30 July 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXVI: Superman: Infinite Crisis

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2014
Superman: Infinite Crisis

Writers: Marv Wolfman, Joe Kelly, Geoff Johns, with Jeph Loeb
Artists: Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Cam Smith, Art Thibert, Nelson, Ed Benes, Mariah Benes, Howard Chaykin, Renato Guedes, Kevin Conrad, Dick Giordano, Jose Marzan Jr., Ian Churchill, Norm Rapmund, Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning, Lee Bermejo, Doug Mahnke, Tim Sale, Tom Derenick, Wayne Faucher, Kark Kerschl, Duncan Rouleau, Dale Eaglesham, Drew Geraci, Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, Ivan Reis, George Pérez, Dave Bullock, Kalman Andrasofszky
Colorists: Jeromy Cox, Guy Major, Renato Guedes, Dave Stewart, Tanya & Richard Horie, Rod Reis, Tom Smith, Michelle Madsen, Kalman Andrasofszky, Dave Bullock
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Pat Brosseau, Nick J. Napolitano

Like the Infinite Crisis Companion, this plugs some gaps in Infinite Crisis. The first story here shows what time in their "paradise dimension" was like for the Alexander Luthor of Earth-Three, the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-Two, and the Superboy of Earth-Prime. Though it doesn't really help me comprehend Luthor's motivation, it does help make Superboy and Superman's actions more palatable. It's by Marv Wolfman, who revisits his theme that the new universe created after the Crisis on Infinite Earths was intrinsically darker.

It helps explain more clearly what all the Countdown to Infinite Crisis stories had to do with the main event. It's interesting to note that one of things Superboy-Prime observes from the paradise dimension that causes him to think the new timeline is too dark is Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord, but when Superboy-Prime crosses over into New Earth, he meets Blue Beetle during the events of The OMAC Project-- obviously before Maxwell Lord was killed. Superboy and Luthor manipulate events somewhat, but I think their manipulations must precede even this, as their interference was the reason Maxwell Lord was able to create OMACs to begin with. So it's all a little bit predestination paradox, but I wonder if this isn't a commentary in and of itself: just like Superboy and Luthor commit violent actions to rewrite the universe to eliminate violence, so too do authors like Geoff Johns depict awful violence in order to write stories about how awful violence isn't necessary for good stories.

One should also note that this is the origin of the infamous Superboy-Prime "retcon punch": as he hits the edge of the universe in frustration, he causes time and history to shift. We see changes to the  form of baby Kal-El's rocket, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Jason Todd's death, Power Girl, Hawkman, Wonder Girl, Fury(!), and so on. I kinda both love and hate this. Like, it's both incredibly elegant and incredibly stupid!

Like the Companion, I think it would have worked better as part of the main story than on its own like this. Heck, if you chucked this story plus the four Companion stories in with the main miniseries, you'd have twelve issues: just like the original Crisis. Perfect!

The rest of this book fills in some of Infinite Crisis from the perspective of the Supermen of New Earth and Earth-Two. First we see some snippets from the eve of the original Crisis on Earth-Two, as Lois gives Clark a scrapbook she's made of his greatest moments, illustrated by Tim Sale with his usual flare and skill. Most of it is the two Supermen trading blows, causing them to experience each other's lives-- and make changes to them. It's a neat conceit, showing how each Superman perceives a simpler morality than the other: Superman-Two thinks New Earth is too dark and tries to act to correct it more forcefully; Superman-New thinks Earth-Two is innocent but that too many wrongs are allowed to happen. Both discovers nothing is quite so obvious as that, that the other universe is just as complicated as his own, and that each of them probably did the best they could, given the circumstances. It's not essential, but it slots nicely between the pages of Infinite Crisis and gives us some insight into both Supermen.

28 July 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXV: Infinite Crisis Companion

Comic trade paperback, 165 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2014
Infinite Crisis Companion

Writers: Bill Willingham, Dave Gibbons, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone
Pencillers: Justiniano, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Jesus Saiz, Dale Eaglesham, Phil Jimenez
Inkers: Walden Wong, Wayne Faucher, Marc Campos, Oclair Albert, Michael Bair, Jesus Saiz, Art Thibert, Drew Geraci, Andy Lanning
Colorists: Chris Chuckry, Nathan Eyring, John Kalisz, Rob Schwager, Guy Major, Jeromy Cox
Letterers: Pat Brosseau, Jared K. Fletcher, Rob Leigh

This is a weird book, and by itself, it doesn't really work. It has a followup to each of the Countdown to Infinite Crisis miniseries (Day of Vengeance, Rann-Thanagar War, The OMAC Project, and Villains United), showing what its characters were doing during Infinite Crisis itself. These could have been tacked on to the ends of each Countdown trade, or even better, included in Infinite Crisis itself as they comprise somewhat important parts of its story, showing how the Spectre is brought under control, how the space heroes fight the rift in the Polaris Galaxy, and most importantly, what the heck was going on with that worldwide prison break. By themselves, they're just kinda weird little stories that don't mean anything. Or rather, parts of stories.

