Author Archive | Maddie Greene

Requiem for an Engine: A comic board’s legacy

It was a strange and fruitful blip in the online comic community. Writer Warren Ellis’s comic book message board The Engine ran from early September 2005 to Aug. 31, 2007, birthing in its short life new comic books, ongoing collaborative superteams, Eisner and Harvey Award-winning projects, and at least one marriage.

My affectionate memories are not only those of a participant, but of one of six hand-picked moderators (or Filthy Assistants, or Enforcers, or Attack Wombs, or…) from its birth to retirement. I spent hours a day reading, enforcing, and talking Engine, so it looms large in my memory as a crucible of comic history. The Engine was uniquely suited to making things happen, not just talking about them, and I’m heading back into the mid-aughts to explore what made it such fertile ground and why its echoes affect comics to this day.

The Engine logo by Brian Wood

The Engine logo by Brian Wood

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”

The Engine’s original charter called for a unique structure: protected sections for published or contracted-to-publish creators working outside the superhero genre. Somewhere in the mid-aughts web small indie fora devoted to a particular creator’s work no doubt puttered along nicely, but major comic sites simply didn’t excise superheroes.

A few days before The Engine went live, Ellis expounded on his two primary intentions in 8/29/05’s Bad Signal e-newsletter:

[The Engine] serves two purposes: a point for conversation about FELL, DESOLATION JONES and my other adult-oriented, non-superhero, creator owned works. There are loads of other places for people to talk about PLANETARY, NEXTWAVE, JACK CROSS, ULTIMATE SECRET and all. And also a stage for like-minded creators, involved in original non-superhero work, to talk about what they’re doing. That, you’ll note, is not an all-inclusive and all-welcoming stance, and I’m going to be selective about it, too. There’ll also, with luck, be a space for pros to talk that’ll be read-only to everyone else: there are conversations worth having in public that wouldn’t survive thread-drift from the audience.
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Bad Buys: McSweeney’s Book Release Club

onehundredOn occasion we must gather to censure rather than celebrate those publishers who provide us book addicts with our fixes.

I come to bury McSweeney’s Book Release Club, not to praise it. The indie darling of web and print has given me so much joy over the years (Adam Levin’s The Instructions! Lucky Peach magazine (now splitting from McSweeney’s)! It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers!) that a book club seemed destined to delight.

Let me quote from the Book Release Club page:

It’s similar to a book-of-the-month club—we’ll send BRC subscribers the next eight books we put out, roughly one per month.

McSweeney’s Book Release Club falls down on the most basic rule of a book club: send books to your subscribers. I paid my $100 on April 4, 2013 and waited for my book per month.

The months remained bookless.

Emails to McSweeney’s customer service on May 28 and June 18 went unacknowledged. I called them June 24, eventually talked to their customer service rep, Jordan, and was promised an apology book to make up for the wait. Indeed, Always Apprentices arrived not long after and I awaited the glorious beginning of my monthly McSweeneys’ books.

I got my first McSweeney’s book (Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses) August 29, 2013, almost five months after signing up and two months after talking to their customer service rep.

Nothing has arrived since.

For taking customers’ money and providing no release schedule or proactive communication, I castigate McSweeney’s Book Release Club.

For refusing to acknowledge emails to their customer service email address, I shame McSweeney’s.

For utterly failing to keep up their end of the Book Release Club bargain by sending books at anything approaching the advertised schedule, I heartily curse McSweeney’s Book Release Club.

For shame.

 

UPDATE: Ironically, my next McSweeney’s book — High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing — appeared in my mailbox the very week I wrote this. That makes two books received in six months.

UPDATE: On Dec. 17, 2014, I received TWO books: Toro Bravo by John Gorham and Liz Crain (a cookbook I’m terribly excited to own) and The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente. The tally: Four books received in eight months. Funny enough, I got The Best of McSweeney’s — with multiple autographs, no less! — from my Powell’s Indiespensable subscription last month! See Indiespensable reviewed here.

UPDATE: On March 15, 2014 I received both White Girls by Hilton Als (they offer a signed version on their website but I did not receive that edition) and The Best of McSweeney’s (three months after receiving the same edition with  multiple author autographs from McSweeney’s). The total is now six books received in eleven months; two fewer books than promised at three months longer than promised with no communication of titles or schedule.

UPDATE: April 3, 2014. One  full year after subscribing, I have received my final box (containing Confidence, or the Appearance of Confidence: the Best of Believer Music Interviews edited by Vendela Vida and Ross Simonini; and The Parallel Apartments by Bill Cotter). The box also contained my first, last, and only formal communication about the subscription: a piece of paper declaring this my final Book Release Club shipment. I think it and I are glad to be done with one another.

