Trade paperbacks, older editions, and miscellaneous for June 2012

Lots of stuff below the cut!

The Boy Who Made Silence volume 1 by Joshua Hagler (writer/artist/letterer) and Thomas Mauer (letterer). $22.99, 139 pgs, FC, Markosia.

I already reviewed the single issues of this series, but it came out in 2008 and has never been collected, so it's nice that Markosia published this, as Hagler is about to start work on the second (and final) six issues of the story. I loved this book when it first came out, and a few years of distance has done nothing to change that - it's still a wonderful story with gorgeous painted art. I see Hagler's influences a bit more now - there's a lot of David Mack in the art (Mack provides the introduction, so obviously he knows Hagler a bit) - but that doesn't mean this isn't a stunning work. Hagler's story remains powerful - the main character is Nestor Gudfred, a young boy who falls into a river and is deafened as a result. Nestor gains a strange ability to "make silence" - he can scream and cause everyone, briefly, to experience the way his world feels now, and in that moment, they are able to experience what other people go through, too, bringing them (theoretically) closer together. Of course, people begin to think he's somehow miraculous, which brings in a preacher who's lost his faith and is desperate to regain it. Nestor, meanwhile, has to learn how to see the world in a new way, plus he's a bit obsessed with Esmé, the girl who rescued him from the river. He also starts seeing a large cat that he names Peter & Charlie who talks floridly to him. Hagler blurs the line wonderfully between reality and unreality - who's to say that the cat isn't there, after all? Nestor certainly sees him (and can hear him, which makes Peter & Charlie his only real companion).

Hagler sets the story in a dusty Midwestern town that's seen better days, and he populates the book with interesting characters. Even someone like Buddy Clearwater, the preacher who wants to use Nestor, isn't just a stereotypical evil Christian - he sincerely wants something like Nestor to lead him back to God. The other characters have their moments, too, and Hagler does a very nice job showing how Nestor could change their lives - they aren't evil people, just regular folk, unable to understand why their lives haven't turned out the way they want. By the time Hagler gives us a brilliant flashback to Nestor's missing father and why he left, he's moving toward a bigger plot, but the fact that Nestor's own parents couldn't understand each other after the death of their first son is a culmination of other plot threads, and Hagler pulls it off wonderfully. (You can see some of those pages in this post.) The second half of the story focuses on Nestor's search for his father, but this collection is concerned mainly with how he deals with his sudden shift in perceptions of the world.

I could write pages and pages about Hagler's art, but I won't. It's amazing - he blends rich paintings with stark lines, surreal drawings with bare-bones farmland vistas, and hallucinogenic visions with mundane details. His colors are wonderful - a good deal of the book is in muted greens and reddish-browns, so when Hagler gives us almost black-and-white flashbacks with bright colors, they almost pop off the page. It's really tremendous. I could go on, but I'm afraid I'd never stop!

I know that some people back in the day (2008, that is) hadn't seen the single issues and were looking for a trade of this. Well, it took a while, but now it's here! I do hope the trade sells well, because I'd love to read the rest of the series, and I hope Hagler gets to finish it (the trade has a few pages from a new issue, so that's encouraging). Do yourself a favor and go buy this from your favorite on-line purveyor of fine comics-related entertainment!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire (writer/artist). $9.95, 102 pgs, BWR, Top Shelf.

Top Shelf reprinted Jeff Lemire's first published comic, and I figured I would buy it and read it. Why not, right? Then I saw that Tim Callahan had written a glowing introduction, and I almost threw it in the trash. That Callahan - like he knows anything about good comics, right? Sheesh.

