07 October 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part X: Batman: Rules of Engagement

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2014
Batman: Rules of Engagement

Writer: Andy Diggle
Penciller: Whilce Portacio
Inker: Richard Friend
Colorist: David Baron
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Rob Leigh

Year Two, April
It seems natural that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor should come into conflict: each is an international businessman who works in technical industries, each of them with a secret agenda, only one does so for good... and the other for evil. Andy Diggle, Whilce Portacio, and Richard Friend pit the two against each other in this tale of their first meeting, but it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. I don't think the book adequately digs into the philosophical distinctions between the two men that ought to exist despite their seeming similarities. Each man wants to save the world, each man has raised himself to be a form of human perfection, and yet despite Bruce Wayne's wallowing in the darkness and Lex Luthor's seeming magnanimousness, Bruce is fundamentally optimistic, and Lex fundamentally cynical. I don't see that really depicted here, and it seems like Batman's early days ought to be especially fertile ground for this, as Bruce Wayne builds himself into the man he wants to be. There is some of it-- the end of the story sees Bruce (re?)establish the Wayne Foundation-- but most of the book is somewhat generic superheroics, let down by Whilce Portacio's confusing, jumpy storytelling.

Next Week: Batman teams up with Superman and Wonder Woman for the first time in Trinity! Only it's impossible to place in continuity, so it doesn't count! Seriously, Robin's in it and that makes no sense!

06 October 2015

Review: Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time, Volume 1 by Scott & David Tipton et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 98 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired May 2014
Read December 2014
Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time, Volume 1

Written by Scott & David Tipton
Art by Simon Fraser, Lee Sullivan, Mike Collins, and Gary Erskine
Colors by Gary Caldwell, Phil Elliott, and Charlie Kirchoff
Letters by Tom B. Long

One of the things to like about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who was how well the timing worked out. There were twelve months and eleven Doctors, which meant a number of different media celebrated by giving each Doctor in turn across the months: audios, prose, and, indeed, comics. Only it's coming from Scott & David Tipton, and though their Star Trek comics can be good, one might suspect that after Assimilation² they shouldn't be allowed anywhere near Doctor Who ever again.

Prisoners of Time isn't quite that bad, but it's not altogether good, either. Volume 1 collects stories featuring the first through fourth Doctors, which sometimes get the feel of the eras, and sometimes do not. The first Doctor one, though, has the laughably basic mistake of the Doctor being able to steer the TARDIS correctly while traveling with Ian and Barbara. (Also, Barbara and Vicki are stared at when they attend a lecture by Thomas Henry Huxley, because women are supposedly an unusual sight in a science class... but that just would not have been true in 1868, I think. Women would be outnumbered, but they wouldn't be absent-- science hadn't been professionalized yet!) The second Doctor one is a pretty solid pastiche of its era, and I liked that the third Doctor one united Sarah Jane Smith and Liz Shaw, though it didn't really do anything with that combination behind have them run around behind the Doctor. The fourth Doctor one has him fighting the Judoon, but isn't as fun as one might hope from that.

As is often the case with IDW's Doctor Who comics, the art is inconsistent. There are no individual art credits in my collected edition, but I'm going to assume that the well-drawn second and third Doctor chapters were by Lee Sullivan and Mike Collins, stalwarts of Doctor Who Magazine who know how to do Who in comic form-- I don't know why IDW waited so long to tap them! The second Doctor chapter is particularly nice, with the characters looking on-model without being overly referenced, and a lot of varied background aliens livening it up.

The first Doctor story is really let down by some awful likenesses, especially as it introduces the recurring threat through this series: an unknown enemy kidnapping the Doctor's companions. This enemy looks at pictures of the Doctor's companions, and you can barely tell which one is which! Or in some cases, I have no clue at all. Thomas Brewster might even be in there (I think), but surely the Doctor would be grateful if he was kidnapped?

Next Week: Five, Six, Seven, Eight! More Prisoners of Time!

05 October 2015

Review: The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Happy Monday, humans! Take a look at my review of Series 4 of the 1960s audio spy drama Counter Measures (or, if you're my editor, Counter-Measures) over at Unreality SF.

