Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Before the New 52

Despite the popularity of film franchises like X-Men, Iron Man, and Christopher Nolan's Batman series, the average American does not read comic books. (I was going to say that the average adult American does not read comic books, but the truth is that comic book readership isn't that popular among younger readers these days, either.)

Now, when I say "comic books," I'm talking primarily about superhero comic books -- the capes-and-tights-wearing characters who fight crime on the streets of their various fictional (or fictionalized) cities with their respective superpowers or high-tech gadgets. Comic books starring superheroes have been around in the mainstream of pop culture since the appearance of Superman in 1938, although their popularity over the years has ebbed and flowed with the changing cultural zeitgeist. Their focal audience has shifted as well; while children were generally the main target audience of superhero comics in the beginning, the last few decades have seen publishers concentrate more on appealing to adults.

Nowadays the monthly comic book is suffering from dwindling sales and is struggling to find new readers. And in the hopes of reviving a stagnating industry, publishing company DC Comics (home of such characters as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) is trying something completely different.

This Wednesday, DC Comics launched the New 52: fifty-two comic books all starting at Issue #1. All of their previous on-going titles have been cancelled, which is somewhat remarkable when you consider that the company has been publishing comics for more than 75 years and that some of their titles have run pretty consistently since their first appearances (their "Action Comics" series had just recently crossed the #900 issue mark).

While many of the characters in the new #1 monthly lines are familiar -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all returning in new series -- their stories are being started afresh. It's a chance to move forward from a clean slate, for the writers and artists behind the books as well as for readers themselves.

While not all of the characters are starting back at the beginning (there's not another lengthy story showing how Bruce Wayne became Batman, for instance), their backstories have been streamlined and simplified. And the stories that will be told from here on out are being told from the beginning, allowing first-time readers the chance to pick up an issue and be able to follow a story that's not weighted down with decades' worth of backstory.

This undeniably bold move on the part of DC Comics -- in conjuncture with their new same-day digital download policy (new issues will now be available to buy virtually on the same day as their physical-copy release) -- is an attempt by DC to bolster enthusiasm and readership in a industry plagued by declining readership. And while it's a move that has definitely paid off in the short-term -- in pre-orders alone, seven of the #1 issues have already become best-sellers -- only time will tell if the gamble continues to make a difference. Will DC succeed in attracting new readers, or will the massive changes fail to appeal to newcomers and alienate the core fanbase already in place?

As a DC fan myself, I'm apprehensive about some of the changes ahead (the writing out of Lois Lane and Clark Kent's marriage) and excited for others (the return of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl). But overall, I applaud DC for taking such a big risk, because taking chances and pushing the boundaries of storytelling is the only way to keep the storytelling fresh. It was time for a change, and a change this massive makes it a fascinating time to be a comic book fan.

Whether you're a lifelong comic book reader, a relapsed fan, or someone who's never picked up a comic book before, now's a great time to give the medium a chance. Take some time this month to swing by our local comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic, and check out some of the #1 issues (Wednesdays are Release Day for new arrivals).

And, if you'd like to check out some of DC's rich character history, try some of these graphic novels from your Library!  While some graphic novels are nearly incomprehensible without a healthy helping of backstory (note to newcomers: stay away from any DC title with the word "Crisis" in the title), these stand-alone titles should make great reads for first-timers as well as loyal fans:

Please note that many of these titles are intended for older audiences.

Batman: The Killing Joke. Writer, Alan Moore; Artist, Brian Bolland.

The Joker decides to prove to Batman that we're all "just one bad day away" from becoming as crazy as the Joker is. A modern classic.

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. Writer, Brian Azzarello; Artist, Lee Bermejo.

A story in which we found out that Lex Luthor views himself as the real hero out to save humanity.

Green Lantern: No Fear. Writer, Geoff Johns; Artist, Darwyn Cook.

Pilot Hal Jordan returns to his role as the Green Lantern -- and a fighter pilot -- in this reboot.

Birds of Prey: The Battle Within. Writer, Gail Simone; Artist, Joe Bennett.

When it's the superheroes themselves who need saving, they call in The Birds of Prey.

Kingdom Come. Writers, Alex Ross and Mark Waid; Artist, Alex Ross.

A "what-if" story about Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and heroes of the future.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quake, Rattle, & Roll

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that hit 35 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia this past Tuesday was  even felt out here in Western Pennsylvania -- and further! It was remarkable to us Pittsburghers not because it was so severe this far north (it wasn't, though there were a few spots of damage here and there), but because it was so unusual.

It's not the first time an earthquake has been felt in the Pennsylvania region, but it didn't make the afternoon any less surprising!

So to commemorate such an odd occurrence, catch up on your earthquake fiction with some of the novels and films below:

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami.

