Archive for September, 2009

First thoughts on Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Riverhead, 2007

I really enjoyed Díaz’s voice here — even beyond the geek references, his writing has a clever & confident conversational elegance — and the content was often absorbing, but I was disappointed to find that the parts didn’t add up to a whole.

Díaz introduces us to Oscar, then looks elsewhere, only to return occasionally — so that this Life of Oscar is missing its main character for at least half the book. Díaz also declines to allow Oscar to grow. Is he crippling his novel’s potential power, or boldly avoiding cliche? I can imagine some defenses here — to read it as a tragedy (it’s the pathos, stupid, not the character development), and place it in a context of stories like Jaime Hernandez’s Death of Speedy Ortiz (in which the titular climax is never shown, only hinted at, and the title character’s importance is shown only through his effect on friends and family). But I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.

The much-discussed geek references are thrilling to geek readers who have never encountered them in a Pulitzer-winning novel before, sort of like hearing characters swear on early South Park. On a few occasions they really add another dimension of meaning to a real-life scene, or conversely demonstrate the depth of feeling previously unnoticed in lines from a campy old Stan Lee script. I wish this happened more often; usually they’re more superficial. Obviously Oscar gets a lot out of his fandom, but I don’t think Díaz ever really explores what he’s getting or how that works.

The most successful characters are the women. It’s especially rewarding to move around in time and have the past deepen our understanding of the future. As we learn about the tortures that shaped each stubborn young woman into a haunted matriarch, we begin to love and forgive them.

A couple formal things threw me — is Yunior narrating the whole book? Why is one (and only one) chapter narrated in Lola’s voice (after a brief second-person introduction in italics)? How is the story enhanced by the revelation that we’re hearing all this from a guy who sort of knew some of the characters in college? If hearing Yunior say “I guess I could have handled that better, but in the end I didn’t, oh well” makes the book more realistic, but less satisfying, are we better off?

Díaz is a joy to read; I’d love to see him do non-fiction, especially arts criticism. He knows a lot about people, and books, and what they can do to each other. I really wish this one had come together for me.

the French for “grenade” is “grenade”

Michaela Colette Zacchilli’s recent entry on Rob Goodin’s awesome Covered blog has got me reminiscing about Mark Texeira.

(images below from Texeira’s own site; go visit him)

I’m showing my roots here: I came of age reading Marvel comics in the mid-90s, and one of my favorite mini-series was the unfortunately titled Sabretooth: Death Hunt, created in 1993 by Larry Hama and Mark Texeira. A lot of Marvel’s work during that period is absurdly inconsistent, but there’s some good stuff lurking in the mini-series (if only because the consistent creative team and clearly-defined parameters mean that you get a coherent artistic statement).

sabretooth_interior_0 sabretooth_interior_3

Texeira’s art here is like a bizarre hybrid of Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld — often pretty close to the filthy lumpy style of Sam Kieth (apparently they both worked on Marvel Comics Presents in ’90-91). Hama’s over-the-top script is matched by a ferocious energy on the part of Texeira, as befitting a Sabretooth story. I think the first issue has Sabretooth coming home to find his mansion overrun by ninjas (it happens), so he and his personal assistant have to shred and blast their way through a couple hundred ninjas before settling down to dinner or something.

sabretooth_interior_4 sabretooth_interior_5

Issue three had Wolverine in a suit. Who draws Wolverine in a suit?! I love it.

sabretooth_interior_9

The other reason I wanted to mention this is not Texeira exactly, but rather the cover:

sabretooth 1

It was the age of gimmicks, so the cardstock cover is die-cut to reveal a painting of the titular character (I have a MMPB airport thriller from 1995 that does the same thing). But the whole thing is actually kind of admirably restrained — would Marvel run something like this today? — and I especially want to appreciate the text layout in the sidebar to the left.

This sort of type-play is a very early-90s graphic design idea, made possible by the rise of desktop publishing software and digital typography. And in most cases it doesn’t age well, now that the novelty has worn off. But here it’s pretty restrained, keeping everything right-side-up and using only 2 or 3 font families. I remember seeing the same design used in a bunch of house ads for “Bloodties,” the X-Men/Avengers crossover from 1993. I’ll have to dig those out sometime: the story itself was forgettable, but those house ads (I’m remembering punch-out trading cads with pull-quotes from Nick Fury commenting on various characters) made the whole thing sound immensely important.

Hey, I was seven.

But I’m still fond of the design.


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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