09 December 2016

The (First) Return of the Omega Men

DC's Omega Men has got a lot of press over the last year thanks to its revival by Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda, and I look forward to reading it, hopefully soon. But what many people forget is that after its original 1983-86 run by Roger Silfer, Keith Giffen, Tod Smith, Doug Moench, Todd Klein, and Shawn McManus, it was revived for a six-issue miniseries in 2005-06. (It has not been collected by DC. Given that a solicited collection of the beginning of the original Omega Men run was cancelled, I must imagine this incarnation will never ever be collected.) I assume this was commissioned because Adam Strange: Planet Heist had just shown the Omega Men at their coolest for the first time in twenty years.

The original Omega Men was about fighting a revolution (against the barbaric Citadel), and then it became, ambitiously, about what you do after winning a revolution-- though the writers turned out to not be really up to the task of making the new premise work. When Todd Klein took over, he had the Vega system be reconquered, this time by the mysterious Spider Guild. The series ended with the Omegans creating a refuge from the Spider Guild, but most of Vega still under their control. The Omega Men's reappearances in Invasion!, Blasters, Starman, Planet Heist, and the like have made it clear that Vega is still under the control of the Spider Guild, and so, despite years of losses (only three of the Omega Men in this miniseries were also the original Omega Men #1), the Omega Men fight on.

The focus of Andersen Gabrych and Henry Flint's revival isn't really on liberating Vega, however. The Omega Men have discovered the Spider Emperor has accessed an object of enormous power-- much as their own Ryand'r has-- and have come to Earth to find out what's going on. So has Vril Dox of L.E.G.I.O.N. There are in fact four Heartstones, coveted by Lady Styx, a villain introduced in 52 who has occasionally bedeviled the space heroes in various titles.

Things get pretty cosmic pretty quickly, which is both the strength and weakness of this series. Flint's gigantic panels of enormous events are evocative, but it's sometimes difficult to make out what's actually happening in the midst of them. Gabrych provides the series with a real scope, but it's one so big that the Omega Men become mere accessories to its events. Tigorr gets a lot of focus: I like that he was confronted with all the dead Omegans from over the years (there are a lot), and I was pleasantly surprised to see his lover Felicity make a comeback. But beyond him, they don't get to shine very much, especially Broot, who's just muscle (Doc and Elu get to make jokes occasionally, at least). L.E.G.I.O.N.'s Vril Dox gets a good showing here-- basically too good a showing, as he gets a lot of the best lines, and makes too many of the important moves.

I haven't cared much for Lady Styx in many of her appearances; she often comes across, like so many comics villains, as a cut-rate Darkseid. But here I really liked her. Her creepy army of Darkstars, her being made up of the bodies of her adherents, the chanting and her emphasis on love all conspire to make her seem like a deep, genuine threat to the cosmos. This is the best she's ever been, I reckon, thanks to Gabrych and Flint.

This is an interesting comic, but an imperfect one. I don't think the cosmic threat plays to the strengths of Omega Men as a concept-- I want more sense of them as a band of misfits coming together against great odds, but here it feels like they spend most of their time standing around and watching. There are touches of greatness here, but the writing and the art are both too frequently too obscure.

08 December 2016

Review: Looking Within by J. W. Roberts

Hardcover, 279 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1893)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Looking Within: The Misleading Tendencies of "Looking Backward" Made Manifest
by J. W. Roberts

Early science fiction novels published in rejoinder to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) were basically a whole industry in and of themselves. LibraryThing records five sequels by other writers, plus a prequel, plus the more indirect rebuttals like William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) and "Mr. Dick"'s James Ingleton (1893). Looking Within is definitely a more direct reply: basically a dude learns that Looking Backward is causing the moral degeneration of the nation, then falls asleep for 35 years, when he sees a massive war. The he sleeps again and wakes up in the time of Bellamy's future utopia, but unlike Bellamy's narrator, instantly detects all of its super-obvious flaws. (Bellamy's narrator is Mr. West; this book's is Mr. North! The two even meet in the year 2000.)