Trade paperback, 911 pages
Published 1968 (originally 1749)
Acquired October 2008
Read September 2015
The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

I read tons of nineteenth-century novels these days, and have pretty much totally adapted to their style of storytelling. Apparently that does not extend back to the eighteenth century, because I found this allegedly humorous book tedious in the extreme. It just goes on and on and on but nothing ever seems to actually happen. If someone told you what happened in this book, you would laugh, but actually reading it, you do not. Maybe this makes me a Philistine, but if so, then I'm a Philistine who loves Adam Bede, and I'm content with that.

There are two things I did like: Fielding's chapter titles ("Containing curious, but not unprecedented Matter", "A little Chapter, in which is contained a little Incident", "Short and sweet") and Fielding's prologues to each of the eighteen books, where he lays out his theories on critics, drama, comedy, and even prologues (that one was, of course, my favorite).

The endnotes of my Penguin English Library edition (apparently back in the 1960s, "Penguin Classics" were only works in translation, i.e., actual classics, so this series contained their editions of English literature) would have been much more useful if they'd been marked in text.

02 October 2015

Things I Know Very Little About: The Crimean War

This week, I'm still working on my dissertation chapter about Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago. It's driven home to me that, considering I'm a Victorianist, I know surprisingly little about the most significant war of my chosen time period. Like, a list of things I know about it would go:
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade happened.
  • Florence Nightingale carried her lamp around and invented nursing.
  • Beryl Bainbridge's 1998 novel Master Georgie is set during the war, but though I remember liking it, I don't remember a thing about it.
  • Um... I think that's it.
  • Sebastopol? That's a thing, right?
Part of this is, I believe, that I'm a literary scholar. The Crimean War had surprisingly little literary impact in England: in Two Years Ago, a number of characters go off and fight (or nurse) in the war, but that mostly happens "off-stage," as it were. Other than that, the number of Victorian novels set during the war is minimal. Stefanie Markovits's monograph The Crimean War in the British Imagination lists a few more. George W. M. Reynolds (who was basically terrible) wrote a book Omar: A Tale of the War during the actual war, with the effect that he caught up to the real war and then had to vamp a lot while he waited for something to happen. George Whyte-Melville wrote The Interpreter: A Tale of the War; I've never heard of him or the book, but Markovits reports that he's the only Crimean War novelist to actually have served in the war (as a volunteer with the Turkish cavalry). Markovits also suggest Kingsley's Westward Ho! (set in Elizabethan times, but an allegory for the war), Henry Kingsley's Ravenshoe (I had no idea Charles had a brother who was also a novelist), and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (!).

Map of the Jaws of Death.

Of course, the most famous literary production of the war is Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," a tale of heroism and tragedy we still recollect today:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
     Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
     Rode the six hundred.
The full poem is here. Amazingly, you can hear Tennyson reading the poem himself in this 1890 wax cylinder recording:

It always throws me for a loop when what I sometimes think of as distantly historical figures manifest in such a modern format.

Markovits suggests (and she's not alone) that the Crimean War was the first "media war," the first war that the media demanded exist and covered extensively, and that the contemporary need for war writing was met by journalism as a result: Dickens's journal Household Words covered the war in fact, but Dickens wrote barely anything about it in fiction.

Despite its seeming lack of literary impact, the war was an important one, and Orlando Figes's The Crimean War: A History (2010) seems to be the only comprehensive historical study of the war in English. Maybe someday I'll get around to reading it and figuring out exactly how impactful the war really was.

ALSO: Did you know cardigans come out of the Crimean War?

My Google Image Search for "earl of cardigan wearing a cardigan" turned up no such thing, but I did find this image of the current Earl of Cardigan wearing a pullover, which is pretty close. Courtesy The Daily Mail.
Well, kind of. James Brudenell, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan is actually the guy who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, and he may or may not have been kind of a screw-up, one of those folks whose noble birth was probably not sufficient reason to make him a leader of men. Before people figured that out, though, his knitted waistcoat became famous.

