Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Riders of the Purple Wage

As I finished Philip Jose Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage, I closed the book and set it in my lap, then stroked the kitten who had taken up residence on the arm of the chair. I tried to gauge my feelings about the stories in the anthology, especially the titular novella, which were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I have been a fan of Philip Jose Farmer for about as long as I can remember. I enjoyed the Fabulous Riverboat series, though towards the end of it, it felt like Farmer had lost the thread of his initial ideas. I am also a fan of his World of Tiers series, although as often happens, taking off decades between books sometimes shifts the direction of those books. Then there were the Dayworld books, which I thought had a really thoughtful premise that just got lost in the sequels.
So yeah, there was a pattern to my thinking about Farmer. And this book was more of the same...and the novella really had my head spinning. If ever there was a story meant to be about style over substance, this seemed to be it. "Riders of the Purple Wage" is filled with wordplay and characters acting outrageously, with little in the way of what I would call meat, descriptions of how the world got to where it was or how people adapt to the differences. In some ways, it felt a great deal like the interstitial chapters of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, but not nearly so carefully developed. Perhaps that had to do with the differences between a novel and a novella, but I did what I usually don't do and started doing research on the web.
The first thing I found was that "Riders of the Purple Wage" was originally published as a part of Harlan Ellison's classic Dangerous Visions. So I knew that, in fact, Farmer was writing on consignment more or less, fulfilling the purpose of an anthology, which in this case was to be edgy and stretch the boundaries of science fiction. I then pulled out my copy of Dangerous Visions and read Ellison's introduction to the novella. According to that writing, "Riders" is a masterpiece of the potential of science fiction, and the only people who would really get it were the folks who were not interested in being spoon-fed pap. Well, I had read Dangerous Visions a while ago and liked it, and I thought I liked edgy material. I was among the first people I know who read Mieville and have been evangelizing it to everyone I know. Hell, I proselytize Zanzibar and Bester to whomever I can.
I then read Farmer's afterward and was pleased to find that Farmer himself had cut out 20000 words (which left 30000 published), including the kinds of things I thought were missing--the origin of the culture that was being described and scenes that further detail the interactions of its members. Well, okay. Ellison thinks I'm an idiot (which he probably would have anyway) and Farmer tells me there are pieces missing that might help. I feel better about my problems, though I still can't explain what the first chapter was about.
The stories that precede "Riders" are an interesting mix that go some ways toward setting the mood of melancholy for the dystopian states being described. The opening story, "One Down, One To Go," posits a world where the welfare state is mixed evenly with people still able to support themselves. And in an attempt to cut down on the welfare costs, the government offers to pay people to sterilize themselves. But all of this serves as a background for the narrator who describes his daily life as a government agent selling these sterilizations. Nothing unexpected happens to the narrator or the story he tells, and a description of this welfare state is all the depth we get. But the events are strongly written, even if they don't go very far. And this is how I feel about most of the rest. "UFO versus IRS" has a potentially funny premise that never gets very far. "St. Francis Kisses His Ass Good-bye" has an interesting premise that gets waylaid by the descriptions of how inhumane people are to one another. "The Long Wet Purple Dream of Rip Van Winkle" again has a time-travel premise, but it gets wrapped up in the descriptions of perverse sex that Van Winkle stumbles into without testing the science fictional aspect that allows the story to be told. The most complete story, "The Oogenesis of Bird City" has a clear beginning, middle and end, and deals with the issues it brings to the table--the potential sacrifices that must be made for the betterment of generations that follow--but upon starting "Riders," it's clear that it is just a prequel to another story (in fact, it is one of the chunks that Farmer edited out).
So, the book feels incomplete. There is some fine writing in dribs and drabs in the various stories, and there are some thought-provoking and even extremely comedic scenes. But it doesn't hang together well. It is a fine study of stylistics, but it's a lot like gravy without the meat. It's clear the chef has talent, but I would dearly love to see it more completely played out; I'm just not a big fan of stylistic prose for the sake of style alone. And if that makes me a digester of pap, so be it.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Comic musings for 2/21

It's that time of the week again; I've finished reading the comics and I'm here to talk about them.

Spoilers ho!

Brave and the Bold 1 -- So DC has decided to restart one of their franchise titles. I don't think their other team-up comic, Superman/Batman is doing all that well, as I have chronicled here. But here is an opportunity for DC to make up for the failure in what should have been a signature title. And on paper, it looks like the book has a great deal of promise; Mark Waid, a fan favorite, is taking the writing chores. There are few people outside Kurt Busiek wand Geoff Johns who might know more about the DC Universe, and his stories are almost always compelling. George Perez, another fan favorite, has the art chores. And DC has learned from its past by getting Perez ahead in his work, given his history in getting bogged down in the details of the story he is working on.

And the first issue begins to deliver on the promise of all these factors added together. The first team-up features Batman and Hal Jordan solving perhaps the most enigmatic of locked-room mysteries. At last, we seem to have gotten through the Batman distrusts everybody stage of his career, as evidenced by Batman accepting Green Lantern as an experienced ally with his own fields of expertise after years of their relationship being represented as one of mistrust. Waid has fun with the characters, evventually bringing them to Las Vegas where we can see their alter egos at play, jetsetter billionaire Bruce Wayne and gad-about Hal Jordan in an exclusive club playing Blackjack.

