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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BOOKHUNTER by Jason Shiga

Being old, cranky and set in my ways, I mostly like my comics old, or at least done by the same creators who did the comics I already like. Still, I do try to read a bunch of new and different stuff, often with the help of the Toronto public library system, which I highly recommend. I'm often disappointed with the random sampling of stuff I get from there, but fortunately that doesn't cost me anything but time, of which I have more than enough, and sometimes I come up with a gem.

That's the case this time, with BOOKHUNTER, a 2007 book by Jason Shiga, published by Spark Plug Comics. As you might guess from the fact that I went into all that stuff in the first paragraph, the book is about libraries. Specifically, it's about library police. Yes, it's set in a weird and wonderful world where the library has its own police force, with all the trappings of standard fictional police forces, including firearms and labs. The most relevant modern description would be to imagine it as CSI: LIBRARY, though it's probably closer to the 87th Precinct police procedurals of Ed McBain (which, of course, were an obvious influence on the CSI type shows), especially since it's set in the early 1970s, so the level of technology is closer to the McBain books when they were good (1956 to around 1980) than to CSI when it was good (2001 to 2004, original show only).

Anyway, from this premise, Shiga manages to tell a brilliant (if insane) story about Special Agent Bay of the Library Police investigating the theft of a rare Bible from the Oakland Public Library. In the course of the investigation, we get a fresh look at all the common tropes of the procedural, like a locked room mystery, ridiculous twists, unnecessarily complicated criminal plots and red herrings, a lot of specialized jargon that may in fact be complete nonsense but which is delivered with such confidence that you can't help but believe it. Really, I can't do justice to how well Shiga manages to capture the rhythm and texture of one genre and apply it so seamlessly to his bizarre premise.

And the art works perfectly as well. Within a few pages I bought in to the world he was showing us completely, and he manages to nail both the action and the expressions better than most professional cartoonists.

This is one of the best books I've read by someone I've never heard of before in ages, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Shiga actually has the complete book online (and in quite a clever format), along with a lot of other comics, but I suggest you see if you can get a print copy first, maybe from your local library, to get the full effect.

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