Sunday, December 31, 2006

Comic musings for 12/28

Comics were a day late this week due to the shipping restirctions associated with Christmas. They'll be a day late next week also. That said, the stack this week was huge. So I have some regular reviews as well as follow-ups from earlier reviews.

Spoilers ho!

Red Menace 2 -- This is a very nice period piece from Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, the unfortunate fellows associated with the launch (re-launch?) of Flash, the Fastest Man Alive this past year. They are also joined by Adam Brody, a name I don't recognize, and artist Gerry Ordway. Immediately this book resolves my main complaint about the aforementioned Flash, that the art was incomprehensible. Gerry Ordway features clean lines and storytelling that accent this story pulled from the 50s about a national hero accused of being a communist and losing his status. Clearly the creative team has immersed themselves in the culture of the time period, as references abound, even in the background art of the panels. While this story covers similar ground as the America vs. The Justice Society mini-series, it is not encumbered by decades of legacy that must be accounted for and is thus more free to make statements about the time and its reflection of our own. I am enjoying this series a great deal, and it makes me wonder about the long-run potential for Flash had they a better art team when that series started. I look forward to the rest of this series and recommend it.

Detective 827 -- Paul Dini is writing the current run of Detective and doing a spectacular job. This issue features the rebirth of the Ventriloquist, a somewhat silly Batman villain from the 80s. As he has been written since his creation, there is the possibility (likelihood, more accurately) that the person acting as the ventriloquist is not nearly as important as the possessed dummy of Scarface, who acts as the mouthpiece of the duo as they attempt to run crime in Gotham City. The old Ventriloquist died recently, leaving the status of Scarface in the air until this issue. Scarface is back and there is a new Ventriloquist, and again we have scenes of Scarface talking without his animator being in a position to move him. All of it is a bit eerie and makes up for the camp factor of mooks cowering in fear from a dummy sitting on a man's leg and issuing orders.

Dini has taken his time on Detective and run with it, filling out the nooks and crannies of the Batman universe while moving it into the post-Infinite Crisis era. His story-telling is nicely augmented by Don Kramer, whose work harkens back to Norm Breyfogle. All-in-all, Detective is in a new golden age, and Batman fans should climb on board for as long as this team can be kept together.

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters 6 -- I'm afraid this review is an issue late. I kept meaning to come back and write a separate blog about issue 5 of this series but never found the time to do it. Issue 6 is now upon us and while it also sheds light on the nooks of the DC Universe in the post-Infinite Crisis, it also seems to be setting up for future effects. It has taken me a long time, but I have finally become accustomed to the art of Daniel Acuna, whereas his covers of Battle for Bludhaven made me nearly not buy them. The characters still look too much alike outside the coloration of their costumes, but his action sequences are quite nice.

I unabashedly admit to being a fan of the Freedom Fighters in all their incarnations, and I've been delighted with the resurrection of the first generation of the team--Red Bee and Invisible Hood anyone? I confess to not understanding the need for a new Black Condor and Ray, especially when this new Ray is revealed to be the traitor on the team (who didn't see that coming?). Nonetheless, Jimmy Palmiotti and and Justin Gray are hitting all the right notes with this series, and it is good to see Uncle Sam and Miss America appearing to return to their roles among the most powerful DC heroes. Read this issue, and if you like it, go grab#5 for the entirety of Marvel's Civil War summed up in about 10 panels.

Crossing Midnight 2 -- This is a new series from Vertigo that is wrapped up in Japanese mythology and folklore, which is enough to make it worth trying. But the story is compelling, dealing with twin siblings born on opposite sides of midnight. The birth is complicated by a family's magic shrine, to which the twins' father made promises if the twins could be born safely. So, in a fun twist on the fantasy trope, the twins find themselves already immersed in events beyond their knowledge and caught up in the affairs of the Japanese mythos. The art by Jim Fern is spare, paying close attention to the details of the subject of each panel but only touching on the backgrounds as needed. But the star really is the story by Mike Carey. Thus far, it is relatively straightforward, but only in the way that Japanese fantasy can be. I already have learned things that have enlightened my viewing of Spirited Away, and I look forward to continue the ride for some time.

Following up...

Superman/Batman 31 -- Yeah, still no explanations. I suppose seeing Zook was interesting, but it was just a distraction from somehow resolving this mess. Maybe I'm just not reading as closely as I need in order to figure it all out?

JSA Classified 20 -- Okay, it wasn't the Ultra-Humanite, but the introduction of a new character intimately associated with UH. As a result there was a lot of flashing back in this issue, and the resolution happened mighty fast. And yeah, Dr. Mid-nite appears to be the uber-surgeon of the DC Universe, though I'd be more interested in the surgery to put Godiva's hair back than Argus's eyes. (And no, the nice little mention that Argus's eyes appeared to be growing back on their own really didn't resolve my problem with the last issue.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family is the second book in the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. This is actually the fifth or sixth book by Stross that I have read this year; he is definitely one of my happy finds of 2006. He also seems to be something of a Renaissance man, as his writing includes works in the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy (to which the Merchant Princes belongs). I find that his voice is different in each of the genres, and he is a fine storyteller.