I was tempted to describe Perez's work as utilitarian, but I flipped back through the book again and I realize that Perez may be damned by his constantly excellent work. While the art in this issue is typical Perez--that is, clean, vibrant and incredibly detailed--it is better than 95% of the art in comics today. And Perez remains a master of panel layout.

All in all, this is fine issue that promises good things for the future of the series. Breaking away from the Brave and Bold tradition, the team-up will not feature Batman each week and, more like the old DC Comics Presents, each team-up will continue an ongoing storyline. This comic was fun and bodes well for the new direction of DC if they can all combine this appreciation of what has been past with an eye towards the future as this issue does.

Robin 159 -- So Robin has decided to try the dating scene once again with his erstwhile tutor, Zoanne. In order to impress his date, Tim takes her to one of those "top of the tower" restaurants and the two of them share a meal and the opening conversations of the first date. But of equal interest (and not really lurking in the background) is the growing relationship between Tim and Bruce Wayne. In fact, the entire story is about tensions between couples--Tim and Zoanne, Tim and Bruce, and finally Tim and Robin.

Batman keeps showing up at or near the restaurant as he attempts to capture the new villain Jitter (with a thoughtful wink to old-timer Vibe). Tim must constantly choose between going to Batman's aid and putting himself first, to have a successful date. It is no help that Batman and Jitter end up inside the restaurant itself, and Tim is able to assist in the capture without donning his costume.

The last few panels tie up the ongoing decisions neatly--Tim and Zoanne share their first kiss, Tim succeeds both as Robin and Tim, and a far more sensitive Batman than we would have seen prior to One Year Later expresses concern about interrupting Tim's date and asks how it went.

I also want to mention the art of Freddie Williams II. The panels contain the same frenetic style of Scott McDaniel, who seems to get a lot more recognition. But Williams doesn't use the tilting camera effect that so often makes McDaniel's work almost nauseating in its spinning effects. It remains stylish though and quite appropriate for one of DC's comics aimed more at a younger audience. I just feel like it needs to be appreciated as Robin seems to be starting in a new(ish) direction.

All in all, this is a fine issue and a good leaping-on point for anyone not currently reading Robin.

Superman 659 -- After Arion telling Superman that he is going to bethe cuase for the end of human civilization, this issue concerns Superman reflecting on what that means and how he can continue to be a hero under such a dire prediction. He asks himself, "Does my presence warp mankind's destiny?" and flashes back to a story that has relevance.

Busiek goes on to tell a story we've seen a number of times in the past decade of Superman--how Superman's value is much more than that of a savior, but also that of an inspiration. Everyday people are inspired by Superman to be more heroic themselves. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the story, which is fine in its own right if not fairly predictable.

No, the reason I have chosen to talk about this issue is to praise the art of relative newcomer, Peter Vale. A quick check of reveals only three other places where his art has appeared before, and a quick Google finds only a small sample of his art here: To be honest, I was blown away by this art, seeming to me to be a happy combination of the realism of Ordway with the detail-driven lushness of Perez. Busiek's story is lifted to something much greater than where it started out by Vale's deft touches throughout. Carlos Pacheco provides a couple of framing pages of art that facilitate a comparison between what is vogue right now and Vale's own work, which I find to be transcendant. It is almost disappointing to finish Vale's flashback sequence and go back to Pacheco's art, which up til now I have had no issue with.

DC, if you are listening, make this man an exclusive and give him more work, as quickly as possible. How about in an ongoing Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters?

Note: Speaking of which, good news wends its way out of New York City and the NYC Comic Convention. In the DC Nation panel, Dan Didio announced yesterday that Manhunter has once again been saved from cancellation. This is good news for those who enjoy good comics, especially those that are grounded so wonderfully in the history of the DC universe. Thank you for listening to our pleas. You can read about it at

Friday, February 23, 2007

Un Lun Dun

A good bit of China Mieville's acclaim comes from his ability to use a location as a character in his novels. Perdido Street Station takes place in the city of New Crobuzon, an otherworldly analog to London. In that novel, Mieville allows the city to reflect the attitudes and emotions of its inhabitants, and his descriptions of the various boroughs that his characters pass through evoke just the right mood for the events that subsequently take place. And through it all is permeated a sense of wonder and awe, as we see a city so very near to the one we know and yet different in surprising and important ways. New Crobuzon has a life of its own, and in Perdido Street Station, the reader finds himself as concerned, if not more concerned, about its ongoing survival as for the survival of the characters.

Perhaps there is some work to be done in some literary analysis of the abLondons in speculative fiction. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere imagines a London that with an entire alternate city lurking just past the next corner and hidden behind the shop wall. Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is a young adult novel about a London that is attached to giant caterpillar treads and wanders about its world devouring smaller cities and towns. Part of the appeal of such novels is how they twist the familiar into something different and still are able to evoke the original, a sort of nostalgia for a place that still exists. And now we can add to this quasigenre Mieville's latest novel, Un Lun Dun, his first entry into the young adult field.

