30 May 2016

Review: Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science by Morton A. Meyers

I'm falling behind on my audio drama reviews again, as always, but I valiantly struggle to keep up. See what I thought of Series Three of the Survivors revival, over at USF.

Trade paperback, 262 pages
Published 2013 (originally 2012)
Acquired December 2013
Read May 2016
Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science
by Morton A. Meyers

This is a book of two parts; I'll start with the second one, which comprises the last two-thirds or so of the book. This covers two instances of fights over credit in the sciences, specifically the medical sciences. These are over streptomycin (an antibiotic, and the first effective treatment for tuberculosis) and MRI. In the former case, a graduate student felt he was not given sufficient credit for the work he did; in the latter, one of two researchers working in the same area felt that the other didn't cite him for what was essentially his breakthrough. In both cases, Meyers provides in-depth research (including archival sources and personal interviews), and creates interesting and compelling narratives. This is where the book really came to life-- though the title is a bit of a misnomer, as it's not about being "first," but about getting credit at all.

The first part of the book reads like an attempt to find some kind of general applicability in these two specific anecdotes; Meyers wants you to see how science's rationality and objectivity is affected by personality and bias. It's a little too simplistic to really work, and comes across mostly as a series of anecdotes than a compelling synthesis. I take issue with some of his engagement with non-scientific disciplines; most museum theorists would disagree with his assertion that art museums don't create a narrative of progress, and I was underwhelmed by his reading of Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith. Plus he says Darwin and Wallace independently coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," when in fact it was Herbert Spencer's coinage! I'd rather have seen a third "prize fight" story than this awkward attempt to generalize the concepts of the book.

27 May 2016

DC's R.E.B.E.L.S.: An Interesting, But Flawed Experiment

By the time it ended, L.E.G.I.O.N. had run for 70 issues, plus assorted annuals. It featured a large and complex array of characters, and a number of ongoing plots and subplots. Zero Hour provided an opportunity: not to cancel the series outright, but to relaunch it in a way that would make it less impenetrable to newcomers. If nothing else, it would have single-digit issue numbers again, not frightening ones in the 60s and beyond. In these days of DC Rebirth and All-New, All-Different Marvel, a comics publisher probably wouldn't think twice about just starting the book over at #1 with no other changes, but writer Tom "Tennessee" Peyer goes the extra mile.

L.E.G.I.O.N. had been about a corps of space police for hire led by Vril Dox, sometimes called Brainiac 2, scion of the Superman foe, ancestor of Legion of Super-Heroes member Brainiac 5. The last few issues of L.E.G.I.O.N. saw Vril Dox slowly supplanted by his superintelligent infant son, Lyrl Dox; this culminated in Lyrl taking over the organization outright in L.E.G.I.O.N. '94 #70 and Vril Dox going on the run with the "core" team of L.E.G.I.O.N. R.E.B.E.L.S. (1994-96) is the sequel series to L.E.G.I.O.N., picking up right where its predecessor left off, following the attempts of Vril Dox and company to seize control back from Lyrl. (R.E.B.E.L.S. stands for "Revolutionary Elite Brigade to Eradicate L.E.G.I.O.N. Supremacy.")

Gotta get some of that sweet Kyle Rayner crossover action in your second issue to get people to read. (Yes, #1 is the second issue.)
R.E.B.E.L.S. '94 #1 (Nov. 1994, cover by Dave Johnson)

The editorial staff periodically explains the rationale for the name change in the letter column, and it makes sense: if the series name remained L.E.G.I.O.N., you would never buy Lyrl's takeover as anything more than temporary, a short-term shift in the status quo to be overturned after a story arc. But by renaming the book after the goal of resisting L.E.G.I.O.N., it becomes clear that this could go on for a long time. You take the takeover seriously, at least in theory.

But it didn't really work for me. With the series named after the concept of resisting L.E.G.I.O.N., you know exactly when our heroes will finally succeed: the last issue. Now, as someone coming to this series twenty years later, I do know exactly how long the series is (18 issues, including #0), but even without that context, I think there would be a real feeling of wheel-spinning throughout. It never feels like Vril Dox and company get anywhere or accomplish anything; they try something to resist L.E.G.I.O.N., and it fails. Then they try something else, and it fails. And so on, until it succeeds because this time it's the final issue. It doesn't help that the book doesn't draw on the continuity established by L.E.G.I.O.N. enough, sending Vril Dox to planets and people that are supposedly important but somehow never came up in the previous seventy issues of adventures.

