Friday, December 26, 2008

Why Are Oil and Natural Gas Prices Behaving so Similarly?

This is a question that has been bugging me for a while. Oil and natural gas are both fossil fuels, but both their supply and their use is very different. Oil is mostly used to power vehicles. (Some oil is used for heat, but not that much compared to vehicle fuel.) Gas is used mostly for heat and electricity generation. Indeed, because so much gas is used for heat, the price of gas is very seasonal. Here is a graph of the gas futures curve (from Nymex, December 23, 2008):

Now you can see here that futures contracts for winter months are higher than those for summer months (excluding winter 2009--we are in a seriously contango market for reasons I don't exactly understand).

Nonetheless, over the past year, oil and gas prices have tracked pretty closely. The graph below normalized the price of spot WTI crude and near month gas futures so that they are both 100 on January 2, 2008.

So the question is, why did both commodities run up in the first half of the year and collapse in the second half? The explanations usually given for the collapse of oil is that 1) high gas prices forced people to drive less, and 2) the economy collapsed, which also limits demand for gasoline, jet fuel, etc. I don't know if I totally believe that (obviously demand is less, but that doesn't explain why oil got so expensive in the first place). There are some reasonable theories of financial shenanigans in oil in the first half of this year, as I have discussed in the past.

And it definitely doesn't explain the price of natural gas, either going up or down. Why should the two curves look so similar. The Houston Chronicle has an analytical article, where they talk to many of the usual suspects in this field (Pickering, Simmons)
Natural gas prices have fallen dramatically this year much like crude prices, but shrinking demand is only one culprit. The other is a gas glut from a boom in U.S. production.

"The industry is suffering from its own success in some respects," said Karr Ingham, head of Ingham Economic Reporting in Amarillo. "We’ve added a lot of natural gas production in Texas and elsewhere just because of high prices."

Those prices, which surpassed $13 per million British thermal units last summer, have fallen below $6 as U.S. production grew while demand decreased amid the recession in the second half of the year.

Producers are slashing capital budgets and idling rigs so they can drill within their means amid the credit crunch as well as reduce output.

But so far, production hasn’t slowed enough to compensate for oversupply. Output is on track to exceed 60 billion cubic feet per day next year — the highest in 35 years, Merrill Lynch analyst Francisco Blanch said in a note to investors.

This is not controversial--high gas prices, along with technological improvements, have permitted natural gas producers to exploit gas shales, which previously would have been too expensive to produce. The article observes the number of rigs dropping (drastically for the largest producer, Cheasapeake) as expensive fields become too costly to drill. The article's sources expect the rig count to drop dramatically.

But analysts say production still needs to contract further.

Blanch, the Merrill analyst, said the raft of announcements from producers to cut spending on drilling and leases doesn’t mean the cutbacks will be big or immediate. He said rigs will likely decline in the Rocky Mountains or the Midwest, but not necessarily in more highly producing areas like the Barnett.

"We expect more drilling announcements from producers," Blanch said.

Mason said this year’s gradual dropoff of rigs likely will burst into a "big unwind" in the first quarter of 2009, with rigs dropping by the dozens. However, a lot of that will be rig contracts at high-cost wells winding down with operators unwilling to re-sign them in the current price and economic climate.

But not all companies will react the same way, he said. The oil majors’ operations are consistent in any price environment. Independents, particularly those like Chesapeake that outspent their cash flow during the boom, are scaling back. But the small, private operators that fluctuate with seasons and price are expected to bolt in droves, Mason said.

At which point, production (which lags behind drilling somewhat) will start dropping enough to push prices up.

All this makes sense except for one thing--if the mechanisms driving oil prices and natural gas prices in the past few months have been so different (mostly demand on the oil side and mostly supply on the gas side), why are prices acting so similarly?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Savage Detectives
There are two friends, Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima, who are the leaders of an obscure mid-70s Mexican school of poetry called the "visceral realists." The name isn't entirely original--they took it from an avant garde poet from the 20s, Cesaria Tinajero. They are "detectives" in the sense that they are trying to find anything they can about Tinajero, who seems to have disappeared at some point. Why? Because all poetic cliques end. Either the practitioners become the establishment (like Octavio Paz, who is one of the few people erudite enough to remember Tinajero) or disappear. This is the story of an artistic moment and its subsequent dissipation.