Deeba Rashem finds that her fiend Zanna is getting all sorts of attention from unusual places-graffiti about her pops up on a wall near their school and foxes bow to her as Deeba and Zanna pass them. But none of this compares to one evening when they witness an umbrella crawl across a courtyard and hoist itself to Zanna's windowsill to spy within before heading off down the sidewalk. Curious, they follow its path into a maintenance area and, before Deeba can stop her, Zanna finds and opens a trick door. Suddenly the girls find themselves in a London parallel to their own, UnLondon. Fairly quickly upon their arrival, Zanna is recognized as the Schwazzy, the prophesied savior of UnLondon against the villainous attacks of Smog and they find they must make their way to the city's rulers and present Zanna and save the city.

The Smog is one of the most ingenious villains in recent memory. When London of our earth passed its Clean Air Act of the 1970s, where did all the noxious smoke go? According to Mieville, it worked its way through cracks in the universe to UnLondon, where it continued to grow and gained sentience. The Smog now threatens to take over the city and transform its inhabitants into smoglodytes and its recently deceased into smombies. The Smog can also use its components to create sleeping gases and pellets it can launch like bullets.
Deeba and Zanna gather allies as they travel to meet with the Propheseers: Obaday Fing, a clothier whose head is a pincushion and who makes haute couture clothing from books; Hemi, the son of the union between a ghost and a mortal; Skool, a walking diving suit; Jones, another transportee from our Earth who makes his living as a bus conductor; and Curdle, the charming empty milk carton that wins his way into Deeba's heart. As they travel the city, the reader is given a tour of UnLondon in all its glory--the open markets, the Smeath river that flows in a perfectly straight line through the heart of the city, the UnLondon-I which is a giant waterwheel that powers a large part of the city. Their vehicle for travel is a standard double-decker bus whose upper floor has been replaced with a dirigible type balloon and Jones acts as a tour guide for them as well as for the reader. It turns out that UnLondon is a city made up of the cast-offs of London, both material and people. Buildings are made from London refuse (my favorite is the one that is made of vinyl records), but enough of London emerges from the weirdness that it all feels very comfortable.

Their lazy promenade is interrupted by the allies of the Smog attacking from the backs of giant flies trying to reach the Schwazzy, and smaller adventures take place until the girls reach their destination. Eventually they ally themselves with Brokkenbroll, the great Umbrellisimo who is able to command the broken umbrellas that make their way from London to UnLondon. All together, they discover the great weapon they can use in defense of UnLondon so that perhaps the Schwazzy is not quite needed. So Deeba and Zanna return to London…until Deeba puts together the pieces to realize that UnLondon is in far worse danger than anyone thought. Now she must somehow find her way back to her newfound friends.

Un Lun Dun is a delightful romp. The main characters are flatter than are usually found in Mieville's works, but this is a young adult novel, so character complexity would actually be unfortunate. But the most important character may well be UnLondon itself, as delightfully weird a setting as Oz. And Deeba acts the Dorothy as she attempts to save the city from, in part, a peril from her own city of London. In its broad strokes, the story is a little predictable, but again, young adult novels don't generally travel very far from the beaten path. It is in the details that this novel excels-the descriptions of the parts of UnLondon, the conversations that the characters share, the characters themselves. Even the menace of the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey are fun (as evidenced by Deeba's laughter at the intentionally unintentional puns), but they poise another hazard for the companions to fight through. Adding to the details are the wonderful drawings from Mieville himself, instantiating the macabre and whimsical scenes and characters. My favorites are the binjas, walking trashcans that use martial arts to protect the Propheseers.

And, like most good young adult fiction, there are some details that work only for more mature minds. For instance, while the novel sets itself up as a quest in the mold of popular high fantasy, Mieville completely subverts its ordered and sequential pattern with the impatience of a bored child. There are also allusions to other works of speculative fiction and hints of the size and complexity of the UnEarth that tantalize the adult reader. Mieville even provides an epilogue that goes beyond the usual conclusion of young adult fantasy, successfully tying up a loose end and promising that the story continues to go on even though the book's covers are closed.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Comic musings for 2/14

It was a very strange week in the comic box. Especially given Grant Morrison's Batman, it looks like everyone is being experimental with mixed success. What with the upcoming 3D issue of Action coming up and the new twists on stroytelling out this past week, it appears that DC is somehow falling back to the late 80s, using gimmicks to tell their stories rather than letting solid writing and art do the work. More below.

Spoilers ho!

Batman 663 -- So Grant Morrison takes an issue to write out the story prose style, with a relatively unknown artist illustrating the story as if it were a children's reader. Of course, the subject matter in this case is the Joker, not exactly kids' fare, but we've seen this before and better. There are two failures with the issue--first, to make this work, the story has to be good, not only plotwise but stylistically. And honestly, this is just not good writing. The idea that the Joker goes through phases helps to explain how he can act so differently in various appearances, but then so does the explanation that he is insane. Morrison does add a nice touch, that when Joker changes his phase, he gets rid of the henchmen left alive at the end of the previous phase. Harley Quinn is very significant to the latest phase of Joker, but we don't realize she is being set up by the Joker until she does. And this is all set up nicely by the opening scenes of the clown's funeral, as former henchmen for Joker lay one of their comrades to rest.

No, the problem here is the style of Morrison's prose. An example: "The eyes of the two men lock into place like dancers in a tango. It's as dangerous to look the Joker in the eyes as it is to train a telescope on the sun, they say, but Batman has faced down this blue-hot lunacy before." Maybe to some readers this just sings, but to me it is forced and clumsy...and perilously close to a mixed metaphor.And most of the writing is like that, metaphor piled on slightly different metaphor, image beside incongruous image. Perhaps the style is meant to suggest Joker's insanity, but ifthat was the goal, itdoesn't have to be so heavy-handed and, ultimately, obtuse.