The Merchant Princes owes a great deal of debt to the Amber books of Roger Zelazny. In them we follow Miriam Beckheim as she discovers a parallel Earth and discovers she is the long-missing heir to a royal family there. Unlike Amber, however, the Earths of the Merchant Princes are roughly equal, none more "real" than any of the others. Miriam's family only rules on their Earth, but they have found an ingenious way to profit from their ability to travel between the worlds (hence the title of the series). But Miriam recognizes that her family is exploiting the misery of the two Earths they interact with and thus are using a business model doomed to failure. Her plan is to help her family by using the tried and true business model of 21st century America (on our Earth), and at the same time, help the poor and oppressed her family trods on. If she can survive all the machinations of her new-found relatives and their hereditary enemies as well.

The books end up being a strange mix of thriller and fantasy, with a liberal dose of economic lecture being weaved through the stories. However, as much as I have enjoyed the other works of Stross, the Merchant Princes actually ends up being rather predictable. Nevertheless, the main character and main supporting characters are eminently likable and their adventures are fine escapism. Almost all the main characters are women as well, and while my experience at being a woman is a little short, Stross's characters feel like women that I have known and admired. These are generally strong women put in positions where their strengths are allowed to show forth. To his credit, though he could easily make the books into a feminist manifesto, Stross allows his characters to be strong women rather than spend time talking about what it means to be a strong woman.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Speed of Dark

Buy this book. Read it. Treasure it.

The Speed of Dark is the Nebula Award-winning novel for 2003. From nearly the very first word, it invites comparisons to the beloved Flowers for Algernon, but it goes places that that earlier novel cannot. Lou Arrendale is autistic but has received treatments that help him adapt to the social situations from which autism would separate him. He has a job for a pharmaceutical company, he has his own home and his own car, and he is a fine fencer. But throughout this narrative of his life, he reminds us that he is not "normal" while constantly questioning what "normal" is. He points out, for example, that autists often perform hand motions that are distracting to others, but Lou also ponders why people teasing their hair or drumming their fingers or chewing their nails are considered normal when they are so like the things that are used to set him apart. Lou always speaks literally and takes the time to consider the words he is choosing in order that they convey as best he can manage what it is he is trying to say. And he wonders why "normal" people aren't as considerate to him as he is to them in that regard.

Elizabeth Moon pulls off the amazing feat of endearing Lou to the reader as we feel sympathy for him and cheer him on in his struggles while simultaneously commenting as only an outsider can regarding the hubris of being normal. She and Lou pick apart the everyday, causing the reader to question why we do the things we do. Lou is kinder than most people and smarter than most people and as we come to realize this, he is set upon by the antagonists of the novel, normal people who are as limited in their perceptions as Lou is supposed to be in his.

I found it difficult to put this book down; Moon makes me care about Lou, not only in the way that we are supposed to care about those "less fortunate" than us, but with real compassion. My anger at those who oppress him was no less real for being based on fiction, and my fear as he faces both physical and emotional danger was just as real. Perhaps Moon writes beautiful prose in her other novels, but the only beauty in this novel is in Lou and the emotions he inspires in others as he grows. And perhaps that beauty is more palpable than that of the finely constructed sentence. I know I felt that beauty as I turned the last page, finding that Lou had made the hardest decision he would ever face and finding in him a simple strength that I wonder if I myself possess.

Blessedly, while the power in Flowers for Algernon lies in what may be the worst tragedy that could befall a character, the power of The Speed of Dark moves in the opposite direction, in the growth and success of a character that we come to love. As I read, I realized that The Speed of Dark is only minimally science fiction, arguably on the borders of how I would describe the genre; the setting is clearly in a not-too-distant future and there are hints of the continued difficulties we currently face with technology and the environment. But this book, like Flowers for Algernon, transcends genres in its power. We learn from Lou, much as we learn from Charlie, and that knowledge makes us want to be better people. I find it hard to believe that a novel, a character...a writer...can give a greater gift.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Comic musings for 12/20

I got a number of books this week, but not a whole lot grabbed me one way or another, good or bad. I've taken so long to review in order to think about the ones I wanted to review and what to say about them. Even so, this is not going to be a terribly long post, I'm afraid.

Spoilers ho!

Fables 56 -- In the title that has become one of my very favorites, both for its story and its commiment to long-term story-telling, Bill Willingham decides to take on the Christmas fable. It's Christmas Eve at the Wolf household, and all the Wolf children are decorating the tree as their happy parents look on. When Aunt Rose arrives, she tells them that they can talk to Santa and ask him one question, with the cost of that question being their only gift from Santa that year. The children gather and draw straws, and it is left to Ambrose, drawn exactly as if he had escaped from a 30s MGM Christmas cartoon, to ask the children's question, how can they assure themselves of getting the very best gifts the next year? But when Santa arrives, Ambrose instead asks him how he is able to make all his deliveries in one night. At the same time, Santa is visiting the other Ambrose, "Flycatcher", and making him fully human again as well as giving him back his memories, telling him that he is going to have a dangerous year ahead of him and all the fables need him at his best.