For some reason, each issue of R.E.B.E.L.S. had a one- or two-word caption above the title. This one is probably the weirdest of them.
R.E.B.E.L.S. '95 #6 (Apr. 1995, cover by Dave Johnson)

At its best, under Alan Grant and Barry Kitson, L.E.G.I.O.N. balanced a large, diverse ensemble cast with a number of ongoing plots. R.E.B.E.L.S., with everything subordinate to the masterplot of Dox vs. Dox, never recreates that alchemy. Strata, Stealth, Phase, Telepath, and many of the other L.E.G.I.O.N. characters are present, but mostly they just stand there and complain about Dox's plans. Grant and Kitson were good about giving all the characters meaningful contributions to the story, even if Dox does have a tendency to dominate the proceedings, but here the big cast is a chorus of one-dimensional whiners. "Dox, you can't do x! Oh, you did anyway? How terrible yet I shall do nothing to stop you." Most of the series is drawn by Derec Aucoin and Mark Propst, who are serviceable and not prone to the excesses of 1990s comics, but aren't as good at facial expressions or character as Barry Kitson. (But then, few are.)

Many of the threads of the tapestry of L.E.G.I.O.N., like Garryn Bek, his wife Marij'n, and her love for Captain Comet, are completely dropped. Those that R.E.B.E.L.S. introduces on its own, such as the romance between Dox and Stealth, are just strange. (Stealth raped Dox and left him for dead in L.E.G.I.O.N., following a biological imperative of her unusual species. That either could ever love the other seems grossly out of character, and Peyer does nothing to convince the reader of it here.) Without the character dynamics to motivate it, R.E.B.E.L.S. is a barrage of relentless, but uninvolving action.

The slight 3-D shading elements of some of the series' later covers make it look like a cheap videogame.
R.E.B.E.L.S. '96 #16 (Feb. 1996, cover by Derek Aucoin and John Dell)

That's not to say it's without its high points, my favorite probably being when Captain Comet reveals that he solved the problem of being marooned on a pre-industrial planet by elevating them from the Stone Age to the Space Age in six months. Which is made even better by the way Lyrl Dox dismisses his pompousness. And the ending, with Comet taking command of a reincorporated L.E.G.I.O.N. while Vril Dox goes into retirement to garden and raise his son right, is surprisingly sweet. (Though not really followed up on as far as I know; in its Infinite Crisis-era appearances, L.E.G.I.O.N. is led by Dox once again, and Captain Comet has gone freelance by the time of 52 and Mystery in Space.)

I applaud Peyer and company for doing something different... but unfortunately, it didn't really work. I do look forward to seeing what Tony Bedard does with these characters when R.E.B.E.L.S. is brought back in the 2000s, though; he's usually good with character and humor, which is what L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S. requires, and his experience (co-)writing Legion of Super-Heroes (during the "threeboot" era) will probably transfer well.

26 May 2016

Review: The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics by Thomas Albrecht

Hardcover, 166 pages
Published 2009
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics
by Thomas Albrecht

I think I found this book by searching "victorian epistemology" in Worldcat. It's a decent book, I think, but it turned out to be less generally applicable than one might like: Albrecht is really interested in the phenomenon he calls the "medusa effect," which has three parts: 1) there is a visual confrontation with a dangerous object that threatens to destabilize or destroy, 2) there is an interposition of a protective representation, such as a mirror or painting, and 3) there is a second confrontation in the protective representation, which has its own dangers. Somewhat interesting, but very focused; Albrecht examines this phenomenon in a Freud essay, a Nietzsche monograph, the works of Walter Pater and A. C. Swinburne, and George Eliot's The Lifted Veil. He concludes the Victorians (which I suppose he defines broadly) have a less stable idea of mimesis than we often assume, but other than that, there's not much here that broadly applicable, even to those interested in Victorian epistemology.

25 May 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXIV: Batman: Night Cries

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 1992

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batman: Night Cries

Writer/Co-plotter: Archie Goodwin
Artist/Co-plotter: Scott Hampton
Letterer: Tracey Hampton-Munsey

Year Seven, Autumn*
I love Jim Gordon.

He's probably my favorite Batman supporting character, and I suppose that to anyone who knows me and my tastes, this is completely predictable. A man of the law, with no special powers, doing what he can to help in an unkind, unforgiving world, bit by bit. I like him a lot, but he's been a peripheral presence in most of these Batman tales I've been reading, bar Batman: Year One and a flash-forward in The Man Who Laughs. Night Cries features him shortly after his appointment to police commissioner, during an attempt to reconcile with his wife Barbara. (His niece/daughter Barbara is nowhere to be seen, but I think maybe she might be in college right now, living on campus.)

