Monday, February 10, 2003

Notes on a couple of books recently finished:

:: Excelsior! by Stan Lee is the autobiography of Stan the Man, the main creative force behind Marvel Comics. Lee created, among others, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and my longtime fave, Spiderman. His highly entertaining autobiography is breezy and fun, filled with neat details about the birth and growth of the comics industry, and Lee writes here in pretty much the same tone that is familiar to anyone who has ever read one of his "Stan's Soapbox" columns that used to appear in each Marvel comic. (In fact, the book even opens with a special edition of "Stan's Soapbox".) Lee's style includes a lot of exclamation points, and a pretty-much constant sense of a guy looking at you from his perch atop the mountain, grinning widely, and saying, "Jeez, can you believe a guy like me ended up here?"

The book does include some of the "darker" events in Lee's life, but even those events in Lee's hand don't come off as really all that grim -- even the Seduction of the Innocent fiasco of the fifties that hobbled comics as a medium for the ensuing half-century. If you want a sense of the history of comics that is more angst-ridden, there is Michael Chabon's brilliant novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay; Lee is a guy who doesn't take it all very seriously and that's how he writes.

(Oh, and after looking at the photos in the book, I have to note: Stan Lee's daughter is absolutely stunning.)

:: Children with dark imaginations (and like-minded adults, too) are well served by Neil Gaiman in his short novel Coraline. This is an Alice In Wonderland type of story, in which a little girl uncovers a portal into another world, but this is substantially darker than Alice -- the focus here is on chills, as opposed to Lewis Carroll's focus on wordplay and intellectual games. The book is fairly creepy, with some striking images.

Little Coraline lives a fairly boring life with her parents in a new flat that includes a door behind which is a brick wall -- until she opens the door and finds the brick wall gone. Passing through, she finds herself in a nearly identical flat occupied by her nearly identical parents, but the differences are terrifying and soon Coraline discovers even darker things about this new place and the force that has brought her into it.

I enjoyed Coraline. Gaiman's use of small word-tricks is evident here, and his dark imagination manifests itself in the same stark imagery that was so evident in his Sandman comics and in American Gods, although he somewhat "keeps a lid on it", focusing on atmospheric effects rather than on gore. The story is relatively straight-forward and the book is an easy read. I'm not sure if Coraline is destined to be a classic -- I don't think it's as good as, say, the best gothic novels of John Bellairs -- but it's quite a good read for someone looking for an alternative to Harry Potter.

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