A couple of massive books ate up most of my time in the first full month of fall, but everything I read in October was very enjoyable, even if one of them had a subject matter whom I detest.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
This massive autobiographical graphic novel reveals Kate Beaton’s life before she became a cartoonist. Just out of college Katie Beaton worked in Canada’s Oil Sands in Alberta, where people went to make decent money in the early 2000s. Katie goes there to earn enough pay off her $70,000 in student loans and puts up with the hard work (they’re pumping oil out of sand), loneliness, misogyny, and outright abuse from her mostly-male co-workers (she’s one of the few women there, and as such a target for all kinds of unwanted attention), and a growing awareness of how they’re harming not only the environment, but also the indigenous people of Alberta. For those of you used to Beaton’s cartoon collections like Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops, this is a far different book. It’s a massive 436 pages, and Beaton pulls no punches, including her own rape at the hands of a co-worker. Her familiar cartooning style is evident in her characterizations of herself and her co-workers and family, but then she pulls off bravura two-page spreads of massive machinery and landscapes. Charming and warm at times (Katie and her family) and raw and vulnerable at others (the harsh work life), Katie ultimately survives her two years in the Oil Sands and becomes Kate the cartoonist. This may well be her magnum opus, and it’s my pick for the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album-New in 2023.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk, Vol. 2 by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby
This latest volume of the saga of the Hulk reprints Tales to Astonish #s 59 through 74. When last we saw the Hulk in Volume 1, Marvel had failed to sell his story; the first Hulk series ended after six issues. But following guest appearances in Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, and an aborted team spot in The Avengers, the Hulk returned as a back-up feature to Giant-Man in ToA #60 (#59 is a set-up story where Giant-Man and the Hulk fight). This part of the Hulk saga is a little more settled, although ol’ Greenskin’s persona once again alternates between bestial Hulk and smart Hulk (with the memory and knowledge of Bruce Banner). The first eight 10-page stories are drawn by Steve Ditko, with indifferent inking by George Bell (nee Roussos); neither Dick Ayers or Vince Colletta help on later stories (does Colletta ever help?). Ditko leaves with ToA #68 and Jack Kirby returns doing full pencils for a few issues, then layouts for Mickey Demeo (Mike Esposito) to finish, and then Bob Powell is added to the mix as penciller. This is pure Stan Lee soap opera though and through, and he even calls it that on a few occasions (“The only superhero soap opera in all of Comicdom!”). These stories introduce both The Leader, the only other gamma-infected, green-skinned person of color in all of Marvel Comics (the gamma rays made his brain super-powerful), who lusts after the Hulk to become his brawny partner so they can take over the world; and Major Glen Talbot, who is a Banner nemesis and rival (for the affections of hand-wringing Betsy Ross). General “Thunderbolt” Ross returns, as does Hulk sidekick Rick Jones, and the stories go around the world and off the planet (Hello, The Watcher!), but they’re not really that good, just a tad more focused than the Hulk’s first go-round. Still, these stories would form the basis for an ongoing Hulk series, which has survived to this day, albeit with many writers, many artists, and many Hulk personas. And once again, there is a certain amount of charm to these early stories, which run from 1964-65, the beginning of primo Marvel time.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: The Black Panther, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, John Buscema
This new volume reprints the first Black Panther Marvel Masterworks volume and features the very earliest tales of the popular character, including the origin story by Lee & Kirby from Fantastic Four #s 52 and 53. It’s a great collection of early tales, also including a bit of FF #54, all of #56, Captain America stories from Tales of Suspense #s 97-99 and Captain America (ToS) #100, a few Avengers issues that have Panther-focused stories (#s 52, 62, 73 and 74), and a funky Daredevil #52 with art by then-newcomer Barry Smith (no Windsor yet) in his full-on Kirby style. The FF stories are the real gem, though, and it’s amazing to see how full-blown this character was upon its inception and to consider how daring it was to feature a black character so prominently in 1966, even if the Panther’s costume was slightly redesigned to totally cover his face, thus fooling—at least cover-wise—some of the Southern market distributors. This, sadly is the last volume of MMMW’s compact reprint series to feature brand new Michael Cho covers. Leonardo Romero takes over the cover chores with next month’s Sub-Mariner reprint, and while they’re nice looking (Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and Daredevil volumes have all been revealed), they ain’t Cho.
Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld
Another great collection of Tom Gauld’s cartoons that have appeared in The Guardian in the UK, this book focuses on the wonderful world of books, with cartoons devoted to librarians, books, readers, books, authors, books, bookstores, books, and oh, yeah … books. I love Gauld’s precise, charming, cartoon style and his oft-times monochromatic coloring schemes. A special bonus for yours truly: I own the black and white original to one of the cartoons in this book, although I kinda like it better in color. There are no page numbers, but look for the strip that begins with a word balloon stating: “Welcome, stranger, to the library of terror!” about 40% or so in. Gauld also works for New Scientist, another UK publication, and does the occasional cover for The New Yorker. His recent children’s book, The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess is wonderful, as are all his other books for Drawn & Quarterly.
Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America by Maggie Haberman
Believe me, I did NOT want to read a book about Donald Trump, the man behind the worst four years ever in the White House, at least during my lifetime. I’ve followed Maggie Haberman’s excellent reporting on the Trump “presidency” in the New York Times, and while I was always shocked, saddened, and dismayed (not necessarily in that order each time) at what she wrote, I felt she was the one reporter who understood Trump best. Trump is this (hopefully) singular person who combines a “all reporters are my enemies” train of thought with an intense need to have all reporters write about him; he’s called Haberman his “therapist” at times. I’ve also liked Haberman’s presence on news shows, where she frequently seems to be the calmest talking head in the room, with everyone else acting like their hair is on fire.
The important distinction of her book—to me, at least—is that it also covers Trump’s life and career pre-presidency, when he was a loud-mouthed New York real estate magnate, always over-promoting himself. This was when I learned to hate him, mainly through the pages of Spy magazine and his appearances on NYC-based talk shows and his absolute ruination of Atlantic City with his failed casino attempts. I knew even then—40 or so years ago—that he was a con man, a liar, and a cheat who had no moral center, whether it came to taxes or womanizing. His presidency and the things written in this book convince me of one more thing: He’s one of the most stupid famous people who ever lived. Haberman’s writing is concise, to the point, and she includes herself in the story of Trump’s rise and fall where it fits (like when Trump singles her out for his own patented brand of Twitter abuse). While I can’t exactly say I loved this book, due to its subject matter, I do feel it’s different from the myriad of other books on Trump that range from the gossipy docudrama ones akin to The Crown by Michael Wolff to the fly-on-the-wall tomes by the august and revered Bob Woodward. This one attempts to explain who Trump is and how he came to be, offering up a classic comic book origin story, even if it is one for a super-villain.