Willingham and his artist team tell a wonderful Christmas story, but at the same time draw on the last fifty issues to warn of the events to follow. A regular reader knows something about what is likely to come as they have been building for some time, and a new reader gets the dual gifts of the ongoing charm of the ongoing story as well as a taste of some of the seriousness that underlies it. As a result, this issue make a fine jumping-on point as well as a delightful traditional Christmas story.

Secret Six 6 -- In this, the final issue of the follow-up series from Villains United and Infinite Crisis, Gail Simone twists her way through the long-awaited confrontation between Vandal Savage and his prodigal daughter, Scandal. All the loose plot-strings from the previous five issues are more or less resolved, and yet we are given surprises along the way. The ongoing dialogue between Catman and Cheshire is hysterical and we rediscover why the Six wanted Mad Hatter on the team start with. The moral of the story, if there is one, is to never underestimate Mad Hatter, and that Ragdoll may be even more dangerously insane, in a brilliantly normal sort of way. While the plot of the arc is resolved, a tiny openng is left at the end for an ongoing series, and DC should do everything they can to make sure it happens. Simone remains one of the best, if not The Best, writer currently in the DC stable , and Brad Walker's art is perfect for where Simone takes her characters.

Teen Titans 42 -- This issue is a bridge for Kid Devil, giving his background to those readers who don't know who he is and then explaining the origin of his new-found powers for those of us who do recognize him. (In a triumph for Bill Willingham, the Oblivion Bar makes it appearance in the third different series this week, a testament to the work he is doing on Shadowpact.) Anyone who knows Western legends knows how this story is going to turn out, especially anyone who recognizes the name Neron from the DC pantheon. The writer, Geoff Johns, does a workmanlike job of getting all the elements of the story together and setting a milepost for future issues, but there really is nothing very new here. Johns again shows off his knowledge of the DC universe, but it rates only slightly better than braggadocchio in this issue. The fill-in art, by Peter Snejbjerg, is satisfactory but not great. Overall the issue does what it is supposed to, fill in while the regular artist catches up, but with this issue the title loses a lot of momentum it had picked up in the last story arc. And I'm willing to bet that the title will forget the deadline imposed on itself in this issue. Johns has a trail of broken story arcs in his wake, and I don't expect this one will be any more important than the other ones left unanswered.

New Avengers 26 -- I'm including this one entirely on potential. I really despise a lot of what Bendis has done to story-telling in mainstream comics; decompression is not a good thing. This issue of New Avengers is a perfect example of it, as the story involves two characters who are not in the New Avengers at all. And therein lies the problem for such a casual Marvel reader as me; clearly something momentous is happening here, but I don't know enough about the characters to know what it is. The pages virtually drip with import, in no small part thanks to the beautiful art of Alex Maleev. Nothing from the New Avengers or from the ongoing Civil War in the Marvel universe is advanced by this story, and I'm pretty sure its repercussions will be dealt with in some other title. But I would love to see Maleev doing other things, especially as his style seems ideally suited to Vertigo titles.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Moving Mars

I had real difficulty getting through this book by Greg Bear, and I am not sure if it has to do with the book itself or my own circumstances as I was reading. Suffice to say, as you start this book (if you start this book), allow yourself plenty of time to get embedded in it. It takes a while to get going, but persevere, because when it moves, it really moves.

The book takes the form of a memoir of Casseia Majumdar, a human inhabitant of Mars (in the place of "inhabitant", I nearly wrote "colonist"--the main conflict of the novel lays in the difference between those two terms). So, one would expect that the fictional events of the memoir would be of some importance, and this is where my difficulties came in--their importance is sadly lacking through three quarters of the novel. To be sure, Casseia offers an honest viewpoint of the world/Solar System she lives in. Bear spends a great deal of time showing the daily life of the Martian, including a couple of forays into the xenobiology of Mars that is discovered by its human inhabitants. Then Casseia goes to Earth, and we see what life there has become. These studies of the daily life of the planets take place against the backdrop of events "going forward" though very little progress is made at all, either socially or personally for Casseia.

Perhaps this is the root of my discontent; Casseia is not a very interesting person, nor is she a very good writer. Because we meet Casseia in her first year of college, I kept getting a taste of Heinlein's juvenile novels as I read. Casseia doesn't really have plans for her life but she gets sucked into the big events that affect her political sphere, almost with little action on her own part. She becomes involved in a student rebellion on her planet, and she goes to Earth in an attempt to politically assuage Terran fears about Martian government. And all the people she meets along the way turn out to play vastly important roles in the final crisis and its resolution. I recognize that, like the heroes of Heinlein's juveniles, Casseia is immature and of course so much flotsam on the events of her day, but Heinlein's heroes mature quickly under pressure and begin showing signs of adulthood. Casseia doesn't really show that growing maturity until she gets pulled along into the biggest problem Mars faces. Only when she becomes involved with creating a democratic government on Mars does she become active, and even then she is overshadowed by the eventual president. It is these dual flaws which make me feel most uncomfortable in the beginning parts of the book--we know that we are being set up for bigger events down the road, but to get there, we have to go through what amounts to a diary of someone I'm not sure I would care to know.