01 October 2015

Reading Roundup Wrapup: September 2015

Pick of the month: The Beast of Babylon by Charlie Higson. This is one of those months where making the choice is tough because though I read some decent books, I didn't read any that felt like they rose about the rest to any significant degree. But this was a solid, well-done ninth Doctor tale in a world with too few of those, and so it gets my vote.

All books read:
1. Countdown by Greg Cox
2. The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #11: Day of Honor: Honor Bound by Diana G. Gallagher
4. Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor: The Beast of Babylon by Charlie Higson
5. Batman: Four of a Kind by Chuck Dixon with Alan Grant and Doug Moench
6. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics edited by Mike Madrid
7. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes
8. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: The Unifying Force by James Luceno

All books acquired:
1. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation by E. H. Gombrich
2. Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 614 (up 3)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 148 (down 16)

30 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part IX: Batman: Venom

Comic trade paperback, 140 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1991)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2014
Batman: Venom

Story: Dennis O'Neil
Layouts: Trevor Von Eeden
Pencils: Russell Braun
Inkers: José García-López
Letters: Willie Schubert
Colors: Steve Oliff

Year Two, February
My memory of this one is already pretty foggy. Batman decides that fighting crime is too hard, Batman decides to take Venom to make it easier (in the future, this will be more famous as the drug that fuels Bane), things sort of spiral out of control from there thanks to a somewhat weird plot by the bad guys. Like in a lot of Dennis O'Neil stories, Batman wears some weird disguises, and Alfred engages in some over-the-top physical action. The story covers an awful long period of time, too; a timeline pedant would probably discover that there's just not enough time in the early years of Batman for this to have "actually happened." Anyway, my overall impression was of something decent but not great, and not terribly Batmanish.

Next Week: Batman meets Lex Luthor for the first time in Rules of Engagement!

29 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who: Dead Man's Hand by Tony Lee and Mike Collins with Mitch Gerads

Fans of devastating apocalypses should read my review of Series Two of Big Finish's audio series of Survivors over at Unreality SF. I've near seen the original show and never will (Blake's 7 is penance enough for all my sins), but the audios are great.

Comic PDF eBook, 98 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired May 2014
Read December 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 4: Dead Man's Hand

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Mike Collins, Mitch Gerads
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff, Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Shawn Lee

IDW's Doctor Who ongoing sputters to an end as it began: with a so-so tale by Tony Lee. Which I guess is appropriate, but so much for the superstars promised by this set. The always dependable Mike Collins of Doctor Who Magazine fame on art keeps this one visually enjoyable, at least. But it's typical Tony Lee plotting: what could have been an enjoyable standalone western tale needs to connect all the way back to Lee's first IDW work, resurrecting the not-interesting-to-begin-with villain of The Forgotten; it's like he's taunting me on the way out. Well, so long Tony Lee, and I remain grateful your Doctor Who/Deep Space Nine crossover never came to pass. (P.S. Your shorts, as always, are actually somewhat better than your big stories; "Escape into Alcatraz" is a charming piece of fun.)

Next Week: Time to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who in the first volume of Prisoners of Time!

28 September 2015

Review: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book One: 1985-1987 by Bill Watterson

Comic trade paperback, 359 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1985-87)

Acquired December 2014
Read August 2015
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book One: 1985-1987
by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes is one of those things I don't ever remember not knowing. The strip began syndication only five months after I was born, and I remember both reading it in the newspaper-- my parents always said it was the only thing on the comics page worth reading-- and having a number of collections lying around the house. I don't think we had a comprehensive collection, though, so I was curious to see if reading the first volume of the complete strips-- a gift from those same parents-- would reveal any I didn't remember. There were some, but not a lot.

Anyway, this was a total delight. Surely some of that is nostalgia, but most of that is that these really do hold up: Bill Watterson is consistently funny. There are a lot of other good things going for these comics, but more than anything else, the frequency with which I laughed out loud-- once per week of strips at least-- is the most noteworthy. It's amazing to think that they're almost thirty years old now because no newspaper comic strip I've read since comes even close to matching the regular humor of Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson treads a fine line with Calvin as a character, and it's impressive how he never descends into caricature. Calvin has an active imagination on one hand-- but on the other, he refuses to read in favor of the television. This is no overdone romantic idealization of childhood; in many ways, Calvin is really rather awful!