The other problem is with the art. John Van Fleet uses a computer for photo-realistic illustrations through the story. The images themselves are okay, even though they have that artificiality of screenshots from your favorite computer game. Some are fascinating and some are unrecognizable. But more troubling is the strange placement the pictures have in the book; sometimes the art literally gets in the way of the words, so that the path through the text is uncertain. And the last page, with its very few words, is very difficult to parse. Either Batman has been shot in the head or he's growing a rose from his head, like one of the Meanies fom Yellow Submarine. But that image doesn't quite fit in with where the last words of the story take us. So I've spent a good 15 minutes reading adn studying that last page and I can honestly say I have no idea what's happened.

I like the story being told, I really do. I'm just not sure the story was worth the cost of the offputting writing and art.

Green Lantern Corps 9 -- I've been enjoying this arc, "The Dark Side of Green", as writer Keith Champagne has introduced the Green Lantern Corpse. Led by a Durlan (and it's nice to see a militant Durlan rather than the usually passive Cham of Legion of Superheroes), the Corpse acts much like the Impossible Missions squad--they take the missions no one else wil ltake and if anyone dies along the way, the Guardians disavoew any knowledge of them. Recruiting Guy Gardner into that group seems natural enough, and their foe, a genetically enhanced Dominator, is a very nice change of pace. Add into the mix a new Green Lantern, R'amey, an ultra-cute alien who looks like nothing less than a full-grown fairy, and there appears to be tension galore between the philosophies of the members of the Corpse. But by the end of the issue, when we find that R'amey may actually be the most powerful of the bunch and her mild exterior hides the soul of a radical warrior, the story turns the reader's expectations on its mutual ear. Guy protests the killing of the Dominator is not necessary when they capture it and is shocked when the luminous fairy rips the Dominator to shreds. Then the capper comes when the Durlan tells Guy he is not good enough for the Corpse because (surprise surprise) Guy has a conscience and will not blindly follow orders. Of course, Guy has never been as extreme as his stereotype paints him, and this issue just emphasizes that.

Of some concern is the fight scene, but it is not a breaker. I had to parse the battle sequence a number of times to figure out what exactly happened, but elsewhere, the art is stylish and effective.

The end of the issue implies that we have not seen the last of the Corpse or the Dominator, and I hope that this is the case. I would like to see more intelligently written science fiction comics about these characters.

Y The Last Man 54 -- I have thoroughly enjoyed the run on this title, but this one issue has to be the most dissapointing so far. This issue features the return of two side characters, Cayce and Henrietta, the sincere but lost ultra-feminst artists who showed up a few issues ago. The story opens with the two of them trying to make a move about empowering women, but their actors quit the movie with complaints that is just another action flick. They argue for a bit with Cayce tossing out this explanation, straight from the feminist handbook of the 70s--"We're appropriating the trappings of male-dominated cinema, and subverting them to make the first truly female action hero." When pushed on other female action heroes, such as Ripley and Sarah Connor, Cayce replies "That's not the point! those movies were all made by men for men."

The irony here is stupendous, since there is only one man left in the world and he is neither making the movie nor likely to see it. Vaughan's point about the inability of true believers to release their beliefs even when they are no longer valid or necessary is clear. Later Cayce and Henrietta pick up a comic book that some young girls have been reading. Inspired, Cayce decides to switch media to deliver her message and creates a comic book for herself. The story is very familiar; all of Earth's women have been killed in some sort of plague, leaving a sole survivor to wander the world. The last few panels find our hero Yorick reading the comic and expressing his disapproval of it.

Perhaps this issue will be the starting point for an arc, but in and of itself it is terribly unsatisfying. Maybe the creators felt the reader needed some whimsy following the events of the last few issues and as we are about to begin the final arc, but I think there are better stories that can be told. I'll have to hold final judgment until the next issue, but this issue itself felt like we were treading water and not given anything of value for our being forced to stand still. However, I do believe this is one of the best titles coming out of Vertigo right now, and I'll miss it when it's gone.

Tales of the Unexpected 5 -- Forget the lead story in this anthology, that of the Spectre and his new host working out their relationship. What's more interesting is the back-up story featuring Dr. 13 and his daughter fighting Nazi gorillas with a lisping ghost, a vampire and old-time boy hero, Genius Jones. Up to now, the adventues that the team has been sharing have been whimsical and fun, harking back to the golden ago of DC, but with no real sense of purpose. The stories acted like serial for serial's sake. All of this changed, though, when someone got around to talking to Genius Jones about why the group has gathered together (Genius Jones, for those who are unaware, was stuck on a desert island with all the books in the world...and he read every one of the books, so now he knows everything there is to know. Give him a dime and ask him a question, and he will answer it.). Suddenly the fourth wall is broken down as Jones explains that the team is gathered together because the architects don't believe the members need to exist. When pushed to explain further, he explains that the architects decide "who's who...and who isn't. They are the official guides to the universe when it was decided that one fashioned by the architects that preceded them didn't make cents...they knocked the old one down and built a new one. This is the fourth time it's happened--in this universe." Brian Azzarello's sly commentary on the existence of universes based solely on how much money they bring down is funny and somehow poignant all at once. Don't the charactrers have a right to have their story told? They certainly believe so and decide to confront the architects. The issue ends with some of the long-suffering characters being trapped under the foot of a giant monster with the heads of four dead presidents in yet another image of the power of our dollar over their lives. It was fun before just to see these strange old heroes being brought back, but now that they are actors in a metacomic and talking to the reader, I'm really looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