Eventually, though, events come to a head; Casseia's former lover discovers a way to change the very nature of the universe and Earth, acting like a 20th century country (as Bear so often reminds us) attempts to pre-empt the use of the discovery as a weapon by attacking Mars before it can be fully developed. Casseia herself notes that such an action is insane since it forces Mars into the position of retaliating, dying, or taking even more drastic action, but we never really get to see the story from the Terran point of view, nor do we ever determine who the malefactors are on Earth. But even as the crisis swirls about her, Casseia explicitly thinks about how she is just a victim of forces, how she really has no choice in doing what she ultimately does, and even when she does get a chance to perhaps take a different path, Earth attacks again, forcing her hand for the ultimate time.

Moving Mars won the Nebula for best novel in 1993, and I cheated by looking at the list of other nominees for that year. I only recognized one other novel from the class, though I did recognize the authors. To openly wonder if it was just a bad year for novels of speculative fiction is not entirely fair, but I felt dissatisfied at the end of the novel. Casseia is eventually a hero to her people, but I never get the feeling she really earns it instead of having it cast upon her. Her ex-lover often apologizes about the burden his successive discoveries put on her. While the novel ends up taking the reader to a place not really visited since James Blish's Cities in Flight, it is not an easy trip nor nearly so enjoyable and I end up regretting Casseia's lover was so smart too.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

The observant reader will recognize that I finished Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land last evening. However, since it is a book I am reading with my book group, I don't want to write a thorough entry about it, preferring instead to save those comments for the book group interaction. But I also feel that I need to say something about the book here, since that is rather the point of creating a blog in the first place.

It has probably been about five years since I last read this novel, and I would say that I have probably read it about twenty times. That same observant reader will note that the novel shows up in my profile as one of my favorite books. And yet, this particular reading left me a little blah, and I'm having trouble determining why. Could it be that I have read it so many times that I have milked all the goodness from it and rereading has become an exercise in nostalgia? Are current events in my life somehow affecting my reading (of course they are, but I mean in such a negative way)? I can't say for sure.

But I can say that this is the first reading I can recall where Michael appears to be such a two-dimensional character. I know that one of the most popular criticisms of Heinlein is that his characters really are very flat, with little development over the course of his stories. Generally, I find that to be untrue, especially in the case of his juvenile novels, the very point of which is to show the maturation process of the characters. And to be certain, Michael is certainly not *static* in the novel--he grows from being an uncertain waif to forceful leader. But I realized that almost all of the growth that Michael has is given in third-person, through the eyes of other associated characters. In fact, there is very little of the book that is told from Michael's perspective, and in the course of this reading I found that to be a little jarring.

And as I think about it, I feel like the story had to be written in that way. Ultimately, this is a story not about Michael, but society and its reactions to, first, a human/alien psychological hybrid, and second, a new messiah. And yet in my memory of the book, it's always been about Michael. Interesting houw our always-moving experiences continue to shade static things. I'm sure this comes across as a truism, and I would say it is for most things, but I have held this book so dearly in my memory for so long that it's a bit of a shock to uncover another fold in it or in my appreciation for it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Lost Room

Everybody geeks about something.

Last week, the Sci Fi Channel aired an original mini-series about which I had been reading for a little while. The teasers indicated that the story was about a man who found a room in which mundane objects were given extraordinary powers. And, as is the nature of such teasers, it only scratched the surface of the story.

On May 4, 1961, at a little past 1:20 in the afternoon, an Event occured in room 10 of the Sunshine Motel near Gallup, New Mexico. The mini-series never goes into detail about what happened, but as a result of the Event, every object in the room--including the Occupant-- was imbued with a special ability. Also, as a result, room 10 was wiped off the face of the earth.

Now comes a detective, Joe Miller (played by Peter Krause), who is given a key to room 10 of the Sunshine Motel by a dying man, and with it we enter the very eclectic world of the Objects and their collectors. Some of the Objects have useful powers; for example, the key opens any door with a doorknob and keyhole to the relatively safe haven of Room 10. When the owner of the key departs the room, he exits to any door of his choice and thus has a means of near-instantaneous transportation. Furthermore, no matter the state of the room or the objects in the room before the door closes, when the door is reopened, the room is "reset" and returns to its original state, such that all new objects are gone (the basics of how this works and its uses are played out quite nicely over the course of the episodes. The writers and thus Miller become quite ingenious about how to use the room). However, some of the objects are less than useful; the radio, when tuned to the right station, makes its user grow three inches taller. And the powers of the objects grow greater and more useful when they are used together.

The primary motivation for the mini-series, however, comes when Krause's daughter goes into the room and it is accidentally reset, so that when Miller opens the door again, she is gone. The rest of the episodes are the convoluted path through this shadow world Miller must take to ensure the safe return of his daughter.