It starts and ends with diary entries by the youngest visceral realist, Juan Garcia Madero. This is a 17-year-old boy who has a transformational encounter with Bolano and Lima in a poetry workshop, and is instantly converted to visceral realism (without knowing exactly what it is). In between is a kind of oral history of visceral realism and its two absent leaders, Bolano and Lima. (Many of the voices belong to real people, like Carlos Monsivais.) When the book starts, the "movement" has peaked. Their shocking literary magazine (with the amusing title "Lee Harvey Oswald") is already a thing of the past. As we read, we learn that Lima and Bolano have left Mexico (for a reason not explained until the end), and their disappearance sucks the momentum out of the movement. Some of the poets continue to write, whether for publication or not. Some new members even "join" the dying movement. But time passes, some die, some stop writing, or change their focus. It dissipates.

This is obviously an autobiographical novel in a way. The real movement was called "Infrarealism", and apparently many of the fictional characters were based on real people. This is perhaps the best, most moving picture of what happens to a group of artists who come together for just a moment. It's sad and feels very true. I am reminded a little of some of the alternative comics and cartoonists I knew and loved. It describes a kind of art history not recorded, where a scene develops and being part of it makes you an artist, but without the scene there, you head off in another direction. The history of all arts is littered with this kind of thing. It helps explain why a particular artist can be so great for a few years, and suck thereafter. Because in those few years, he or she was caught up into this thing--this movement or school or scene--that provided context and impetus for the work to shine. Bolano and Lima fuck up, leave the country, and that kills the movement. Poets like Maria Font stop writing, and ones like Luscious Skin [sic] sink into obscurity and die. And all that's left are traces, which maybe future researchers (like the university professor who proclaims himself the world's only expert on visceral realism) will pore over (un-savage detectives, as it were).

If I hadn't read A Soldier of the Great War this year, this would be easily the best novel I've read this year. They are both sprawling masterpieces, monuments to things lost.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I Loved the Spirit Comics...
(cover of Spirit Archives vol. 22 by Will Eisner)

...But I'm going to pass on the movie. However, I am happy to report that it has inspired some very clever snark. Defamer begs us to handicap it in our reactions to its reputed terribleness:
Hating this movie would be like booing at the Special Olympics.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Arkansas New Urbanism

I don't usually blog about where I work, mainly because it seems like a good idea to keep those two worlds separate. But this is a case where my employer, Southwestern Energy, is colliding with one of my interests, urbanism.

A big part of our natural gas production is in Northern Arkansas, in a formation known as the Fayetteville Shale. Our headquarters for this operation is a little town called Conway, about 30 miles north of Little Rock. Conway is a college town (although it does have manufacturing--one of the two main schoolbus factories is located there). It has expanded a lot lately, and I suspect a lot of that expansion has to do with the development of the Fayetteville Shale. My impression was of a place with a lot of standard suburban-style expansion--big box stores, chain stores and restaurants, national hotel chains, all located along major arterials with huge parking lots, well-away from residential areas. Totally anti-pedestrian.

Now this impression was gotten because our offices were in a somewhat remote industrial area, and I stay at a hotel up there that is in one of these new areas. Only once when I drove through the academic area did I see that there was more of a real town there.

Now Southwestern is building a new regional headquarters there. Now typically, I would expect our new headquarters to be similar to new oil company facilities everywhere--which is according to the suburban, car-only concept. But we have decided to build our new regional headquarters in a New Urbanist development.

The name of the development is "The Village at Hendrix" (New Urbanism is quite different from standard development practices, but they still use the same lame naming conventions). It's actually being built by Hendrix College (which is a liberal arts college, not a place where you learn to play guitar behind your back). The designers are Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, whose names are familiar to anyone who knows anything about New Urbanism as the authors of Suburban Nation and the creators of the first New Urbanist town, Seaside, Florida.

So what does this mean for Southwestern Energy? Well, for any employees who buy or rent in the Village at Hendrix, they can probably walk to work. Employees will likely be able to walk to lunch or for errands. Aside from that, not too much. Most folks will still drive to work, some from longish distances. And as far as I can tell, there is no bus system in Conway. (And a New Urbanist development without mass transit is a somewhat crippled thing.)

Still, it's interesting, and I look forward to seeing the new headquarters.