Night Cries shows that the fight Jim Gordon fights is not just against demons external, but internal ones as well. He's under a lot of stress here, trying to navigate the politics required of him by his new position while still wanting to be a beat cop and solve every crime himself, while not neglecting his family-- and also while dealing with his history of abuse. Night Cries reveals that Gordon was abused as a child, and that this has lingering effects. We saw his angry outbursts in Year One, which he channels for good, but here we see the darker side of Gordon, the one which he has to fight to keep in check, and which have a marked effect on his family, even if he's able to stop himself from hitting them.
A brave man. (click to enlarge that beautiful art)

Night Cries is a story about abuse; this moving story about Gordon is weaved together with one about Batman investigating a new serial killer in Gotham, one who seems to have their own issues with abuse. This is affecting in a different way, mostly for the sheer tragedy it evokes. The graphic novel opens with a meditation on the hearing of bats, cited to a 1990 book called A Guide to Wildlife. I didn't get it at first-- it just seemed kind of pretentious-- but upon finishing the book and seeing it repeated, I realized how awful its meaning. Batman fights crime, his whole reason for being is that having been touched by crime, Bruce Wayne devoted himself to (not unambitiously) the elimination of all crime. But at the end of the novel, as he stands and watches over Gotham, Batman realizes that there are crimes he just can't hear. There are children who need him... and he'll never know about it.

It's a sobering moment reflecting on a very real phenomenon, and in lesser hands, I think this book could be terrible. But in Archie Goodwin and Scott Hampton's hands, it's anything but. This book's seriousness and moodiness is such a contrast to what we just saw last week in The Cat and the Bat, yet it still works in its own way. It's a slow read, in a good way: they invite you to linger over the pages, to slowly absorb yourself in this sad, dark world, one which is our world. This superhero story is no fantasy, Batman can't swoop in and save the children here anymore than he can in ours. There are other ways child abuse has to be fought, and while it is, it will continue to have it pernicious effects on families long after the abusers are gone. As Gordon's story here shows, sometimes there are just no easy answers.

Or answers at all.

In Two Weeks: The 1960s arrive in Strange Apparitions!

* At this point, we're vaulting through Batman's early days! After  seven stories set in Year One, and eight in Year Two, we're down to just one or possibly two per year. I suppose, though, that a lot of gaps are to be expected once all the juicy basics are established.

24 May 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil by Philip Reeve

Mass market paperback, 66 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read May 2015
Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor: The Roots of Evil
by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve of Mortal Engines fame is the next children's author to tackle Doctor Who, in this tale of the fourth Doctor and Leela aboard a giant space tree, which the Doctor has been to before, but not yet. There are guards, corridors, oppressive religions, and all the usual Doctor Who things, plus the Doctor makes fun of bow ties and people who use the word "cool" to describe them. This is perhaps one of the more insubstantial installments of 12 Doctors, 12 Stories, but it's still fun enough.

Next Week: The fifth Doctor rediscovers the terrors of childhood in Tip of the Tongue!

23 May 2016

Review: A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm by Edwin Way Teale

Hardcover, 250 pages
Published 1987 (originally 1974)
Acquired February 2016
Read April 2016
A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm by Edwin Way Teale

I haven't read much nature writing. This book doesn't convince me to read more. It's so... aimless. Hundreds of pages of Teale-- who I must admit, seems a very nice fellow-- just telling you things he's seen. He loves to count, especially: how many birds flew by, how many sequential times a frog croaked, how long it takes his wife to walk around a pond. But the numbers are just numbers. You don't learn anything from knowing them. Most of what he describes is just there, the book is a blaze of information not put into anything that would give it meaning. Though on the occasions he does moralize, it makes you roll your eyes. Aren't we all just intrepid little squirrels? Honest question: is all nature writing this purposeless, or is it just Teale? Or is it just this book, which was one of the last he wrote? He won a Pulitzer early in his career; that book must have had some kind of point, right?

There are occasional nuggets. As a local, I liked the bits of  Connecticut history he provided, from the founding of his town to some of the local characters. And the chapter where he flies over his property at dawn in a hot-air balloon is delightful. Also: I learned about Lake Char­gog­gag­ogg­man­chaug­gag­ogg­chau­bun­a­gung­a­maugg, the longest place name in the United States.

