I read books

My comic shop has been having a hell of a time lately. For those of you who aren’t comic geeks, Wednesday is New Comic Books Day. Every comic book shop I’ve ever frequented was closed on Tuesdays, because Wednesday is the day every week when new books come out and that meant that they needed to remerch everything in their damn store once a week. DC Comics recently decided they were going to take responsibility for shipping and fulfillment themselves, and they started shipping everything to be available for Tuesday. My comic shop shrugged and didn’t change anything, knowing that nobody was going to get pissed about having to wait that extra day, and if they’ve caught any grief from it I’m unaware of it.

The problem is that for the last several weeks all of their indie and Marvel books have been getting caught in weather nightmares and have been late. You can probably imagine that with this business model a comic shop makes a huge percentage of their weekly revenue– 75% or more– on Wednesday, and so if something prevents the books from being there on time it can cause serious cash flow problems. Last week’s Marvel books just got put on the shelf today, and last I heard they were hoping this week’s Marvel books would be available tomorrow. I popped in yesterday anyway because I had dinner plans with my dad and the comic shop is near his house, and since I’m not buying much DC stuff nowadays there really wasn’t much of anything available. So I picked up Nubia: Real One, a 208-page original graphic novel written by L.L. McKinney and drawn by Robyn Smith. You might recognize McKinney’s name from her books A Blade So Black and A Dream So Dark, both of which I have read and really enjoyed. This isn’t quite her first comics work, but it’s certainly her first major work– she’s done a story here and there, but debuting with a 200+ page OGN is … not a thing that’s really done, to be honest. I had a conversation with the owners about various prose authors who have made the transition into comics work recently– Daniel Jose Older, Saladin Ahmed, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jodi Picoult, of all people, all came up. Some authors have trouble with the transition, because in comics so much is handled visually.

LL McKinney is not one of those authors, and I’ll stop burying the lede: Nubia: Real One is one of the best comics I’ve read in quite some time, and to pull something like that off with a character I wasn’t terribly aware of or invested in is a hell of an accomplishment. I’m also completely unfamiliar with Robyn Smith’s work, and honestly a quick scan of the book didn’t initially impress me, as this is far from traditional superhero work. That’s not automatically bad, mind you, but Nubia is an Amazon. This is a DC book.

Well, all those concerns got blown to hell once I started reading the book. Smith’s art and in particular her character designs are just beautiful– it can be difficult to draw regular folks in a way that makes them instantly recognizable in a comic book (there’s a reason superheroes wear brightly colored costumes) and the characters are all distinct and clear without looking, other than Nubia’s towering height, disproportionate or exaggerated. And then there’s Nubia’s tooth gap. This may seem like a weird thing to fixate on, but she smiles a lot in this book, and she’s got this gap between her front teeth that just did an amazing amount of work in making her seem like a normal kid and a regular person. I have been reading comics for 35 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character with a gap in their front teeth that wasn’t supposed to be a small child. She feels like a real person, with real problems, and so do her friends, and so do her parents for that matter, and while anyone who knows anything about the character already knows what the big twist is (this is an origin story) the story itself is great as well. I loved this book unconditionally, and if you’re even a little bit of a comic book person you owe yourself to check it out.

I can’t find a properly high-resolution version of this cover, unfortunately, but I also finished Tochi Onyebuchi’s Rebel Sisters this week. This is the second book in a series, the sequel to his War Girls, which ended up in fifth place on my Best New Books of 2019 list. The sequel has a very different feel to it from the first book. War Girls was, in the author’s words, “Gundam in Nigeria,” only it ended up being quite a bit more weighty than that description implies. That said, there were giant mechs and blowing shit up, but for all that it was a cool action book it also had a lot to say about revolution and civil war, and it was all-around a hell of a thing to read.

(I have said it before, and I’ll repeat it again: if you are not reading African and African diasporic science fiction and fantasy right now, and particularly Nigerian science fiction, you are missing out. This is a real movement and you need to get in on it.)

Rebel Sisters is set after the future civil war that takes up the bulk of War Girls, and stars Ify, who was one of the main characters of War Girls. Ify has left Nigeria and moved to a space station and is working as a doctor, when a mysterious illness takes over among the children of many of the refugee families who live at the station. She ends up returning to Earth in an attempt to find a cure for the disease, and finds out that the Nigerian government has … well, they’ve dealt with moving on from the war in a unique way, I’ll just say that. Rebel Sisters is a quieter and more contemplative book than War Girls was, and bounces back and forth between Ify’s perspective and that of one of the synths from the first book, a character I won’t spoil much about. You kind of get the feeling that Onyebuchi got the “big robots smash punch BOOM!” out of his system in the first book, and this one is more About What It Is About, if that makes any sense, although it’s no less an accomplishment for all that. One interesting detail from the author’s afterword that I’m going to make sure you know about going in, because I wish I had: the disease the kids come down with may strike you as … rather narratively convenient, for lack of a better word. It is– and this kind of blew my mind and made me read more into it– actually based on a real phenomenon that has happened among refugee children.

Check it out.

Finally, from the This Book Doesn’t Really Need My Help department, I’ve also read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I bought both of the other books in this post because of preexisting fandoms, but while I had heard of Coelho before ordering The Alchemist, I couldn’t have told you anything about him other than that he was an author. Well, I decided I wanted to find a book from Brazil for #Readaroundtheworld, and a search for Brazilian authors brought his name and this book up, and … well, if they’ve done a 25th Anniversary Edition of it it’s probably pretty good, right?

It is. It absolutely is.

If I had to compare The Alchemist to anything else I’ve read, two books come to mind immediately: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There are a number of commonalities, but what stands out is the length of the books (Haroun is easily the shortest of Rushdie’s works, Jonathan is basically a novella, and Alchemist is around 230 pages) and the fairy-tale feel of the stories themselves. Jonathan and Alchemist come off as more didactic than Haroun does, but all three books have Feelings About How We Should Live, and, well, Jonathan and Haroun are both books that have been intensely rewarding rereads, and I suspect Alchemist is going to be as well.

I don’t speak a word of Portuguese other than where it overlaps with Spanish, but for what it’s worth this is also a pretty superb translation, good enough that I actually made sure it was originally written in Portuguese and not English. There can be a certain awkwardness to translated works from time to time, where you have to sort of wrap your head around the style of the language of the book before you can get into it, but either Portuguese translates very smoothly into English or Alan R. Clarke is very, very good at his job. He’s translated several of Coelho’s books, and I enjoyed this enough that I’ll definitely want to read more of Coelho’s books in the future, so I’m glad they seem to be in the right hands.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.