April 08, 2021

(++++) SMALL ADVENTURES

Wallace the Brave 3: Wicked Epic Adventures. By Will Henry. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Where, Oh Where, Is Barnaby Bear? By Wendy Rouillard. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     Slightly skewed versions of everyday childhood events are the stock-in-trade of Will Henry’s gently evocative Wallace the Brave comics, whose third book collection focuses mostly on Wallace and best friend Spud – although Wallace’s other best friend, Amelia, gets her due, and so does Wallace’s distinctly peculiar little brother, Sterling. There is an underlying pleasant warmth to all the quotidian doings in Wallace the Brave, with the world mostly perceived and experienced through children’s eyes – a refreshing approach in our ultra-cynical era. Wallace and his family and friends have only the slightest contact with technology (Wallace’s dad is a lobster fisherman), and most of their interactions feel timeless. One strip has Wallace and Spud “hitchhiking to Bolivia,” with Wallace carrying the traditional and very old-fashioned bundle of belongings tied to a pole. One has Wallace and Spud contemplating the freedom of summer vacation, which to Wallace means “freedom to do whatever we want” and to Spud means “freedom to order a large pizza with any toppings we desire” – and when Wallace urges Spud to “think bigger,” Spud says, “Extra large.” Summer vacation is also Wallace’s cue to engage in “the tradition of casting them [his shoes] into the depths of the ocean,” since he will not be wearing them for three months. Wallace the Brave includes a certain amount of fantasizing – particularly nicely drawn by Henry – such as Spud figuring out that his superpower is to “take naps on criminals to slow them down” (the panel showing him doing just that is delightful); and Spud fearing bridges because “one day a troll is gonna pop out and ask me topical trivia questions” (and the immense, looming troll asking “what is the northernmost state capital?” is perfect). If Spud, with his large, refrigerator-shaped head, is always a bit askew in the world, Wallace has his own run-ins with reality. In one multi-strip sequence, Amelia produces a “Tibetan red head chili pepper” so hot that “I needed a fake I.D. to buy this baby,” and of course Wallace eats it, and the multiple drawings of his reactions are hilarious – right up to the one in which he exclaims, “I can smell the light!” This is also a rare technology-including sequence, showing a Tibetan pepper-growing monk talking on a cell phone and Amelia taking a video of Wallace’s crazed pepper reaction and saying, “This is gonna get a bazillion views.” The characters in Wallace the Brave have distinctive personalities, and stay so true to them that the occasional deviations are themselves topics of Henry’s humor. Thus, one strip here has Amelia talking in a decidedly non-Amelia way to another girl who invites her for a visit (“I’m, like, super totally thrilled” and “T-T-Y-L”) – then explaining to Wallace that “her house has central air.” That is definitely Amelia; and Wallace and Spud are equally definitely themselves; and even Wallace’s parents and brother Sterling are characterized cleverly and precisely. Only Wallace would describe “a sweet job” as being one where you are “the person who wears slabs of butter and skates around Paul Bunyan’s pancakes,” and only Henry could visualize that scene so unerringly – or add to it with Spud’s remark, “I once ate a stick of butter in two bites.” Wallace the Bold does not go boldly into new territory so much as it perfects a journey into the well-worn but always fascinating realm of childhood wonder and almost-reality.

