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On top of this blog and my magazine internship, I have taken on yet another writing gig. Tastes Like Comics is a recently launched comic website that is looking to offer more than just reviews of the latest releases, with a number of columns from different writers featuring interviews, essays and even parodies.

I am having great fun and I invite you to check out what the folks over on TLC have got up to since launch.

You Are Here opens in the countryside idyll of Phoenicia in upstate New York, looking for all the world like a classic Disney enchanted forest. A cute raccoon even appears, seemingly on the point of breaking into a musical number with a beautiful princess. Instead he enters a cottage in the middle of the woodland, revealing an interior filled with pastel-coloured paintings of flowers. The artist in question is one very grumpy New Yorker, Noel Coleman. For the past year Noel has been living a life of bliss with the beautiful and unflappably charming Helen, a woman who does share all the qualities of a Disney princess. She even talks to the animals. Noel’s problem is he has been lying to her the entire time.

He is not an artist with an abiding interest in florals, but a former jewel thief with an extremely sordid past. Hoping to leave all that behind him, Noel travels back to Manhattan to sell his apartment. When he encounters some former friends, the general assumption is that he has been in prison for the past year. He quickly slips back into some bad habits – smoking, heavy drinking, eyeing the girls – but then an old enemy gets out of prison with murder on his mind, the police are on his trail and Helen then arrives, expecting to introduced to the many high-brow academics and artists Noel invented as part of his tapestry of lies, as opposed to the drunks and strippers he is actually friends with. Murder, mayhem and high speed pursuit on horseback through Central Park soon follow.

This is a classic book, a genuinely hysterical comic teaming with fantastic art courtesy of Kyle Baker. I first encountered Baker through his miniseries for Marvel Comics, Truth: Red, White & Black. The series had the ingenious idea of marrying the origins of Captain America, that symbol of national patriotism who was created by a secret military experiment, to the real-life history of the Tuskegee experiments. The story reveals how before Captain America was created, the military first experimented on African American test subjects. Baker’s satire was razor sharp, his art perversely cartoonish and despite the widespread online condemnation of the series, I absolutely loved it.

You Are Here is similarly perverse. Noel yearns to be a ‘happy person’, like Helen, hence her Disney-esque life in the forest. Pollyana-esque, he is horrified when she turns her sunbeam charm on drug-dealers, muggers and worst of all – rush-hour traffic drivers. Manhattan is almost a different kind of reality, a fallen world that slowly reclaims Noel, pulling him to its sordid bosom.

The art throughout is very amusing, especially Baker’s decision to visually model killer Vaughan on Robert Mitchum, released from prison with a best-selling novel titled ‘Yes I Did It And I’ll Kill Again’. The script is rendered alongside the panels like a film storyboard, used to great effect when Helen is accosted by a number of different ethnic New Yorkers, with the competing voices overlaid on top of each other to  illustrate the linguistic confusion.

This is a great hybrid of romance and crime thriller, gut-bustingly funny with fantastic art.

Inside the safe she took out his recent will and tore it to small pieces and replaced it with the one they had both done on return from their honeymoon in Hayman Island, before all that angst with the trial separation, before he found out about her spending patterns, and long before he decided he would divide the money between the children.

‘After all, we both will have enough to live on,’ she remembered him saying in that pleading tone, as he looked with his doe eyes at a photo of the children. They thought they had him in their headlights, but now they will really have something to cry about, she thought, as she watched, mesmerized by the dance the shredded fragments performed while burning in the fireplace.

Today was a rough day. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and did not really get to sleep again. Left to slouch across Sydney’s Bondi Junction this morning, much in the manner of a hipster zombie, let us say I was not in good form. I had an interview scheduled with an Australian musician at my magazine intern gig and had to brainstorm some further questions for an internet fandom-god. Frankly I am astonished that I still have two brain cells to rub together.

So it was with great relief that I had a light read to look forward to. Dr Joseph Reich has switched his eye-surgery practice for professional writing and I have to say I am very grateful. This was exactly what I needed to read today.

