeates We Are in a Book!.

Lines That Wiggle (Blue Apple Books; 2009): This book written by Candace Whitman and drawn by Steve Wilson is on a subject integral to art: Lines. The verbal component is pretty simple, a sing-songy, rhyming delineation of various types of lines. "Lines that wiggle, lines that bend, wavy lines from end to end," and so on.

Each page is a sort of standalone, poster or print-like image with brilliant bright colors of a limited variety per page; there's little texture or depth or detail, but the subject matter is fun, funny and of particular subjects of great interest to me. Mostly monsters really; in addition to the monster eating spaghetti on the front cover, there's a giant black monster sitting atop a rainbow, a giant monstrous foot that makes a school bus detour around it, and a trio of Bigfoot monsters captured in a net:
There's a giant octopus, a mummy, a horse wearing a cowboy boots, and a big, bipedal cat walking a bunch of little daschunds on leashes. In fact, there isn't a page in the book that I wouldn't like to see in poster form, hanging on a wall.
Each page features a shiny, slightly raised line, that runs across the page, and is integrated into the art, allowing one to follow the lines with the finger as well as the eyes. I don't know if its meant to be an art book or not, but it can certainly be read as one: Both as a collection of great, individual art images by Steve Wilson, and as a sort of basic how-to guide, in terms of identifying and classifying that basic component of drawings. "Lines are everywhere you look," Whitman concludes, "so find some lines not in this book!"

Little Owl's Orange Scarf (Alfred A. Knopf; 2012): Tatyana Feeney introduces us to Little Owl, a little owly who lives with his mom in a tree in Central Park. After we learn a little bit about Little Owl and his likes, we learn something that he doesn't like, his new orange scarf that his mom had made him. Not only was it orange and itchy, it was very, very long (so long, that it extends across three pages when we first see it).

Little Owl tries very hard to lose his scarf, and he finally succeeds on a class field trip to the zoo.
I love this image of his mom calling the zoo, as it is the only instance where some object or item that the owls have or use is of human rather than owl proportions.

So Little Owl's mom has to make him a new scarf, so this time they work on it together, which makes for a nice bonding experience, and also means that Little Owl gets to add his own input, meaning he gets a scarf he like: Blue, and appropriate in length. (And there's a neat revelation of how he finally managed to get rid of his too-long orange scarf on the last page).

Feeney's art work is wonderfuly simple, seemingly done with sparse pencil lines on white pages, with just very sparse bits of blue, orange and grey coloring throughout (For example, their little triangle beaks are orange, Little Owl has a few blue feathers, while his mother has a few gray feathers, and so on).

The lettering isn't hand-lettered, but it is big and blocky, and blue in color, looking as if it were (mechanically) filled in with blue lines, as if the artist were coloring in the white space of the block letters.

It's a really beautiful-looking book, the simplicity of Feeney's art only accentuating that beauty.

The 108th Sheep (Tiger Tales; 2007): This gorgeous republication of a 2006 British book by artist Ayano Imai concerns the practice of counting sheep to fall asleep, as the cover no doubt suggests.

The main character is a little girl named Emma who can't fall asleep, and drinking warm milk and reading didn't do anything to help. She finally turns to counting sheep, and one by one a big, fluffy sheep—each shaped a bit like a lop-sided egg, with a little black head and weird, realistic sheep eyes and tiny black sheep legs sprouting from the orb of wool—appears and leaps over the high headboard of her bed. Each is stamped with a red number, making counting all the easier, and even this doesn't work as she hoped, as she gets all the way up to 107 without dropping off:
"There goes 106," she said. "And there's 107. And now here comes..."

There was a thud, and Emma's bed shook slightly.

The 108th sheep did not appear.
Not-so-hot at high-jumping, the 108th sheep can't make it over the headboard, which is a big problem for everyone: I guess they can't jump out of order, and the sheep can't go to sleep until they finish their job and, for that to happen, 108 has to get over the headboard.

Emma and the sheep collaborate on different methods for helping 108 get over, which Imai draws without explaining each, letting the pictures handle the explanations for her, and Emma ultimately comes up with a solution that find her and the 100+ sheep all curled up snugly and asleep in her bedroom.