     Wallace the Brave is a comic strip for adults, but the notion of everyday adventures works for children, too – even very young ones. In fact, fantasy-adventures in books for the youngest readers and pre-readers can be a lot of fun and can help introduce children to the overall notion that books can take you anywhere and “anywhen.” Wendy Rouillard does just that in a charming little board book called Where, Oh Where, Is Barnaby Bear? It opens with a nighttime scene of anthropomorphic animals using flashlights to search for Barnaby, and continues with simple and nicely done illustrations showing lots of possible places where Barnaby could be. “Is he in a balloon?” He is seen floating above a shoreline, with a lighthouse below and a smiling whale in the water. “Has he flown to the moon?” The moon, planets and stars smile at Barnaby in his spaceship, which has a bold “B” on the side. The initial also appears on an aircraft and bear-sized helmet: “Is he flying a plane?” Or, perhaps, “Is he caught in the rain?” No initial in that illustration – just Barnaby in slicker and galoshes beneath a multicolored umbrella. Wherever Barnaby is, or rather may possibly be, he is shown smiling and enjoying himself, and the creatures around him are happy, too, including fish when Barnaby might be fishing and crabs when he may be “filling his net with crabs at sunset.” Eventually, children find out just where Barnaby Bear is: asleep in his cozy bed with the animals seen at the start of the book, and with the moon and a star smiling in on the scene. So a bedtime story turns out to be what this book is – but it is also an easy-to-follow adventure tale and maybe even, if adults suggest it to kids, a story about dreams, for all Barnaby’s imagined activities could simply be things about which he is dreaming while peacefully asleep. There is nothing grand or large-scale here – just a sense that it is fun to imagine all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary activities while home, safe, in bed.

(+++) RETURN TO TOMORROW

Escaping Exodus 2: Symbiosis. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     Be careful what you wish for. In Escaping Exodus, Nicky Drayden created a fascinating dystopia, a society she explored in such detail and with such care that reading about it was a genuine adventure – if only those pesky characters had not kept intruding. Drayden spent so much time with the rules (many rules) and traditions (many traditions) of her spacefaring civilization that the characters plunked down within the environment never measured up to the setting, however hard Drayden seemed to try to bring them to vivid life. Now, in Symbiosis, the sequel to Escaping Exodus, Drayden is determined to produce character portraits and explore them at length. Unfortunately, in so doing, she veers off the rails into an overly complex plot that never quite hangs together and that strains credulity to and beyond the breaking point – yes, even more than the plots of futuristic dystopian novels usually do.

     “Be careful what you wish for” could actually be the watchword, or watchphrase, for one of the central characters in Symbiosis, Doka Kaleigh. He is a very rare male leader in a strictly stratified and hidebound matriarchy, and as a result of his gender is constantly being challenged, put on the defensive, and left one step from disaster – a disaster that, if it were to befall him, would also befall the entire society, a reality of which Doka’s many enemies are blissfully unaware (or about which they care not a whit). The society is one in which humans are, essentially, cancer cells, growing and reproducing and functioning parasitically inside moon-sized interstellar beasts called Zenzee that somehow thrive in the vacuum of space (just how is never explained: Drayden is writing fantasy and space opera, not science fiction). Doka wishes to change society, to make it far more humane, to have it be symbiotic (hence the sequel’s title) rather than parasitic. And he has made considerable strides in his desired direction, despite the forces arrayed against him. But he has a wish of his own, and it threatens to undermine all his accomplishments. He desires to love and be loved by his wife (and alternate-chapter narrator), Seske.

     Drayden’s society is one in which family structures are rigidly arranged and controlled, one basic notion being the “Rule of Ten: nine parents, and one child to share between them.” The parents have assigned and unchanging roles, the relationships among the adults among them: Seske is a platonic will-wife, a type of consort whom Doka may not love without threatening the entire basis of this traveling-among-the-stars civilization. By having him nevertheless love Seske, Drayden makes an attempt to humanize her characters and give them depth – but this effort, one of several in Symbiosis, seems contrived and ultimately falls flat. Just how contrived it is becomes clear when a deus ex machina event (one of several of those) forces the Doka-led Zenzee occupiers to accept thousands of refugees from another of the Zenzee. The entry of the immigrants, whose own society differs from that of Doka and Seske in numerous ways, precipitates a culture clash that destabilizes everything that Doka has painstakingly wrought. It also forces Doka and Seske into an alliance that goes beyond their officially sanctioned marriage – making Doka’s feelings all the more awkward, of course – as they work together to preserve what is good in humanity while casting off those traditions and behaviors that undermine humans and Zenzee alike. On top of that, in another deus ex machina occurrence, Doka and Seske together discover long-buried, crucial secrets that have the capacity to transform or destroy their society – with matters eventually resolved through a climax that relies on, yes, another deus ex machina.