I Know Precious Little is a wry and witty novel, chock full of puns, that was apparently inspired by an early short story by Reich. The story is concerned with two women with some things in common, both having husbands with the same name – but possessing entirely opposite temperaments. Katherine is a demure suburban housewife, whereas Pree is a sharp-tongued harridan. The novel contrasts their perspectives on the indignities and frustrations of old age, each chapter presenting a different point of view, with several other characters stepping up to the plate to reveal more about the events described.

Death, physical infirmities and marital discord run through the lives of each of these characters – perhaps that sounds like a series of fiction truisms, but Reich invests so much incisive wit into his descriptions of these tired lives that reading this book passed the time as easily as a hot knife through butter. Pree is of course an absolute delight, a wicked and callous terror. Katherine on the other hand patiently tolerates such nonsense as entrenched book club politics.

This is a slyly humourous book that earns the reader’s affection through a clever line in observational comedy – enough that I was willing to forgive the age-old ‘Dr. Spock is a Vulcan’, quip! At times the tone feels like a combination of Philip Roth‘s upended epics of old age and the entertaining solipsism of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Strangely though the novel I was most reminded of was Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Reich also describes a tapestry of interwoven lives straining against one another, but thankfully without a trace of that other novel’s oppressive nihilism

I Know Precious Little manages to achieve that rare balance, being a quick read that has a lot to say about how people live their lives. Funny, entertaining and for a first-time novel, surprisingly quick on its feet.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

Now I read the first issue of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli two years ago (cheers Chesney), but only just got the chance to read the trade. What was I waiting for?

Wood imagines a near-future scenario where the United States is torn apart by civil war after years of overseas conflict. The secessionist Middle American states have pushed their way towards the coast, with the island of Manhattan becoming a fortified ‘demilitarized zone’.

Matty Roth is a young photojournalist, who through some string-pulling by his father, has landed the internship of a life-time. Working with award winning journalist Viktor Ferguson, Roth expects it to be a safe cubicle assignment. Instead he is loaded onto a helicopter and flown to Manhattan Island “highlighting what it’s really like for people living in the ‘D.M.Z.”

Turns out the civilians living behind barricades on the island don’t appreciate choppers landing in their neighbourhood. Ferguson and his crew are slaughtered, with Roth barely escaping with his life. Stranded in the D.M.Z. he discovers what he’s been told about the war and life behind the battlelines is mostly lies. Former medical student Zee becomes his reluctant guide and encourages him to write about what is really happening for folks on the mainland. Roth’s status as a journalist opens more doors than he expects, allowing him access to parts of the island only rumoured to exist – the ghost conservationists of Central Park, snipers from the two sides of the conflict who exchange love letters through signs, and the leader of the Free Armies. Just as he starts to find his feet though, Roth’s journalist’s accreditation is stolen by someone looking to impersonate him, leading to a breakneck chase through a booby trapped Manhattan, with no protection from the locals to rely on.

Wood writes convincingly about this ‘second civil war’, where “every day is 9/11“. Research is one of his key strengths. Seeing as he followed D.M.Z. with Northlanders, a Viking comic, I’m not surprised. These first five issues fly past, with action scenes informed by an incisive intelligence. It reads like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York rewritten by Cody Doctorow. Exploitation cinema meets political subtext, guerrilla activist fiction.

One of the ironies of 9/11 was that this attack on the city of New York unified the United States against the threat of terrorism, while resentment of Manhattan excess, East Coast pinko intellectuals and permissive morality continued. Wood actualizes this continuing antagonism towards the East Coast with the civil war, the hatreds stoked by ‘heartland’ shock jocks, Fox News anchors and opportunistic politicians given full force. Matty Roth discovers a world of greys awaiting him on Manhattan, a multiethnic community scavenging for itself among the ruins.

The art by Burchielli rests somewhere on the line between Scottish penciler Jock and Paul Pope. Scratchy lines and streets drenched in shadows. It’s very kinetic, complimenting Roth’s breathless pursuit by soldiers and gangs.

I enjoyed the story a great deal and am looking forward to collecting the next few trades.

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