Society breaks down because Mr. North is right, of course, and a new society is implemented, without all that dangerous equality stuff, which is just a slippery slope to "requir[ing] personal equality shall extend to personal appearance, dress, education, and all else" (229). And what if they let the coloreds in on this whole equality thing? Well, don't worry, regress 'em back to slavery and they'll be in their natural place again. Just make it an enlightened one this time. Looking Backward might be wrong-headed, but at least it's trying; Looking Within is pretty explicitly arguing: 'The best political system is the one that benefits me, the writer, in the present, just with some of the rough edges worn off.' The future folks explicitly readopt nineteenth-century values after everything falls apart. It's repellently short-sighted.

All that said, Roberts gets-- unlike Bellamy-- that the massive changes of the year 2000 wouldn't just spontaneously happen. Roberts depicts a massive air war in the year 1927 that is nothing but slaughter and carnage because when you fly an air-ship, no one can escape your wrath, and soon total war means that there's nothing left to fight over. 1893 was a good year for air war: this is the fourth novel published that year I can think of that depicts a bloody aerial conflict, and in every case, it's a precursor to social change.

07 December 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part LIV: The Flash: The Road to Flashpoint

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2011)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
The Flash: The Road to Flashpoint

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Scott Kolins, Francis Manapul
Colorists: Brian Buccellato, Michael Atiyeh
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

You might have expected Final Crisis to be the end of my reviews of DC's Crisis books. It was, after all, about the Final Crisis, and thus far, DC has actually kept to that claim. But there have been a couple events since that seem to be Crises in all but name, so I'll be tackling those next, starting with Flashpoint.

This is the lead-in to Flashpoint, featuring the Flash. The Barry Allen version, recently returned from beyond the grave during the Final Crisis, and slipping back into his old life. The book opens with a standalone story about Professor Zoom, a.k.a. the Reverse-Flash, and for me, this was the most effective part of the book, a creepy tale of an obsessed man rewriting his timeline to make himself the man he was, removing any obstacle to his goals. I don't think I've read anything substantive with the Reverse-Flash before (he did turn up in some of the Infinite Crisis tie-ins, I think), but I enjoyed this.

That said, that's not how professorships work, Geoff Johns.
from The Flash vol. 3 #8 (art by Scott Kolins)

The rest of the book is less focused. Barry is having trouble settling back into his old life now that's he's undead. (Former sidekick Bart is also undead, thanks to the events of Legion of 3 Worlds. I think Wally West is also resurrected? Didn't he die during the Infinite Crisis?) In the meantime, a Barry Allen from one of the other 51 Earths has appeared in Central City, riding a motorcycle around, plus there are some murders. To be honest, the contours of all this were a bit vague. I wasn't sure what Barry was doing that was so bad it required an intervention, and the book's superhero plot was pretty simple. Guess what: the mysterious newcomer in town is the murderer. Then at the end, Zoom turns up, there's a lot of shouting, and a mysterious lightning bolt indicates the coming of Flashpoint.

C'mon, Barry, you were the first person to ever breach the vibrational barrier. Aren't you used to this by now?
from The Flash vol. 3 #10 (art by Francis Manapul)

I hope that when I read Flashpoint, the point of much of this will be more apparent. I must say, I did really like the artwork from Scott Kolins and Francis Manapul, which was human and dynamic, and the coloring is above average as well.
Good use of white space. (Yeah, that might sound sarcastic, but I mean it.)
from The Flash vol. 3 #11 (art by Scott Kolins)

Next Week: Meanwhile, in another universe: we step into The World of Flashpoint featuring Wonder Woman!

