February Reads: Eurocomix, Medieval Tragedy, and WWII Espionage

I have to say that GoodReads has been a great tool for me to get through some of the books I've been hoarding! There's something to be said about the accountability of having a "Books I'm Reading" update glaring at me every time I log on. In addition to my podcast reads, here are a few titles that stood out for me this month.

Much as a I hate star ratings from a principled standpoint, they're a good tool when seeking automated recommendations--sort of a way of saying "more like THIS, please." I'm always going to default high when star-rating creative works in these kinds of online platforms, since my real approach is more of a "pass/fail" depending on what I'm looking to be entertained by at that specific moment.

The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By turns sardonic, mystical, romantic, witty, and violent, this lushly illustrated trio of stories builds an immersive fantasy-futurist vision that one won't soon forget. Bilal seems to take a "more is more" approach, blending elements of espionage, mythology, film noir, surrealism, and meta-narrative into these stories. Each panel is exquisitely detailed, encouraging a pleasurably slow reading process. A spiritual cousin to The Incal but from a grimier, more pessimistic perspective.

Collection of Sha by Pat Mills
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Completely over the top horror SF fantasy from the team that created Requiem Vampire Knight. This is very much a Heavy Metal title, with all the violence, acerbic satire, and weird sexual politics that implies. Ledroit’s visionary art style brings Mills’ dystopian occult revenge plot to life. This very much feels like a test run for the more immersive (and more outrageous) Requiem.

By Chance or Providence by Becky Cloonan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Becky Cloonan's gifts as a visual storyteller are aptly demonstrated in this trio of short stories linked by themes of loss, heartbreak, and the cruelty of fate. The juxtaposition of her thoroughly modern visual style with the weighty supernatural tales she weaves creates an impact that lasts long after the final frame. There's a restraint present here that focuses the attention on small gestures and facial expressions, making climactic moments land all that much harder. The added "Concept Sketches & Illustrations" are a welcome treat that allow the reader to linger in Cloonan's medieval world a bit longer. Highly recommended.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The real joy of Larson's narrative approach to writing about history is found in the small moments he captures. While the broad strokes of Hitler's consolidation of power are known to virtually all readers with a passing interest in military and political history, Larson narrows the focus and depicts events as experienced by a very specific set of personalities. This is a book about romantic entanglements, over-dinner conversations, and personal diary confessions, all of which grow to have dire consequences in the charged, bloody, and tragic atmosphere in which they occur. Larson mentions the influence of Christopher Isherwood on the development of the book, and that's an apt point of reference for potential readers. This is a real page-turner with two captivating, flawed American characters (scholarly Ambassador Dodd and his vivacious twenty-something daughter Martha) at its center.

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The Young Witches: London Babylon - Lopez and Barreiro

Sequels sometimes manage to outstrip the works that preceded them, using the ready-made world and its existing rules, ideas and characters as a springboard to wilder flights of fancy. Serialized comics provide many great examples of this. From superheroes like Batman to fantasy stories like ElfQuest to light comedy like Archie and its many spin-offs, authors and artists can capitalize on a ready-made set of rules to spin off new works that almost without exception prove to be more interesting than the first wobbly story of the series. It's common to hear fans of this kind of story-telling apologetically explain that a title is "still very new;" there's an expectation that better stuff is yet to come, but the alchemical transformation of the raw ingredients hasn't happened yet.

The second book in Francisco Solano Lopez and Eduardo Barreiro's "Young Witches" series of (very) graphic novels certainly blossoms (metastasizes?) into something much more than what came before. I first discovered the "Young Witches" books, published in the U.S. by the Eros imprint of Fantagraphics Books, in the Adult Section of the sadly-now-long-gone Village Comics. The cover of the first collection of stories features a close-up of the open mouth of one of the lead characters, framed by assorted savage, leering faces. This cover suggests that all manner of lurid insalubriousness is going on within this book's pages. In fact, book one of "Young Witches" is fairly unremarkable--as unremarkable as an extremely explicit story about sexually ambiguous just-post-adolescent sorceresses can be, anyway. But book two, "London Babylon," takes a sound concept (young witches! in trouble! graphically!) and cranks up the insanity to spectacularly heady levels.