The upshot is this: I received books worth more than the $100 I paid. But I did not receive them in a predictable fashion. I had no say in what I received. There was no communication from the company. And on a strictly subjective level, the majority of the book selection did not appeal to my reading interests.

Good Buys: Powell’s Books’ Indiespensable book club

PowellsBook clubs are a good risk. The greatest risk of receiving regular books in the mail is that you won’t care for the book. As I love a shelf of handsome volumes, it’s a risk I happily accept.

The risks are low with Powell’s extraordinary Indiespensable book club, Every six weeks Powell’s sends a curated hardcover in a custom slipcase autographed by the author.

(That these handsome books are accompanied by extra goodies is delightful: I have received tote bags, tea, bourbon pecans, chocolates, caramels, notepads, postcards, magnets, shortbread, popcorn, advanced copies of new books, and sea salt. It’s pretty awesome.)

Powell’s hits home runs regularly with clear winners like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. It feels fairly phenomenal to have Coetzee’s autograph on my bookshelf.

Even when I haven’t previously heard of the book, I’m usually thrilled to bits. Recent Indiespensable volumes that blew my mind include In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell, The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

Even when I don’t love the book I appreciate its beauty  or the opportunity to have read it.  I found Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus light and fluffy but its opulent velvet slipcase was beautiful. Andre Dubus II’s memoir Townie made a good gift for my father. I admit I threw Mark Slouka’s Brewster across the room in screaming fury (I have a low tolerance for animal abuse and this book’s horrors will haunt me longer than I’d like) but it was by no means an unworthy novel.

Administratively, Powell’s deserves credit for sharing weeks in advance what book is next and what day it ships. Today I learned that I can expect Donna Tartt’s new novel just after its Nov. 6 ship date. As an ongoing subscriber I can take the book off my shopping list, and new subscribers have a chance to jump on board for this particular shipment or an ongoing subscription.

Powell’s Indiespensable is the right way to run a book club: organized, reliable, one-of-a-kind editions, extra goodies, and well stocked with quality books.  The Shared Universe recommends it unreservedly.

Mixed Media: A Shirley Jacksonesque conversation about Shirley Jackson

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The author cannot decide which era’s editions are the most fun to collect

“It’s just that,” said Miss Pryor as she stabbed her cigarette out, “there’s a rather beastly amount of italics.”

“The better to brainwash you with,” said Ms. Queen, who was rather more cynical.

“One hardly knows whether one is reading one’s own version of events or the author’s.” Miss Pryor was not against italicized words, as such — after all, we must expect to set a standard, as she learned from The Road Through the Wall — but they did rather go on. For example, was it really necessary to know where the emphasis fell when Mrs. Merriam said “Well, you don’t need to worry… I was never so shocked”?

“What you are experiencing,” said Ms. Queen crisply, “is resistance to a cultural tone that is just distant enough to strike the reader as slightly archaic. It’s the fallout of a Great War and a Great Depression influencing an author keenly interested in the ways our deliberate social structures crumble in the face of real struggle.”

“And real horror?” asked Miss Pryor hopefully.

“In the broadest possible sense. Which books have you read?”

The Haunting of Hill House. We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” Miss Pryor ticked them off on her fingers as she recited. “The Road Through the Wall. Hangsaman. The Sundial. And collected short stories.”

“In which books did a supernatural, external threat figure?”

“Oh, I suppose… well, The Haunting of Hill House and perhaps The Sundial… but it’s very Turn of the Screw, isn’t it, in that you aren’t sure whether the narrator is quite reliable… why, one could hardly name a number!”

Ms. Queen nodded. “Exactly so. Shirley Jackson’s talent lies in growing disease as the strict social orders of her day imploded. Isolated homes figure prominently, often headed by women who would have faced considerable difficulty in gaining social acceptance as heads of household. The poor little girls of The Road Through the Wall, the young remainders of a murdered family in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the dictatorial widow of The Sundial, or poor caretaker Eleanor who, in caring for her shut-in mother, became a shut-in herself.”

“And the lesbians,” offered Miss Pryor, who thought herself rather clever to have noticed.

“Well, yes, including lesbians as sympathetic characters before mainstream literature or society was quite prepared to acknowledge them was perhaps rather marvelous, though you must admit that by identifying those characters with boys’ names– Theo, Tony– the dated narrative remains somewhat problematic.”

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Pricey vintage is fun for the bookshelf, but expect the edition to ruin all surprises and subtleties

“What I hate are the vintage covers,” announced Miss Pryor in a sudden passion. “Why did I pay so much for a charming edition from 1951 only to have the final chapter spoiled for me on the back cover or the introductory summary page? Twice?!”