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Non-Fiction Books Read in 2008

I'll round out my year-end list-making here with a list of some of the best nonfiction books I've read this year. I will exclude any books read for my final semester of school--this list consists only of books read for pleasure. That said, you will notice quite a few business books, particularly dealing with risk, which is a subject that fascinates me in large part because of what I learned in various finance classes this year. (Also very germane to what has been happening in the world.) Marvin Gaye: What's Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound by Ben Edmonds. A bit disjointed, but an interesting account of the environment of Motown and the personality of Marvin Gaye in the years leading up to and including the recording and release of Gaye's classic album. Gaye was a troubled but determined artist who hit his peak with What's Going On, despite a near total lack of support from Barry Gordy and the people who decided what was a hit at Hitsville USA. Only a "strike" by Gaye allowed him to assert his identity as an artist--a move that benefited others at Motown, particularly Stevie Wonder. Once in Golconda by John Brooks. About the rise of the stock market in the 20s and the rise with it of Richard Whitney, a blue-blood of the same social class as J.P. Morgan and Franklin Roosevelt. Whitney ran the NYSE in an era when "character" was a result of breeding and class, and the only thing your needed to know about a person before you loaned him money was what his reputation was. The crash put paid to much of that nonsense (although class still plays a roll), and in the case of Richard Whitney, the lingering belief in the quality of certain types of individuals from certain social classes was dashed when his own massive embezzlement was discovered. That helped a new, somewhat more meritocratic, technocratic, even scientific view of Wall Street to emerge. (I wrote this little review before Bernie Madoff's crimes were discovered--they seem to completely demolish my thesis. Madoff's investors, like Whitney's, invested with him purely on the basis of his reputation and did not use any of the sophisticated tools available to investors to protect themselves from fraud.) Plight of the Fortune Tellers by Riccardo Rebonato. Quite interesting, especially about the difference between bayesian approaches to calculating risk and the more standard approaches you learn in Finance 101. He probably regrets not recommending stricter approaches to regulating capital adequacy, but at least he recognized that the likelihood of extreme events was probably higher than many believed, and more importantly, was not something could be determined or easily modeled because things that hold in ordinary times (correlations that exist in markets, for example) break down and even reverse in extreme "fat tail" events. Meanwhile...: A Biography of Milton Caniff by R.C. Harvey. A fairly remarkable biography. If you can get past R.C. Harvey's windy, occasionally corny writing style, and his unabashed worship of Caniff and his work, the sheer volume of information about the man and his times--a period when comic strips were among the most popular forms of entertainment in America--is staggering. Harvey is an uncritical reader--he barely acknowledges the racist (though sometimes complex) depictions of Chinese in Terry & the Pirates (both Caniff and his white characters have thoroughly colonialist views of the Chinese people, at least until WW II). That's OK--this biography doesn't preclude future critical readings, and provides a valuable resource for fans and future critics. Winsome Karl Wirsum Works (Some) by Lanny Silverman. Including art books in this list is somewhat problematic, because their value is in looking at them more than reading them. But it's my list, dammit! This book has an exceptionally cool package, but what was really nice was the beautiful selection of color reproductions of Wirsum's eye-popping artwork. In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. A bit scattered, which is not surprising given the vastness of the subject. The best thing about it was getting help in understanding the complex dance between Congress, the BJP and the lower caste/dalit parties which prevents any one party (for now) from being too powerful. Given the overtly fascist nature of the BJP, that's a good thing. H.C. Westermann: Exhibition Catalogue and Catalogue Raisonne of Objects by Michael Rooks. One of America's greatest makers of things. A craftsman like Joseph Cornell, but with a rude all-American exuberance like Ed Kienholz. Somewhat unjustly neglected. This huge catalogue raisonne of his sculptural objects is gorgeous. It allows you to see inside many of the box-like ones, which you often can't do if you see them in person. Still, seeing them in the flesh is a powerful experience that should not be missed if possible. A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 by John Richardson. Magnificent. Unbelievably detailed (like the first two volumes) and yet extremely accessible. Richardson doesn't shy away from offering opinions interwoven with the facts, and he is both conversant and generous in citing other critical work about Picasso. But what entertains are the facts of Picasso's life--his love life, of course, but also the multiple social swirls in which he plunged, especially in these year when he became a rich and famous artist, married to a fashionable ballerina, summering with the swells on the Riviera. The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire by Steve Watkins. Fantastic story of fighting institutional racism in a period when such fights were no longer "cool." Fighting civil rights cases had, during the Reagan years, been relegated to back-burners nationwide. But in the case of Shoney's restaurant chain, the policiy of overt racism came from the CEO and spread down to every store like cancer. This book details the long complex lawsuit to change Shoney's and correct its past wrongs. The stories in this book are shocking. The black O of the title was a way of signalling not to hire a black job applicant--by filling in the O in the "Shoney's" on the application. Enron: TheRise and Fall by Loren Fox. Of all the Enron books, this has the most detailed descriptions of the various deals, derivative contracts, and special purpose entities for which Enron gained fame and infamy. Fox is not a great prose stylist, but he is thorough and a patient explainer.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Fiction I Read This Year