06 December 2016

Review: The Transformers: Devastation by Simon Furman, E. J. Su, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08)
Acquired October 2016
Read November 2016
The Transformers: Devastation

Written by Simon Furman
Art by E. J. Su, Nick Roche, and Robby Musso
Colors by Zac Atkinson, Liam Shalloo, and Josh Burcham

Colors Assist by Chris Carter
Letters by Chris Mowry, Neil Uyetake, Amauri Osorio, and Robbie Robbins

There's a bit of a gap between Infiltration and Devastation-- apparently some kind of escalation has taken place. Still, I was able to follow things well enough. Furman is really good at throwing the reader right into the action but also filling in everything the reader needs to know in the meantime. The Autobots are fighting both the Decepticons (Megatron has called in Sixshot, the living weapon usually reserved for phase 6 of the infiltration protocol even though it's only phase 3) and the Machination, a human conspiracy to reverse-engineer Transformer technology (they've captured one of the Autobots as well as their human ally, Hunter; this will later become important in All Hail Megatron).

IDW is transforming Ratchet into one of my favorites. I really feared for the guy here!
from The Transformers: Devastation #3 (art by Nick Roche)

Devastation follows a somewhat predictable format: action, reprieve, action, reprieve. The Autobots are attacked on their spaceship, escape, and then on the ground. Hot Rod and Wheeljack fight the Machination Headmasters on the streets, and then in a junk yard. But Furman and Su pull this format off very well. Basically, the tension keeps going up as the Autobots barely scrape through again and again, and the reader is aware of the bigger picture in the background, but the characters are too focused on staying alive to have to time to even notice. Furman dribbles out information at exactly the right rate to keep the reader intrigued.
Are these the only clothes Verity and Jimmy own? I don't think Verity gets a different outfit until Last Stand of the Wreckers.
from The Transformers: Devastation #4 (art by Robby Musso)

Some of the plotlines I do have to withhold judgment on: Hunter being forced to become a Headmaster is a little more grotesque than I'd prefer from a Transformers comics, and I know where that goes in All Hail Megatron, but I also know that wasn't Furman's original plan for the character. There's also some stuff about the Dead Universe and about some weird alien horde that comes to Earth recruit Sixshot, and I'm not really sure how that fits into anything here. On the other hand, I do appreciate that Furman portrays the Decepticons as characters-- ones that stammer, and connive, and get sad when their friends die-- instead of unfeeling monsters.

Starscream and Megatron: more than just a bromance.
from The Transformers: Devastation #6 (art by E. J. Su)

If Devastation falls down anywhere, it's that it's clearly a small part of a larger whole. Optimus Prime decides to pull Autobot resources off Earth at the end, apparently in response to something that happened in another book, and there were two volumes where Furman paid off some of his plots (Revelation and Maximum Dinobots) that came between this and All Hail Megatron. At least, I hope he did, because I know many were cut short by All Hail Megatron. So what comes at the end of this is clearly not an ending, just a transition to a new phase. But if you're willing to accept that (and as a comic book reader, I've long gotten used to that kind of thing), this holds together pretty well.

Next Week: One more big jump ahead: find out what happens to Earth after the Autobots abandon it, in All Hail Megatron!

05 December 2016

Review: Adam Strange: Planet Heist by Andy Diggle and Pascal Ferry

Also-- I have a review of a new Doctor Who audio drama up at Unreality SF, the reunion of the fourth Doctor and the second Romana in Wave of Destruction.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05)

Acquired and read August 2016
Adam Strange: Planet Heist

Writer: Andy Diggle
Artist: Pascal Ferry
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Rob Leigh

After R.E.B.E.L.S. concluded in 1996, DC's space heroes lay fallow for about a decade, minus the occasional cameo here or there. From Omega Men in 1983 to R.E.B.E.L.S., DC had built up a vast outer-space mythos that was largely going unused, except for cameos in Green Lantern tales. DC finally ended that trend in 2004 with Adam Strange: Planet Heist, a story that reinvented space adventurer Adam Strange-- but in a much funner way than Man of Two Worlds.