The book is a big, square one, far too big to fit on my scanner, and the pages are of a wonderful texture that a more knowledgeable writer about books could probably name to you, but all I can say is that each page was full of little grooves, and it felt a bit like wall paper to me.

Imai's artwork is all in pencil, with the quite delicate individual lines all clearly visible. Each cream-colored page has a red-paneled border in the middle, with the picture appearing within that panel. These are black and white and a little bit of red; or, actually, they are paper-white and pencil-gray, with the numbers on the sheep appearing in the same deep red as the panel borders, and a slightly lighter red coloring Emmas's rosey cheeks.

It's quite a beautiful-looking book, from the art to its format and construction, and the story it tells is pretty charming.

Penguin and Pinecone: A Friendship Story (Walker & Company; 2012): Salina Yoon's penguin character, Penguin, finds a pinecone in the snow one day. Penguin has never seen or met a pinceonce before, and doesn't know what it is, but he recognizes it as cold, so he sits down and knits it a little orange scarf like the one he wears. They happily play together, until Pinecone sneezes, and Penguin's Grandpa tells him that the pinecone, Pinecone, belongs in the forest, and so Penguin takes his friend to a pine forest and leaves it there.

Later, Penguin returns to find that his friend has grown up into a big, strong pine tree, easily identifiable by the orange scarf tied around its upper branches. They hang out and play in Pinecone's home turf for a while, but that environment is no better for Penguin than the snowy Antarctic was for Pinecone, so Penguin leaves.

There's a little overly direct moral at the end—"When you give love...it grows"—but it's accompanied by a very neat image of a whole forest of pinetrees, many of them wearing little pieces of winter clothing, to designate them as pinecones that befriended penguins (when Penguin first returns home, he accidentally brought a new pinecone with him, and a female penguin befriends it; on that last page, we see a tree wearing a boot around its trunk and a bow atop its boughs that match her own boots and bow).

The artwork, as you can tell by that on the cover, is darling.

Penguin on Vacation (Walker Books; 2013): Salina Yoon's Penguin returns to make a new friend in this book, in which he decides he needs a vacation ("Snow again?", he asks, comic book style). For a change of pace, he decides he wants to go somewhere tropical, so he leaves his scarf with his grandpa, packs a suitcase, and rides a gradually melting ice floe to a tropical beach.

He quickly discovers that the environment is pretty foreign to him, and his normal activities can't be replicated in a sandy environment. Then Penguin makes a new friend, Crab, who teaches him how to have fun at the beach.

Eventually, Penguin needs to go home, so he sits on his luckily buoyant suitcase, and Crab stows away, saying "I need a vacation too!" So Penguin gives Crab a little green scarf and matching mittens, and he shows him how to enjoy the snow and ice. It's pretty similar to Penguin and Pinecone in its cultural exchange, and just as cute.

Santa and the Three Bears (Boyds Mill Press; 2000): I read this, and I'm writing these few paragraphs about it, after I read the next book discussed in this post, despite the fact that this beat it to market by some 13 years. Despite coming first, it is a less elegant and less obvious admixture of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the story of Santa Claus. Here, the three bears-a papa, mama and baby polar bear—intrude upon Santa's house while he's away on Christmas Eve, doing his thing, and Mrs. Claus and the Claus' three elf helpers have gone out to get a Christmas tree.

The bears wreak havoc in Santa's cottage, but make restitution after Mrs. Claus finds them all sleeping in the Claus' bed—she puts them to work, fixing the damage they caused.

Writer Dominic Catalano presents a rather rustic Santa, unmoored somewhat in time—sometime after the invention of the electric Christmas lights—giving the book a classic feel, and his Santa and Mrs. are decidedly elfin in their own appearance, with long, pointy ears and noses.

Santa Claus and the Three Bears (Harper Collins; 2013): Writer Maria Modugno has come up with a pretty simple idea for a story, a Christmas twist on a fairy tale classic that pretty much tells its whole story right there in the title.

