Thursday, April 26, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "White Death"

(Another review written for Joe Bob Briggs.)

The first thing you notice when you open up the graphic novel White Death is the artwork: charcoal and chalk on gray paper, it’s more like something you’d see on a museum wall than in a comic book.

The second thing you notice is that reading this book is going to be a very emotional experience.

Writer Rob Morrison’s opening captions set the situation up as best as can be: “The Great War. The war to end war. The Italian front. The Trentino mountain range. 9000 feet about sea level. Treacherous site of hostilities between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

Enter into this armed conflict newly conscripted soldier Pietro Aquasanta. An Italian, he was living in Hungary and joined their army when Italy was still neutral in the war. When Italy began to fight and captured Aquasanta’s unit, they offered him the chance to fight for his own country. He agrees -- and within five minutes of arriving at the front, one of his old Hungarian friends is dying at the end of Aquasanta’s bayonet.

Just one of the endless horrors of war.

There are more to come.

While on reconnaissance, Aquasanta witnesses a gas attack heading towards his squad. To protect them, he throws grenades at a snow bank and sets off an avalanche. The gas attack is dispersed, the men are saved, and many Austrians are killed. The White Death.

It’s the beginning of a war of avalanches, caused by both sides. And yes, this method of warfare is historically accurate. Morrison’s introduction cites statistics that say as many as 100,000 men were killed by deliberately set avalanches on the Italian Front. It’s a horrifying way to die.

But for Aquasanta and the other men in his company, the snow is just the beginning. War is going to take them where humanity is but a whisper, but where human beings excel as killing machines.

Morrison weaves a complex, powerful tale here, based on historical fact. He sees war as a terrible “waste of life, and the corruption of youth and innocence.” He creates believable, understandable characters, and we watch them fall, live, die, laugh and harden.

Adlard’s artwork here, as mentioned earlier, take a fine arts approach, and the results are fantastic. His art is emotional and powerful, personal and inspired.

The book isn’t perfect. Perhaps because “White Death” was originally run as a serial, the pacing is sometimes a bit off in the collected edition, with scenes not always flowing together perfectly. Adlard’s art is amazing, but some of the characters look too much alike, and it’s hard to distinguish them from each other. That also interrupts the flow of the story.

But those are minor weaknesses. “White Death” is am ambitious work, the result of strong and mature creators. It’s haunting. You won’t forget it.

Three and a half stars.

Graphic Novel Review: "Murder Mysteries"

(Originally published at the Joe Bob Briggs website.)

I first read Neil Gaiman’s short story “Murder Mysteries” in his excellent collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors. Now, comic artist P. Craig Russell (who previously worked with Gaiman on several issues of the “Sandman” comic book) has adapted the story into a graphic novel, and brought both the beauty and horror of the story to life in one of the best comics of the last year.

In “Murder Mysteries,” an unnamed British narrator recalls a trip to Los Angeles ten years before. Trapped in a foreign city when all flights to his home country are cancelled due to English fog and snowstorms, he sits and waits. One night, he gets a call from an old “sort-of-girlfriend,” also in town. He has an odd, awkward, sexual encounter with her, and then suddenly finds himself back at his hotel. Unable to sleep, he walks, sits on a bench, and encounters an old man who bums a cigarette and then offers to tell him a story in exchange.

The story of the first murder. And so the story changes...

The old man proclaims himself to be Raguel, an angel, the Vengeance of the Lord. At the beginning of time, in the light of the Silver City of Heaven, the angel Lucifer comes to Raguel and says simply “There has been a ... a wrong thing. The first of its kind. You are needed.” The angel Carasel has been murdered, and the killer must be found.

So begins the investigation, the hunt for the killer, and the quest for Divine Retribution.

Raguel’s investigation takes him to the angels in change of the blueprints for the Universe-to-be. He meets senior designer Phanuel, who takes more credit for creation than he deserves; Saraquel, who worked with Carasel to create the concept of Love; Lucifer, the captain of the guard, who secretly listens to the voices in the darkness outside the Silver City; and Zephkiel, the grand thinker, who sits, ponders and make suggestions, while other Angels go about the physical work of creating the Universe.

The story comes out in bits and pieces: Carasel, who often got too involved in his work, was involved in a new project at the time of his murder: Death.

And then Raguel deduces who committed the first murder. His vengeance, in turn, creates changes in the order of things that only God will understand.