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In the interests of fairness, there are spoilers (despoilers?) ahead, so if you're the kind of person who likes his or her occult, historical-fiction S&M comics to be viewed with fresh eyes, turn back...!

At some point in the Victorian era ("Victorian" in the way that the Ren Faire depicts the historical realities of the Renaissance, anyway), young Lillian Cunnington and her schoolmate Agatha are fleeing from the repressive and frequently-rapey confines of the occult boarding school where they honed their witchcraft skills. They cross paths with Dr. Jekyll, who takes them to London where he promptly vagina-drugs them with a sedative-slash-aphrodisiac and enslaves them in the basement of his brothel/nightclub/cult temple. This might seem absurd, but according to the "Young Witches" mythology, one-hundred-percent of men are one-hundred-percent boner-motivated, so it makes more than a bit of sense that the need would arise for a lot of vagina-drugging white slavery organizations.

 Albert Einstein, ladies and gentlemen.

Albert Einstein, ladies and gentlemen.

A cast of characters files through Dr. Jekyll's club, including Sherlock Holmes (who watches an erotic equestrian act in full-on deerstalker and pipe mode), Sigmund Freud (who gets a blowjob while traveling in a zeppelin--STEAMPUNK!) and a coked-out, misogynistic Robert Louis Stevenson (steampunk?). The main source of tension comes from wondering whether or not Lillian and Agatha will remain (EXTREMELY loosely-defined) virgins and what horrible plans Jekyll's cult has in mind for the girls, but the story is mainly a framework upon which to hang every manner of perversion.

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Illustrator Francisco Solano Lopez was an influential figure in mainstream Argentinian comics, gaining fame drawing science fiction tales before embarking on making erotic fare in the 1990s. It's hard to imagine any classic American comics artist having similar latitude to explore these kind of deliberately provocative themes, considering there's an entire book dedicated to one of the creators of Superman and his work on American pulps that was promoted in such a way as to incite pearl clutching among the masses. Thankfully, there's a (sometimes literal) ocean of difference between the way readers in other countries approach serialized comics (and visual storytelling in general).

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Lopez' highly-textural, sensual style of drawing complements Barreiro's unflinchingly gratuitous story. I'm sometimes reminded of George Pichard's voluptuous women, and the torturous scenarios to which he subjects them. There's a real sense of flesh (and other various organic materials) throughout the book, creating a sort of "can't look away" immersiveness to the perversity. In later books. Lopez takes a softer, grayscale approach and even includes color work, but it's in these stark black-and-white scenes where his technique shines.

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Tonally, the book feels like a somewhat more literate version of the various "Blu" fumetti titles, crammed as it is with aggressively shocking sexual provocation. I'm not sure if, like its "Blu" spiritual siblings, it makes the overall effect of reading "London Babylon" more or less unsettling that there's plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor to be found. Keep in mind that this is a universe where Jack the Ripper's crimes are shown in gruesome detail but he is later entirely forgiven for his crimes and just... sorta... walks away because his therapist trusts that he got better. That's got some fucking disturbing implications, cats and kittens. Apparently Eros found the book's material potentially objectionable enough to issue a warning on one of the first pages, reinforcing that the book is satirical in nature and that Lillian and Agatha are totally empowered by  the process of overcoming what happens to them (which is why the explosive finale is wrapped up in two pages, but there are over a score of pages in which vagina-drugging figures prominently).

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I think the book should be celebrated for what it is--a completely over-the-top, unapologetic celebration of the grotesque. Always dark, sometimes funny and utterly engrossing in its grossness, "London Babylon" is boundary-pushing, subversive erotica that delivers on its promises to shock and--yeah, I'mm'a say it--arouse.

If you're so inclined to read the entire magnum opus that is "Young Witches: London Babylon," you can follow a series of tubes and get to it by clicking here. And don't say you weren't warned!