When Planet Heist opens, Adam is pretty sad: he thinks his adopted planet and family are dead. But soon evidence appears that they might still be alive when bounty hunters try to kill Adam in his Gotham apartment, and he begins an interstellar journey to prove his family is still alive, one that brings him into contact with characters from Hawkman, Omega Men, L.E.G.I.O.N./R.E.B.E.L.S., and even The Darkstars. (Somehow, Bob the Galactic Bum is the only of the 1980s/90s DC space series to go unreferenced.) It's in this "grand tour of the DC space mythos" element that the book really succeeds: DC has a number of fun and interesting space properties, and Planet Heist doesn't just revive Adam Strange for the 2000s, but provides tantalizing hints of many other series, creating a feeling of a Star Warsesque realized galaxy. As someone who had read all the stuff being referenced, it was fun to see old friends like Vril Dox, Doc of the Omega Men, and even Ferrin Colos used in new and exciting ways, and old settings like Maltus, but Diggle writes in such a way that I think you'd enjoy this even if you hadn't read all the stories being referenced: instead you'd be eager to go out and read them. (Similar to how I got into DC's space heroes to begin with through the references in Jim Starlin's Mystery in Space.)

Is this the first meeting between the Omega Men and L.E.G.I.O.N.? I guess they could have met during Invasion!, as they were all locked up in the Starlag, but I don't remember. Though technically Dox hadn't formed L.E.G.I.O.N. yet then.
from Adam Strange vol. 2 #6

Pascal Ferry's artwork is energetic and bold, perfect for a book about outer-space adventures. There's not a lot of gratuitous detail work; Ferry sticks to simple, iconic designs, redesigning almost every character in the book-- to their benefit. Dave McCaig does wonderful work on colors, too, knowing when to go for subdued and gloomy, and when to go for bright and shiny. The final battle is a thing of glory, with everyone coming together against the bad guys in a real powerhouse that is fun to read and watch.

02 December 2016

How to Vote in Elections for Your Professional Association

This clip art will never not come in handy.
As a member of the Modern Language Association, I am asked to vote in the annual elections. The MLA's organizational structure seems to me to be particularly labyrinthine to the casual observer. And as a once and future parliamentarian, I am far from a casual observer. This year I was eligible to vote for the second vice president, members of the Executive Council, members of the Delegate Assembly, and members of forum executive committees. I feel like the last two categories there had at least a dozen contests to vote upon apiece (now that I've filled out my electronic ballot, I can't open it up to check).

There are a lot of contests to vote in, and though I'm sure it's important, it doesn't feel very important. I feel very disconnected from the MLA, whose main function seems to be to send me quarterly issues of a journal I don't read, host a convention at which I might someday have a fifteen-minute job interview (if I'm lucky), and charge me even more money for membership than last year because I graduated even though I make less money. Yet I still feel obligated to vote.

Two principles seem obvious: If I know someone and I like them, I vote for them. (For people I only know from meeting them at conferences, this basically boils down to, "did they seem nice when I had one awkward conversation with them?") If I know someone and don't like them, I vote against them. This year, that principle carried me through about four of the umpteen contests.

So my emerging arbitrary standard is this, since I've decided I don't have enough investment in the whole process to actually read the candidate statements (and not all positions even have candidate statements anyway): if the candidate received their Ph.D. from or currently teaches at a higher-ranked institution than I did, then I vote against them. (If both candidates did, I vote for neither.)

This is kind of a joke, but it is the actual principle I follow, and there is a serious reason for it. I attended a decently, though not amazingly, ranked program. Our program's rate of tenure-track job placement seems to be good enough. Most of my friends have ended up at small liberal arts colleges, or smaller research universities. My argument would be that someone who got their Ph.D. at Princeton and teaches at Columbia has it better than the vast majority of languages academics. How can they truly represent them? Yet, I suspect, they are disproportionately represented among the leadership of the MLA. Universities hire for research potential-- should I believe that this just happens to correlate to being good at representing my interests?