     Authorial manipulations are, to be sure, nothing at all unusual in fiction, and they are perhaps more common in fantasy than elsewhere, since fantasy authors tend to take advantage of their ability to make up elements of nonexistent worlds and societies as they go along. Drayden, though, is strongest when she is building such worlds: all her books, including the first Escaping Exodus, are at their most fascinating and involving in their explorations of the grotesqueries of their settings and the bizarre appearances and behaviors that Drayden presents. There is some of that inventiveness in Symbiosis as well, and some cringeworthy, horrific scenes that make sense in context and effectively help deepen the sense of a vibrant (if deeply flawed) society. But what is apparent throughout Symbiosis is how hard Drayden is trying to make the characters believable, to correct a flaw in her writing that has led her, again and again, to produce individuals far less interesting and real-seeming than the groups, circumstances and worlds within which they exist. However, manipulativeness does not work well in bringing characters to life: it simply does not work to instruct readers to find characters engaging and worthy of attention and emotional identification. Symbiosis will be satisfying for readers who found Escaping Exodus fascinating for its settings and the vivid imagination that Drayden lavished on them. However, anyone who hoped Drayden would now use her scene-setting talent to enliven the characters within those scenes will – while enjoying the fast pace and excitement of Symbiosis – be disappointed that so much of the new book is essentially more of the same.

(+++) MUSIC WITH AND FOR A CAUSE

Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers. Will Liverman, baritone; Paul Sánchez, piano. Cedille. $16.

Semir “Sammy” Hasić: No More War. Navona. $14.99.

     Asking “why write music?” is very different from asking “why listen to music?” Composers create for all sorts of reasons, from internal drive to external reality (commissions) to financial pressures to obligations of all sorts. Should there also be obligations to listen to music? Some people certainly think so: that thinking lies behind many releases of music by, for example, women composers and members of other under-represented groups. Certainly some people will come to music that they “should” hear because they will feel they are doing something obligatory. And certainly some supporters of the “under-represented” will tell listeners that they should not only listen but also accept and support music because of who or what its creators are or were. And if that music does not bring pleasure or speak to listeners, the argument goes, there must be something wrong with the listeners, who must have some sort of unconscious bias, lack of understanding, etc. In fact, these disputes are analogous to those about contemporary music of all sorts, electronic music of all types, even twelve-tone music and music created using nontraditional systems (say, the works of John Cage or Harry Partch). This sort of extramusical argument is essentially a sociopolitical one that attempts to use societal pressure and induced guilt to “make” audience members pay attention to composers and works that they might otherwise not listen to, much less enjoy. But enjoyment is, of course, a subjective experience, and implying (or stating directly) that someone should enjoy this or that piece or composer is a form of psychological dictatorship, whether the “should” applies to aleatoric music or Wagner’s music dramas.