“Caveat emptor. All decades approach their horror literature differently.”

“I don’t stay after dark,” said Mrs. Dudley, who was beginning to clear away tea.

“It’s as if Jackson had earned such a reputation for terror that the publishers scrambled desperately to distract one from the bulk of the story, which is generally about someone whose inner life, insecurities, and occasionally awkward attempts to find a place in life are so like one’s own that the real horror is how well Shirley Jackson knew the human condition.”

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” said Mrs. Dudley.

Ms. Queen smiled politely. “It’s not for nothing that she has an award named after her .”

“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night,” said Mrs. Dudley. “In the dark.”

“She writes of– and challenges– upper class American society by using it as the lens through which to examine folie a deux, mental illness, sexual molestation, apocalyptic endism, cult psychology, the vicious one-upmanship of the really wealthy–”

“Yes, indeed,” said Ms. Queen hastily. “I think you’ve got the gist now.”

Within Hill House, not sane, floors were firm, doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Review: The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan

As part of r/horrorlit’s Horror Novel a Day writers, I’m pretty sure of two things: I took on too many novels (six total) and my definition of horror is suspiciously broad.

hawklinemonster

Hawkline Monster image courtesy of Grant Hanna at http://granthanna.com

Take The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan. It’s more of a gothic western novella than a horror novel. (It is in fact subtitled A Western Gothic.)

But isn’t deception a solid component of plenty of good horror? I don’t mean my deception of being well-versed in horror novels; I mean the deceptive simplicity with which Beat poet/author Brautigan offers the story. By the time you turn the first page of a chapter you’re almost to the next one. Events unpack in sentences so efficient Hemingway would weep:

The voyage from San Francisco to Hawaii had been the most terrifying experience Greer and Cameron had ever gone through, even more terrible than the time they shot a deputy sheriff in Idaho ten times and he wouldn’t die and Greer finally had to say to the deputy sheriff “Please die because we don’t want to shoot you again.” And the deputy sheriff had said “OK, I’ll die, but don’t shoot me again.”

“We won’t shoot you again,” Cameron had said.

“OK, I’m dead,” and he was.

Characters deceive the reader and others; someone exists and then doesn’t; twins’ identities meld and split fluidly. The nature of the Hawkline Monster itself is a creative bit of fearful imagination from a haunted poet whose life ended in suicide. The places the monsters hides…!

My journey to The Hawkline Monster began with this PWxyz entry.  Gabe Habash’s passionate recommendation might have led me to make a note of the book (from the blog: “Honestly, I’m working really hard to not slip into hyperbole here, to refrain from lapsing into a vocab commensurate with the heights of my appreciation for it. This book is the real deal. I can’t recommend it enough. … Do yourself a favor and give him a try. If you don’t like him, I’ll eat my shoe like Werner Herzog.)” but what urged me to buy the book immediately was Habash’s insistence that only Cronenberg could do justice to a hypothetical film of the story. Cronenberg’s film style is very much to my tastes (the guy’s acting– Cabal, Last Night— also assures him a big warm soft spot in my heart).

While I initially read the book through a Cronenberg filter it was impossible not to love the sparse style on its own merits. One of the ways simplicity aids horror is to lull and fool: the process of reading involves moments of “Uh huh… unfolding as expected… wait, WHAT?” A character dies not through violence but through identity obliteration. (To voluntarily kill a part of yourself that has served its purpose is not terror, but to undergo involuntary mental manipulation is. This book has both.) The monster fights with anger and light. Ice caves under the house keep the grounds in a perpetual state of freeze even in summer. A basement lab holds The Chemicals, the final experiment of a Harvard scientist who enjoyed his teaching position until one of his experiments got loose and ate the family dog in front of the neighbors’ wedding party. A 1902 setting allows for Wild West elements like gunfights, hired guns, hanged men, and brothels. It is a flavorful read.

“All the things that happen are like children’s pranks except the child has supernatural powers,” says one character, and if there’s one thing that horror teaches us it’s that children with undue power wield it in horrific ways (thanks, Twilight Zone). While nighttime shivers are unlikely, The Hawkline Monster deserves a place in a thoughtful horror canon on the basis of its dissection of what is frightening and how to write about it.

Comic event: Dirt Candy authors to speak at Omnivore Books

dirtcandyComics delight me to my core and cooking soothes my soul. So I loved Dirt Candy, a graphic novel that serves as both accessible cookbook and charming memoir, before I even owned it.