So, in the absence of other evidence, I vote for people who are more like me than they are not. If they got their Ph.D. from a Top 30 program (keep in mind that the NRC ranks 119 English programs, so I am still among the 25% if not the 1%) and teach at West Boofu State University, I am inclined to believe they know what it is like to be me more than not. The interests of the MLA should not be the interests of its elite scholars.

I don't know if I'm actually helping in any way, but that's my approach and my rationale.

01 December 2016

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2016

Pick of the month: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 1 by James Roberts, Nick Roche, Alex Milne, and John Barber. The best Transformers comic I've read? So far, anyway. If nothing else, the jokes were on point, and sometimes, that's all I care about.

All books read:
1. The Transformers: Devastation by Simon Furman
2. DC Comics: The New 52 Villains Omnibus by Greg Pak, Marguerite Bennett, China Miéville, Geoff Johns, Sterling Gates, Matt Kindt, Tom DeFalco, Ann Nocenti, Dan DiDio, Tony Bedard, Paul Levitz, Brian Buccellato, Francis Manapul, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, Marv Wolfman, Corey May & Dooma Wendschuh, John Ostrander, Brian Azzarello, Michael Alan Nelson, Sholly Fisch, Scott Lobdell, Aaron Kuder, Robert Venditti, Jim Starlin, Howard Porter, Andy Kubert, Scott Snyder, Frank Tieri, Peter J. Tomasi, James Tynion IV, Tim Seeley, Gail Simone, Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, John Layman, and Derek Fridolfs
3. The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 1 by James Roberts with John Barber
4. A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves
5. Talkback: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Doctor Who Interview Book, Volume Two: The Seventies edited by Stephen James Walker
6. Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
7. The New 52: Futures End: Five Years Later Omnibus by Daniel H. Wilson, Dan Jurgens, Robert Venditti & Van Jensen, Jeff Lemire, Paul Levitz, Ray Fawkes, Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis & Len Wein, Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, Charles Soule, Justin Jordan, Cullen Bunn, Tom King & Tim Seeley, Sholly Fisch, Scott Lobdell, Christy Marx, Gail Simone, Marc Andreyko, Amanda Conner, Brian Buccellato, Scott Snyder, Sean Ryan, Will Pfeifer, and Frank J. Barbiere
8. Doctor Who Magazine: Special Edition #16: In Their Own Words, Volume Three: 1977-81 compiled by Benjamin Cook
9. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 3 by Edmond Hamilton and Jerry Siegel
10. The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 1 by John Barber
11. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Four: 1992-1995 by Bill Watterson
12. Doctor Who Magazine: Special Edition #18: In Their Own Words, Volume Four: 1982-86 compiled by Benjamin Cook
13. Manhunter: Street Justice by Marc Andreyko

All books acquired:
1. Superman: The Black Ring, volume one by Paul Cornell
2. Holes by Louis Sachar
3. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
4. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 3: Endurance by Yoshiki Tanaka
5. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
6. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
7. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
8. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
9. The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
10. Talkback: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Doctor Who Interview Book, Volume Three: The Eighties edited by Stephen James Walker
11. Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover
12. Black Canary, Volume 2: New Killer Star by Brendan Fletcher with Matthew Rosenberg and Julie Benson & Shawna Benson
13. Chime by Franny Billingsley

#2-3, 5-8, 11, 13 were all complimentary desk copies for a class I'm teaching this spring on young adult literature.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 631 (down 2)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 66 (down 8)

30 November 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XXIII: Soul Crisis

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2013-14)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Birds of Prey, Volume 5: Soul Crisis

Writer: Christy Marx
Pencillers: Romano Molenaar, Daniel Sampere, Travis Moore, Robson Rocha
Inkers: Jonathan Glapion, Vicente Cifuentes, Jordi Tarragona, Oclair Albert, Marc Deering, Julio Ferreira
Breakdowns: Scott McDaniel
Colorist: Chris Sotomayor
Letterers: Dezi Sienty, Carlos M. Mangual, Taylor Esposito, Travis Lanham