The writers build a serious mythology about the Lost Room and the people who pursue the objects, a sort of underground that the Lone Gunmen in X-Files would appreciate. In fact, a problem with the premise is the question of how such a fantastic subject could remain hidden from the public eye. First off, there are groups of people pursuing the objects--the Legion, who try to get the Objects in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, believe that altogether, the Objects pose a threat to the very fabric of reality, and the Order of Reunification, who believe that putting the Objects back together will give them the power to talk to God--not to mention unscrupulous individuals who serve neither side of this conflict. There are also fanboy-types who follow the Objects around from a distance, selling their tracking ability to those who pursue the objects. And finally there are the victims, such as those who have been touched by the bus ticket and find themselves teleported a few feet above the ground at another section of Gallup, New Mexico. As a sort of running joke, people that offend Wally, the holder of the bus ticket, find themselves wandering incredulously around the outskirts of Gallup. And other people must also have been affected by the Objects. So there is a good number of people who know about the Objects, but no one outside these groups *knows* about the Objects. It's an artifice and one that you accept as you watch the show, but after the fact it becomes a little troublesome as you try to work out the logic of it.

The show itself is a marvel of storytelling. Viewers can easily get wrapped up in this bizarre world and find that they care about who might win the probable battle between the factions, but taking a step back, they also realize that they spent an hour of time watching a TV show about a comb. I have to wonder if the creators are having a quiet laugh to themselves about the human ability to become fascinated with the most inane things, especially as this parallels some of the action of the show where various people build virtual shrines to the Objects that they own. The New York Times review of the show ( speculates that the Objects hold power over the viewer because they are the lost objects of a generation gone by, "the things our dads and granddads used to carry, loading them into suit pockets just as they were rushing to mysterious child-free places". But an interview with Krause himself ( seems closer to the truth, people put inordinate value on everyday things, often to the detriment of their relationship with people. This theory plays out over the course of the mini-series; dozens of people are unable to unravel the mysteries of the Lost Room over the course of decades, but they are primarily interested in the Objects as artifacts or power. But Miller unravels it all in a few days because he has a use for those objects--he wants to bring his daughter home. And this is the message that is most important--that Things aren't as important as People unless those Things are used to bring people together.

On the downside, Julianna Margulies plays Jennifer Bloom, a member of the Legion who becomes Miller's romantic interest. On the one hand, I don't know why the story fell into the fairly stereotypical need for a love interest; it certainly adds no value to the story and is only fleetingly played out, almost tangential to the main action. However, at the same time, their interaction typifies the theme as Miller makes another relationship whereas all the other Object pursuers are emotionally or socially stunted in some way. Over the course of the mini-series, it becomes clear that Miller is the only Object hunter that is genuinely liked by every other pursuer he meets.

And of course, being a Sci Fi Channel mini-series, the conclusion is open-ended, making it a perfect back-door pilot for an ongoing series. I fear that a series would be a great deal like Lost or X-Files, where the people who watch it would have their own language that people outside their circle could never understand. But then I think about conversations that I hear at my office, as people congregate on my hall to talk about the latest happenings in the world of House, and I realize that we do form our own societies anyway, with any TV show or any other past-time. Because, as the Lost Room explains, everybody geeks about something.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Comic Musings for 12/13

I'm a little late posting this week; I fell behind in reading my very large comic bundle for the week due to holiday events and just plain old being tired (oh yeah, and The Lost Room). And, despite there being such a large stack of comics, I'm only going to talk about three that were other than average. Mostly this week, the comics were just kinda there, and these were the only ones that stood out enough for me to have something to say about them.

Spoilers ho!

Justice League of America 4 -- From a high level, this issue pushes all the right buttons for fanboys. The plot begins bringing all the characters together that will eventually form the new Justice League, at last, and we trade the big reveal of the villain last week for an even more surprising reveal at the end of this issue. I closed the comic and chuckled, as it was a fun ride.

But then I began thinking about the details, and I began to be a little disaffected. Let's start with the team coming together--for three issues now we have had the Big Three standing around a table looking at photographs and files of various candidates for the new Justice League, and now, amazingly, the very folks they had decided to invite magically show up at their doorstep with a mystery that needs unravelling. So it turns out that the three issues of discussion between the three of them was mostly marking time until the plot could come to them. I suppose these scenes would've worked better if someone other than the people they were considering were the ones that showed up...but we end up with the stupid comic book trope of mentioning someone and they show up in the story. It just feels like so much wasted breath (and pages and money).

Then there are the scenes with Green Lantern, Black Canary, and (until now) Arsenal fighting the big bads. We find out how Arsenal gets his new name, Red Arrow...and it comes because one of the most experienced heroes in the DC pantheon almost calls Arsenal by his real name in the heat of battle: "Roy" becomes "R..." when Green Lantern catches himself, and then he changes it to "Red Arrow" to cover his flub. That's just bad writing, folks; that's picking a name for an existing character and then making up a reason for him to use it. And the only reason I can see for using it in the first place is because Red Arrow is a name from Kingdom Come. However, let me point out that the fight scene with these three is extremely well choreographed and remained a joy to read, calling out as it did the memories of the classic Justice League of the 60s and 70s. But the naming gaffe is a flaw that overshadows the good parts.