20 May 2016

"Our Thoughts Entangled in Metaphors": Animated Tax-Pennies and the Double Metaphor of Middlemarch

What follows is an incredible investigation into George Eliot and the vagaries of nineteenth-century British income tax law, and a demonstration of how far I will go in order to work out something that might not be worth knowing.

I. The Saga Begins
Let me set the scene by explicating a part of Middlemarch. Middlemarch is, of course, George Eliot's nineteenth-century realist triumph. It concerns many things, but among them are Tertius Lydgate, a physician, amateur microbiologist, and would-be medical reformer; Dorothea Brooke, a would-be social reformer derided for her lack of systematic observations; and Edward Casaubon, a scholar attempting to systematize all mythology and produce The Key to All Mythologies. Given my interests in scientists and scientific observation in the Victorian novel, you can imagine that there's a lot for me to work with in Middlemarch.

"Active voracity, my foot."
Key to my arguments about Middlemarch is Eliot's use of scientific metaphors, since she uses them (I argue) to suggest the futility of creating accurate observations of individual human beings. In one scene, the narrator ponders on this difficulty in the context of the actions of one Mrs. Cadwallader, the town gossip. He says: (I apologize for the length of the quotation, but this is what you get with Eliot, though I've bolded the most relevant part)
Was there any ingenious plot [in Mrs. Cadwallader's actions], any hide-and-seek course of action, which might be detected by a careful telescopic watch? Not at all: a telescope might have swept the parishes of Tipton and Freshitt, the whole area visited by Mrs Cadwallader in her phaeton, without witnessing any interview that could excite suspicion, or any scene from which she did not return with the same unperturbed keenness of eye and the same high natural color. In fact, if that convenient vehicle had existed in the days of the Seven Sages, one of them would doubtless have remarked, that you can know little of women by following them about in their pony-phaetons. Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes producing what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed. Her life was rurally simple, quite free from secrets either foul, dangerous, or otherwise important, and not consciously affected by the great affairs of the world. (59-60)
So my argument about this is essentially that this metaphor suggests that observing the actions of human beings is incredibly difficult: we draw the wrong conclusions about the source of their movements, just as a scientist would if they looked at a creature ostensibly exhibiting an active voracity without a powerful enough lens. But the observational power necessary to create an accurate observation of Mrs. Cadwallader is immense-- it takes the novelist three full pages to explicate why she does what she does, and of course the novelist has much more access to Mrs. Cadwallader's interiority than any of us can ever hope for!

II. A Twist in the Tale
actual magnetized coins
courtesy Mr Reid
And there my insights would have forever remained if it wasn't for a comment from one of my advisory committee on my dissertation. She highlighted "animated tax-pennies" and wrote: "What do you make of the analogy with taxation? It seems to suggest that the micro and macro levels of phenomena—biological science and political economy--and thus of observation and analysis, could function analogously."

Well! Wasn't "animated tax-penny" just a fancy word for a magnetized coin? I'll show you, committee member. So I attempted to figure out from where I knew this. In my Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch, edited by Rosemary Ashton, "tax-pennies" is marked with an end note, which reads, in full, "magnetized coins" (841n38). So I imagined this as coins dancing around under the influence of a magnet-- a nice metaphor for seemingly unmotivated movement actually having a scientific cause. But some cursory Internet searching and then some in-depth Internet searching revealed no indications that an animated tax-penny was a magnetized coin.

Indeed, the only place I can find in the universe of the web or print that refers to animated tax-pennies as magnetized coins is a doctoral dissertation by Catherine Jane Massie, which discusses the same metaphor: "Seen with one lens power a microscopic specimen seems to vacuum in its prey as if these smaller protozoa were magnetized coins ('animated tax-pennies'), but a stronger lens power will 'reveal' the existence of the specimen’s tiny moving hairs, or cilia, that perform the work for the passive larger 'creature'" (156). But she cites no source and uses the same term as the Penguin Classics edition, leading me to believe that she's pulling from it as well.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I reached out to the editor of the Penguin Classics edition, Rosemary Ashton, herself. Professor Ashton indicated that she took the definition from the previous Penguin edition of Middlemarch, and could not provide any elucidation beyond that. Nothing in the OED or other sources provided a definition of the "animated tax-penny." I should note that nineteenth-century pennies were made of copper-- which is not magnetic.

