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I read six books this week, five of which are reviewed here.


1) Transmetropolitan: Lust for Life - Warren Ellis
I've been a Transmetropolitan fan ever since issue ten (waaay back in '98 when it was still being published by Helix). At the time it was second only to Sandman in my ranking of favorite graphic novel series.

Even though I have almost the entire series in single issues, I recently picked it up again in anthology format. I did this because I wanted to read through the entire series a) without gaps where I'm missing individual issues, b) without the massive adverts that cluttered up every other page in the issues, and c) to see how well it holds up 12 years later.

I was especially worried about c) because a lot of scifi/dystopian fiction does not hold up very well (anyone remember how much the 1995 in Terminator 2 looked more like the '80s than the grunge era?). I am very gratified to report that Transmetropolitan has held up well. Extremely well, in fact.

It's amazing how presciently Ellis imagined just how (at the time nonexistent) technologies like social networking, RSS feeds, smartphones and the rest would transform not only the way humans engage in commerce and politics, but with each other as well. Like the best scifi, Transmetropolitan doesn't rely on futuretech to cover plot holes or authorial laziness, but rather imagines how upcoming technology will develop and how it will effect us.

I find this all the more refreshing as I struggle through another graphic novel series (The Walking Dead) whose author has made explicit his intentions to engage in Important Social Commentary and Realistic Speculation, but who falls short in nearly every regard. Transmetropolitan, however, hit the ground running and remained spot on straight through all of the 12 issues anthologised in these collections.

This isn't to say that it's not without faults. Although the series flirts with all kinds of outlandish sexuality, that depicted in penciller Darick Roberson's illustrations is unfailingly of the "naked women drawn to appeal to heterosexual male readers" variety, and protagonist Spider Jerusalem does commit acts of violence clearly meant to be comic relief by virtue of his having committed them, but which aren't that distinguishable from the reprehensible acts of violence committed by antagonists that drive much of the plot in these early episodes. Still, from the storyline, characterizations, and dialogue to the art, coloring, and panelling, I'm happy to report that this series has done better than just aged well--if anything, it's become even more relevant.




2) Y: The Last Man: Safeword - Brian Vaughan
Y: The Last Man is a perfect example of a series that takes a long time to start hitting its stride--four volumes in fact. The series takes place in the aftermath of a mysterious plague that has wiped out every living creature on earth with a Y chromosome. While the first two volumes engaged in far too much misdirected answering, Vaughan (or perhaps his editors) thankfully decided to start tackling the obvious big questions in this volume--how do such events effect people psychologically and how do they cope?--and to largely good effect. There's plenty of sexuality and violence to be sure, but at least Vaughan attempts to have his cake and eat it too by using it to comment on common scifi tropes while at the same time engaging in them. Readers who have slogged through the first 2.5 volumes will be rewarded in the fourth, with the promise of still better things to come.



3) Y: The Last Man: Right of Truth - Brian Vaughan
If Vaughan devoted vol. 4 to taking a more nuanced look at how the world would react to half of humanity's instantaneous demise, vol. 5 begins to examine why the titular character and his pet monkey were the only two males on earth to survive it. Vaughan has traded in the previous volume's dalliance with sexploitation in favor of a Tarantino-esque angle featuring a showdown between members of a secret paramilitary organization, ninjas, and a neat in-the-immediate-aftermath survival story. The latter episode is especially well done, and Vaughan wrings a lot of humor out of it and the continued interactions of post-apocalyptic society.

I remain a bit skeptical about the quasi-scientific explanation being advanced for Yorick's survival, but it's a far better deus ex machina than that being hinted at in the previous volumes. I get the feeling the gang's going to be headed to Japan in the next volume and I'm equally hopeful and worried about Vaughan's ability to pull it off believably if they do.



4) The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars
I'm just under a third of the way through this series and I have to say, it's pretty piss-poorly written. For all that Kirkman made a big to do about using zombie fiction to illuminate the human condition, he is sorely, sorely lacking in insight into human emotions and motivations. The main character continues to be an authorial wish-fulfillment vehicle and the other secondary characters are all inconsistently depicted and thus forgettable.

This fourth volume finds our heroes taking up residence in a penitentiary--a setup utilized so that Kirkman can engage in some heavy-handed racial commentary borrowed directly from B-grade daytime television dramas. The protagonist's conveniently hysterical wife is ostensibly the bad guy here, but one rather suspects Kirkman himself would look askance at being asked to room with maximum security inmates, even though his authorial self looks down its nose at this example of prejudice. This arc is even more unsatisfying for the narrative inconsistencies it exposes (To whit: if it's feasible to settle in a zombie-infested penitentiary, why wasn't it feasible to settle in the zombie-infested McMansions of vol. 3?)

Throw in a ridiculously melodramatic suicide pact from left field, an even more ridiculously improbably zombie attack survival, an attempt at locker room humor that should make any decent reader's skin crawl, and even the development concerning the zombie plague isn't enough to salvage this volume.



5) The Frenzy - Francesca Lia Block
After penning the genre-bending Weetzie Bat books, Block settled into a comfortable rut writing short volumes based on fairy tales, most of which were pretty forgettable. The Frenzy does and does not manage to buck this trend. It's definitely the most straightforwardly-written of all the Block books I've read to date, and obviously draws its inspiration more from the spirit of the original Grimm's fairy tales than their Disney adaptations. It also deals with a host of heavy issues from homophobia, racism, and body image pressures to failing marriages and emotionally and physically abusive parents.

Unfortunately Block's attempts to tackle these issues are not as successful as they were in her stunning Wasteland, a fact not aided by the many narrative threads unsatisfactorily left hanging at the volume's conclusion. I don't by any means feel that reading The Frenzy is a waste of time, but it's much more of a commute book than a read to be savored.


That will be all.
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