Let's step back and talk about the Birds of Prey. The original incarnation of the Birds of Prey, in the post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint continuity, was in a large part based on history. Barbara "Oracle" Gordon, Dinah "Black Canary" Laurel Lance, and (eventually) Helena "Huntress" Bertinelli were all characters with long histories in the DC Universe. Barbara had been Batgirl, was shot and paralyzed, resurfaced as Oracle, and had relationships with characters like Batman and Nightwing. Dinah was the daughter of a superhero from the 1940s, a former member of the Justice League, and had been involved in a long-term relationship with Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen that had recently ended. Helena was a more recent character, but had still built up a history as a character on the fringes of the Batman world, which included a brief sexual encounter with Nightwing. The team first came into existence in Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey #1, from 1996, but Black Canary first met Oracle and Huntress in Black Canary vol. 2 #10, from 1993. These characters had history with each other, which shaped their personalities, interactions, and stories.

The post-Flashpoint version of the team has none of this. Now, I don't deny that a reboot may have been necessary, but it definitely impacted the Birds of Prey negatively. Over thirty issues of their adventures later, and I don't have a feel for these characters beyond single lines: Dinah is mopey and lacks confidence, Batgirl is similarly always on the edge of a breakdown, Strix is silent, and Condor is just kind of there. Why do these characters hang out with each other? What's their purpose? I don't have a feeling for why Dinah and Barbara might be friends in this new universe, for example. The lack of history is part of the problem, but not all of it: thirty issues is plenty of time to have built up a new history, but this book hasn't done that. At least, not a compelling one. Birds of Prey is a book without a reason to exist, as far as I can tell, a grim, dull action comic book about dreary one-note characters that occasionally has to tie in with storylines going on in Batman or Detective Comics.

Fast friends, apparently.
from Birds of Prey vol. 3 #27 (art by Daniel Sampere & Robson Rocha, Jonathan Glapion, and Scott McDaniel)

New writer Christy Marx attempts to deal with some of the issues I've raised above in this, the book's final volume. The book opens with another flashback tale, this one to "Six Year Ago," laying out the backstory that Black Canary dearly lacks in the New 52 universe. I already talked about this in my review of Team 7: Fight Fire with Fire, but I don't really care for this version of Dinah. It's nice to have some of this stuff spelled out, but more because it ticks off continuity boxes than because it actually informs my understanding of the character of Dinah Lance nee Drake. Like, now we know how she got martial arts training and was recruited by Lynch as a government agent, which is good. It's still not, I maintain, as interesting or generative as her old backstory, but I guess that's water under the bridge at this point. (At least, until Rebirth comes along.)

29 November 2016

Review: The Transformers: Infiltration by Simon Furman and E. J. Su

Comic PDF eBook, 152 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)
Acquired and read October 2016
The Transformers: Infiltration

Written by Simon Furman
Art by E. J. Su
Colors by John Rauch with Josh Burcham, Aaron Myers, Simon Bork, Mark Englert, Runder Raj, and Kevin Senft
Letters by Robbie Robbins and Tom B. Long

Though it takes place between The Transformers Spotlight and All Hail Megatron, I actually read this IDW Transformers comic much later, because the Humble Bundle it was included in didn't come out until October 2016; by the time I read this I'd already read All Hail Megatron, For All Mankind, Last Stand of the Wreckers, and Infestation. It's a shame I didn't read it earlier, because it's really quite good, probably the best part of the IDW Transformers continuity I'd read up to this point, except for Last Stand.

Simon Furman has written for The Transformers since the 1980s, but this is, I'm pretty sure, his first time writing for them from the beginning, getting to design his own Transformers universe from the ground up. I see two different inspirations here: "Man of Iron," the first UK Transformers story, and "Rose," the first episode of Russell T Davies's Doctor Who. Like "Rose," Infiltration introduces us to the extraordinary through the eyes of the ordinary, starting with human beings in their world, whose normal lives are disrupted by something they've never seen before. Like "Man of Iron," Infiltration depicts the Transformers as strange, mysterious beings, emphasizing their size and their otherness. There are a lot of scenes with silent, mysterious Decepticon jets flying overhead and destroying things, just like in "Man of Iron." A Transformer does speak to the human protagonists in the first issue, but only in the form of a holomatter avatar; the humans don't talk to a robot as as a robot until the very end of the second issue.