Ok, just so my five readers don't think I am just a comics-reading philistine, here is a selection of some of the fiction I read this year. I'm reading The Savage Detectives right now, so that should count as a 2008 book. (It's really good, too!) Even less that the comics, almost none of this stuff was published this year. I think the Bud Shrake was, but nothing else. I'm too lazy to check.

I bought these books at Kaboom (one of the few positive things about Katrina is that it brought Kaboom here--positive for Houston, negative for New Orleans), Half-Price Boooks, the Brazos Bookstore, and Land of the Permanent Wave by Edwin "Bud" Shrake. Excellent. Shrake is an uneven writer, but this collection is generally pretty good, and even when it's not great, it's at least entertaining. Makes me want to pick up some of his novels that I haven't read. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. This 70s book feels very dated--there's nothing that ages more quickly than science fiction, ironically. However, despite the fact it was written in response to the Vietnam War, it is relevant--especially the notion of a war begun under false premises that ends up lasting far longer than anyone ever anticipated. Familiar? You bet. The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst. Superb, like all of his books. Here the theme is how the right information can be gathered--whether read in magazines or books, or acquired through daring espionage operations--and ignored. (It's funny that The Forever War, set in the future, and The Spies of Warsaw, set in the past, have themes so applicable to our current situation.) Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was by Angelica Gorodischer. Quite good. Recalls in some ways Calvino, Borges, Nabokov, and even the Doris Lessing of Shikasta. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Quite an enjoyble piece of Marquez-like richness. Veering between a certain lyrical realism, to comic (yet sometimes beautiful) absurdity--the Austrian Hussars lead by a committed pacifist who invents battles, the scribe in the War Ministry who regularly, randomly changes orders... A massive and moving book. Drama City by George Pelacanos. Rather unlike his other novels, and very much like The Wire. You could easily see this story unfolding in two or three episodes of The Wire. Indeed, I wonder if he may be recycling discarded Wire ideas. Lorenzo could be a first draft for Cutty, for example. And the NA/AA meetings feel very much like those in the 5th season of The Wire. Not that I'm complaining. It's fertile ground and perfect for Pelecanos. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. This maximalist novel is like the trainwreck of Gravity's Rainbow with Foucault's Pendulum. Two threads of story, one in WWII and one in the 90s move snakily and simultaneously through the novel, converging at the end like future and spot prices. There are lots of good bits here, where Stephenson shows off his huge knowlege and verbal tricks. But the parts are greater than the whole, unfortunately. Entertaining, but ultimately a bit disappointing. Flashman by by George McDonald Frasier. Quite humorous, and a corrective to the notion of "heroism". There are heroes in this book, but they usually end up dead. Flashman survives solely on the basis of a strong desire for self-preservation, and sheer luck. But he is quite willing to take credit for heroism--especially if he is the sole-survivor of a prticular fracas. This "memoir" corrects these stories. Shikasta: Re, Colonised Planet 5 (George Sherban Emissary). An unusual novel, made up a collection of reports, communiques, and observations. Similar to First and Last Man, which clearly influenced it, in its historic scope, but as the novel goes on, it becomes more and more novelistic. The basic idea is that the entirety of human history past a certain point has been a negative reaction to the malign influence of Shammat, a planet of outlaws that somehow feeds off the negative feelings of Shikasta (Earth). In the meantime, an inexplicable cosmic catastrophe has deprived Shikasta of SOWF, which is a kind of cosmic good vibes beamed from the empire of Canopus. Lessing mixes in the Old Testament, radical politics, contemporary (70s) terrorism, psychology, feminism and mysticism in this wild concoction. These are themes she returns to again and again, so it is not so surprising to read them here. At first, this novel seemed like it would be tedious and didactic, but it turns out to be quite moving. But like Stapledon in Last and First Men, she is pretty bad at predicting political developments--in her case, she saw a general decline of Europe and a rise in the power of radical left movements there, culminating in political dominance by Red China and a nuclear war. She did hint at the rising power of Islam as a political force, though. Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin. A maximalist fiction, and as such, it has sumilarities with others of its class like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gravity's Rainbow, and Life: A User's Manual. Tender, exciting, absurd. Very enjoyable. The great gold-robbery chapter alone would be a magnificent novel, and it is only a fraction of the whole. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. Boy is this one grim book. Funny in spots, but the seething undercurrent of hopelessness tends to blot the humor out. He has a definite beef with modern management lingo and thought, with its vision statements and whatnot. The best story is "Bounty" (also the longest story); it is set in an America that has collapsed due to polution and new diseases, separating normal people from mutants (called "Flaweds"), who can, in the Western half of the country, be legally enslaved by Normals. This newly pastoral, medieval America still has these bizarre corporate euphemisms for almost everything. And I have to admit, that is very funny.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Bet Bush Kicked Ass at Dodgeball as a Boy


Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Best Comics of 2008

Not the best comics published in 2008, period, but the best ones I read and wrote little reviews for on Facebook (using the Visual Bookshelf application). I undoubtedly skipped a few worthy ones--ones I read but didn't write about, and ones I never bothered to read. You will notice most of them are reprints, which reflects the fact that I am an old fuddy-duddy. I didn't bother to check if all these books were actually published in 2008, because I am a lazy old fuddy-duddy. I hope you will enjoy this break from politics, economics and finance.

Readers patient enough to read all the way through will notice how many Drawn & Quarterly books I have read and reviewed. This publisher is definitely the best publisher in English at the moment, and that in part reflects the tastes of creative director Tom Devlin. He was the publisher of Highwater Books, and is certainly one of the best modern editors of comics, if not the best. (Too bad he came along right when the entire publishing industry has started to keel over dead...)

I purchased these books either through the publishers, from, or from local Houston shops like Bedrock City (owned by fellow Memorial High School class of '81 grad, Richard Evans), Nan's Comics & Games, Domy, and the Brazos Bookstore. Nat Turner by Kyle Baker. Quite unlike most of Baker's other, lighter work. He willingly steps into a straitjacket to tell this story--there is almost no dialogue, and what text there is is the apocalyptic confession of Nat Turner. Baker let's his pictures do the talking. He doesn't flinch from Turner's murderousness, including the killing of children. Nor does he simplify the slave trade--one of the first scenes is of Africans capturing other Africans to sell to white slavers. He shows what slaves will do to escape--literal escape, of course (Turner's father ran away) but also suicide and infanticide. And the humanity-crushing brutality of slavery is shown over and over. The point, I think, is to demonstrate that if you have a system as evil as slavery, you will necessarily toss up a few Nat Turners along the way. Turner may have been an outlier, but he was a still a logical product of the depraved and evil system which held him captive from the moment he was conceived. Against Pain by Ron Rege. An astonishing collection. I didn't realize how necessary this book was until I read it. Ron Rege's comics have appeared in various publications (some with huge circulations, some very small) for many years now, and this collection brings together 20 (!) years' worth of work. It includes the classic "High School Analogy"* (the story of Peter Parker's alienation in high school that Steve Ditko only hinted at), "Boys," his staggering collaboration with Joan Reidy about high school sexuality as seen from a girl's point of view, and the emotional "Fuc 1997" from Kramer's Ergot (as well as many other excellent comics). The package and production are beautiful as well.