In "The Ninth Age of Magic," a group of over thirty magic users draws the Seven Deadly Sins out of Gotham after the explosion of the Rock of Eternity. It's pretty perfunctory: one by one a member of Shadowpact finds and confronts a Sin. Its real interest is in the gaps it plugs, not in it as a story. "Hands of Fate" has a similar problem: adding all the heroes recruited by Wonder Girl to the already-overcrowded space hero group doesn't make these people more interesting. Alan Scott's daughter Jade, who hadn't even been in the story before, is killed off for some reason.

Thankfully, the last two stories are the best. "The Lazarus Protocol" is the least "essential" to Infinite Crisis: Sasha Bordeaux leads a group to finally defeat Brother Eye after it crashes to Earth, but reading Infinite Crisis, you would just assume it was destroyed in the crash itself. But it brings Sasha's story (begun in The OMAC Project) to a nice conclusion, as she learns how to be her own person-- and a hero-- outside the confines of Checkmate, making it the best and most pointful story in the book.

Finally, there's "A Hero Dies But One": the Secret Six try to find their place in the world and Oracle and the Martian Manhunter draw together every hero they can to combat the global prison break. It's not a hugely complicated story, but it is fun. Simone, as always, has a talent for groups and a talent for humor.

25 July 2014

Review: Doctor Who: Tesseract by Tony Lee, Al Davison, & Blair Shedd

Comic PDF eBook, 134 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009-10)
Acquired May 2014
Read July 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 2: Tesseract

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Al Davison & Blair Shedd
Colors by Lovern Kindzierski & Charlie Kirchoff
Lettering by Neil Uyetake & Robbie Robbins

What's with the dreary covers on these collections? Anyway, it was a preview of the first issue collected here that back in the day convinced me I was right about my decision to skip the IDW ongoing. And on reading it in context, it's still awful. Though Al Davison's art in Fugitive was good, his characters are just ugly here, especially his David Tennant and his Matthew (even though he invented Matthew's appearance!). The dialogue is unnatural and awkward, and there are random, forced continuity references.

So, Tesseract completely squanders all the potential I saw being built up in Fugitive. We find out what the deal of the Shadow Advocate is, but it's just not satisfying: when Finch killed her, she was actually flung back into the Time War and she witnessed its final moments over and over again before escaping. Having seen what the Doctor did, she wants to kill him. But the only reason she got flung into the Time War is because after she escaped, she told Finch to send her back! Predestination paradoxes can sometimes drain the drama out of situations, and this is one of those cases: a writer can make a character do anything, no matter how implausible, on the pretext that they had to do it to maintain the loop. And though I kinda like the idea that someone seeing the Doctor use the Moment to wipe out the Time Lords and the Daleks would conclude that he's too dangerous to have around (the Doctor himself reaches that conclusion in "The Parting of the Ways," after all), she just acts like a generic scheming villain, using complicated plots to ensnare the Doctor for no readily apparent reason when she could just kill him multiple times. Also the plot requires a number of people who should know better (like UNIT) to trust the Shadow Advocate against all reason. What is it with the unlikeability of the new-series UNIT commanders? Until Kate Stewart, the show (and its spin-offs) seemed intent on giving us a series of assholes.

The new companions are not great, either. I liked them all right in Fugitive, but Tony Lee can't write them as people to save his life. I get what he's trying to do, but it doesn't work because it lacks all subtlety; Emily is all "I NEED A GUN TO FEEL SAFE" and Matthew is "I DON'T TRUST THE DOCTOR BECAUSE A WOMAN I JUST MET TOLD ME NOT TO." Why does Matthew listen to the Shadow Advocate? Who knows. The Doctor points out that the flaws in her story indicate she's manipulating him, and he basically goes, "She might be a manipulator, but she learned it from you, even though the only person who told me that was her, who we just established as an untrustworthy liar." I can't bring myself to care about either of these characters because there's nothing likeable or interesting about them. Also, Lee seems to keep forgetting they're from the 1920s, as Matthew explains he was too busy to read The Lord of the Rings (and not, perhaps, too from-the-past), and Emily does the "the TARDIS doesn't look like a proper spaceship" bit seemingly obligatory for new-series companions, but I'm not sure really makes sense for someone from the 1920s.