But that is just one murder. The title of this book is plural. An incredibly subtle revelation of the meaning of the title is a final blow that leaves echoes of dread and fear within the reader ... while also leaving room for hope. It’s an amazing story, and it’s quite possible that it works even better as a graphic novel than it did as the original story.

Russell does a masterful job with “Murder Mysteries.” His artwork is lyrical, beautiful, haunting, erotic, energetic and occasionally terrifying. As a writer, he takes Gaiman’s short story, keeps the author’s wonderful use of language, and adds a pacing to the story that transcends the original work and takes full advantage of the medium of graphic storytelling.

Dark Horse has done a wonderful job packaging this book. The hardcover is beautifully bound and printed, and at the same time, quite affordable.

Four stars.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...

...Two Authors Gave Her Story a Whack

Lizzie Borden by Elizabeth Engstrom

The Borden Tragedy: A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary

(Reviews first published in a few different newsletters back in 1999.)

It's amazing how different two books on the same subject can be. Novelist Elizabeth Engstrom has written an emotional, compelling look at the participants in the famous Lizzie Borden murder case, and in the process created a work of fiction so far removed from the actual events of the case as to be useless as history. Comic book artist Rick Geary, on the other hand, has provided a factual, detailed, macabre examination of the murders and the ensuing trial, but in the process has created a fairly emotionless look at two violently emotional murders.

Let's start with Engstrom's novel. First published in 1992, the centennial of the Borden murders, the back cover of LIZZIE BORDEN proclaims "Did she do it? The jury said no. Now learn the truth." But is this novel really the truth? Hardly. Engstrom's brief preface tells the reader that the novel is a work of fiction, assigning personalities to the participants in the Borden murders that otherwise would not exist in the formal trial transcripts of the case. "My purpose ... is to justify," she writes.

Engstrom manages to bring the characters of Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, her father Andrew and step-mother Abby fully to life in the pages of this novel, and attempts to use these characterizations to tell us why the murders of Andrew and Abby were committed. The characterizations are nothing short of brilliant, but they take these real people so far away from historical fact that this novel can not really serve to "justify" the murders, as she claims. She invents a near insane drinking problem for Emma, lesbian affairs for Lizzie, another affair for Andrew (which turns almost incestuous as Lizzie falls for the same woman). But to make matters worse, she creates characters for Andrew and Abby that are so fully realized, so human, and in most cases so utterly sympathetic, that she in no ways justifies their murders. And then, in a final move that takes the novel completely out of the realm of historical viability, she invents an utterly ridiculous supernatural element to explain how Lizzie could have murdered her mother and father.

LIZZIE BORDEN is not a bad book. It is a work of fiction, and stands up on its own as that fairly well. But as a real examination of the Borden murders, well, it's a bit of a crock.

Much better, though far less emotional than Engstrom's work, is Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, the third volume in his excellent "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series of graphic novels. Geary gives us the details of the case, makes no conclusions of his own (instead keeping with the theories presented in the trial and by other Bordenologists), and leaves any judgement up to the reader, all while capturing the time period of the murders brilliantly, something Engstrom never manages to do.

Unlike Engstrom's novel, which begins in 1865 and ends in 1892 with the murders, Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY starts in 1892 with the murders themselves. The narrative itself is based on the recently discovered memoirs of an unidentified Fall River, Massachusetts, woman who apparently was close friends with the Bordens.

Geary's narrative lacks the emotional characterization of Engstrom's novel, but it more than makes up for it by delving into the macabre aspects of the events following the murders. We see the post-mortem performed on the Borden dining room table, as the "townspeople jockeyed for a view through the wide-open windows." We learn how Lizzie and Emma's uncle John V. Morse, whose visit with the family coincided with the murders, spent the night after the ghastly events sleeping in the very guest room where Abby Borden had been killed hours before. In fact, we see how the entire family spent the night in the house with the two bodies on a table one floor below them. We also learn that "the cleaned and blanched skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden were exhibited to the jury" in the trial almost a year later, and see graphic depictions of the huge holes left in the skulls.

Geary also takes the time to examine how the Borden Tragedy really was the Trial of the Century, showing how the murders consumed not only the tiny town of Fall River but the entire the globe. Throughout THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, Geary captures the look, feel, style and mannerisms of late nineteenth century life in an economy of words and his trademark stylish, detailed line work. In fact, this may be the best artwork Geary has produced in his over 20-year career.

THE BORDEN TRAGEDY isn't a perfect book. Its characters are presented more as ciphers than as people, characterized more through drawings of tightly set mouths than with their actions or words. But it is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and absolutely fascinating look at two murders that still fascinate the world more than one hundred years later.