True confessions

I've been feeling a little unhappy with my writing output of late. A couple of things are slowing me down; first, I'm reading a novel, Vellum, which I'm having a very hard time getting my head around. Given the reviews I had read that convinced me to give a it a try, I should have expected such a condition, especially since a lot of my reading is confined to quiet time and bed time--so I generally read is short spurts unless something really grabs me. Secondly, there's not been a lot of quiet time of late. In my real life, I work for a software company that is working on a major release and facing up to some difficult decisions about how to move forward, and the workday is more wearying of late than usual. So when I get home from the office, instead of picking up a book that I have to work at to get through, I'm doing fluffy things, like computer games or a nap. However, according to Amazon, my copy of China Mieville's latest, Un Lun Dun, is arriving today, so I may set aside Vellum to read that. And my book group meets this weekend, so I'll get another book selection to work on as well.

I say this all as a sort of introduction to folks who may be coming here from Astute observers will notice I have added a link to this page, to the ComicSpace page for my good friend Eric Nolen-Weathington. Eric has generously put a link on his page back to Perrynomasia and, preparing for more views than before, I thought I would explain why there is a slowdown in my reviews and postings. (I know, I know, a real writer would work through the lull, but see, that's sort of what I am doing at the paying job...). And given that Eric knows a lot more people in the industry than I do (and the ones he does know are far more important than the ones I do [Hey, George!]), a little sprezzatura seems appropriate.

Reading Eric's reference, he describes me as a "good friend" which I am grateful to believe to be true. Eric and I met two decades ago when he was the lead sheepherder at the arcade across the street from North Carolina State University and I worked at the comic/science fiction store two doors down. Whenever Eric had a lull in business, he would come by for a visit and he became a quick favorite of all the employees at Foundation's Edge, eventually leaving the arcade to work at the store shortly after I left for graduate school in New Jersey. I can't remember if Eric was a participant in the epic First Annual and Last Ever Foundation's Edge Air Hockey Tournament, but I know he was around to at least witness the grand finale, where the owner of Foundation's Edge came from behind to beat me. But when I came home for the summers, I would catch up on comics and books with Eric, and we ended up spending a lot of time discussing our interests in both fields. One of those conversations involved pitting heroes from the DC Universe against heroes of the Marvel Universe over Chinese food ("Who'd win, Nightwing versus Forge?" "Hmm, a good hand-to-hand fighter versus a man who can invent anything...'I'll invent a big stick and beat the crap out of him.'") Good times, good times.

During that time, I was fortunate enough to be a groomsman at Eric's wedding and his family attended my wedding this past May. And after I came home from New Jersey, Eric and I spent many afternoons playing basketball and chugging Gatorade. He's what I like to call "sneaky fast", while I am merely ponderously big. It was Eric's idea that I go to San Diego the first time, and we had a blast. What followed were more trips to San Diego, Chinese buffet food, and Eric giving me work as a free-lance copy editor for the Modern Masters series. I've been involved with all but one of his books, and for reasons I won't go into here, his name will be coming up again in the near future.

To quote one of his favorite commercials, Eric is "a good guy"; and if you run into him at San Diego or anywhere else, get him to do some of his cartoon voices. He does the best Dyno-mutt I've ever heard. I'm very pleased he never listened to my advice and went to a voice audition in San Diego so he can now hit it big at Two Morrows and Modern Masters (although I swear to you if he ever did go to an audition, he would get a job in a heartbeat). We'll be hanging out some at San Diego, so if you see him at the Two Morrows booth in July, look for me.

Here's to you, Eric, and your fiendish gravity-defying lay-ups. And welcome to any readers who may find their way here from his site.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Comic musings for 2/7

It was a big week at the comic store this week, but I am still trying to work through my self-imposed restrictions of not commenting on a single title more than once every other month and only write about things for which I care one way or another. So...

Spoilers ho!

Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil 1 -- It just has to be said up front that his book starts from a deficit because it was announced from DC at San Diego Comic-con in 2004. I remember the expectation of the audience at the panel...Jeff Smith taking on Captain Marvel! The audience was excited; hell, Bob Wayne was excited. And then nothing for more than two years. So, for me, the expectations have risen, since something awesome must be under work for it to take that long to produce a four issue mini-series.

And I'm not entirely sure it was worth the wait. Jeff Smith is a fine cartoonist, and I have enjoyed the bits of Bone that I have read. But Bone is an all-ages fantasy comic. Captain Marvel is superhero stuff, which has an entirely different feel to it, even if Captain Marvel is the one hero best-suited to an all-ages treatment. But Monster Society of Evil doesn't just pull me in the way I would've expected for something so heralded.