Lost Dogs turns out to be a bit disappointing, mainly because the story is so predictable. It's only ten dollars, and it's fascinating seeing how similar yet different Lemire's art is from his current stuff - there's still the blocky characters and the wide noses, but this is looser and sloppier and a bit more primal. It really does look as if Lemire attacked the page with a brush, throwing down thick black lines and then softening them only slightly with some gray tones. His main character, an unnamed sailor, wears a red-striped shirt, and given the symbolism of the story, it's can't be accidental that they look like swaths of blood. There's an urgency to Lemire's art, as if he was angry about the story he was creating and wanted to take it out on the characters. The sailor is a giant, but while others think he's a brute, Lemire's depiction of his crinkled eyes lets us see his humanity. In an early panel, he naps with his wife and daughter in his arms, and Lemire makes him even bigger and the two females even smaller, so that the effect is of a shelter from the entire world, which of course means that something bad is going to happen. The sailor's emotions are raw through most of the story, and the fact that he speaks only rarely helps Lemire create this beautiful character, who can't keep anything inside even though he doesn't emote with words. When he comes across his wife late in the book (after believing that she was killed), Lemire finally backs off and draws a shimmering vision of the sailor holding the woman he loves, praying that they'll float out of the seedy world they live in. Unfortunately, it's not to be. Lemire has gotten more delicate with his art (which sounds like the wrong word, as he still draws ruggedly), but this is a very nice time capsule of where he began.

As I mentioned, the story doesn't do the artwork much justice. The sailor is happy on his farm (no, I don't know why he owns a farm if he's a sailor), but one day he takes his family into the city, where they are set upon by ruffians who beat him senseless, dump him in the bay, kill his daughter, and rape his wife and leave her for dead. He's rescued by sailors and eventually winds up with a down-on-his-luck old man who wants him to box the champion of the city, Walleye Thompson. When the sailor wins, they'll both make a lot of money. In order to get the sailor to fight, the old man - whose name is Jack - tells him that his wife is alive and that he, Jack, will tell the sailor where she is. Of course the sailor fights, but things don't quite work out how the two men planned. It's a horribly tragic book, in case you're wondering. The problem with the narrative is that it's a fairly bland unrelenting tragedy, with everything that can go wrong going wrong, and it's "serious" in the worst way - as long as the worst shit happens, it must be good! Lemire writes in his foreword that he was working on a sci-fi/horror epic for a few years that never got off the ground, but frankly, I want to read that, because it sounds far more ambitious than this. I understand that when you're a new writer you want to be as stripped-down as possible, especially if you're also doing the artwork, but this lacks any ambition whatsoever. It's as if Lemire came up with a character and then thought, "How can I make this poor fucker's life miserable?" He does a nice job with the sailor, and the fact that the sailor doesn't speak a lot is a good move, but overall, the story is duller because it's so, so dark.

If you're a fan of Lemire and you missed this the first time it came around, this is an interesting relic. That's about all it is, though.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Rio: The Complete Saga by Doug Wildey (writer/artist). $49.99, 288 pgs (mostly) FC, IDW.

When this was solicited, Pedro mentioned that "Lance" by Warren Tufts was better, but after looking at some of the strips, I'm not sure - I think Wildey's art is better, although I haven't read all of "Lance," so I don't know how the story stacks up. Then I thought a little bit, and I wondered if I've ever read a truly great Western comic, and I don't think I have. Now, granted, I haven't read a ton of them, and I still haven't read Blueberry, but even Rio, which is phenomenal-looking, falls a bit short in the writing. I wonder if artists are drawn to Westerns because it gives them a chance to draw beautiful vistas and rough, raw nature, but the fact that Western narratives fall into a few narrow themes - the frontier spirit, the clash of civilizations, the rugged individual fleeing ordered society - means that writers fall into clichés a bit too often. I don't know. All I know is, Rio is gorgeous, and the stories are good enough to make it worth your while.

Wildey gives us a few different stories featuring his enigmatic hero. In the first story, Rio, an ex-outlaw, has somehow wrangled a full pardon out of President Grant and is tasked with clamping down on "sport-hunting" buffalo from the windows of trains. This gets him into some trouble with a railroad magnate, and through some unfortunate circumstances, Rio finds himself accused of murder (that he didn't commit). To clear his name, he rides out after the real culprit, who's headed down to Mexico (from Wyoming?) and set up a little fiefdom for himself. After taking care of him, Rio ends up in Kansas, where he finds an old friend in Limestone City ... a famous outlaw who's trying to live on the straight and narrow. Rio is appointed sheriff, but that doesn't end well either when the outlaw's identity is discovered. Then Rio gets a job guarding a stagecoach to San Francisco, and he of course has some adventures on the way. When he arrives in San Francisco, he meets up with another old friend - Doc Holliday - and they have an adventure that involves getting shanghaied, because why not? Doc invites Rio to Tombstone, where he meets the Earps and decides it's not to his liking, and finally he helps a young lady avenge her mother's death at the hands of a Mexican bandit who's been raiding over the border. Rio's life certainly isn't uneventful!