The last page reveal was nice, as it was unexpected, and I assume that Meltzer will tie it all together. We know that Solomon Grundy's personality changes everytime he is reborn, and it makes sense that he would eventually be reborn as a genius. But there are gaps that need filling in so that it will make sense as a long-term plan. But I despair of the symbology that acts as a visual cue that Grundy is now a genius--he wears a suit, so that he has to identify hmiself as Grundy. My first problem with this is that I don't see the apparently obvious connection between wearing a suit and genius; in fact, having worn my own share of suits, I think a smart man wears a nice pair of slacks and a t-shirt or golf shirt so as to be comfortable. I'm told that an exquisitely tailored suit is a wonderful thing to wear, but that requires money not smarts to make happen. I don't look at people in suits and automatically think "Wow, he must be a genius" and in fact I sometimes think the opposite. My second problem is the potentially awesome impact of having Grundy appear as he always does but speaking in the full and complete sentences he uses in the issue. Instead the issue's creators went for the visual shorthand that doesn't make a lot of sense in the first place, and we never get to see the image of the Grundy we know being intelligent rather than "looking" it.

I will say, though, having Hawkgirl's dialogue include "I'll get my mace" was a very clever and appealing touch.

The Spirit 1 -- I'm not sure if this series was ever described in its press as being the Spirit we know set in contemporary times, so it was a bit jarring to begin the issue with a TV montage. Later in the issue, Ginger Coffee (intrepid crime reporter for a national network) uses her cell phone in an ingenious but also really stupid fashion. I think in the long run the stories will be missing a vital element not being set in the original time period of the Spirit, but if anybody can pull it off, it would be Cooke. And besides, there are other concerns (but I remember the failed attempts at bringing The Shadow and Doc Savage into contemporary stories).

For instance, like the recent Batman/Spirit crossover, The Spirit is once again relegated to witness the events that surround him. Forces act on him rather than him acting. Now, I recognize that a good bit of the humor of the original Eisner is that The Spirit gets pulled into a lot of his adventures, but once in them, he is a protagonist. There are stories where, because of injury for example, The Spirit witnesses all that goes on around him instead of acting, but it is the exception rather than the rule. That this is the second comic with this version of the Spirit and also the first of the self-named series, I begin to expect that this is how he has been re-imagined. And folks, that's going to make for some really dull story-telling down the road.

But at least this time, Ebony shows up. His modernization may ultimately work, since writing him as he was portrayed in the comics of the 40s and 50s would be painful to read. So long as he is not allowed to slip so far into the street-wise kid role that he becomes gangsta. I'll keep reading for a while, especially since the next issue is to feature P'gell, but the charm and magic of the original series is really missing here, and given the lifespan of non-selling series now, it will take an act of faith on the part of the DC leadership to keep the series going until it hits its stride. Here's hoping it finds it sooner rather than later.

Sandman Mystery Theatre 1 -- Confession time here: I am a huge fan of the Golden Age Sandman, Wes Dodds, and thoroughly enjoyed the first Sandman Mystery Theatre series. I read that this would be a new Sandman from Vertigo, much like the most recent Deadman was someone other than Boston Brand. That information alone was enough to keep me from reading Deadman, but given my fondness for the first Sandman, I had to hope that his new series would keep the tradition.


Look, I expect dense and convoluted storytelling from Vertigo titles. But there has to be something in the issue to give the reader some kind of cues as to what is going on...and it just is not here. Eric Nguyen's art is a chore to interpret, and while he attempts to use the single-color scheme that Guy Davis used in the first series, at least Davis's characters looked different enough that you could tell them apart. I've read this issue three times now, and I think I finally have a faint grasp on how the new guy becomes (temporarily?) the new Sandman, but it needs clarification. This being a Vertigo title, it may well be that the threads will be pulled together in subsequent issues. However, that task had better start in the next issue, because if it doesn't, I won't be buying the third issue.

But I will say that the first page--scenes between Wes Dodds and Dian Belmont--felt dead on, and I give the writer all due credit for that. Now let's see if the title can pull together the parts that didn't have a basis on earlier writers.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Random Comic Thoughts

Just a few things that have been bothering me of late as I read my weekly comics:

The last JSA Classified was about one of the most under-used characters that still has tons of potential since his original mini-series, Dr. Midnight. While I applaud his being featured, I'm a little disturbed by the background of the story: a villain is stealing the body parts of living superheroes and selling them on the black market. The villain is revealed in a nice acknowledgement of DC history, but it is the use of the superheroes in this fashion that bothers me.

There was a tremendous hue and cry about the number of deaths in Infinite Crisis and it was pretty clear that every hero is someone's favorite. But most of the complaints also involved the "needless" violence that was read as an end to itself rather than seeing that violence as integral to the story-telling. In a lot of cases, the violence was used to make a point, at least as I read it, but if the point was made with someone's favorite characters, of course that someone complained.