First of all, Billy Batson is drawn like he is no older than five. He says and does things that are more like the actions of an eight year-old, and eventually I just accept that he is older than he appears. But Billy really is drawn as a very small child, perhaps to emphasize his innocence and vulnerability. It is jarring and unfortunate. Second, this story is clearly not going to be within the continuity of Captain Marvel, as we get another spin on the classic origin story as well as an interesting take on his powers. In Jeff Smith's retelling, when Billy Batson speaks the magic word, he doesn't become Captain Marvel, he is replaced by him and Billy goes somewhere else. In a conversation with Merlin, Captain Marvel reveals that he has been around for a while and that Billy is just his latest vessel. There is some comedic potential with this set-up--and Smith touches on one of them when Billy visits a hot dog vendor--and this arrangement allows for some panels where both Billy and Captain Marvel appear, but these seem rather small benefits when compared to the cost of such a huge shift in the history of the character. The very thing that makes Captain Marvel so all-age appropriate is the innocence attached to the hero because he is truly a child wearing a disguise. Having an experienced Captain Marvel is strange terrain to find one's self in. Perhaps Smith has a big pay-off in mind, so I am waiting..but I am dubious.

Another strange thing Smith does is that each chapter title is in code, a simple replacement of letter for letter. It took only a few moments to break it, but I'm not sure what the point of the code is. Again, maybe it will pay off, but I don't expect it to be a big pay-off.

The art is classic Smith, very cartoony and thus very approachable. If you didn't like his work in Bone, there is nothing really new here. I'm holding out hope for the series, but if things continue like this, I think the series will be more appropriate for kids or for people pretty unfamiliar with Captain Marvel; fans of Captain Marvel should see this as a sort of Elseworlds version.

Action Comics Annual 10 -- Kudos to the creative team for the cover of this book, which harkens back to the classic covers of the Annuals from 70s. The cover is made up of scenes from the seven stories within the comic with the classic checkerboard border on the top. It is so exact a duplicate, my fingers rebelled when it wasn't newsprint they were touching. The structure of the comic maintains its dependence on those earlier issues, with five stories and two "articles": a layout of the Fortress of Solitude and a top 10 list of Superman's foes.

Each part is illustrated by a different artist. Of particular note is the very short Joe Kubert story, filled with many Thanagarians in hawk-costume. My thrill at turning the page and finding Kubert's space scenes and aliens nearly made the comic worth its cost. Art Adams, Gary Frank, Tony Daniel and Phil Jimenez do some very good work also.

My problem is with the stories, which are not as good as the art used to illustrate them. All of them are written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, and all of them appear to be setting up future storylines in Action. In them, we get the backstory of the three Kryptonians from the Superman II movie, which is just wasted if the three of them don't make an appearance in the regular title. But the movie Zod is not the comic Zod, especially not the one we have been seeing for the past few years. I'm not convinced of the value of going back to that continuity, except that it may be the only one that Donner knows. This issue also has the reintroduction of the various flavors of Kryptonite, which DC has studiously avoided since Superman was rebooted in the 80s. Stories using all those flavors can end up being extremely hokey and I'm more worried about what other writers will do with them than what Johns and Donner will. And I'm just not sure the ultimate benefit of having them outweighs the cost.

By far the best story in the book has a young Clark Kent learning about his powers and growing up separate from his peers in fear of accidentally injuring them. Into this lonely life is introduced another alien with super powers, whose spaceship happens to also crash in the Kents' cornfield. (I'll only grimace here and mention the hugely unlikely coincidence of his ship crashing into exactly the same farm...). They adventure together, with the alien hinting he may be another survivor from Krypton, until they decide to test his heritage. When the lead in the case around the shard of kryptonite proves more deadly to the visitor than the kryptonite itself, the visitor is revealed to be an amnesiac Mon-el, who has traveled from his own planet to find the last survivor of Krypton. But after all is revealed, Mon-el is still dying from lead poisoning, so that Clark puts him into the Phantom Zone where time stands still. This is clearly a tie-in to the continuity of the new Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes. And yet, with such an interesting story about Clark's loneliness and newfound "brother", the art is the weakest here. I'm not sure how closely the artist and colorist worked together on this, but all the panels have a very washed out feel to them, with a palette in the browns, almost sepia. Perhaps this was done to give an impression of nostalgia, but it gets boring to look at, especially all the flat colors. Compared to the vibrant coloring and art throughout the rest of the book, this story is a dramatic departure.

Jonah Hex 16 -- My primary reason for pointing this book out is the art by Phil Noto. As a friend said to me, "His art is too pretty for Jonah Hex" and normally I would agree. But it works, as we follow the story of a woman who comes to Hex to be trained in revenge so that she can avenge the men that have made a wasteland of her life. Even scarred as she is, Noto 's art evokes the beauty she would have been had bad men not entered her life. And this evocation is important--she is just as scarred as Hex and so feels they should share a kind of kindred feeling. But her wasted beauty points out what the reader already knows, wanting to kill and doing it are two completely different things, and performing the actual act changes a person forever. Hex agrees to train her, and the next issue will continue the story in an unusual muli-part story for this title. But Gray and Palmiotti continue to hit all the right notes in their work here, and Noto turns out to have been an inspired choice for this story.