Wildey does a good job with the characters, for the most part. With the exception of Rio, they're painted in fairly broad strokes, but he makes them unique enough that they're memorable. Rio is a classic gunslinger - a man of few words, with his own code of honor, and honestly, someone it's difficult to think of as an outlaw. I can imagine him not being a dude who holds down a steady job, but he seems ... too nice, I guess, to be an outlaw. He's a stereotype in many ways, as you just know he's never going to find happiness with a woman and settle down, but Wildey makes him interesting in his narrow framework - he's extremely calm, is always thinking, and rarely gets taken by surprise. When he does, he keeps his cool and doesn't just shoot his way out of trouble. There's plenty of gunplay in this book, but Rio also talks and thinks his way out of a lot of trouble, which is nice.

The big draw is Wildey's art, though, and it's amazing. The first story is mostly in black and white (it has a few color pages), and while the painted colors in the rest of the book are stunning, the details come through much better in the black and white. You can see every brush stroke on Rio's beard, and Wildey's use of Zip-A-Tone adds a lot of depth and shadows to the inks. Wildey transitions to very muted paints when Rio goes to Mexico in the second half of the first story, and it evokes the red rocks of the Southwest very well. Eventually he begins working in full color, and the art becomes less harsh but more beautiful. Wildey doesn't do too much with innovative page layouts, but his characters are wonderful - they're distinctive and unique, so that we see them once and know exactly who they are the other times we see them. The book looks authentic, too - it's hard to separate the "reality" of the Old West with the fictional representation of thousands of stories about it, but Wildey gives us a very strong sense of place for each story, from the civilized order of Limestone City to the decadence of San Francisco to the stark beauty of Arizona and Mexico. Wildey ignores ostentation in the form of sound effects, which makes the violence a bit more raw, as he needs to convey all the force of the violence simply through the drawings. There's no blood in Rio, but Wildey draws very powerful action scenes. The story in Tombstone is a bit rougher than the earlier work, and I'm not sure why - it's never been published, so perhaps Wildey was just getting old when he drew it and wasn't quite as crisp as he used to be. The final story is incomplete but fascinating - it's presented as it was when Wildey died, so some pages are completely finished and some are basically thumbnail sketches. It's actually a fascinating way to show a comic coming together, even though it's too bad Wildey never actually finished it.

Rio is a chunk of change, I do admit, but it's totally worth it. These stories are either hard to find or haven't been published yet, and they're both pretty entertaining and absolutely beautiful. Give this a gander!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Do I really have to call it the X-Club? by Simon Spurrier (writer), Paul Davidson (artist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colorist), and Cory Petit (letterer). $16.99, 100 pgs, FC, Marvel.

This is a good mini-series, one that reads well in a handy trade, because Spurrier does tend to throw a lot against the wall to see what sticks, so I probably would have had a hard time keeping track of it all in monthly installments (I'm really not that bright). It's a superhero book, of course, so despite the fact that it stars the three "X-Scientists" - Kavita Rao, Dr. Nemesis, and Madison Jeffries - it all leads to punching (Colossus even says at one point "So science failed. Who do we punch?") and a deus ex machina to wrap things up, but Spurrier does try to cram as much Marvel U. SCIENCE into the book as he can. There's a space elevator, Terrigen mists, and 11-dimensional villains. Oh, and Nazis. THERE ARE ALWAYS FUCKING NAZIS!!!!

The pleasure of the book is reading how Spurrier writes the main characters, even though the actual plot is kind of fun. Everyone seems to enjoy writing Dr. Nemesis, and Spurrier goes balls-to-the-wall with him, as he insults everyone within range, "restore[s] normal physics using stubbornness alone," rides a mutated hammerhead shark, and turns himself into a multi-dimensional being to fight the bad guy. I'm a bit ambivalent about Spurrier's choice to put a mutated starfish on his head that can translate, vocally, his innermost thoughts. Initially, it's hilarious, because he is revealed to be an insecure, slightly scared person who craves friendship with the other scientists, but Spurrier goes too far with the joke, I feel, because it does get a bit repetitive. I kept thinking that if they had managed to remove it but we, as readers, would know what he was really thinking, it might be more effective. Still, the visual of Dr. Nemesis running around with a starfish on his head is pretty neat. Spurrier also does some nice work with Madison Jeffries, as he worries far too much about Danger, the sentient danger room that is perhaps Joss Whedon's dumbest legacy in comics. Spurrier gives them a very good relationship, though. Spurrier does write Kavita Rao fairly well, but her character arc is weaker than the ones given to Nemesis and Jeffries. The book is unrelenting in its science-wackiness, but Spurrier manages to make the characters larger than life, so even when the plot is at its most convoluted (and it gets somewhat convoluted, believe you me), it's enjoyable to read the characters interacting with each other.

