There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck! – A Satisfying Quickie

Seamen on the Poop-DeckThe day I discovered There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck!, a glamorously dressed pirate approached me in the aisles of Chicago’s Wizard World comic convention. He burst full force into a tirade of sexual puns and hilarious phrasing as he declared his own book a can’t-miss gay pirate adventure. I was sold. In fact, I bought the first four books in The Seamen Sexology. After all, it was banned by the Texas Renaissance Festival…who’s to say when it will be banned everywhere and declared a national treasure? Now, two years later, I mustered up the courage to read Francois le Foutre’s debut masterpiece.

This second review paragraph typically hosts a quick plot summary to get you up (to speed), but if I took that route we’d all finish far too early. At 21 pages, There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck is more a short story than a novel (in the literary community, we call this a quickie). In lieu of a plot description, suffice it to say the book is a very short but intensely satisfying read. Give it a chance despite its length and you’re bound to be roused for the entire ride, captivated by le Foutre’s stiff hand and prosaic caresses.

Sure, this is a read that can be rubbed out pretty quickly, but its climax captivates, and the prose is riddled with pirate sex puns that had me screaming. Quickfire spurts of jokes keep this a steady and reliable read, even without any foreplay (aka knowing anything about the book).

Look, is this 21-page story about gay pirate sex a genre-defining literary benchmark? YES. Unequivocally yes. There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck oozes intrigue and wonder. The ocean, sweat and…uh…other things glisten under the shining light of le Foutre’s apt wordsmithery. This line from the first page says it all:

“The last time a man had tried to come on my poop without permission, the other men took it upon themselves to come all over him and beat him off.”

That quote, from the book’s second paragraph, sets the stage for a full-sail journey into a treasure (pleasure?) chest full of puns and wordplay that’s hard to achieve on its own, let alone in a sensible narrative. But, as you’ll find out, Francois does many things. And entering the punderdome to the tune of a delectable sea shanty is one of them.

There are countless other praises I could pour upon le Foutre’s work for you, but–as we all know–sometimes it’s just better if you do it yourself. Do yourself a favor and pick up the Kindle edition for free, or buy the paper copy and keep it on your toilet to spice up visits to your poop deck.

Rating: There’s Seamen on the Poop-Deck! – 9.0/10, read it if you dare.
-Cole

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In the Mist of Fire – Interview with Nathalie Gribinski

Mist FireNathalie Gribinski’s In the Mist of Fire places her artistry centerstage, where her elegant mix of prosaic poetry and vibrantly abstract characters bring vividly imagined worlds to life. Her debut book is a winner, packed with powerful messages and captivating visuals that make it equal parts fun and thought-provoking. Nathalie was kind enough to speak with The Quill To Live about her writing process, her relationship with her art, and more.    

First off, can you tell us about yourself and how you became an artist?

People call me Nana. I grew up in Paris, where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Science. I moved to Chicago to study graphic art. After a year of study, I immersed myself in painting, where I feel most at home with my art.

For a year, I concentrated on illustrations, so I decided to collect them into a published work alongside original poetry. In the Mist of Fire is the culmination of my stories and my art, and it represents my growth as an artist. Since my early days of writing poetry and drawing, I’ve grown so much, and I think the book shows that evolution in my work.

I have a cat/roommate named Zoé. The book includes a poem and illustration inspired by her.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I wanted to stay a child—I loved the wonder and exploration of being a kid. But sometimes I asked myself questions about the future. I didn’t know much about what I wanted to be, because I was focused on the present. I did have a passion for justice, so I ended up studying law. The work was interesting, but not fulfilling. So when I moved across the world and immersed myself into a new culture and community, I viewed it as an opportunity to rebuild myself into a new person—one I’d always wanted to be. It opened up new creative avenues for me and led me to pursue my art full-time.

regards celestes

Regards Celestes

In the Mist of Fire effortlessly combines written stories with beautiful artwork—can you talk about the relationship between your art and writing in the book?

This is my first book and I wanted to take a closer look at my illustrations, understand them better, and give them a voice. My illustrations are usually abstract works, so I tried to emulate that mood in the stories.

How would you describe In the Mist of Fire to someone who’s never read it?

On its surface, the book is a collection of art and poetry. Dive deeper, and it’s an invitation to open up the imagination and take a moment to enjoy the abstract. It’s an escape from the mundane into the vibrant and beautiful worlds we create in our minds.

Do the stories come first, or the visuals?

In this first book, the illustrations come first. I wrote the stories according to the illustrations. I’m an artist to my core, so my creative muse is almost always visual.

IMG_5062

Circles in the Wind

Which other pieces, books, or works of art have impacted you on your artistic journey?

The Little Prince has been always an inspiration. I like the naïve feeling it represents. The lessons of life, the light illustrations. Artistically, I have been influenced by Van Gogh; his colorful expressions of sorrow and suffering translatebeautifully onto canvas. He stayed true to himself until the end of his life, and though his story is a sad one, he left behind stunningly gorgeous and meaningful works.

He captivates me by his ability to express so much suffering and translate them into beautiful colorful paintings full of life. And especially because he stayed himself until the end of his life. He was looking for the truth.