Detective 828 -- Given last week's review of Legends of the Dark Knight, I thought it important to call out this title for two reasons. First of all, I found out this week that issue of Legends was the last, and I assume that Batman Confidential is taking over the duties of stories from Batman's past. I'm going to miss Legends; I was working in a comic store when it was first released. I remember the hype about the title, I remember the interest in it, and I remember how good the first stories were. I still believe that it lost its path for a while, and I regret that there weren't more stories like the early ones or last week's. Secondly, Detective is plainly the best Batman title going at the moment. I said it before, I'll say it again here--Paul Dini is opening the door on a new golden age of Batman stories and Kramer and Faucher's art is magnificent. But the comic excels especially for Dini's writing as he brings us back to the the root of who Batman is in this most appropriately titled book. Batman is a detective, and a good one. We've lost sightof that over the years, but Dini is bringing it back in crystal clarity. I sincerely hope that the upcoming Countdown mini-series does not distract him from the work on this title, and that he stays here for a good long time.

And a couple of extras--
Having spoken the name, I just want to add a comment on the idea of this Countdown series. The success of 52 has proven the viability of a weekly series in the comics market, so long as it is handled well. DC's "sequel" to 52, Countdown, will apparently build on this success. But did we learn nothing from the special event series Zero Hour? Having a five-issue miniseries be numbered backwards, from 4 to 0, was cute. Doing the same for a weekly comic for a year, from 51 to 0, is a major pain in my butt. It's starts out being cute, and then when you think about it, it's just stupid. I use Excel to catalog all my comics, and I'm sure the other comic databases in the market work much the same way. I have a choice in how Excel sorts my comics, ascending or descending in a field. There is no way to make it ascend for most titles and descend for two titles. It's a nuisance and, I'm going to say that word again, cute. Ultimately, it's just wrong.

DC announced the winners of the "Best DC Cover of All Time" contest. The results are not terribly shocking, for all the reasons I had described when I first talked about it. People remember the covers of seminal events, and equate the most important events with the best covers. I'm pretty certain that there have been better covers through the years, but the stories were so unmemorable that we can't remember the covers either. I truly wish that they had taken the five or ten most nominated and given the readers a chance to vote, but the email campaign was the only voting there was.

And the winners are:
Crisis on Infinite Earths 7 (Death of Supergirl)
Flash 123 ("Flash of Multiple Earths")
The Dark Knight Returns 1
Action Comics 1
The Killing Joke

You can see them at Although I personally voted for Crisis and am not surprised to see it win, it's clear when you look at the covers side-by-side, the best of the lot is Dark Knight Returns. Honestly, I'm a bit surprised none of the Watchman covers made it, both because of the seminal nature of the story and because of Gibbons's brilliant work.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Variable Star

In the afterward of Variable Star, Spider Robinson talks about the dangers inherent in attempting to write a novel based on the notes of someone else, especially when that someone else is Grand Master Robert Heinlein (not to be confused with Grand Master Flash). Robinson's friendship with Heinlein served as both a blessing and a curse, according to the afterward; he thought writing the novel a fitting tribute to Heinlein and would never have gotten the opportunity had he not been a friend of the family. However, he also recognized the expectation that, as someone recognized for knowing and admiring Heinlein and writing in his style, he would channel Heinlein-that he somehow would write the book Heinlein never got to. Towards the close of the afterward, Robinson talks about a conversation with the literary executor, in which Robinson is told to make it the "best Spider Robinson book" he can, and he admits he feels he has done so. Unfortunately, the marketing of the novel seems to do the opposite, describing the book as something like a séance for Heinlein, with the spirit gently possessing Robinson so that Heinlein speaks again.

So, depending on what you know as you approach the book, it is either a flawed attempt at being Heinlein or a flawed novel by Robinson. And even if you accept that Robinson is being Robinson, the novel spends a lot of time kissing Heinlein's literary butt. Perhaps Robinson does this in all of his novels, but the references to the Heinlein mythos are staggering in their number and … well, smarminess.

For example, the main character is a farmer from Ganymede, in a winking reference to Farmer in the Sky. At an emotional low-point in the book following a massive disaster, a character reminds the rest of the passengers on the ship about Nehemiah Scudder (from Heinlein's "If This Goes On--") and his rise to power. In the same passage, a reference is made to Leslie LeCroix, the first man on the moon in some of Heinlein's stories. There are even puns on titles of books, including a particularly clunky one on The Rolling Stones. So, even if this is Robinson at his best, it is inextricably interwoven with Heinlein, and not necessarily to the betterment of the part of the book that is Robinson.

Of that part of Variable Star that is Robinson, not very many good things can be said. Adopting the narrative style of juvenile novels (of which Heinlein was a master), we observe Joel Johnston as he approaches maturity, studying him in his non-maturity and following the events that cause him to become an adult. But the weakness here is that the Joel's circumstances are so contrived that they are nearly unacceptable, even for a science-fiction novel. Joel's mother died soon after his birth, and his father (a Nobel Prize winner in physics) was the perfect parent. When his father dies, Joel finds himself on Earth working on an education as a composer and musician. The novel opens when Joel and his betrothed have a horrendous argument about the potential of their wedding happening soon and goes downhill from there. Joel finds out that Jinny Conrad is actually the grand-daughter and heir to the Solar System's wealthiest man, and he is being groomed to help run the financial empire, no matter what he wants for himself. Joel goes on a bender and awakens to find himself aboard a colony ship headed to a star 20 light-years from Earth.