Davidson's art is wonderful, as he has to keep up with Spurrier's feverish script and he does so wonderfully. He has a nice, angular style that resists the "realistic style" that's in vogue these days, which allows his idiosyncrasies to shine through. He has tremendous fun with the various Terrigen-infected monsters, and when Dr. Nemesis enters whatever dimension he does to fight the bad guy, Davidson really cuts loose, with echoes of fists moving through panels and giant strobe-light heads lurking above the figures. His art is cartoony enough that he can get away with the more fantastical stuff, but precise enough that all the detail never overwhelms the page. Rosenberg keeps the line work crisp but still adds nice glowing effects to add to the oddity of it all, and she does a nice job basing everything on red and blue without allowing those two colors to dominate. It provides a good contrast to the scenes and keeps the tone of different places consistent. Plus, she uses Kirby Krackle well - this is a book about mutated monsters, so there ought to be Kirby Krackle!

This is a candidate for best mini-series of the year, and if you missed it the first time around in the deluge of Marvel and X-related products, I encourage you to seek out the trade. It looks thin, but it's packed with groovy content!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams by Neal Adams (artist) and a bunch of writers, artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers. $24.99, 240 pgs, FC, DC.

I didn't get this in hardcover when it first came out a few years ago, because I wasn't convinced I needed to spend $50 on it. With that price cut in half, though, it's a nice comic to get. Obviously, we're all here for the Neal Adams art, and it's very impressive. I'm not too sure DC (and Marvel, for that matter) will ever figure out how to reprint old stories on glossy paper and using modern techniques without the art losing something - the slick recoloring usually works, but doesn't always, and on a few stories, Dick Giordano's inks are so heavy that it's almost as if Adams didn't draw them (which probably isn't a reproduction problem, but I doubt if the new paper does it any favors). But if you're looking for a beautiful collection of early Adams DC work (although I wouldn't mind a collection of Adams' DC work from BEFORE this stuff), this is a must-buy. It's astonishing how modern Adams' work looks over 40 years later.

As for the stories ... well, most of them were written by Bob Haney, which ought to tell any comics reader worth his salt something. So yes, if you've ever wanted to read a story where Batman detonates an atomic bomb in the ocean for the absolute most trivial of reasons, or if you want to see Batman fight "the larva of a Dobson fly [sic]," or if you want to see Flash run through time and other dimensions to destroy a wooden statue before, in the very next panel, say, "A laser -- the one thing I haven't tried!", or if you want to see Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen both reveal their secret identities to the same psychiatrist on the same day, or if you want to see a story in which Bruce Wayne, a normal 30-year-old (or so) man living in 1969, recalls the time he spent as a spy for the British government during World War II (because it's Bob Motherfucking Haney, that's why!), then this is the book for you. If only so you can read that Sergeant Rock/Batman team-up in the days before D-Day. Man, the Sixties were weird.

If none of that sells you on his collection, then I don't know what will.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Tales of the Beanworld (Book 3.5) by Larry Marder (writer/artist). $14.99, 63 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.

One of this blog's recluses, MarkAndrew (we have more recluses around here than a monastery in the Sinai, I swear), is probably the person you want to write about Beanworld, because he loves it so, soooooo much, but since I started getting the fancy hardcovers that Dark Horse has released in the past few years, I've been liking it too. This book reprints a story from Asylum, an anthology that Rob Liefeld published back in 1995*, plus a few other, more recent stories that were published online. The biggest thing about them is that they're in color, which is a change from the rest of Beanworld. The art pops quite nicely in color. Marder's stark and relatively simple line work is fine in black and white, but the color does add a nice dimension to the book, especially when he comes up with truly weird stuff like the giant floating gangster organism in the first story. That thing is groovy.