I mean, I think RTD would write such a speech better, but I can imagine him writing such a speech.
from The Transformers: Infiltration #2

But it's not all mystery and scares; Furman does a good job of slowly initiating the human characters, Verity, Hunter, and Jimmy, to the Transformers world. They meet Ratchet, the Autobots' medic, then they go to the Autobot base and meet a few more Transformers, then they end up helping Ratchet and Bumblebee investigate a mysterious, abandoned Decepticon base. Optimus Prime doesn't show up until the very last page. The Decepticons are frightening, Megatron especially because of how Verity encounters him: he's so large and so focused that she's beneath his notice, an insect he shouldn't even waste time with. This is probably the best portrayal I've seen of Megatron outside Beast Wars/Beast Machines.

This scene gave me shivers, no joke.
from The Transformers: Infiltration #5

Compare this to the ridiculous way Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio introduced the original Transformers line-up, by having twenty-nine different characters just say their names and give personality-based one-liners, and this is loads more interesting and sophisticated. We don't know a lot of the Transformers characters by the end of this, but the ones we do know we know very well. E. J. Su's artwork is strong, too, able to handle both the legion of robot characters and the few human ones with equal dexterity. Transformers comics can look very posed at time, but Su is great at keeping things natural and (forgive the word choice) organic.

I love that Ratchet's avatar always has the same overly upbeat smile no matter what he's saying.
from The Transformers vol. 1 #0

This book came out a year before the first Michael Bay Transformers film, and it seems to me that it accomplished what that film tried to do much better. Though, unlike a film, this isn't a self-contained story but a set-up for more adventures: Furman plants many seeds for what is to come, but I'm especially intrigued by the Decepticon infiltration protocol. I like the way he's given new life to the "robots in disguise" concept by making it so that both the Autobots and the Decepticons are limited by rules of engagement that mean they must do their work on Earth in secret, and that Earth is but one of many worlds where they are in conflict across the galaxy. It's a clever reinvention of the basics of the Transformers concepts-- different, but also the same, hitting the right balance between nostalgia and reinvention. There's stuff here to please new and old Transformers fans alike.

Next Week: We jump ahead, to when The Transformers leave Earth, amidst Devastation!

28 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Time Traveller by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

Here now: the end of an era! (in blogging) But first: my last two reviews of series two Torchwood audios, Broken and Made You Look.

Acquired September 2016
Read October 2016
The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller
by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

At last, my long Wellsian journey comes to an end. After reading two different pieces of autobiography by H. G. Wells (the Experiment and the Postscript), as well as myriad other pieces touching on his life, I wanted to read something that integrated them all into a coherent whole. I picked this particular Wells biography because it was the most recent of the two recommended by Patrick Parrinder in his 2005 introduction to the Penguin Classics editions of Wells's novels.

For the first half of the book, I got exactly what I wanted out of it. As I've commented before, Wells gave short shrift to his own emotional life in the Experiment, and though he filled in some of the blanks in the Postscript, I often struggled to contextualize them. Here, you get his personal history laid out alongside his sexual history, you can see what he was thinking at the same time he was feeling. Plus, of course, the MacKenzies are a bit more honest and forthright than he was about himself: Wells's autobiography barely mentions his battle to reshape the Fabian Society that occupies a number of pages here, and they also had access to what others wrote about Wells, so we can get a fuller picture of his friendships with people like George Bernard Shaw and George Gissing and Margaret Sanger and Joseph Conrad. (Conrad once called Wells "O Realist of the Fantastic!" [141], which is probably as apt a description for Wells as there could be.) On the other hand, Shaw's wife gives a very damning account of the funeral of Wells's second wife Catherine/Jane-- and really hates on the Wells-penned eulogy that he reprinted in The Book of Catherine Wells.

