Slush Pile: A Whole Bunch of Book Books

All of the below were sent to me for review. All prices are US, and links to the publisher are provided where available.

Going With the Flow

Going With the Flow

Ron Garney on Creating Art and Storytelling
by Bill Baker
BBP Press, $12
Note that all of Baker’s books are on sale until June 15 with free shipping in the U.S.

This book consists of two interviews with the artist Ron Garney; the first was greatly expanded from a 2002 piece in Sketch magazine #17. Frankly, I don’t get it. Baker has previously done similar books on Alan Moore, but there’s a big difference between interviewing an outspoken comic writer generally acclaimed to be a genius with an extensive career throughout the industry and talking to an artist who mostly draws Marvel superheroes.

The foreword says, “… it’s become a certainty that Ron’s art is Special. Yet despite that feeling, I’m not able to clearly articulate just what makes his work Special.” From that I conclude two things: 1) I’m not the target audience for a work that’s so precious as to capitalize “special”. 2) The interviewer is stating from the beginning his failure at conveying why we should read a whole book about Garney, so the ideal reader is one who already thinks he’s great. In other words, if you don’t already know, this book won’t tell you.

Also, there aren’t nearly enough pictures. 20-some illustrations in a book of 118 pages are far too few to give a portrait of an artist’s career and work.

Get Animated!

Get Animated! cover
Get Animated!
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Creating Professional Cartoon Animation on Your Home Computer
by Tim Maloney
Watson-Guptill, $24.95

“This guide is for those who have personal computers and truly yearn to create top-notch animation,” says the Preface. I thought that last part would leave me out — I don’t even want to write comics, let alone make cartoons — but I learned a surprising amount from this book anyway.

Although the book comes with a tutorial DVD containing open-source software, resource links, and animation samples, it also aims to get past particular tools and concentrate on core concepts that will take the reader into the future. Here, the computer is as much a tool as a pencil, and the book aims to be platform-agnostic, a refreshing approach. It’s not a software manual but a process guidebook.

Early chapters start from the beginning, with sections on finding ideas, writing scripts, and storyboarding. Later, in addition to basic animation, the book also covers layout, character design, sound, timing, and finally, exhibition. The reader will also learn key terms and principles from the industry. The layout is welcoming, with large pages, plenty of white space, clearly marked headings, nice use of accent color, and cute little characters doodled in. (Many examples use Dingy Duck and Mangy Mouse.)

The idea-generating games in the first chapter, including dream imagery and free association, would be of use to any creative person (and their historical and artistic inspirations are fascinating!). I like Maloney’s opinionated voice — it’s got energy and will inspire the reader to feel there’s a lot she needs to learn but it’s all achievable with enough hard work. I particularly enjoyed the section on the differences between comics and storyboards and why you shouldn’t use a comic as a storyboard.

Mutant Cinema

Mutant Cinema cover
Mutant Cinema
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The X-Men Trilogy From Comics to Screen
by Thomas J. McLean
Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, $23.95

This book annotates the three X-Men movies (scene by scene), discusses reaction and box office for each, and describes the tie-in comics. Most important to note up front is the disclaimer that “This book is not endorsed by either Marvel Comics or 20th Century Fox.” That gives them the academic freedom to say whatever they want, but as a result, there are almost no images. The only pictures are muddily reproduced black-and-white comic covers at the start of each chapter.

This is clearly not a book for those merely interested in the movie/comic connections. There’s much too much material here for them to wade through. Honestly, so much of it goes into so much detail (much of which I was already familiar with) that it’s wearying. I’d rather read it as a blog, so I could more easily (and cheaply) dip in and out (and maybe see more pictures). This reads more like a thesis, a work created to demonstrate the author’s deep knowledge of the subject, than a book, something written to communicate with a more casual reader.

The text is dry, with little personality, and reading other people’s descriptions of comics and movie scenes doesn’t particularly grab me. I’m finding myself puzzled by the audience for this book. Those so interested in the X-Men as to want a 300-page book on them will already know much of what’s presented here (some of which reads as though speaking to someone who’d never heard of the X-Men or Marvel Comics). Those who need the introductions will likely find the whole tiring.

Tigerheart

Tigerheart cover
Tigerheart
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by Peter David
Del Rey, $12 US

A retelling of Peter Pan with an original spin. I haven’t had a chance to finish it, but the first few chapters are enough for me to recommend it. A boy whose father indulges his imagination has to cope with a lost baby sister and his father’s resulting depature. It’s narrated in an entertaining voice that reminded me, in being both fanciful and knowing, of The Princess Bride. David does an excellent job of casting events in such a way that an adult reader will know what’s going on in spite of the boy’s more innocent view; as a result, the book works on multiple levels.

Catalog

The Illustrated History of Mail-Order Shopping
by Robin Cherry
Princeton Architectural Press, $35

Before the internet, if you couldn’t find something locally, you shopped a catalog. (Sometimes, even if you could — I fondly remember using the Sears Wish Book to make Christmas lists so my parents knew what I wanted.) This handsome volume captures a whole range of that experience, creating a book full of memory and wonder. From the first days of Montgomery Ward and Sears (although Hammacher Schlemmer is now the longest-running catalog) to today, when upscale specialty catalogs such as Williams-Sonoma are popular, they’re all here.