What inspires you, and what motivates you to constantly create?

It is a necessity, a way of life. I am inspired by beauty, music, love, suffering, friendship, warm feelings, storms, and Zoé, my cat. What motivates me is the end result. I like to see a finished piece coming to life, and I love to share my work with others. I create to feel complete.

Many of your stories have lessons or positive messages, but there are also hints of darkness, such as in Swan of Hell. How do you balance the light and the dark?

The light and the dark are naturally balanced in myself. I have heard some critics say that any? art that there shows a lot of joy but also a lot of suffering.  I cannot understand actually how it could be different. We are all exposed to the edges of despair and the edges of happiness. I like contrasts, tension, and after all, light and dark are the truths of life.

Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff

I mention Swan of Hell specifically because it’s my favorite—do you have a favorite piece from this collection? Why does it stand out to you?

Regarding the writings, I fluctuate between two very different stories:

I like The Strange Animal Fair because it’s a short text where you can vividly visualize the scene. It’s humorous and sometimes sarcastic; it’s a story that shines.

But I also appreciate the poetry, the dynamism and the dreamy atmosphere of The Eyes of the Casino.

Regarding the illustrations, my favorite is The Eyes of the Casino.

It’s the closest reflection of the story, emboldened by a sense of movement. It is colorful, anchored by red, which is my favorite color. I find this illustration very complete.

What’s next on your artistic agenda? Any new projects on the horizon?

I’m developing a project with a poet where this time he writes poetry and I illustrate it. I’m intrigued by the concept because it’s a reversal of my process for In the Mist of Fire, where the illustrations came first.

I am also seriously returning to painting, having a solo exhibit in Chicago March 22 to March 31 at the Palette and Chisel Gallery, 1012 North Dearborn. The opening is March 22 from 6 pm to 10 pm.

Fairy light

Fairy Light

Where can we find your work?

On my website: www.nathaliegribinskiart.com

On Saatchi, an online art gallery: http://www.saatchiart.com/ngribinski

 

Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole

Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

A Man Of Shadows – Stay In The Dark

Man of ShadowsJeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows practically bursts with promise, from the intriguing cover design to a captivating back-cover summary (despite the latter being plagued by a typo…more on that later). The distinct story elements scream off the page like a paperboy shouting headlines on a 1930s street corner: “It’s got noir! It’s got murder! An original setting! Mystery! Sci-fi and magical realism abound! Read all about it!” Alas, once the sensationalism and initial excitement wear off, the story must fend for itself. A Man of Shadows never stood a chance.

Jeff Noon’s sci-fi/fantasy/noir/crime novel plops the reader right into a fascinating world chock-full of promise. The book’s setting, a city half drenched in permanent darkness and half bathed in eternal daylight (so basically any Scandinavian city), frees its inhabitants from the shackles of time (… also like Scandinavia), allowing them to purchase timelines like any other commodity (so basically it just takes place in Scandinavia). Protagonist John Nyquist, a walking cliché borderline alcoholic, down-on-his-luck private investigator, is hired by a man to find his missing teen daughter, Eleanor. Meanwhile, a seemingly invisible murderer, dubbed Quicksilver, runs rampant, killing victims in broad daylight (or Dayzone, as the permanently lit sector of the city is called). Nyquist’s investigation rapidly evolves into a whirlwind of drug dealers, time sickness (which is mostly just highly dramatized exhaustion), conspiracies, dead ends, booze, and unearned half-answers that lead him to literally zero truths, even as he says to himself “The pieces are coming together.” His escapades also take him to the edge of Dusk: the mysterious, magical, and dark no man’s land between Dayzone and Nocturna (which is the name of the dark side, you get it). The plot rambles through these elements and hundreds more with so little grace that it’s hard to believe it comes to any sort of conclusion. The conclusion that does occur is nowhere near sensible or logical.  

A Man of Shadows wears its problems and inconsistencies proudly, leaning into the inherent ambiguity of the noir/mystery genre. Noon kicks this off with his immediate abandonment of the novel’s main selling point: its setting. Instead, he favors meandering pseudo-explanations of timelines and how they function. In my opinion, this mechanic, riveting as it may sound, sets the stage for the book’s first and largest failure. I picked up A Man of Shadows precisely because I loved the idea of a city split by darkness and daylight. I yearned to discover how citizens might function. Instead, the world is built over the course of just a few stray paragraphs, and Noon opts to discuss at length, but with minimal detail, the workings of commoditized time. While that narrative choice makes some sense as the novel drags along, the story element remains unearned, unjustified, and under-explored until the last word. In other words, it felt like a gargantuan cop-out (editor’s note: get it? *finger guns*).

The issues continue with the characters, which are essentially silhouettes dancing across an already shadowy background. They’re almost exclusively monotone expressions of tired archetypes: A gumshoe P.I. with a likely drinking problem and troubled past? Check. Missing teen who claims she’s just misunderstood but makes no attempt to remedy the matter? Check. Doting father who claims he just wants what’s best, but is obviously hiding a terrible secret? Check. The list could be as long as the book itself, but I’ll spare us all the effort.