In JSA Classified, the writer, Scott Beatty, used characters lower than C-list in order to avoid offending the readers. Seriously, how many people care about Argus, Loose Cannon, or Lady Godiva? But it is this point that gives me qualms...why not just use brand-new characters instead of dredging up any characters with DC history attached to them? These characters were so unused that a lot of readers probably have no idea what their powers are so saying "He took the eyes of Peripheral Vision Man" has exactly as much impact as "He took the eyes of Argus." I suppose, the hero being Dr. Midnight, he'll put all of them back together again, but it all seems so pointless to me.

If you ever have a daughter, don't name her Supergirl and don't let her grow up in the DC Universe. I can't think of a character who has been more poorly handled. There was a great deal of fondness for the original Kara Zor-El, but she got killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Then she is brought back as protoplasmic slime called Matrix, and she is doing pretty well as a back-up character in the Superman titles. Then, in the highlight of her career, Peter David starts a Supergirl title, with an entirely different origin and little interaction with the mainstream DC universe. The stories were good and the art by Gary Frank was quite fine. But she got tossed aside for this new Supergirl, who was sent to Earth to kill Superman and who is having trouble adapting to life on Earth (once she is dissuaded from her original mission). Her current title is filled with teenage pathos, and I suspect I may not really be its primary audience, since I have trouble sympathizing with the trauma of being a teenage girl. To add insult to injury, she is now being drawn by Ian Churchill, and while it is certainly stylized, it's not that good (to my tin eyes). I rather wish they had never brought her back from her noble death in Crisis if they are going to continue to treat her this way. I certainly hope her new relationship with Apokaliptian badboy, Powerboy, works out. (Why do the cute girls always go for the bad boys?)

Joss Whedon wants to do a Captain America/Jenny Sparks crossover? Be still my fanboy heart.

DC is sponsoring a survey for the best DC comic cover ever. It's a fascinating idea that will require some thought. My first thought was Crisis 7, where Supergirl dies and we have the iconic image of Superman holding her broken body drawn by George Perez. I also like Flash 123, "Flash of Two Worlds", the first Golden Age/Silver Age crossover. But I am left wondering if I like the covers because of the stories behind them or if the covers themselves are really that worthy. At least I can be certain that Eclipso 1, the cover with the plastic Eclipso diamond stuck on it, should be out of the running. I'll have to give this more thought. Any suggestions are welcome (and if you want to see the world's greatest cover gallery, go to

Friday, December 8, 2006

Badge of Infamy

Badge of Infamy, by Lester Del Rey, is another of those stalwart novels that provide the backbone of the SF tradition. It involves the redemption of a hero, Dan Feldman, in otherworldly circumstances, but there is absolutely nothing other than the setting that makes it SF. In fact, given Feldman redeems himself in the deserts of Mars, there is much in the novel that reminds one of Westerns or frontier novels. The plot is straightforward, the characters are fairly flat, and the language is utilitarian.

Nonetheless, the story does pull you in perhaps because of its simplicity. Once the reader gets past the jeremiad about the failure of civic responsibility disguised as the history of the future Earth, the chain of events Feldman finds himself in are compelling—a pariah doctor is the only person working to thwart a plague threatening both Mars and Earth. Nothing extraordinary happens; the novel becomes a medical procedural fraught with the lack of the most modern equipment to fight the terrifying plague on the frontier. But like nearly all procedurals, the research in quest of answers is enough to keep one’s interest engaged. There’s even some mild love interest for Feldman, but like the marshal of a new territory, he recognizes at the end that it’s no life for the women he loves and he must continue to fight the good fight alone.

Another good book to while away the hours with and fun for its historical place in the pulp tradition.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Comic Musings for 12/5

Yup, the comics arrived this week, and there are a bunch of first issues in the mix.

Spoilers ho!

Justice Society of America -- A little caveat here: I'm a huge fan of the JSA. I've got all their stories in the archive editions, plus their 70s stories in All-Star Comics. I hunted down as many of the Golden Age/Silver Age crossovers that I could find, only to have DC start to collect them in anthologies after I've spent so much money in my quest. So I was sad to see the JSA series end after Infinite Crisis and have been looking forward to this new series since it was announced.

That said, boy is this a typical Johns-written book: never be subtle when sweeping gestures will do. The narration on the first page begins "World War III" and the real story begins on the second page. Unfortunately, Johns has a real problem with leaving plot threads dangling, and I wonder if this one will ever be picked up anywhere. But as it is not germane to the story itself, I can let it go...for now (but I'm watching you Geoff Johns, I'm waiting).

Beginning in media res as it does, there are plenty of other stories to catch up on, and Johns does as much as he can to pull the reader into those mysteries while revealing as little as possible: What happened to Damage's face? How did Hourman hook up with Liberty Belle (and are those the Hourman and Liberty Belle that we have come to know)? Who the heck is Starman and why is it a good thing to pull a hero from an insane asylum? Why is Obsidian just a "security guard"? And, in what is a huge distraction in the book, why don't Green Lantern and FLash know Wildcat as well as he knows them? Overall this is a fine starting point and it makes me optimistic for future issues. And frankly, Eaglesham's art is just stunning, as it was for Villains United. I look forward to questions getting resolved.

