I received Rusty Brown as a Christmas gift from my wife. The book is an awkward, heavy rectangle that juts out of my bookcase. Before opening it up I knew nothing about its titular character or the author Chris Ware. When I sat down to read the book I thought, okay, this is about a funny looking kid who’s the class outcast. Now here’s a new girl at school that misses her best friend. Wait, this book is also about a burnout kid’s whole life?
I definitely didn’t expect all this. Rusty Brown is about isolation, self-destruction, sexism, racism, family dysfunction, and life in general. It evokes suburban tales like American Beauty and The Wonder Years, but without any kind of candy coating or overarching moral judgement. Life simply happens, and the characters influence their own lives in both positive and negative ways.
The characters and stories feel real and grounded, due in large part to the Omaha, Nebraska setting (the same place Ware grew up). Mundane rituals mix with signifiant happenings to create an experience that can be uncomfortably personal. The colorful pop art style and cartoony characters belie the complex themes and sometimes graphic events. Watching a little boy flee his abusive father is all the more horrific because the same art style could be used for a Family Circus type of story.
The more I read Rusty Brown, the more I wanted. It reminded me of reading Maus or Watchmen for the first time. The works have little in common aside from the fact they are all unique art pieces that showcase the graphic novel medium. In case I haven’t been clear enough, Rusty Brown is a must-read. Also, I discovered that Rusty Brown and Maus do share a connection. Many years ago Art Spiegelman invited Ware to contribute to Raw magazine, helping Ware move forward as an artist. Game recognize game.
I played Fallout 3 long before reading A Boy and His Dog, so picking up Harlan Ellison’s novella for the first time in 2018 felt unsettlingly familiar. The story takes place in a war-ravaged America that’s inhabited by roving gangs of street toughs and telepathic dogs. “Normal” people live in underground bunkers that resemble idyllic, virginal small towns.
Vic and his dog Blood are a bonded pair, but that’s threatened when a girl escapes from her bunker only to lure Vic back to it. Vic lacks morals, the story is bleak, and the setting is a nightmare. And I see why the creators of Fallout loved it. A Boy and His Dog combines the casual violence of A Clockwork Orange with video game-like action and some audacious humor. When an older woman in the bunker shows interest in Vic, he responds by commenting on her obvious horniness, because he knows her husband isn’t doing anything for her.
It’s strange that a story that involves rape and cannibalism can be an enjoyable, quick read, but Vic’s voice is young and naïve enough to pull it off. He’s not a narrator that’s been beaten down by life (unlike the narrator of Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”); he’s a dumb kid that’s still figuring out his place in the bombed-out world. I haven’t read any of the other Vic and Blood stories yet, but if I had a telepathic dog he would tell me to hurry my ass up and get to readin’.
Brian K. Vaughan is my favorite comic book writer, and that’s saying something when writers like Alan Moore exist. BKV has received lots of positive attention for books like Y: The Last Man and Saga, but Ex Machina doesn’t get talked about much. Let’s change that right now by diving into the story of Mitchell Hundred, aka “The Great Machine.”
Ex Machina has one of the best comic book hooks I’ve ever heard – the world’s only superhero saves the second tower on 9/11 and thereafter becomes the mayor of New York City. Before the story proper begins, a mysterious object explodes in Hundred’s face, and he becomes a bumbling superhero who can speak to machines and control them to a certain extent. Though he’s a pitiful superhero, the publicity of 9/11 is enough to win him the mayor job (unless he rigged the election… it’s one of the lingering and intriguing questions of the story). Ex Machina follows Mitchell’s time in office, and it’s interspliced with flashbacks of his jetpack misadventures.
Tony Harris’s art is fantastic when depicting action scenes, and it makes the political conversations – of which there are many – much more interesting. Moreso than the art, the origin of Hundred’s powers and the reckoning they foreshadow are my favorite part of the book. Despite how often he uses them, Hundred is completely disinterested in his powers, but the more we learn about them, the more frightening they become. The flashbacks to 9/11 are also quite affecting. The tragedy of 2001 was a personal event for BKV, and the references to Hundred’s PTSD are haunting. Seeing a panicked Hundred trying his best to catch people falling from a crumbling building, knowing he will surely fail in catching everyone, are the kind of comic panels that stick with a reader.
The politics aren’t my favorite part of Ex Machina, but that doesn’t mean they’re not appealing in their own way. Sure, some of the political debates may seem dated now (e.g. gay marriage). But without the politics, we wouldn’t witness the political machine grinding Mayor Hundred into a worse version of himself throughout his time in office. I won’t spoil the ending here; suffice to say Hundred’s best friends are not campaign contributors by the closing issue.