III. The Plot Thickens
Who put him in charge
of metaphors, though?
The metaphor is cited in a book by J. Hillis Miller about Middlemarch (and Adam Bede). Miller singles it out as unusual:
When the little creatures seen under the microscope are compared to "so many animated tax-pennies," a monetary metaphor adds itself to the first one in a metaphor of a metaphor no longer directly grounded in the first level of reality of the novel. The effect of this is odd. It cannot be easily evened out in a total accounting of the interplay of literal and figurative language in the novel. As Wallace Stevens says, "There is no such thing as a metaphor of a metaphor." (97)
But as Miller goes on to show, this is a metaphor of a metaphor. (He provides a very nice close reading of it, in fact.)

But what is a tax-penny, then? As opposed to non-tax-pennies, specifically, I mean. Miller goes on to say that the word penny was used to "indicate 'the sum exacted by a specific tax or customary payment.' The word existed in such compounds as 'earnest penny,' 'ale-penny,' or 'fish-penny,' as well as in 'tax-penny'" (102). Well, there you go then, but I want to suggest some modifications to Miller's explanation.

IV. The Truth Revealed
Searching Google Books' nineteenth-century corpus for "tax-pennies" turns up very few references that aren't people just quoting Eliot's use of the term in Middlemarch. In fact, it turns up three, two of which actually use the term "income-tax pennies." If you search Google Books for "income-tax penny" in the singular, suddenly more pop up. Not a ton more (there are seven hits, but one's a duplicate), but enough to get a feel for what's going on, as they use terms like "Mr. Gladstone's own income-tax penny" or "the additional income-tax penny." With these clues, I dug up the following information.

"I'll tax you, and you'll like it."
William Gladstone, later to become prime minister (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94), became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852. Whether or not the nation's income tax should be renewed at the time was a big point of contention. Gladstone argued that the income tax should be renewed but gradually phased out (Seligman 154-5). As you might imagine if you know anything about "temporary" taxes, though, the phasing out did not take place. The Crimean War (1854-56) necessitated the raising of taxes, in fact. Edwin Seligman records the following 1862 exchange in Parliament:
"Necessity," said Gladstone, "drove us to it in 1842, and necessity has attached us to the use of it." And when he was interrupted by cries of "no! no!" he added: "When I use the word 'attached' I mean not as a bridegroom is attached to his bride, but as a captive is attached to the car of his conqueror." (157)
Far from phasing out the income tax, Gladstone had been captured by it. One of the specific increases that Gladstone created was in 1860, from 9 pence to 10 (or from 9d. to 10d., as the British say) (Seligman 156). This, then, is Gladstone's income-tax penny. I think Eliot is probably picking up this term when she uses the phrase "tax-pennies" in Middlemarch, though somewhat adapting it, as it's usually used in the sense of an institution, not as referring to individual pennies paid in tax.

V. Happily Ever After
Pictured: Mrs. Cadwallader
What can we conclude about Eliot's metaphor from all this research? Well, I think-- that as my committee member's comment indicated-- she's analogizing Mrs. Cadwallader's observations to two different kinds of scientific observation: on the microscopic scale (as in microbiology) and on the macroscopic scale (as in political economy). In both of them, the tracing of causes is difficult and complex. You might assume the microscopic organism has an active voracity when in reality it's using tiny hairlets to draw in its victim, and you might assume the tax-pennies are animated when in reality it's British tax system that causes them to be deposited with a collector.

Like I said, Miller quotes Wallace Stevens to say a metaphor oughtn't have its own metaphor, and Miller's argument about this passage is that Eliot is highlighting the trickiness of using metaphor as a descriptive tool; he says it models "the unanswerable question of whether the making and movement of signs is active or passive, controlled by human beings or controlling them. It is both and neither" (102-3). Eliot does address this theme previously in Middlemarch in the passage where the title of this blog post comes from: "for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them" (85).

This is a generous reading. A contemporary reviewer of Part I of Middlemarch in The Athenæum was less kind; they quoted this same passage and then commented:
Metaphors such as these, far-fetched, somewhat strained, and drawn by force from the most recondite arcana of chemistry and zoology, are apt, if indulged in, to degenerate into mannerism. We do not remember such in 'Romola'; but 'Middlemarch' is full of them. They choke the mechanism of the English, and they interrupt the thought. George Eliot ought to be far too self-possessed to fall away into any such tricks of style. (714)
Ouch.