Outsiders -- This is it, the pay-off for months of seemingly unrelated storylines. The Big Brain is finally revealed in an issue that amounts to a lot of sitting around as the Bad Guy tells his evil plot, all the while denying that it is in fact evil. While the big strokes of this book are pleasant, the details just drive me crazy. Winnick pulls out a brand new power for a character that has been fairly well understood in the DC Universe for a few decades now, all in order to get our heroes out of the bind they find themselves in. And, of course, the Big Brain gets away in order to torment the heroes in the future, but not without a pithy observation of their status. It's a shame, really; the characters and the story have much potential, but they are ham-handedly handled by someone who doesn't seem to have a grasp on the characters at all, even the ones he created.

Manhunter -- This is a sort of bridge issue, tying the previous storyline to what shall be the next one. Wonder Woman has asked Kate to defend her in federal court for her actions in Infinite Crisis, because the World Court has exonerated her. It's not at all clear why the federal courts think they have jurisdiction over an event that took place in Switzerland, but if you can take that as a given, it promises to be an interesting case. Chase and Dylan seem to have come out into the open about their relationship, just in time for Chase to be harrassed by a foe from her lamented former title. And we find out there is a shadowy figure manipulating Wonder Woman, and perhaps Manhunter as well. This book is the polar opposite of Outsiders in that Andreyko has won so much confidence from his readers that I'm willing to hold out for future issues to work out the stories adequately (even resoundingly). Winnick has disappointed me so many times, I'm barely willing to wait and see. Outsiders continues from inertia; Manhunter continues to push at its boundaries and its characters grow. "Do we fight or something?" indeed.

Batman Confidential -- I don't understand the difference between this title and Legends of the Dark Knight. Do we really need another title giving stories about the missing years of Batman's history? To be honest, there is nothing outstanding about this book and most of it is only mildly interesting. Once again, we see another "first meeting" between Luthor and Bruce Wayne, and it ends pretty much like one would expect. It's nice to see Portacio's art again, but it seems not very suited to a Batman title. I'll probably give this a few more issues to see if it can get its stride.

Welcome to Tranquility -- I'm a big fan of Gail Simone. I loved Villains United. I love Secret Six. I love Birds of Prey. So when I read the notice of a new title involving retired heroes and villains in a community, it felt like it had the soon-to-be-patented Simone quirk of humor that makes her other writing so enjoyable. And it turns out to be right.

If you are a fan of the Sci-Fi Channel's Eureka, you'll like how this story plays out: a non-powered sheriff in a town of people that are all above-normal. Crimes happen and the normal one has to figure out how it all happens. The cast is introduced in this first issue and someone is murdered, maybe, and it all sets up nicely for what promises to be an enjoyable run. My only complaint is with the's not so good. Fortunately, the writing carries the story and will give the title time to get its art straight. Nice Lost reference on the cover also.

Star Born

Okay, so confession time. I've never been a big fan of Andre Norton. I know this makes me some sort of heretic in SF fandom, but there it is. I tried to read Witch World a few years ago and found it to be filled with overblown language and confusing sentences, so impenetrable that I just set it aside and never tried again. And up until recently, there was plenty of SF for me to read so that while the breadth of my reading may have been lacking, the depth wasn't. However, I've been downloading e-texts from the Gutenburg Project and reading them in my spare time, like at lunch. Using this process, I finished my first Andre Norton book a few weeks ago (pre-blog) and now I have just finished my second, Star Born.

The first thing to note is that Star Born is the second book in a series (of two books as it turns out). Not having read the first book, I can't say with perfect certainty that reading the first book is required, but it certainly didn't feel like it to me. Perhaps there are some accents that would be highlighted had I a knowledge of what happened in the first book, but as best I can detemine this book takes place several generations after the first, and anywhere I might have been confused by mentions to previous circumstances, the reference was handled adroitly and with enough background information that I could figure it out.

Plotwise, the book seems to use a number of tropes that have been repeated a number of times in SF: a "lost" colony of humans making do without interaction from Earth, an alien race threatening the colony, and a new group of humans arriving and exploring the same planet without knowledge of the existence of the first colony. Norton uses the plot structure of chapters alternating between the viewpoint of two characters, whose relationship is revealed over the course of the novel. That relationship had me guessing for a while, but Norton falls upon Occam's razor and keeps it simple when that mystery is eventually resolved.

The language of the novel is simple, as is the story. The characterization is flat. In what feels like an attempt to create a great resonance as the novel concludes, there is a moment of apparent sacrifice and promises of a brighter future, but this sort of emotional quality does not exist in the rest of the book (fortunately). Humans are represented as universally good in Star Born, making it easy to figure out who the bad guys are before they actually start acting bad.

Ultimately, Star Born feels like a juvenile novel to me: straightforward storytelling involving a fairly simple plot with little emotional or intellectual depth, enough to engage a reader for a quick distraction, or to pick up on various occasions without hving to remember what was happening when the book was left off. There's a niche for this kind of writing and Star Born fills it nicely. It makes me also wonder about Witch World and if I was in the right place for it emotionally and/or intellectually. It's enough to make me want to find some more of Norton's writing for spare moments.