Japanese novelist Murakami tells six short stories that take place between the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the poison gas attacks in the Tokyo subway later that year. Bizarre, haunting, and poignant, these surreal short stories take a look at what life is like after the effects of natural disaster.

Strong Motion, by Jonathan Franzen.

Best known for his books Freedom and The Corrections, Franzen's second novel centers around one Massachusetts family whose lives were being rocked even before a series of unusual quakes start hitting Boston. Trying to discover the source of the quakes is only the beginning of the Holland family's struggle to sort out their difficulties.

The River Wife, by Jonis Agee.

From the 1811 New Madrid earthquake to the bootlegging days of the 1930s, this sweeping romantic saga has a darker tale behind it as 17-year-old Annie Lark discovers her new husband's family legacy -- skeletons and all.

1906, by James Dallesandro.

Historical fiction meets crime noir mystery. Taking place around and during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, this book delves into political intrigue and natural disaster with cinematic scope.

Richter 10, by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay.

A disaster thriller with a sci-fi plot, Clarke and McQuay combine politics and business corruption with a straight-out-of-the-summer-blockbusters main storyline. Lewis Crane is on a mission to rid the world of earthquakes once and for all -- by setting off nuclear explosions along major fault lines.

The Last Book in the Universe, by Rodman Philbrick.

This YA, futuristic sci-fi novel tells the story of an epileptic teenager on a mission to restore everything that's been lost in a massive, planet-wide earthquake.

Earthquake Terror, by Peg Kehret.

An adventure tale for middle-schoolers about a twelve-year-old boy who must fight to keep himself, his sister, and the family dog safe after an earthquake disrupts the family's camping trip.

Earthquake [DVD] -- 1974

This well-known film starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner does exactly what it says on the tin. Big-action disaster movie of the 1970s!

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Overlooked Books

I'm not much of a bestsellers kind of reader. As a librarian it's my job to know what's on all of the bestsellers lists, but I'm usually not in a hurry to read any of them. I'm more of the type of reader that likes books that are a little off the radar. Or I just wait until the frenzy is over!

So no matter what kind of reader you are you might want to give one or two of the following titles a chance. They were all well received, but did not sell as many copies as a lot of other books. You never know, you might find a new favorite author!

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde - From the bestselling author of "Thursday Next" comes a brilliant new novel--part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller--about a world where social order and destiny are dictated by the colors one can see.

Brooklyn by
Colm Tóibín - From the award-winning author of "The Master" comes a moving historical novel set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, concerning a young woman torn between her family and her past in Ireland and the American who wins her heart.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger -
The author of the phenomenally successful novel "The Time Traveler's Wife" returns with a spectacularly compelling and haunting second book set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers -
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers's riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun's roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy -- an American who converted to Islam -- and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible.

Picking Cotton:
Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo - Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept. She was able to escape, and eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald insisted that she was mistaken-- but Jennifer's positive identification was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars. After eleven years, Ronald was allowed to take a DNA test that proved his innocence. He was released, after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met face to face-- and forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives. In their own words, Jennifer and Ronald unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy, and challenge our ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.

The Big Burn:
Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Dave Eggers - In "The Worst Hard Time," Egan put the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl at the center of a rich history. Now he performs the same alchemy with this story of the largest-ever forest fire in America, painting a moving portrait of the people who lived through the disaster.

-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Hypnotist

Ever since The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was published in the US in 2008, there has been an increased interest in mysteries and psychological thrillers written by Scandinavian authors. The latest title to hit the bookshelves is The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (a pseudonym for a married couple). The only witness to a triple homicide in Sweden is a teenage boy who is in a state of shock and of no help to the police. Detective Joona Linna calls in a hypnotist to find out who the killer is. This leads to terrifying results for all involved.

If you would like to read more titles like this check out some of these authors:

Henning Mankell:

Mankell is famous for his Kurt Wallander series. The first title in the series is Faceless Killers (1997). The books were also developed into a television series by the BBC and broadcast in the US on PBS. The DVDs are available through the library.

Jo Nesbo:

Nesbo is a Norwegian mystery writer, who also has written children's books. His series follows Detective Harry Hole. The first book published in the US, is The Redbreast (2007). His latest book, The Snowman, is the 5th book published in the US.

Camilla Lackberg:

While only 2 of her books (The Ice Princess and The Preacher) have been published in the US so far, she has published 7 in her native Sweden. Her books are set in a small coastal village in Sweden called Fjällbacka, which is also the town where Ms. Lackberg grew up.

Check out these other Scandinavian authors:

Karin Alvtegen
Ake Edwardson
Kerstin Ekman
Kjell Eriksson
Mari Jungstedt
Asa Larsson
Hakan Nesser
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Johan Theorin

-- Post by Tracy