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and the way it bleeds its way into Ex Machina is fascinating. I won’t say it’s “realistic” (that’s a bridge too far when a man flies around like the Rocketeer); the build up is gradual though, so the wild revelations make sense within the context of the story. There’s no Twilight Zone quick twist, more like gradual waves of uneasiness and nightmares preceding the demons. Ex Machina isn’t as fun of a romp as Y: The Last Man, and it’s not as addicting as Saga, but its well deserving of a read.
I first met rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi while watching the ‘80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he wasn’t just a friend to the turtles, but an original character with his own comic series. Stan Sakai started the Usagi Yojimbo series in 1984, and The Special Edition collects the first seven volumes.
Usagi is a rōnin (masterless samurai) who wanders a fantastical Feudal Japan full of anthropomorphic animals, finding adventure along the way. Sakai’s art style is pleasantly cartoonish, even when characters are being stabbed or beheaded. It’s an odd contradiction, but it works very well. Plus, little details are fun to find; in one panel corner a lizard catches sight of an approaching conflict, and in the next panel the lizard flees in fear. The Special Edition tells short, self-contained stories while introducing recurring characters who work to assist or hinder Usagi. For example, if Usagi duels and defeats an enemy in one issue, that same antagonist is likely to pop up in a later issue looking for revenge. Sakai strikes a perfect balance between serialization and simplicity.
Many of the stories in The Special Edition are about good versus evil, but the gray areas are the most intriguing. In one story Usagi escorts an older woman to her home village where he finds that the cruel village leader is the woman’s son. The woman, aware of how the villagers are suffering under tyranny, pleads with Usagi to kill her son. I won’t spoil the ending, but the conflict tests Usagi’s morality and it is a must read. Usagi’s antagonists can also be sympathetic, changing over time and even helping Usagi when they could just as easily kill him.
Reading through The Special Edition I grew to care about Miyamoto Usagi, and I still want more stories even after completing the large volume. So I’ve already bought the next four volumes, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Usagi’s journey until he (hopefully) is able to settle down to a peaceful life.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Adams. I’m getting into my mid-30s, but reading Watership Down for the first time made me feel like the kid I used to be, the kid getting transported to vivid, imaginative worlds through books’ words.
The anthropomorphized rabbits of Watership Down are not on a grand adventure to recover a mystical jewel or defeat an ancient evil (this isn’t that kind of fantasy novel) – they are simply trying to survive. Even simple acts that humans take for granted, like crossing a stream, are overwhelmingly intimidating for rabbits who are journeying far beyond the only world they’ve known. But what is truly endearing about the lead characters, including Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver, is their mutual dependence and appreciation for each other. Each rabbit has strengths, and these strengths are recognized and utilized by the group as a whole. Chief Rabbit Hazel empowers those around him and is careful to keep smaller, weaker rabbits from feeling less valuable. I didn’t expect an adventure story about rabbits to teach me lessons on leadership, but I’ll take what I can get.
Adams builds a rich world in Watership Down complete with folklore, mythos, and supernatural second sight abilities that lead to rewarding instances of foreshadowing (one rabbit even ruminates on the unconscious mind). With all that being said, it would be a disservice to think of Adams’ work as a simple children’s book. This book sunk its claws into me, and I read forward eagerly whilst remaining fearful that one or more of my favorite characters would meet a grim end. I’m looking forward to re-reading Watership Down in a few years, and I’ve already bought the sequel Tales from Watership Down. Bigwig forever.
Swiping? Ghosting? Sexting? There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dating in the age of Tinder and the dozens of other online dating hubs. Thankfully, Aziz Ansari is as interested in dating as he is in fine dining.
In Modern Romance Aziz, along with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, seeks to understand the evolving world of dating. Not so long ago people coupled up simply by poking their heads out their windows to see who lived next door. Now it’s almost expected that we find “the one,” someone who completes us (see: Jerry Maguire) and figures into an overlong love story for future generations (see: How I Met Your Mother).
Aziz is as intrigued and captivated by relationships and dating apps as anyone else who’s swam in the dick pic infested waters of digital courtship, and therein lies the book’s greatest strength. Aziz is an active participant, eagerly researching and learning right along with us. He helps to illuminate truths that seem obvious after the fact. The humor sometimes falls flat, but it’s more difficult to be funny on the page than it is on the stage.
The next time you get ghosted – that’s when a romantic interest disappears like an aloof Casper – turn to Modern Romance. Because even when you’re confused, hurt, and alone (eating comfort tacos, natch), you’ll be assured of one thing: at least Aziz understands.