After a short history of mail order and a comprehensive listing of the best-known companies (so many of which are gone or a shadow of themselves, sadly), sections are divided by types of products: fashion, toys, housewares, animals, food, hobbies, food. Images range from 1905 to just a few years ago. It’s a hoot to see which celebrities — including Isabella Rossellini — started as catalog models, often for J.C. Penney. The underwear is the most amusing, from 1958 panties with designs of 45 records for teenage girls to 1971 animal-print men’s briefs and vests in nylon. The thing I want most is the complete Monopoly set made entirely out of candy, mostly chocolate, for $600 in 1978.

These kinds of lavishly illustrated popular histories are wonderful for period reference. Especially in this case, since with few exceptions (Neiman Marcus), the market for these catalogs are the general public, so you get a great view of everyday needs and wants. Not only do they show fashion and products of a particular era, their design shows what the “look” of a time was in terms of colors and layout and fonts and text. Once you open its covers, you’ll spend a lot more time with it than you expected.

Certitude

Certitude cover
Certitude
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A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present
by Adam Begley; illustrations by Edward Sorel
Harmony Books, $19.99, Excerpt available

This small hardcover attempts to provide entertainment by pointing out the hypocrisy of famous people. Now, here on the internet, that’s a popular daily parlor game, and I don’t always agree with it. Charlton Heston, for example, is portrayed in the book as a fool because he believed in gun control in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 and then led the NRA two decades later. I don’t agree with his later position, but sometimes, people change their minds as they live and have different experiences. That’s a virtue to be applauded, not something to be avoided, and saying, “I was mistaken before” isn’t hypocrisy, it’s maturity.

As a result, I found this book and the way it reaches for subjects to laugh at mean-spirited and petty. Sorel’s scratchy caricatures make the subjects look crazy, as intended, but they’re entertaining in their exaggeration, much more so than the accompanying text. The short profiles give little knowledge of their subjects beyond the claim they made, whether the Pope who launched the Crusades or scientists who come to the wrong conclusion. I appreciate people who are willing to strike out, even if we now know they’re wrong, because the alternative would be people who never were willing to commit to anything, and that would mean stagnation.

Some are very much a matter of opinion. Carry Nation’s destruction of taverns, leading to Prohibition, is one example. How to evaluate the temperance movement is a subject for a thesis, not an undersized page of text. Part of the evidence for her wrongness is the line, “Never for a minute did she question the wisdom of her mission or wonder about the consequences of success.” Why would she? And since when is having a belief evidence itself that the belief is wrong? At this point, the book becomes a circular argument, gazing into its own navel. There’s also some unpleasant moralizing going on, as when Ayn Rand is shown as bad in part for sleeping with someone a lot younger than she was.

This is very much a big city-kind of book, celebrating those who doubt and disbelieve over those who have faith or certainty. You already know if constantly pointing out feet of clay and missing clothes suits your sense of humor. The flap copy tries to put a more noble perspective on the endeavor, talking about how “once a foolish notion sinks its teeh into the famous or the powerful … [it] can have profound consequences for the rest of us”, but it’s really a giant, self-satisfied raspberry, yelling “ha, ha, I knew better.” We’re supposed to believe what we’re given without enough detail to evaluate for ourselves, which means the book itself asks for our belief while decrying those who do. Hypocrite!


3 Responses to “Slush Pile: A Whole Bunch of Book Books”

  1. ADD Says:

    Hey Johanna,

    I was enormously disappointed in the Ron Garney book too. I definitely think some of Garney’s work is exceptional, but Baker’s egocentric presentation (note how much of the ink is spent on Bill Baker and how great his name and rep and lofty goals are? Talk about “Special!”) and the poor design of the book were a real kick in the teeth to what could have been a great exploration of a good superhero artist’s approach and career.

    I didn’t know it was a Baker production until I got it in an order from an online retailer. From past experience, if I’d known Baker was involved, I would frankly not have ordered it to begin with. Baker’s too busy promoting himself and trying to be clever to ever actually provide the sort of insight I crave, like the very best of the Comics Journal interviews from years past.

  2. Johanna Says:

    What would you recommend as the best examples of Garney’s work?

  3. ADD Says:

    His Captain America work with Mark Waid is essential reading — Marvel recently collected their entire initial run under one cover as OPERATION REBIRTH, but if you get it be sure it’s the 2008 release, the 1990s version only has half of their run (it was originally split into two volumes, OR and MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY). His CAP work seems like an amalgam of Alex Toth and Howard Chaykin, vital, classical superhero stuff with energy and an appealing simplicity, as well as an excellent sense of page and panel design.

    His art for Silver Surfer (no idea if it’s been collected) was also very good, and I recall liking his Spider-Man art during Civil War, but buyer beware, it was Civil War and written by Straczynski.

    At DC he drew a JLA arc written by Kurt Busiek. His art was up to par but the story suffered from decompression — it was six or eight issues that should have been three or four at most.

    If you’re getting the sense my admiration of Garney’s art comes largely from his Captain America work, you’re not wrong, but it really is that good. If CAP was all he’d ever drawn, I’d still think he’s one of the best superhero artists of the past 20 years.

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