     So the “why listen?” question looms large as regards new releases on the Cedille and Navona labels. Dreams of a New Day is specifically intended to bring black composers to listeners’ attention – although the question of whether this music “sounds black” and, if so, deserves to be heard on that basis, is at best an open one. It is safe to say that the main attraction of this disc for most listeners will likely be the chance to hear unfamiliar music (never mind the skin color of the composers) in strongly committed performances by Will Liverman, a baritone with a fine operatic voice, who receives excellent piano accompaniment from Paul Sánchez. The songs themselves come from many time periods and vary widely in their approach and the extent to which they are overt advocates of some concept or other. I Dream a World by Damien Sneed (born 1979) is thoroughly modern in its focus on social issues and its eventual lack of resolution. Five Songs of Laurence Hope by Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) impressively mingle the style of spirituals with that of songs for the concert hall – and are strongly emotive and evocative, using the words of a mentally troubled female poet who wrote under a male name and lived in several regions of the world. Amazing Grace by Leslie Adams (born 1932) is a somewhat declamatory version of the words to the famous spiritual-like song. Three Dream Portraits by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) use words by Langston Hughes as a specific celebration of African-American pride, and remain effective even though their sentiments now sound somewhat naïve. Riding to Town by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) has naïveté of its own, plus a rhythm reflective of the notion of the ride being described. Two Black Churches by Shawn E. Okpebholo (born 1981) is another strongly sociopolitical work, its focus being on church bombings in 1963 and 2015, respectively, and its treatment (especially of the earlier, Birmingham bombing) spun out at considerable length. Mortal Storm by Robert Owens (1925-2017) is a set of five songs that are collectively only as long as Okpebholo’s single one about Birmingham – with Owens using his cycle to explore societal darkness and its dehumanizing effects from several angles and with considerable intensity. The CD ends with Birmingham Sunday by Richard Fariña (1937-1966), arranged by Liverman – yet another work focusing on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, in this case taking a Scottish folk tune and modifying its warmth and simplicity to produce a level of irony that heightens the sense of tragedy. Liverman and Sánchez produce strongly committed performances of all the songs, and Liverman’s elegant tone is used to good effect to highlight the various ups and downs – more downs than ups – in the words and music. So, to whom is the CD addressed? If it is intended to engage only African-American listeners, then there is plenty offered here in terms of regret, troubles of the past, and hope for the future (albeit somewhat less of that). If, however, the idea is to reach out to a wider audience –  African-Americans make up only about one-eighth of the U.S. population – then the most-effective works will be the ones that proclaim a commonality of experience and that reach (as Burleigh’s songs do) beyond events focused on skin color to discern an underlying humanity, however troubled it may be, that is quite literally more than skin deep.

     Racial matters are also present, although not as the sole focus, in Semir “Sammy” Hasić’s musical advocacy disc with the overall title of No More War. Hasić (born 1964) is an accordionist, and he performs on the CD as well as serving as composer, arranger and producer. The disc is experiential rather than strictly musical – or, to put it slightly differently, it offers music and other aural material in the service of a cause. Hasić’s specific focus is one that will be obscure to most Americans: the 1991 Battle of Vukovar in eastern Croatia. Hasić, however, seeks universality from this specific event. He uses it as the basis for a plea that is scarcely original with him: to end the constant cycle of war and violence that seems to define human interaction so distressingly frequently. To make his point, Hasić starts the first piece on the disc, War Rhapsody, with the sorts of playful, nature-oriented sounds that are all too typical of films and other media in which similar antiwar messages are conveyed. Then, inevitably, there are the sounds of war machines – helicopters and tanks – disturbing the tranquility and upending the supposedly idyllic life that people apparently had before the battle. Hasić interweaves actual music with the soundscape, using themes to accentuate feelings of terror, loss, brief optimism, fear, and emptiness – the last being especially clear at the work’s end, when the accordion sounds mournfully, pretty much on its own. Similar techniques pervade the entire disc, but the specific elements differ from piece to piece. Thus, Waltz for Orphans intends to depict two orphaned children left only with each other. My Country raises questions about the reasons for conflict and the suffering it brings. Racial issues show up in Say No to Racism, which moves from an irregular rhythm to a regular one, as if trying to evolve beyond racial conflict.  My Tears is suitably dark and melancholy. Scheherazade 1001 Nights fits rather oddly here: it is a four-minute encapsulation of the famous story of the king who killed each of his wives after one night, until one of them kept him so entertained by stories that she overcame his violent nature. Stranger is intended to evoke common experience: all people have been strangers somewhere, at some time. Tornado is mostly the sound of airplanes and is intended to be uplifting. Migrants integrates sounds, presumably those of a dangerous journey from war, with multiple forms of ethnic music. Improvisation for Freedom is indeed an improvisation, intended to symbolize the notion of the world never quite figuring out how to stop the cycle of war and violence. That is the logical ending of Hasić’s sequence, but there is a final track on the CD – one of complete silence, in the vein of John Cage’s famous 4’33”. Hasić calls this concluding piece (or non-piece) COVID 19 and says it pays tribute to victims of the disease – although the connection with the rest of No More War is tenuous at best. As with the CD featuring songs by African-American composers, the question here is who is the hoped-for audience. Certainly Hasić’s intentions are unexceptionable, but they are also common to the point of triteness. So too are many of his means of expressing his concerns: the intermingling of sound with the combination of themes, harmonies and rhythms that we call music is nothing new, and none of the commingling is done in any especially innovative way. Hasić plays the accordion quite well and makes its sound central to virtually everything on the disc, and he also writes with some skill for a chamber group that includes violin, flute, oboe, trumpet, trombone, percussion and piano – and, separately, for a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, bass). The well-intentioned material here is not, in the final analysis, especially compelling as a musical experience or particularly engaging as a multimedia one. It seeks to reach out to people who find war and violence disturbing – certainly a very large audience – but it limits itself by failing to provide anything significant that audience members will not have been exposed to many times already.