Modugno doesn't even mash up A Visit From St. Nicholas and Goldilocks and The Three Bears so much as she subtracts the little blonde from the latter, and adds Santa Claus to replace her. The other major tweaks of the story are to change the species of bear from the more generic brown bear to polar bears, and to holiday up the details.

So it's the night before Christmas and the three bears—big Papa Bear, middle-size Mama Bear and wee little Baby Bear—are getting ready for the holiday, decorating the house, putting up the tree and baking. When they sit down for their Christmas pudding, they realize it's too hot to eat, so instead of putting ice cubes in it like sensible bears, they decide to go for a walk to look at the Christmas lights in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Santa comes down the chimney, tries the three bowls of pudding, sits in the three chairs and, tuckered out after all that work, tries all three beds. The Bear family returns to find him sleeping in Baby Bear's bed, but rather than running off, as the little girl trespasser generally does, he gives them each a present, in a flip-flopped size order, so that Baby Bear gets the great big present, Papa Bear gets a little present and Mama Bear gets a medium-sized one.

The illustrations are provided by Jane and Brooke Dyer, and really make the book. Their polar bear family is a highly civilized one, obviously, as they live in a house with furniture and all, but theirs is still a rather rustic life, with Papa Bear having a big, stiff chair made from thick birch branches, for example, and their decorations being all-natural: garlands of holly and berries, and icicles that Papa Bear carries in a back-basket and somehow attaches to the house. Their Santa is similarly old-school, looking like the fat, little, old elf described by Clement Clark Moore, rather than a more modern, post Coke advertisement Santa Claus.

No word on what the bears thought when they watched those eight nine delicious-looking reindeer flying away into the night, but I imagine it was something along the lines of "Mmm, reindeer"...

Santa’s New Suit (HarperCollins; 2000): Writer/artist Laura Rader’s charming Christmas picture book opens a week before Christmas, with Santa Claus looking into a closet and deciding he doesn’t have a thing to wear (We’ve all been there, I suppose).

Not only is it full of nothing but identical red suits with white fur trim and matching hats, they all show signs of some serious wear-and-tear. I suppose centuries of around-the-world winter night flights and going up and down millions of chimneys will do that.

“I need a change,” he announces to Mrs. Claus, and tells her that he’s going to go buy a new suit. After a brief sequence in town where he visits various stores, he finds what he’s looking for at a store named The Snappy Dude.
Unfortunately, no one seems as enamored of the new suit as Santa, with typical reactions at the North Pole being “Oh my!” and “Egads” and “Yikes!” It doesn’t work outside the arctic circle either, as no one recognizes Santa without his trademark suit, which I suppose is as much as a uniform at this point as anything else. Obviously, things turn out as one might expect, and by Christmas Eve Santa Claus is back in his more familiar outfit.

The message is perhaps a negative one if you think too deeply about it—for Santa, clothes really do make the man, and he finds himself bound to the status quo, beset on all sides by peer pressure to dress to others’ expectations of him—but that’s probably just a thirtysomething’s too-close reading of the book, which is really much more focused on the humor of presenting a very familiar figure with an extreme change, and exploring the ways in which the world might react.

Snowy Valentine (Harper; 2012): You know David Petersen as the creator of the winning comic Mouse Guard (and the drawer of occasional covers for books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fraggle Rock and The Muppets), did you know he's also responsible for at least one children's picture book?

Well, he is.

Though the cute, anthropomorphic woodland creatures on the cover of this book are rabbits rather than mice, it's immediately and abundantly clear that this is the work of the same artist.

The story, which Petersen has conceived and written as well as drawn, is so simple that to say too much about it at all is to risk ruining it. On a snowy Valentines Day morning, Jasper Bunny sets out from his home atop a hill, intent on thinking of the perfect gift with which to express his feelings for his wife, Lilly. He decided to visit his neighbors for ideas.

He visits the Porcupines and The Frogs, stops by a flower cart run by Everett (A raccoon), wind sup in some trouble when Teagan Fox invites him in to his den to brainstorm, and has a brief chat with a cardinal before returning home. Metaphorically, the journey itself proves his love for Lilly and, in its doing, he inadvertently created a big, unmistakable, visual sign of his love for her.