Beanworld is a bit difficult to describe - it's a fairly simplistic, symbiotic, socialistic society (phew!) in which beans live on a floating land mass and dive off into something called the "four realities" to obtain their food ... you know, it's really too complicated to explain. Each creature in Beanworld has its function and is reliant on others, and everything cycles around and renews itself. Marder always uses the stories to write a bit about environmental issues, but he never really smacks us upside the head with it. For instance, in this collection there's a story about the beans figuring out that maybe they need to recycle, mainly because they begin to realize they're running out of materials. It's an ecological message that fits in well with the way the society is structured. Marder also likes to examine society in toto, so one story in here is about the beans' attempts to raise their children correctly, because they need to teach them their place in society. There's always a faint whiff of social engineering about Beanworld, as every living thing in the book has its place and must learn it for the good of everyone and if anyone steps outside it, bad things occur, but that's kind of what makes it more provocative than a simple tale of weird-looking beings - Marder's comic is basically an allegory about our own world, which punishes and then rewards rebellion by rejecting and then assimilating it. Beanworld can be read as a charming little fable, but it's much more interesting than that.

With all that, this is not the place to start on Beanworld. New readers might have trouble figuring out just what the hell is going on, even though Marder provides a pretty good overview of the cycle of life in the world. It's nice to read if you've read it before, and finding the first three volumes if you haven't read them is certainly a worthy pursuit!

* It's fascinating to me how someone like Liefeld, who is so very, very bad at comic books, not only knows quite a bit about weird creators but offers them forums (fora?) to express themselves. Liefeld is a hell of a nice guy, from what I've heard, so maybe that's it?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Conan volume 11: Road of Kings by Roy Thomas (writer), Mike Hawthorne (penciler), John Lucas (inker), Jason Gorder (inker), Dave Stewart (colorist), Dan Jackson (colorist), Richard Starkings (letterer), and Jimmy Betancourt (letterer). $19.99, 134 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.

I've been buying the trades of Dark Horse's Conan series since it launched, and it's usually a pretty good, solid read, with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord doing a fine job on their stories, and then Tim Truman and Tomás Giorello followed up with more good stories. I'm certainly curious about the new Brian Wood series, but naturally, I'm waiting for the trade. In the meantime, Roy Thomas and Mike Hawthorne wrote and drew this six-issue mini-series that, as Thomas writes in the back, "bridge[s] the gap between the events of 'Iron Shadows in the Moon' [Truman and Giorello's swan song] and 'Queen of the Black Coast.' " I guess Dark Horse suspected that Wood was going to bring in a new female love interest, so something had to be done with Olivia!

This is Roy Thomas, so the prose is purple in the best old-school Marvel tradition: the book begins with this narration: "Between a darkling sky and a dusky, heaving sea, two vessels rose and fell like fiercely embracing lovers ... lashed together as they were by taut, straining ropes and claw-like grappling hooks ... while those onboard danced their own deadly dervish on decks grown slippery with gore." So, yeah. Thomas doesn't use an omniscient narrator all that often, but when he does, you get stuff like that. He gets Conan off the seas, where he was a pirate captain, and back on dry land, where his latest lover, Olivia, yearns to be returned home to the father who sold her into slavery, because she's convinced he really, really didn't mean it - he was totally in sexual thrall to his wife, who hates Olivia because Olivia's mother was Olivia's father's favorite concubine! Conan doesn't think the old man will shower his daughter with love and him with riches for returning her, but she's just so darned cute that he agrees to take her home along the titular road of kings. Thomas structures the book well enough, with Conan having adventures that follow him as he moves toward Ophir (where Olivia lives), so that when everything comes to a head, there are a bunch of plots that need to be tied off. He steals from a dude who has a monster guarding his treasure and an implacable tracker (say that five times fast) at his beck and call. Olivia gets kidnapped by a dude who wants the riches promised Conan, but he's not quite as skeptical about Olivia's naïveté as Conan is. Conan, naturally, wins out in the end, and this is also a surprisingly upbeat ending - almost every "good guy" lives to see another day, which isn't always true in a Conan comic.