How brilliant of Chef Amanda Cohen, co-author Grady Hendrix, and artist Ryan Dunlavey to combine the two arts of cookery and comics! Illustrated recipes and techniques can be far more effective with images than in text alone—when Cohen explains how to easily smoke vegetables on my stovetop without fancy equipment, the set-up and technique feels within my grasp. And the apparent magic of a fast-moving chef’s knife translates perfectly to the bam!pow! excitement of a comic book layout. (I’m not alone in this belief—check out Anthony Bourdain’s graphic novel Get Jiro in which a sushi chef turns action hero.)

Dirt Candy made a zealot out of me. Not only was I on a mission to make my vegetables more interesting, I was a comics/cookery proselytizer. “The market is ripe for practical non-fiction in my comic shop!” I cried far and wide. “Let there be graphic novels for cocktails next! Try this spring pea flan I made!” Dirt Candy occupies such a tremendously unique niche that I fervently hope similar works follow.

Fans of good food (creative vegetable-based cuisine in particular) and good comics have the chance to hear Cohen and Hendrix talk on Sunday, Sept. 22 from 3-4pm at Omnivore Books in San Francisco. In her blog, Cohen calls it “the East Coast/West Coast Peace and Harmony Let’s Stop Hating Each Other And Eat Vegetables Instead Tour” and promises “I’ll be talking about cooking vegetables, eating vegetables, running a restaurant, graphic novels, why no one can find a line cook in Manhattan anymore, AND there will be free food for everyone.”

Mixed media: The sanctity of books

nightfilmSo there’s this book. It’s about a scary filmmaker and his scary films. This premise is not without promise. But what earned it a spot on Gawker is its accompanying smartphone app that offers up additional material when you scan certain pages. Furthermore, the book itself incorporates images throughout.

The book, Night Film by Marisha Pessl, was brought to my attention via Reddit, where horror writer Grady Hendrix dismissively introduced it as being “… full of cheap gimmicks because ‘just’ being a book isn’t enough anymore, apparently.”

The problem seems to be twofold:

1.       The extras are poorly executed (bad acting seems to be a factor).

2.       Books are sacrosanct texts unsullied by graphic components. Unless you’re a child, in which case images are presumably okay. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, you’re on notice.

The first time I saw film bleeding into a horror novel in a way that detracted significantly from the text was Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. It’s one thing to shudder at a flickering ghost moving toward you in jump cuts when you’re watching a Japanese horror film, where the trope began. It’s quite another to read it. It’s a film technique, not a literary one, and bringing the one to the other is frequently ineffective. I’m reminded also of Zombie Island by David Wellington which contains description of shining a flashlight over a room and jerking back to catch something that moved just out of sight. These are visual tropes, not literary ones, and in both these cases I’d say the trespass of known film scares into text results in an awkward un-scare.

Why shouldn’t a book offer more than letters on a page? Great contemporary authors have played with books’ physicality in a way that ensures readers are hyperaware of the division between story and object. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer.  A Humument by Tom Phillips. Peshl herself says over at Omnivoracious that “I write with a 360-degree experience, full of music, visuals, ripped-out articles and images.”

Also huge these days are book trailers. When major releases are presaged by YouTube videos, can Night Film truly be blamed for offering relevant film scraps throughout the book?

I come not to praise or bury Night Film. I haven’t read it. But whether this is a sign of the publishing apocalypse, a vibrant strike for books as experiences beyond the page, or merely a marketing trick, I’m ready to welcome successful multimedia novels.

Saga wins a Hugo

saga_umbilicalThe 2013 Hugo Award winners were announced over Labor Day weekend and ongoing comic series Saga from Image Comics took the prize for Best Graphic Story.

The Best Graphic Story category was introduced in 2009, when Girl Genius by Kaja and Phil Foglio won out over contenders like Fables, Y: The Last Man, and Joss Whedon’s Serenity— and kept winning in 2010 and 2011. 2012’s Hugo went to Digger by Ursula Vernon on Sofawolf Press. Saga‘s win may indicate a sea change in a category that has previously recognized independent and smaller press works.

Of note is that the Hugos– unlike, say, the Nebulas or Tiptrees, which also honor speculative fiction– are voted on by about a thousand Worldcon members as opposed to the typical small committee model. You could therefore interpret Saga‘s Hugo Award as both a critical and a popular accolade.

Publishing kerfuffle du jour

Lit Reactor has a great précis of yet another thieving publisher.

Image of alleged stolen Ghost Rider art.

Image of alleged stolen Ghost Rider art.

In addition to using an unregistered company with a name derived from a legitimate small press, this one is made particularly salacious by Trestle Press’s clearly non-sanctioned use of Ghost Rider images as cover art (among myriad other artistic infringements.)

Check out examples of Trestle’s artistic theft here.

 

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