April 01, 2021

(++++) THE THEN AND THE NOW

Ozy and Millie. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Ozy and Millie: Perfectly Normal. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Big Nate: In Your Face! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Although currently known for her long-running Phoebe and Her Unicorn comics, Dana Simpson had a previous strip, also long-running, that contained many of the same elements of homespun, gentle, offbeat, appropriate-for-many-ages amusement: Ozy and Millie, which ran from 1998 to 2008. Started in black-and-white on the Internet (where else?), Ozy and Millie eventually made it into book form in several specialty collections, and some of the strips are now showing up – in color, no less – in more-mainstream form. And that is a good thing, because “mainstream” is where they belong. Although the totality of Ozy and Millie reflected Simpson’s political views and contained some mild (and quickly outdated) social commentary, many of the strips have a timeless quality that deserves to be seen and enjoyed (and laughed at) by a wider audience. Two Andrews McMeel collections of the strip are most welcome for making that possible. The title characters are fifth-grade foxes, or rather human fifth-graders drawn as foxes; and, not surprisingly, they have opposite personalities that help make them best friends. Their full names contain hints of Simpson’s style of humor in the strip: Ozymandias J. Llewellyn and Millicent Mehitabel Mudd. The grandiosity and referential nature of the names – his to Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (which Ozy actually quotes in one panel) and hers perhaps to the Don Marquis cat Mehitabel, friend of cockroach typist Archie – contrast with the characters’ mundane concerns to very amusing effect. And Simpson hones that contrast to a fine edge (without, to continue the metaphor, ever becoming really cutting: there is nothing deeply sarcastic in Ozy and Millie). Millie lives with her mom, who was obviously much like her daughter at the same age and therefore usually knows exactly how to handle her, as when Millie abruptly asks for $700 and her mom says “sure, here you go,” handing her the money – leaving Millie completely stunned and her mom saying, “I always wanted to try that.” In another example, Millie says “life is fair” so her mother can no longer tell her, “no one ever said life is fair” – so her mom switches to, “No one credible ever said life is fair.” As for Ozy, he lives with his stepdad, who happens to be a dragon because – well, just because, which is also the reason Ozy almost always wears a top hat. Most of the enjoyment of the strip comes not from the central characters’ interactions with their parents or even with other, minor characters (such as the prototypical “mean girl” and the usual school bully). The fun comes from the way Ozy and Millie play off each other, each knowing the other’s foibles and weak spots and finding them endearing, amusing, or both. So when Millie worries, “Is there something wrong with me?” Ozy says, “Yes. That’s why we’re friends.” When Millie claims to be a great artist because nobody understands her work, Ozy observes that she has drawn “‘the blob’ eating a pecan pie,” so Millie says, “Dang it, people do understand my work,” and Ozy says, “If it helps any, we don’t understand much else about you.” Ozy tends to be the straight and somewhat straitlaced character, Millie the more out-of-control and rebellious one, but Simpson does such a good job of refining and polishing their personalities that their interactions seem to flow from genuineness rather than authorial manipulation. Thus, it makes perfect sense for Millie to decide she will find and vanquish evil people; then to decide that Ozy is evil because he plays mind games with her; then for Ozy to ask, if she vanquishes him, “Who are you going to get to play ‘Thoreau vs. Emerson Jello Death Match’ with you?” And to top that line, Simpson has Millie say, “I must vanquish evil that isn’t personally convenient!” The fact that she says this while wearing overalls – her usual costume – somehow makes the whole thing more piquant. And funnier. Ozy and Millie is no longer around (it ended, appropriately, with Ozy’s dad marrying Millie’s mom), but the chance to dip into its not-quite-Phoebe brand of sense and nonsense is very much welcome.