I haven't even talked about the stories here, but I didn't really like either of them. "Tesseract" is flimsy while "Don't Step on the Grass" is just an overcrowded mess of elements that don't work together.

23 July 2014

Review: Doctor Who: Fugitive by Tony Lee, Al Davison, and Matthew Dow Smith

Comic PDF eBook, 134 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)
Acquired May 2014
Read June 2014
Doctor Who, Volume One: Fugitive

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Al Davison and Matthew Dow Smith
Colors by Lovern Kindzierski and Charlie Kirchoff
Letters by Chris Mowry, Robbie Robbins, and Neil Uyetake

The tenth Doctor's comic book adventures continue-- like The Forgotten, this seems to be set somewhere between "Journey's End" and "The Waters of Mars." It's comprised of two stories. The first, "Silver Scream," sees the Doctor meeting Archie Maplin (ugh) in 1920s Hollywood, only there's a dastardly plot afoot to drain hopes and dreams from aspiring actresses (of course there is). This is a decent runaround, and Tony Lee does a good job of capturing the voice of the tenth Doctor. The real highlight is the way that Lee and artist Al Davison create some arresting images: the cliffhanger at the end of chapter 1 is divine, and its reprisal is a cool reversal. Then, there's a section done in the style of silent film-- you could only do this in comics! And it's hilarious. One of the two bad guys seems to be dealt with off-panel, but otherwise I enjoyed this.

"Fugitive" is the kind of story I expected to roll my eyes at: the Doctor is captured by the Shadow Proclamation (from "The Stolen Earth") and put on trial, with Brother Lassar a.k.a. Mr. Finch (from "School Reunion") as the prosecutor, and he ends up on a Judoon spaceship (from "Smith and Jones") on the way to the prison world of Volag Noc (from "The Infinite Quest") with a Sontaran, an Ogron, and a Draconian (the events of Frontier in Space are referenced a lot).* But it actually really worked! I don't really see why Finch was necessary, but the rest of the elements come together nicely-- when the Doctor ends up on the run with his fellow prisoners, there's a lot of fun to be had to with the interactions between the four different prisoners, as they move from one deadly situation to another. And the Doctor is made to think about the repercussions of his actions in Frontier in Space in a way that actually ties in nicely with the kind of contemplation the tenth Doctor seemed to be doing late in his life. I wasn't really into Matthew Dow Smith's art at first, as his style is very distinctive, but I soon grew to appreciate it-- he's great at doing action while still capturing the characters, which is a too-rare skill in tie-in comics. All in all, this collection bodes well for IDW's Doctor Who output.

* There's even a Charley Pollard reference, which is maybe completely gratuitous (it would perhaps be less so if it was clear what the Doctor was actually on trial for), but I love Charley so I don't care.

21 July 2014

Review: Doctor Who: The Forgotten by Tony Lee and Pia Guerra

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09)
Acquired May 2014
Read June 2014
Doctor Who: The Forgotten

Writer: Tony Lee
Artists: Pia Guerra with Kelley Yates, Stefano Martino, and Nick Roche

This is the second of the digital comics I got from IDW's Humble Bundle; I'd avoided it previously because of the seeming fanwank, with the Doctor losing his memory and reacquiring it by recalling nine previous adventures, one for each incarnation. I'll admit it's not as bad as I thought, mostly because the individual adventures are fun, and Lee does a decent job capturing the voices of old eras. Some are too slight to work (those featuring the first and fourth Doctors) but others really work as quick little adventures (the second and fifth Doctors). The only really bad one is the eighth Doctor one, which primarily seems to exist to insist that plot elements from The Invasion of Time played a key role in the Time War. The main plot is not great (some alien is... up to something? and there's the Matrix? I don't know), but it's not really the point of the book, so that's okay. And I'll admit that the continuity references work in the context of a continuity-driven story (unlike in Lee's dreadful "The Time Machination").