There are some problems with the book, unfortunately. Thomas gives us a final confrontation that seems so un-Conan-like of our favorite barbarian that I wondered what the heck was going on. I always appreciate that Conan is far smarter than pretty much any adversary gives him credit for, but he also likes a good fight to the death, and the way he defeats his final opponent is ... odd, to say the least. Thomas also deprives us of another good knock-down fight at a different point, which, again, is weird. Hawthorne is, I think, the wrong artist for the book. I like Hawthorne's art, but it's a bit too cartoony for Conan, and it tends to clash a bit with tone of the book. Thomas isn't writing a super-serious Conan story - there's a fair bit of humor in the book, especially when a sorcerer conjures up a demon from some kind of hell - but there is a lot of blood and violence, and Hawthorne's broad, almost caricature-ish artwork clashes a bit with that. As I pointed out, there's nothing really wrong with Hawthorne's artwork, but for Conan, it doesn't seem to work all that well. You may disagree.

So that's "Road of Kings." It clears the decks a bit for the new series, tells an entertaining story, but doesn't really add too much to the mythology of Conan. He's kind of back where he began at the end of it, which I guess was the point. At least it's fun getting to that point, even if it's a bit disappointing that we do get there. So sad!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Bleak House by Charles Dickens. 723 pgs, Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1993 (Bleak House was originally serialized in 1852-53).

Here's my story: I was an English major in my undergraduate days, and I've always loved to read. Despite that, I am woefully under-read in the area of "classics" - I tended to ignore them when I was growing up, and if it wasn't assigned in school, I didn't read it. Therefore, the only Dickens book I read for years was Great Expectations, and only recently have I read A Tale of Two Cities and now this one. I've only read War and Peace because it was assigned (in Russian history, no less) and I haven't read a lot of what you would consider "classic" literature. I'm catching up - in the past few years, I've finally read Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe and Nostromo, and as you read this, I'm struggling through Crime and Punishment (man, what a wuss Raskolnikov is!) and by the end of year, I should have finished The Three Musketeers (I've only read the Illustrated Classics version when I was 10 or so), Drums Along the Mohawk (is that a classic?), and Madame Bovary. I guess I'm old enough now to appreciate these books, because as a teenager, they seemed deadly dull to me. I've heard the Bleak House is Dickens's best, so I figured I'd give it a whirl!

I suppose this is the exemplar of Dickens, because if you've ever read any Dickens (except, I guess, A Chrismas Carol), you kind of know what to expect: Lots of characters, many years elapsing, lots of plot lines, plenty of tragedy, a keen eye for detail both in behavior and in setting. Dickens is also quite humorous when he wants to be, and with 723 pages to tell his story, this book is often funny. The main story concerns Esther Summerson, a typical Dickensian "orphan" (she finds out that that's not exactly true) who ends up as the housekeeper at Bleak House under the employ of Mr. Jarndyce. Part of the book concerns Esther discovering that she's the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock, a fine aristocratic woman who goes to great lengths to keep the scandal from her husband, Lord Dedlock. The other main plot is about Mr. Jarndyce and the fact that his family has been entangled in a court case for generations. Mr. Jarndyce himself has distanced himself from the case, but one of his young relations, Richard, finds himself drawn to the case. Richard and Ada, cousins who go to live with Mr. Jarndyce, form one of the tragic couples of the book - Ada is best friends with Esther, but even Esther can't keep her from following Richard and getting ensnared in the vexatious case. Dickens was a court reporter for a time, so his description of the way lawyers and the courts work is full of details that both fascinate and amuse - people go into court and come out changed, and Richard can't escape it, but there's also a level of absurdity to the entire thing. Meanwhile, a lawyer named Tulkinghorn is starting to suspect that Lady Dedlock has a secret, so he pursues that line of inquiry. Things do not go well.