Works Cited
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-2. Ed. Rosemary Ashton. London: Penguin, 2003. Print
Massie, Catherine Jane. Romantic Frames of Mind: Vision and Sympathy in British Novels of the Nineteenth Century. Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013. Web. <https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:b9b46436-ceb1-4e4b-92cf-8489c919460d>.
Miller, J. Hillis. Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012.
Rev. of Middlemarch: a Study of Provincial Life, Book I—Miss Brooke. Athenæum 230 (2 Dec. 1871): 713-14.
Seligman, Edwin R.A. The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory, and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

19 May 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Zeppelin Destroyer by William le Queux

Since last October, I've been writing up the fourteen works of early science fiction I read at the Eaton Collection in January 2015; at last, I've finally wrapped that up with this World War I era work:

Hardcover, 251 pages
Published 1916
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Zeppelin Destroyer: Being Some Chapters of Secret History by William le Queux

This book came out in 1916, and takes place around then, as well, detailing the development of a weapon that will ignite the gas-bags in Zeppelins-- to my disappointment, the "Zeppelin Destroyer" means a destroyer of Zeppelins, not a Zeppelin that destroys. The protagonists, just like le Queux's later Terror of the Air, are a British aeronaut and his plucky flying fiancée.

It's not as science fictional as many of its contemporary proto-sf stories, nor even as science fictional as le Queux's other works: it's a pretty conventional spy/war story, with some military policy critique in the style of The Battle of Dorking or The Riddle of the Sands, with characters explaining to each other that they have nothing personally against the defence departments, and they're sure they're trying their hardest, but couldn't they institute better airraid warnings? There's also some pretty good scenes of mass destruction when the Zeppelins are attacked.

I was amused that the narrator admires his fiancée for not acquiring any hardness of feature despite her outdoor exploits, and doesn't seem to recognize the dissonance a couple hundred pages later when he complains that too many women wear makeup these days.

18 May 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXIII: Batman: The Cat and the Bat

Comic trade paperback, 124 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batman: The Cat and the Bat

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Kevin Maguire
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Year Six, Summer
Well, this was a delight. While Batman's away on Justice League business and her father's out of town, Barbara Gordon decides to nick her father's case notebook to see if he has any secret identity suspicions she should be worried about-- only for Catwoman to steal it from her. Despite getting his name in the title, Batman is a minor presence here, as this is a tussle between Batgirl and Catwoman for possession of the notebook.

My only previous familiarity with Fabian Nicieza is from his terrible run on Alpha Flight (though "terrible run" is redundant when it comes to Alpha Flight), so I was surprised how much I liked this. He does a good job with the sometime-overused "dueling narrations" device, as both Batgirl and Catwoman give their perspectives on the unfolding events. This is definitely one of those stories with the structure of a well-told joke, as things just keep escalating and escalating, a structure at once both humorous and suspenseful, as Batgirl makes a series of incremental small choices that soon land her in the situation of battling the Riddler in Arkham Asylum! (As is obligatory for these early Batgirl tales, there's a nod to her future confrontation with the Joker. There's also some nice nods to earlier stories from this readthrough, including Batgirl: Year One and even Catwoman: When in Rome.)

Kevin Maguire is an obvious pairing for Nicieza on this story: no one does facial expressions, comedy, and (tasteful) cheesecake quite as well as he does, except for maybe Amanda Conner. Barbara and Selina's chase through the Gotham nudist club is a hilarious, and Barbara's building frustration through the whole thing is palpable-- but Maguire demonstrates his dramatic chops, too, with the Batgirl-in-Arkham sequence.

One of the facial expressions Kevin Maguire is best at is smirking.
I mean, in his art, I don't know if he personally smirks a lot.
from Batman Confidential #20

Like I said, Batman isn't in this very much... but his appearance is perfectly timed and made me laugh out loud. Like the rest of the book, it is a delight.

Next Week: A more serious set of circumstances for the Gordon family in Night Cries!

17 May 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Spear of Destiny by Marcus Sedgwick

And more Torchwood! Read my reviews of the last two installments of series one of the audios, Uncanny Valley and More Than This, at Unreality SF.

Mass market paperback, 83 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read April 2015
Doctor Who: The Third Doctor: The Spear of Destiny
by Marcus Sedgwick

It seems a little weird for the Doctor and the Master to be battling over the spear that killed Christ and that Adolf Hitler sought for its power, and it seems even more weird to imagine the Doctor prattling off these facts like they're no big deal. But that's what this series of Doctor Who shorts can be good at: quick adventures from unique voices, not ground into tedious conformity by a lifetime of writing Doctor Who tie-in fiction for Big Finish. I don't know Marcus Sedgwick from Adam, but this is a fun adventure that captures the voices of the third Doctor and Jo Grant well, and features Vikings to boot. What else could one want?

Next Week: The fourth Doctor visits a giant tree and discovers The Roots of Evil!