*Originally published in the classic Coober Skeber Marvel Benefit Issue, a collection marred only by the inclusion of a lame Dr. Strange story. Nocturnal Conspiracies by David B. It's been said that other people's dreams are as boring as one's own are interesting. David B.'s dreams seem like they would be interesting to experience, but are less interesting to read. This is a book to read for David B.'s artwork and intriguing storytelling. But the stories here are not as interesting as, say, his intriguing historical stories that have run in Mome. The Freak Brothers Omnibus by Gilbert Shelton, Dave Sheridan, and Paul Mavrides. The Freak Brothers have been around since 1967. This collection is by far the most complete published, so if you wanted to have just one volume of Freak Brothers comix in your library, this would be the one to have. However, you might be a bit disappointed--the printing is not the greatest. Some of the B&W artwork is muddy (a shame, because Shelton and his collaborators sometimes pull out the stops with their linework), and the color sections rather pale. If you can see past the production weaknesses, though, this is a collection of some truly wonderful comics. Glacial Period by Nicholas de Crecy. Published with the participation of the Louvre, this is the first example (that I know of) of De Crecy's work in English. (American readers might recognize his work, though--he did the backgrounds in The Triplets of Belleville.) It's a slight work, but entertaining. Future archeologists, accompanied by talking dogs genetically engineered to have extremely good senses of smell (their olfactory senses now include carbon dating), are seeking a lost city under a glacier that has covered Europe. One of the dogs, named Hulk in honor of an ancient deity, finds the perfectly preserved remains of the Louvre. His human companions also find it separately, and coming from a post-visual society, they are at a loss at how to interpret the images. But Hulk is actually able to communicate directly with the artworks, who want noting more than to escape their icy tomb. De Crecy's shaky line and beautiful watercolor are on display here, but perhaps so as not to overshadow the artworks depicted, he doesn't push the colors as much as he did in Leon La Came. The art is nonetheless lovely. I hope Glacial Period sparks enough interest in De Crecy's work that someone will consider translating Leon La Came into English. Classic Screwball Strips: Happy Hooligan by Frederick Burr Opper. We are really living in the golden age of classic comic strip reprints. The general practice has been to reprint every strip, in order, from start to finish. Such an approach would be unbelievably tedious for some strips, so I am grateful that in NBM's Happy Hooligan, they take the position that a well-selected collection is enough.Frederick Opper was a great cartoonist (his work as a political cartoonist for Puck was already legendary when he made the transition to comic strips), and Happy Hooligan, dating from just after the turn of the century, is an important, well-made strip that really codified many of the storytelling devices that would come to typify comics (like the exclusive use of word balloons and abandonment of captions). But the strips are all the same--Happy Hooligan, a good-natured bum, tries to do a good deed, causes mayhem, and is beaten and arrested. The occasional strips where this sequence doesn't happen really stand out. The production values here are pretty good (though perhaps not as good as IDW or Fantagraphics). Happy Hooligan is an important addition to the growing library of comic strip reprints. Explainers by Jules Feiffer. This brick of a book is amazingly dense. Feiffer's strips were long and wordy (compared to his daily paper counterparts), wry more than funny, quite ironic and clever. He surprisingly goes after liberals as much as conservatives (there has always been a self-criticizing strain of liberalism). His drawing is "minimal" but not in the same way as, say, Charles Schulz. And the minimalism is deceptive, because he is a really good artist--his hand-writerly style manages to convey movement and body-language exquisitely. Where he fails here is when his characters are "over-acting" in their postures. Perhaps Feiffer is taking a cue from contemporary theater productions that would put actors up on bare stages. Like those modernist productions, everything comes down to the characters. It was a radical approach, but similar to Peanuts in its total dependence on its "actors." Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters. Peeters art is excellent. He belongs to that inky school that includes such artists as Blutch. The subject matter is autobiographical--his relationship with a woman (and her infant son) who are both HIV positive. There is a lot of anxiety about sex, well-handled by Peeters. The couple panic after a condom breaks, and rush to see their doctor. After some questions and a blood test, he tells Peeters that the chances of him getting HIV from this were the same as seeing a white rhinoceros on the way home. This is where comics can do something better than almost any other medium--it can bring a metaphor to life without seeming extravagant. Peeters keeps imagining a white rhino following, which is depicted visually. Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan. Excellent, ironic stories and terrific art from the breakout star of Actus Tragicus. This is some of her earlier work (there is quite a bit more, actually, especially collaborations with Etgar Keret). Well worth reading. Moomin vol. 3 by Tove Jansson. Whimsical and gentle. The kind of comic strip to read while listening to Belle and Sebastian. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman. This takes the original Breakdowns, and adds a well-done autobiographical strip that was originally published in the Virginia Quarterly and an afterward. The additions give it kind of a self-obsessed feeling, which has been kind of a weakness of Spiegelman's for a while. I'd like him to bury the self in the other, the way great novelists and filmmakers and even a few cartoonists do regularly. Still, it's a great read over-all, and it's wonderful to see Breakdowns back in print. Love & Rockets: New Stories #1 by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Great as usual. Apparently they are doing book collections instead of the comic book. Jaime's story turns several of his characters into oddball superheroes, and Gilbert engages in some of the odd short stories he does so well when he leaves his Palomar cast aside. Burma Chronicles by Guy Deslisle. He's no George Orwell, but he has a knack for ending up in Asian dictatorships and offering his average-guy observations of them. Humorous, personal, and occasionally alarming. Alan's War by Emmanuel Guibert. Pretty good. The first 2/3rds are an American's memory of World War II (training in the U.S. and shipping out to Europe). His war is closer to Catch 22 (but gentler) than any heroic "greatest generation" story. The art is fantastic and unique. Emmanuel Guibert's textures and tones recall Alberto Breccia, but his art comes out of a clean Franco-Belgian tradition. It may have been better to end the story with the end of the war rather than cram Alan's post-war life into the back of the book, but since his story is so involved with that of Gerhart and Vera Muench, it would have been a shame to cut off that story right when it was starting, at the end of the war. Alan's War is an interesting, occasionally beautiful book. The Complete Terry & the Pirates vol. 4 by Milton Caniff. Caniff does a great deal to mature Terry in this volume. He suspected war was coming and wanted Terry to be a creditable soldier when it happened. He has to make Terry go from boy to man with a series of solo adventures, including the great Raven Sherman storyline. Journey vol. 1 by William Messner-Loebs. Absolutely wonderful--a classic alternative comic from the 80s reprinted. Set during the time of Tucemseh on the frontier, it's much more than a backwoods adventure. Extremely rich characters. It is marred only with some ill-considered "cross-overs" with other alt-comics of the day, which just don't fit at all. Curses by Kevin Huizenga. Huizenga works in a classical early 20th century comics style--his drawing recalls Mutt and Jeff and Barney Google. Like those strips, he is able to casually combine the just-realistic-enough with the "cartoony." And as Chester Brown did in Louis Riel, he invests this old slapstick approach with a kind of modern seriousness. Sometimes it works well, and even when it misses, the results are still worth reading. The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard. Really cool. Brainard is a mostly forgotten pop artist who was much more into comic and comic strips than most of his peers, who quoted them without ever really exploring their narrative possibilities. Perhaps it was that he was a poet as well that made him see comics for what they were. These Nancy works range from cute to clever to really dirty, and he plays expertly with pastiche and unexpected juxtaposition. American Flagg! vol. 1 by Howard Chaykin. Quite excellent when Chaykin was drawing it, but the fill in issues are a bit painful to look at. It's a period piece, to be sure, but an excellent and amusing one. Certainly the cleverest science fiction comic of its decade. Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories 1987-1991 by Scott McCloud. These stories are quite moving. No one is ever going to get too excited by Scott McCloud's artwork, but as YA stories, these comics seem really effective. B.P.R.D. volume 7: Garden of Souls by John Arcudi, Guy Davis, and Mike Mignola. The appeal of the Hellboy comics was Mike Mignola's excellent art. But I have to admit that Guy Davis's art (combined with Dave Stewart's coloring) is both excellent, unique, and utterly distinct from Mignola's. The Complete Little Orphan Annie vol. 1 by Harold Grey. Another excellent addition to IDW's library of classic American comic strips. This publisher is doing important work in this field. Extremely clean reproductions for the most part. It's interesting to see how quickly Gray got the characters right--the evolution was very fast. "Daddy" has to be the most irresponsible parent in history. 110 percent by Tony Consiglio. A funny lil book from a great, underrated cartoonist. I wish we could see more of his work. Gary Panter by Gary Panter. Staggering. The Complete Terry & The Pirates vol. 3 by Milton Caniff. This volume is where Terry really starts to go from a series of improbable adventures to something deeper. Caniff starts to humanize his previously rather racist deprictions of Chinese, acknowledging their emotional lives and, more importantly, their feelings of patriotism in the face of the invading Japanese. Terry also becomes a more mature character whose presence no longer seems like that of a 3rd wheel, but vital. Great characters like Hu Shee, Raven Sherman, and Dude Hennick are introduced.