It's a typical Dickensian novel, in that several people die, some from violence and others from illness, which is always striking people in Victorian stories. Esther herself suffers some kind of debilitating disease about halfway through the book, which is never explained but seems to change her face somehow so that she's not as attractive. Chicken pox? A stroke? NO MAN CAN SAY!!!! In true Dickensian fashion, she's a plucky heroine who never stays down too long even though she worries about Ada constantly, and she's also a ray of light in everyone else's life. Even her disease doesn't stop people from loving her, as she worries - some people who don't see her for years comment on how pretty she remains, even though she's convinced she isn't. The other characters are fascinating - none are really all that bad, even the lawyer that Richard retains to fight in court for him, whom many other characters don't like. The closest the book gets to a true villain is Tulkinghorn, but even he doesn't really have an evil agenda in mind for Lady Dedlock - he's Lord Dedlock's lawyer and is just looking out for his client. In Dickens's London, these characters tend to cross paths quite often, and about halfway through the book I wished I had created a flow chart, but it's not too hard to keep in mind who's who and what they're doing. Even minor characters get nice arcs, from George the soldier to Jo the sickly child. Dickens might have been paid by the word, but at least he makes them interesting!

I certainly can't recommend Bleak House to everyone - I don't read very fast and it took me over a month to read it, so if you don't read very often, you might have some problems with it - but if you're at all interested in reading some Dickens, this is probably the place to start. If you enjoy this, you'll probably like other Dickens. If you don't, you probably won't like anything else he writes. It's certainly better than Great Expectations, I'll tell you that much!

The first two paragraphs:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of the collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin, fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303: The Extraordinary Story of the First Big Bank Raid in History by Paul Doherty. 242 pgs, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005.

This is a strange book, because it's not great but it does tell a good story about a forgotten episode in English history, which I always appreciate. Doherty writes with a terse, almost clipped style, getting through the narrative in only 205 pages, and structures the book very strangely. The theft of the Crown Jewels from Westminster Abbey in late April/early May 1303 is obviously the central event of the book, yet Doherty writes about the actual robbery for only 4 pages very early on in the book. He doesn't use names, instead keeping everything vague until much later, and then moving on to the investigation. While the investigation is fascinating, the drama of the theft is extremely muted, and because Doherty doesn't introduce the players until after the robbery, it's never very clear which people did what in the big scheme. Doherty does eventually tell us all about the various players in the theft, but the way he does it robs the book of some of the drama. It seems like the book should be told differently, with the account of the robbery coming after we at least know some of the people involved. The robbery ought to be the fulcrum of the book, but instead it's the inciting event. The way the book is structured makes it less interesting, even though the actual narrative has plenty of drama.

What Doherty does well is write about the investigation after Edward I (not the calmest of kings) found out about the theft. First of all, Doherty points out that Edward needed the treasure to ensure that he could get loans, because it acted as security on those loans. Edward at this time was busy fighting in Scotland (he had actually moved the government to York because he was in the North so much), so he constantly needed funds to raise armies and such, so the theft really put a bee in his bonnet. Doherty does a good job showing how the royal justices - led by a man named John de Bakewell - investigated the crime and how the wheels of justice turned in 14th-century London. The city leaders always had a contentious relationship with kings in general and Edward in particular, and the crime turned out to be perpetrated with some tacit approval by the people who ran London. Various juries were called from each ward of the city, and those juries gave testimony to the justices, and so evidence was collected. Eventually, the justices found out that a rather large conspiracy of monks were among the thieves (as they had to be, to cover up the robbers' tracks), which gets back to the matter of how to dispense justice to clergy. The clergy in the Middle Ages was protected from secular justice, but very often, the punishment handed down by the religious authorities was far less harsh. So the justices had to figure out how to circumvent that provision, and Doherty spends some time explaining this. Some of the thieves who claimed that they were monks were actually executed, so their claim was rejected, but many others survived the case because they were shielded by the Church. Five people were eventually executed for the robbery, while at least ten others, all monks, survived.

Doherty provides an interesting social history of London in the 1300s. The rudimentary justice system might seem primitive, but we can see in it the antecedents to our own. He also does a nice job explaining how the kings dealt with the cities, which were dominated by merchants and beginning to come into their own. It's a quick book and doesn't go as deeply as we might want, but it's still a pretty good read. As I wrote, I do wish that Doherty had structured it a bit differently, but it still gives us a fascinating account of an event that many people probably know nothing about.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

I have some more trades that I bought in June, as you might recall, but I want to get this done before I go on vacation, because I don't know how much time I'll have while I'm at my parents' house (I'm not going on a vacation where I'm visiting some exotic place, so I'm sure I'll have some time at the computer, but I don't want to take too many comics with me to Pennsylvania). So I'll get to the rest of the trades I bought in June in next month's post, as well as anything I pick up in July. Have a nice day, everyone!

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