The first few issues here are drawn by Pia Guerra of Y: The Last Man fame, and they are gorgeous. Guerra is great at drawing people as people (a surprisingly rare skill in the superhero-dominated comics industry), and her use of light and shadow is fantastic. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the other artists here are, well, not good. I don't know who draws which issue, but the big two-page spread of all the Doctors in chapter 6 is totally compromised by how bad the artist is at likenesses; the second and fifth Doctors look Asian!

18 July 2014

Review: A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon

Hardcover, 232 pages
Published 2006
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2014
A Theory of Adaptation
by Linda Hutcheon

This is a book I've used a lot, but never actually read: I've cited bits of Hutcheon's work in papers I've written, and I've taught chapter 2, "What? (Forms)," multiple times. But I'd never actually read it as a book, and I finally gave that a shot this summer. It's as strong an accomplishment as a whole as I'd imagined from the parts-- Hutcheon covers a wide range of adaptations. When teaching the book, it frustrated my students (and me) that she often used esoteric adaptations, like the opera of Billy Budd. But in reading the whole book, this eclecticism is clearly part of her project: she wants to understand that human drive to adapt in all of its manifestations, and adaptations run a lot further than books-to-film.

Hutcheon's book has become definitive, and justly so. She fills in how media transmute, debunking a number of clichés we're still mumbling eight years later. She talks about the why and the how and the when/where, and she accesses a wide range of sources: not just the texts themselves, but the words and ideas of the adapters, and reviews of the adaptations. And it's even a quick and directed read!

If I have any complaint, it's that she gives short shrift to comics/graphic novels, lumping them in with "telling" media when I don't think that's really accurate. But that might say more about my personal interests than her book's problems.

16 July 2014

Review: To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North

Acquired August 2013
Read June 2014
To Be or Not To Be: a chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and YOU

OH MY GOD. This is the most entertaining book I've read in a long time-- a "Choose Your Own Adventure" version of Hamlet. Except way more fun than I remember any of those books actually being. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or dead King Hamlet, trying to avenge the murder of King Hamlet. The book has a lot of fun mocking Hamlet; if you follow the "path" that Shakespeare himself did, the narrator constantly mocks you for your bad decisions. This is the only version of Hamlet that I know of not to omit the pirate battle. There is a part of the book where you are in a 1980s interactive fiction game ("look room"). If you play as Ophelia you get to invent central heating or participate in a dating simulator or play a death-chess match. If you play as King Hamlet you can use your ghost powers to revolutionize the world. If you play your cards right, you can even travel in time! And, best of all, The Murder of Gonzago is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book within a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book! But if you die in the book, you die in real life! The delights just pour off the page again and again; if you are married, your spouse will tire of you telling them all the good bits. And so I will avoid telling you all the good bits, so you can discover them for yourself.

Also there is a picture for every possible ending, and they are delightful; a veritable cornucopia of webcomic artists provide them, from Jeph Jacques to Kris Straub, from Kate Beaton to Randall Munroe. (North himself writes a webcomic, but there's no art from him because that webcomic is Dinosaur Comics.) They're even in full color! You can get a lot of joy just paging through this and looking at the pictures.

I was so fascinated with the way this book works that I actually diagrammed it. (I think Ryan North sells diagrams, but that seems too easy. By the way, if you ever want to make a flowchart, yED Graph Editor is a great piece of free software; it was better than I could have imagined.) This gave me a new appreciation for the book, and the close reading it necessitated allowed me to uncover even more awesome features. Click on the picture, if you dare. (Minor spoilers, I guess? If looking at a bunch of numbers is spoilers?) You will note the following:
  • Shapes
    • Squares = normal pages
    • Ovals = endpoints
    • Diamonds = normal pages within The Murder of Gonzago
  • Colors
    • Gray = outside the game
    • Blue = Hamlet
    • Yellow = Ophelia
    • Orange = dead King Hamlet
    • Green = Claudius
    • Purple = Horatio
  • Parts of the book that I think of as "minigames" (tightly networked sets of small choices) are clustered into boxes.
  • The path marked with skull logos (the path of the original play) is the thick line.
  • Pg. 195 is where you go if you take the choice to actually kill Claudius. You will note that you get that choice a lot. But for some reason you never do it!
I mean, look at that thing. It's incredible! What an intricate achievement. When North crowdfunds Romeo and/or Juliet, I will be ready with my money.