Now let’s talk plot. Mild spoilers ahead, so tread lightly. That’s a phrase which here means “Let me list a mere spattering of the myriad narrative problems that infect this book.” Nyquist’s investigation method? Walk around and hope someone approaches him with the answer. Quicksilver, the novel’s supposed antagonist, makes maybe four appearances–nee, mentions–before being used as a panacea at the end to solve quasi-problems no reasonable reader would care about in the first place. Customizable timelines are lauded as a method to keep businesses running 100 percent of the time; apparently, the genius who concocted this plan didn’t realize he could just divide the day into three eight-hour shifts and voila! Eleanor’s overbearing father has a stake in her safekeeping, but it’s way too low to justify his actions and orders that lead to the novel’s big “reveal,” or, more accurately, convoluted mess of semi-relevant information. Dusk, the neutral zone between Dayzone and Nocturna, is somehow magic, I guess? Finally, Nyquist’s internal drive to solve the mystery is about as believable as literally anything a politician says. His desire to figure things out is rooted only in his compulsion to be a P.I. Any semi-intelligent human would’ve just left the city, which, apparently, was always allowed.

Noon’s conclusion spews ambiguity with such reckless abandon that it made me question whether I missed something. It’s the kind of ending that people pretend to understand because they feel like they’re supposed to understand it. To top off my tirade, I counted nearly 20 typos and a handful of straight-up printing errors. If you’re looking for a reader to sell what little stock he owns in your book, typos and printing errors are the way to do it.

A Man of Shadows parades it’s original and gripping setting from the get-go, making it unique, at the very least. But once author Jeff Noon casts aside what I consider his novel’s best asset, the book has little else to enjoy.

Rating: A Man of Shadows – 4.0/10
-Cole

Batman: Haunted Knight – The Hero We Deserve

Haunted Knight.jpgHappy Halloween everyone, enjoy a special post!

Batman: Haunted Knight collects three Halloween tales by writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Tim Sale. Famous for The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, the pair should be considered among the most trusted minds to weave a fantastic Batman story. Each of the brief stories in Haunted Knight glows with Loeb and Sale’s unbridled joint creativity, setting the stage for the two aforementioned novels that would become their masterpieces.

Fears, Madness, and Ghosts comprise the collection, each exploring in varying detail a particular aspect of Batman’s psyche. Originally, the stories ran separately as Halloween specials before becoming a seminal collection of one-off caped crusader escapades. The specials stand quite sturdily when evaluated alone, but they thrive when collected. Three dark Batman vignettes showcasing his skill alongside his flaws? Sign me up.

Fears launches the trilogy and establishes Gotham as a city overrun by fear, with Scarecrow dead center. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, who struggles to balance his…knight life with his more human side, falls for a mysterious woman with an unclear past.

The Bruce/Bats dichotomy is well-trodden ground, but Loeb and Sale handle it deftly without missing a beat. Bruce’s troubles are reflected by Batman’s woes, and Scarecrow knows how to exploit those issues with deadly accuracy. In my admittedly limited experience with Scarecrow in Batman comics, this story stands as one of the best portrayals of the villain I’ve ever read. There’s nobody better suited to bring out the dark corners of Bruce Wayne’s mind. Where The Joker forces Batman to wrestle with chaos for its own sake, Scarecrow smartly plays to Batman’s biggest weakness: his undeniable humanity.

Fears, by a sizeable stretch, wins the gold medal out of these three tales, punctuated by a percussive and smirk-inducing conclusion that just begs to be adapted to the big screen.

Madness drops Bats into a thorough exploration of his relationship with his late mother, mirrored in the present day by Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman mainstay Jim Gordon. I’ve always thought Mad Hatter faltered as a villain, if only because his deranged mind does nothing to compensate for his tiny stature. Here, he makes up for his shortcomings with ample firepower and Barbara, a critical hostage. Even with the added leverage, Mad Hatter still reads like a cheap caricature rather than a full-fledged villain. Instead, Batman’s own inner turmoil, heralded by memories of his mother, plays the real starring villain role. Sure, it’s a tad highfalutin, but the story ends up better off for it.

Ghosts brings the collection to a lukewarm end. Easily the worst of the three, but not necessarily bad, Ghosts reads more like an excuse to retell A Christmas Carol through the Batman lens than a story that deserves to be told. After an altercation with Penguin, Bruce is visited by the ghost of his father followed by three other ghosts who represent past, present, and future.

A few villainous staples appear throughout the tale as titular ghosts, but the narrative moves so quickly that no worthwhile conflict emerges. By the end, I had written Ghosts off as a semi-charming recreation of a classic tale using the iconic stable of Batman characters. It’s worth the read, but any deeper meaning eludes this one. And, at the end of the day, that’s just fine.

Batman: Haunted Knight captures the spark of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale effortlessly, setting the stage for their continued collaboration and cementing them as trustworthy Batman storytellers. The three collected tales vary in terms of quality, ranging from passable to amazing, generally settling toward the latter.

Rating: Batman: Haunted Knight – 7.5/10
-Cole