LIZZIE BORDEN - One and a half stars


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fighting Foam with an Enforcer

(Much of my interest in environmental reporting stems from this early assignment, which appeared in the June 1991 issue of Governing Magazine.)

Portland, Oregon, has a special enforcer to keep the city's food sellers free from the plague of that illegal substance, polystyrene. His name is Lee Barrett, StyroCop.

Barrett is the sole guardian of Portland's year-old ban on polystyrene containers used for prepared food in restaurants and supermarkets. (Other uses of polystyrene are not prohibited.) Food sellers have had to switch to paper or non-foam plastics that, according to Catherine Fitch, policy analyst for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services, are more degradable and take up less space in landfills. She says some of the ban's goals were to cut down on plastic waste dumped in the landfills and to reduce non-biodegradable litter.

So far, there has been no appreciable reduction in landfill waste, she says. But the city is happy at this stage, she says, to replace polystyrene foam, which can pollute the air during production, with less dangerous substances.

Barrett has the somewhat awkward title of Polystyrene Foam Container Ban Inspector, but he does not actually have to inspect each of Portland's 2,300 food establishments. County health officials and citizens report businesses they suspect of illegally using polystyrene. Barrett then sends a warning letter and follows up a few weeks later with an investigation. Penalties for violation can reach $500.

There was some early resistance, Barrett says, including a lawsuit by McDonald's. But now, Fitch says, more than 99 percent of Portland food sellers are in compliance.

"There was an initial rush of businesses to be inspected," says Barrett. "But that has dropped off significantly the last five to six months. I now do less than five per month."

The ban's costs for the city are minimal. "It's a very small part of our solid waste work," says Barrett. "I don't think the city spent $10,000 enforcing it last year." Portland initially contracted with Barrett to enforce the ban, and he billed the city by the hour. Now he is a full-time staff member of the environmental agency, and enforcement is just one part of his job. The ban doesn't even have a budget for 1991, now that most Portland food sellers are foam-free.

Freebie Prosecutors are Cutting the Drug Caseload

(Here's another early one from Governing Magazine, this time from their July 1991 issue.)

Drug cases are doubling the caseload in many courts around the country. Pro bono prosecutors are providing one solution.

In Massachusetts, for example, a large law firm and the Suffolk County district attorney's office have signed an agreement that gives the county a lawyer for eight months. After the first Choate, Hall & Stewart lawyer's tour of duty with the DA is up, he will be replaced by another, and the process will continue. Most pro bono prosecutors have been borrowed less formally.

The county turned to the law firm after losing 35 out of about 130 prosecutors due to budget cuts over the last two years. A huge backlog of cases resulted. "The economic crunch put us in a position where we had to reach out,'' says Suffolk County District Attorney Newman A. Flanagan.

While the district attorney's office gets a free prosecutor for eight months, the lawyer gets some much-needed jury trial experience. And with one or two extra cases being tried every day, the backlog is shrinking.

Seattle has been using pro bono prosecutors for about 10 years, but only stepped up their use last year, according to Dan Satterberg, chief of staff of the King County prosecutor's office. He says the volunteers concentrated on misdemeanor cases at first but now spend their time on drug cases.

Satterberg says the district attorney's office runs a three-day training session twice a year for both civil lawyers and the DA's new deputies. After the program, the civilian lawyers take one or two cases to trial, which could take a few days or a few weeks. They leave with trial experience, and the DA has fewer cases to try. The program has been expanded recently, with one law firm giving the office an associate lawyer for three months.

Friday, April 13, 2007

New Ways to Leverage Your Intellectual Property

New this month in Today's Engineer.

Intellectual Property (IP), including patents, copyrights and trademarks, is often the lifeblood of today's top organizations. For example, IBM Corporation has one of the most vigorous patent filing operations in the world, and maintains an active license program for its 40,000-plus active patents. Someone else might ultimately make the product, but as the patent holder, IBM continues to make money.

But you don't need to be a huge company to take advantage of the benefits of intellectual property ownership. Your own IP may not be hard goods that you can sell, but they are investments. With the right planning and development, small businesses, sole-proprietorships, and even individuals can earn money for years based on their initial investments of time, creativity and expertise.

Read the rest here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Personal Parking Meters Speed Up Collection

Here's an old article -- one my first professionally published pieces, from Governing Magazine, way back in 1991.

It took a few years, but these devices are pretty standard now. Funny how novel they were 17 years ago.

You should be able to click through to read a bigger version of the scanned article.