14 July 2014

Review: Doctor Who: Agent Provacateur by Gary Russell et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 136 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2008)
Acquired May 2014

Read June 2014
Doctor Who: Agent Provavateur

Written by Gary Russell
Art by Nick Roche, Jose Maria Berdy, Stefano Martino, and Micro Pierfederici
Art Assist by Joe Phillips
Inking Assist by German Torres
Colors by Charlie Kirkoff and Tom Smith
Letters by Chris Mowry, Amauri Osorio, and Neil Uyetake

IDW has put out a large number of Doctor Who comics since it acquired the American license in 2008, but I've avoided most of them-- this one because it was written by Gary Russell, whose Doctor Who novels I almost never enjoy. But in May IDW released digital downloads of everything they ever published as a Humble Bundle, and sixteen trade paperbacks for $15 is nothing to sneeze at.

Having finally read this, IDW's very first Doctor Who story, I feel justified in avoiding it. These are six largely self-contained single-issue stories, with a narrative threading through the whole thing. But if you can explain what that narrative actually is, you're a smarter person than me. They don't really work at standalones, either; Russell typically wastes the first 3-4 pages of each story on irrelevant banter between the Doctor and Martha, and then leaving him less than twenty pages to introduce a problem, complicate it, and solve it. Usually it's the solution that suffers; many of these endings are cursory at best. It must be admitted that he really captures the voices of the Doctor and Martha very well, but that is not anywhere near enough to make all 136 pages worth reading.

11 July 2014

Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Ghosts by Zander Cannon and Javier Aranda

Comic trade paperback, 112 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009-10)
Acquired March 2012

Read June 2014
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Ghosts

Written by Zander Cannon
Art by Javier Aranda
Inks by German Torres-Ruiz and Marc Rueda
Colors by John Hunt
Letters by Robbie Robbins and Neil Uyetake

Sometimes one gets tired of reading Star Trek tie-ins with endless universe-shattering events, or series continuations drained of all the charm and warmth of the source material. Which made it a shoe-in that I would purchase Ghosts, a simple standalone set during The Next Generation's fourth season. Unfortunately, though there is some good stuff, the story feels stretched at five issues. People take a long time to figure out simple things, and much of this is well-trod ground, especially two warring factions on an alien planet. Cannon does an excellent job capturing the voices of the TNG characters (except for Riker), but this story isn't particularly significant to any of these characters; there's nothing at stake, not really. But I liked the depiction of the phasing effect that causes the eponymous "Ghosts" and there are bits of it that are genuinely touching. With either some tightening or some fleshing out, this could have been a a very good story; as it is, it's a diverting way to spend an hour.

09 July 2014

Review: The Empire of the Future edited by Richard Bleiler

Hardcover, 254 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1888-1900)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2014
Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction, Volume 1: The Empire of the Future
edited by Richard Bleiler

Despite the series title, this book contains two pieces of Victorian-era future fiction: Samuel Barton's The Battle of the Swash, and The Capture of Canada (1888, US) and Robert William Cole's The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 (1900, UK). Both of them have been rarely (if ever) reprinted, and so I'm grateful for editor Richard Bleiler (a reference librarian at my home university, actually) for getting them out there.

The Battle of the Swash is a pretty typical piece of The Battle of Dorking-derived future fiction: Barton has an issue he wants to stump for, he presents a dire prediction of what will happen to America if no one listens to him! Though it turns out pretty good for America, as it ends up with Canada in its possession, so there you go. But it is dead boring.

The Struggle for Empire, on the other hand, is (as far as I know*) the first example of spaceship-to-spaceship combat in literature. This is where Star Wars is born. Indeed, it seems a pretty clear lineage from Griffith's aerial combat stories (like Angel of the Revolution) to Cole's work to E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman tales, except that it's doubtful Smith could have ever read this.

The plot and characterization and themes are all thin here, to say the least, but this is a lot of blasted fun. Spaceships swooping around, fleets annihilating each other, mega-weapons. It's just completely, awesomely gigantic and delightful. Even the racism is just over-the-top you have to enjoy it. (The Earth of the future and the galaxy are of course ruled by the Anglo-Saxon Empire, whose innate superiority is completely obvious to all obverers.)

Also hilarious: the bit where the narrator tells you all good women know that if your fiancé falls in love with another women, you should just be nice and let him out of the engagement without fuss. Dump a woman who wasn't so compliant, Cole?

* There is some space combat in Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), but it is spaceship-to-asteroid base if I remember correctly.