I do think the MacKenzie's literary criticism is a little simplistic at times-- they complain that in When the Sleeper Wakes, "Wells seems unsure whether to approve or disapprove of his projection, whether he is writing a utopia or an anti-utopia" (151), whereas in my mind, that's not a bug, it's a feature! In When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells took apart the utopian sleeper novel and exposed the falsity of its conceits. They also occasionally mention the meeting with the artilleryman in The War of the Worlds in such a way that makes me think they believe he's depicted as a positive figure, whereas it's pretty clear to me that Wells is mocking that figure's terrible plan for reinventing the world. Ditto when they call the ending of Ann Veronica "the escapist's daydream fulfilled" (249): I think the ending is much more nuanced and downbeat than that. Neither Ann Veronica nor Capes fulfills their original dreams! On the other hand, I should say these quibbles aside, they do a good job of contextualizing Wells's literary work in both his personal life and the development of his intellect.

It's also nice to get confirmation that Wells was, objectively, a Big Deal. He of course felt so, but the MacKenzies point out that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote Wells a letter complimenting him on his autobiography. He really was an important cultural figure in the early twentieth century, and for reasons other than his science fiction. It's curious to note how little of the book those materials occupy. When you're just over a quarter of the way through this, he's already written all of the works we remember him for now in 2016! But he did a lot after then, and that was what made him famous in his time, even if at the same time, Hugo Gernsback was championing him as a genre forerunner in Amazing. The MacKenzies sprinkle in a lot of comments from other writers, like the Conrad one above, or T. S. Eliot (who liked The First Men in the Moon), or there was a bit about Ford Madox Ford I really liked: when he "found himself in the front line during the First World War, he noted he had been so conditioned to modern warfare by reading the novels of Wells that when he actually experienced it he felt apathetic and resigned" (392). Wells, the MacKenzies argue, was sometimes too good a prophet. (They also bring up that the inventor of the atomic bomb knew how bad it would be because he'd read Wells's fiction.)

Wells's arguments get a bit ridiculous at times. There's more than one account here of him sending off nasty letters to someone who wrote a bad review of one of his books, though apparently he was so charming, folks usually forgave him in the end. He even sued the BBC for claiming someone else had invented the tank. When George Orwell wrote his famous takedown job "Wells, Hitler and the World State," which included the claim that Wells thought science was the solution to all humanity's problems, Wells wrote to Orwell: "I don't say that at all. Read my early works, you shit" (431). There's no indication here that those two made up.

I found the latter part of the book unsatisfying, however. Not much is said of Rebecca West, even though she bore Wells a fourth child. Even less is said of Moura Budberg, who dominated Wells's later emotional life according to the man himself in the Postscript. Eventually I figured out the reason why when reading the book's epilogue: even though this is a 1987 revised edition of a 1973 book, apparently not very many revisions were done to account for details not revealed until the Postscript was published in 1984. This is a little annoying: why bring out a new edition at all if you're not going to do the work that it would imply? It may have been only three years since the Experiment, but it had been over ten since Gordon Ray's H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, which they dismiss as "a curious volume" (450), yet fail to substantively incorporate the revelations of. I should say they do provide a strong account of Wells's own post-Experiment life, something Wells was unable to do himself, for obvious reasons.

A book of two halves, it leaves me wishing I'd disregarded Parrinder's recommendations and sought out a more recent biography that could have incorporated the past thirty years of scholarship on Wells's life. (I can't blame the MacKenzies for it, but it would be nice to read one that could incorporate the discoveries of McDonald and Dronfield's biography of Budberg.) Well, maybe someday, but not now. This is the twelfth Wells or Wells-adjacent book I've read in the past four months, and I'm afraid I need some time off from the man!