The rest of the novel is spent on board the ship as Joel is forced to undergo the lessons that his peculiar status until then had allowed him to miss. We get to meet Joel's friends and companions, all the while Robinson fills in the information about the setting. Swerving around the Heinlein references, we find out that that the ship is basically powered by Zen individualists who have a fondness for Joel's saxophone playing. But if the novel is meant to exhibit a man pulling himself up, it misses its intention since Joel seems to be the luckiest man on the ship. When he realizes he has gone aboard the ship with no liquidity, he discovers that an option his father had left for him has come through and he is extremely wealthy. And, oh by the way, the ship's banker becomes a great friend in the process of giving Joel the happy news. In fact, Joel rarely meets any one on the ship who doesn't like him-the one character there who is uncertain of him is more terrified of Joel's father's reputation than anything he knows about Joel. Even after he gets into a fight with two of the ship's toughs, they eventually become valued comrades.

And, as is the way with such novels, when Joel reaches some sort of maturity, it is put to the test by calamity. However, in this case, the calamity is so huge that it literally beggars the credulity of the reader; Sol is destroyed, wiping out the entirety of the Solar System and leaving the fate of humanity on Joel's ship and the other colonies being established. And then, as the effects of that sink in, Zen fails the ship and its propulsion unit is lost, stranding the ship as it is moving at near-light speed, destined to flash by its target planet without the ability to stop or even slow down. But taking a step back as a reader, this calamity strikes with about 60 pages left in the 300+ page novel. In about a fifth of the novel, somehow this is going to be worked out, and unless Robinson pulls a god out of the machine, it's going to have to be resolved from the cast of characters we already have at that point. From there it is only an exercise in logic to figure out the ending, making it feel extraordinarily contrived.

And, speaking of contrived, I need to go back to the speech about Nehemiah Scudder. Robinson grafts current world history onto the Heinlein history by explaining the root causes of Scudder's rise to power. Unfortunately, he uses the events of 9/11 and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deliver a heavy-handed sermon about the failure of the American people in their current crisis. I found this particular passage insulting and well out-of-place. It only served as a distraction from the flow of the novel as the character paraphrases FDR: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." While I happen to agree with political stance of the speaker, it just didn't work in this novel.

So, which is it? Tribute to Robert Heinlein or an attempt to evoke his spirit? Whichever is the case, the novel follows the familiar pattern of he coming-of-age novel, but it misses on the details. Joel doesn't have much adversity to rise out of, and what he does escape, he usually escapes with a lot of help from a large cast of characters. While it may evoke Heinlein in its broad strokes and allusion, I much rather point to Robinson's essay "Rah! Rah! R.A.H." in the posthumous Heinlein collection, Requiem. This book is okay for Heinlein completists; in fact, it might actually be a fun wink to the Golden Age of science fiction if it had all of its Heinlein trappings removed. But unless you are looking for one of those niches to fill, there are better ways to spend your reading time.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Comic musings for 1/31

The Research Triangle finds itself confronted with winter weather. Not so much snow and ice as in past storms, but enough that my afternoon plans all got cancelled, so I finished this week's books a little earlier. Just one comic this week, but it's a doozy.

Spoilers ho!

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 214 -- The story begins with Batman convincing a hood to testify against yet another crime boss in Gotham. Batman's method of interrogation, dangling someone at the end of a batrope and seeing how close the victim can get to the ground without touching it, appears to work just fine to summon a sense of civic responsibility. And all goes well until another costumed character threatens the mook, and Batman realizes that the underworld may be more afraid of Deadshot than of him.

Writer Christos Gage performs a fascinating study of Deadshot in this single-issue story, setting up a thorough comparison between the antagonist and protagonist. It turns out that people fear Deadshot because of his professionalism--once he takes a job, he does not quit it until it is performed, no matter the personal cost. As a result, anyone he is paid to kill dies. Always. Batman's reputation is that of a freak or maybe vampire, an avenger who doesn't take life but just scares his victims. Floyd Lawton does far more than that and so may be far more effective at his job than Batman.

What follows is a series of attempts by Batman to dissuade Deadshot from completing this task. He tries or considers threatening Deadshot, bribing him and even blackmailing him. Throughout their interaction, the high points of their relationship are played back, including Lawton's inability to just kill Batman; Batman even offers to tell Lawton what that reason is, but Lawton will not be thwarted. Nothing works until Batman finds a way to turn Deadshot's own professionalism against him.

The writing is crisp and thoughtful, not relying on outrageous plot twists or dramatic reveals to propel the story. It is simply two men at the top of their game pursuing goals at odds with one another.

The fine writing is capped by more terrific art by Phil Winslade. I imagine the writer realized his content wouldn't quite fill two issues without padding, so Winslade must take a dense story and fit it into a single issue. On the one hand, his layouts are phenomenal--each page is dense with art, feeling sometimes like Perez when he is at the top of his game and at others like Adams. On the other hand, the art itself is wonderful and evocative, no extraneous lines and realistic and lush portraits of human figures in a gothic cityscape. It must have been a challenge for colorist Mike Atiyeh, but he comes through beautifully.

When Legends of the Dark Knight started, it was meant to be a showcase of strong writing and solid art in the service of DC's favorite hero. All too often in the many years of the series, the art and/or story just falls flat. This issue represents what was originally advertised, writer and artist hitting their stride together. This story would easily be included in the old "Year's Best" digests from DC if they still existed, and is worthy of consideration for other comic awards. This is what a Batman story should be like.