Rather than the medieval setting of his Mouse Guard comics, these animals seem to live in a more modern period in the past, perhaps a comfortable, Victorian village in Europe or perhaps the United States. In the setting, realistic rendering of human-like animals, and their dress and manners, Petersen's book evokes the work of Beatrix Potter. I have to assume that Petersen's wife Julia, for whom he made the book (the dust jacket says) was quite pleased with her Valentine's gift that year.

Tea Rex (Viking; 2013): Get it? Tea Rex? Like a T-Rex, but here the "T" refers to the beverage, and is not an abbreviation for "Tyrannosaurus"...?

Well, I laughed.

There's not much more to the joke than what Molly Idle has put right there on the cover: The clever play of words, the huge dinosaur sat awkwardly but gamely with two little kids at a children's tea party, but that's actually plenty.

Inside, Idle's words are instructional in nature, explaining how one is to host a tea party:

When hosting an afternoon tea for a special friend—greet your guest at the door. Lead him through to the parlor. Introduce him to your other guests—and offer him a comfortable chair.

And so on. The images feature the little girl hosting the tea, Cordelia, and her more little still brother or friend, going through each of these steps with their guest, a very polite Tyrannosaurus who wears a little polkadot bowtie and carries a tiny hat with his tail.

The difficulty of doing each of these things when a dinosaur is involved is illustrated, and is often in sharp contrast to the quiet, polite tone of the writing. For example, the words "Lead him through to the parlor" appear on a two-page spread in which the dinosaur strains and sturggles to fifth through the door, while Cordelis pulls on one of his little arms, and her friend or brother pulls on her shawl.

A few pages later, the instructions "Take Turns making small talk..." lead off a four-page sequence in which 1) Cordelia babbles on about the weather and her begonias while the boy looks bored and the dinosaur points at his watch, 2) The little boy says "Ta-daaa!" as he hangs a spoon from his nose, and 3) the T-Rex says "ROAAAAAR!" and and blows everyone off the pages.

It's delightful.

Yeti, Turn out the Light! (Chronicle Books; 2013): Next to the last two Shea books, this is probably my favorite picture book that I've read in quite a long while, not simply because it features a Yeti as its protagonist or because artist Wednesday Kirwan (who obviously had pretty cool parents) had produced such wonderful artwork, contrasting the bestial reputation of the maybe-real-but-probably-not monster with a mundane, domestic setting and drawing some of the cutest woodland creatures imaginable.

No, what I really like about it is the look on the Yeti's face. That's not anger; that's just the face the Yeti always makes, no matter what he's doing.
On the first page, we see the Yeti standing on a cliff, holding a large stick, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looks out over an idyllic valley, where a pair of deer drink from a stream. The rhyming narration tells us that the Yeti's day is just about over, so he returns to his home, carrying the stick over his shoulder (no idea what he does with that stick all day). That home in the side of a cliff, and accessible by a bright red door, complete with a door knob, keyhole and hinges—hard to believe Bigfooters have been unable to find any sasquatches or yeti,given such a tell-tale sign to where they might live. Why, it couldn't be any easier to spot, not unless he put out a welcome mat and erected a mailbox reading "Yeti" on it.

After he eats dinner and flosses and crawls into bed, Yeti is already to drift off to sleep, when suddenly he sees strange, scary shadows on the wall. He turns on his beside lamp only to discover that they are....
...adorable bunny rabbits.

They join him in bed, but on on the next page, another strange shadow appears, scaring Yeti and the bunnies, and yet again it turns out to be an adorable set of woodland creatures, so arranged that their shadows look scary in the dark. This happens a few more times and, eventually, Yeti kicks all the animals out, and everyone goes to sleep in their respective homes.

I'm not a big fan of the rhyming storybook, but writers Greg Long and Chris Edmundson do an okay job of it here, and it was somewhat inspired to make the child-like character easily frightened at bedtime be a monster himself, and for basing a whole book around the common childhood phenomenon of turning the least threatening objects into monstrous things when the lights go out.

But mostly what I admire about this is Kirwan's art. And her Yeti face and expressions, which change very, very little from emotion to emotion.