     While some cartoonists, such as Simpson, move on from one kind of strip to another, others, such as Lincoln Peirce, spend their time (and many years) refining and polishing the same basic idea. Peirce has drawn Big Nate for more than a quarter of a century, and his focus on the perennial sixth-grader (a touch older than Simpson’s Ozy and Millie) has only gotten sharper over time – although it remains odd that Nate goes through summer vacation again and again and always re-starts sixth grade afterwards. (It does not pay to think too much about time loops in comic strips.) The well-oiled machine of Nate’s world moves along very smoothly in the latest collection of the strip, Big Nate: In Your Face! The theme-and-variations form comes to mind here and is handled very adeptly by Peirce. For instance, Nate’s longtime student nemesis, super-smart Gina, is, as usual, a foil for Nate’s much more scattered intelligence (and much bigger mischievous streak). Here, though, a strip sequence has Nate’s friends pointing out all the ways in which Nate and Gina are similar. Even one of the teachers notices the thematic similarity of stories written by Nate and Gina and comments on it. That teacher is not, if course, Mrs. Godfrey, who is Nate’s teacher nemesis and who shows up again and again in that role, even intruding into an imaginary landscape that Nate is thinking up for art class (Nate imagines her as blue-skinned, polka-dotted, and carrying a huge pile of homework for Nate to do). The main focus in this collection, as in others and in the strip as a whole, is on Nate and friends Francis and Teddy, but Peirce – who does develop other characters over time, widening the scope of Big Nate while retaining its focus – also uses super-adorable Chad more often here. Nate recruits Chad to do school-newspaper interviews, for example, because teachers know Nate will twist their words if they speak to him. Nate shows Chad just how likable he is by asking a girl what she weighs – she of course shouts to Nate that it is none of his business. Then Nate has Chad ask her, and she immediately replies, “112. You’re adorable.” Peirce also focuses one sequence on Teddy’s decision to break up with his girlfriend, Paige – with Nate refusing to handle the breakup for him and Teddy eventually, after quite a few convoluted thoughts, having the courage to tell Paige they should not be a couple anymore. Paige, it turns out, is fine with that (“you’re a nice guy, but it’s not like you’re my dream guy”) – leaving Teddy thoroughly nonplussed. In addition to expanding on characters’ personalities and adventures, Peirce revisits some of his favorite themes here, as usual. There are the screamingly loud demands of Coach John, Nate’s enjoyment of the Klassik Komix store (where he becomes an intern), and Francis’ love of books of trivia – to the annoyance of both Nate and Teddy. What Peirce has done so well for so long is to mix the more-or-less-expected elements (the figure-skating obsession of Nate’s sister, the fecklessness of their dad, the oddities of neighbor dog Spitsy) with more-or-less-unexpected ones (Nate’s grandfather taking painting lessons from a TV-painting show whose host is long dead, Nate’s “secret Santa” problem involving a gift of lug nuts). Peirce has the many variations of Nate’s universe down to a science, but the way he combines and juggles them is an art – one that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.