It's interesting to see the strip begin to take shape here: Calvin is a member of the Cub Scouts (which I think gets dropped later on), Calvin and Hobbes play actual sports, albeit creatively (there's no Calvinball yet), and the large, fanciful storylines I remember so well only really begin to emerge near the end of the book. Though the cardboard box makes some early appearances as a time machine, it's nowhere near as extended as what we'd see later; in fact, the biggest storyline here is (I believe) a miserable camping trip undertaken by Calvin and his family where it just rains nonstop-- this is one of the few occasions in the book where the Sunday strip is smoothly integrated into the storyline. (Nicely, the book places Sunday strips out of publication order occasionally to improve reading experience.)

It probably would surprise no one who knows me that on this reading I had a great appreciation for Calvin's long-suffering parents, especially his father, who reminds me of my own with all of his off-kilter explanations about how the world works and his claims that any form of suffering is justified because it builds character. I look forward to seeing the strip as it develops; even if I've read them all before, I know I've never read them all in the proper order, and it's a great journey to undertake again for the first time.

25 September 2015

Film Review: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris

I was introduced to Stanislaw Lem in high school, and I have been a fan ever since. We read "The First Sally (A), or Trurl's Electronic Bard" in my European literature class, and I loved it. What nerdy high school kid wouldn't love a story with an algebraic love poem? Not long after, the Steven Soderbergh film version of Lem's Solaris was released, and I saw it in theaters. To this day, it remains one of my favorite films (top ten? I guess?): a moving, estranging portrait of loss, love, and memory, with a great score by Cliff Martinez. At this distant juncture, I'm not sure if I saw it before or after borrowing the novel from the library, but I did read it around the same time.

A conversation with a friend this summer made me realize I'd never seen the previous 1972 film version of Solaris by Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky, so we made a point of watching it this fall. It's a difficult film to like, especially in the beginning, as we watch characters watch films of lectures where people watch films, and where characters we never see again spend significant chunks of time navigating traffic to no evident purpose. Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin seems to have one facial expression: I know he's depressed because his lover committed suicide some years ago, but geeze! Find another setting than "mopey."

Maybe halfway through, though, it all clicked, and it became terribly gripping, with some fabulous dialogue, macabre humor, and great imagery-- especially the zero-gravity sequence, and Hari's final resurrection. Soderbergh's version definitely takes some cues from Tarkovsky's, including the increased focus on the human relationships. But Soderbergh's is, in some sense, all about those relationships, the planet Solaris just being a backdrop. Tarkovsky's version foregrounds the planet some more. This dialogue is striking:
We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We're in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.
Lem's book is in some ways about the foolishness of trying to find the human everywhere we look, of expecting everything we encounter to tell us something about the human condition. In some ways, this seems like a weird fit for the novel's own premise, given that it is about humans encountering a planet that is literally a mirror for their desires and experiences. Soderbergh's embraces that aspect. The end of his version has Kris Kelvin rejecting his mundane life on Earth to stay on Solaris so that he can recreate the life he once had with his dead lover, and hopefully make it work out properly this time.

Tarkovsky's, on the hand, maintains Lem's emphasis on the mysteries of the planet, even as it deepens the emotional story. At one point, Kris Kelvin is reprimanded:
Don't turn a scientific problem into a common love story.

A cynic might argue that this is exactly what Soderbergh did (I would say he turned it into an uncommon love story), but Tarkovsky keeps both. At one point, Kris seems to have totally given up on the problem of Solaris, losing himself in his personal problems, almost wallowing in the darkness of his own past.
What does it matter when you're worth more to me than any science could ever be?

But after Hari kills herself for the last time, Kris passes into a memory of his past, one where I think he rewrites what he did that day on Earth where Hari originally killed herself, meeting his mother and acquiring emotional closure. But unlike Soderbergh's Kris, who elects to return to his lover ("Rheya," in that version), Tarkovsky's Kris presses on.
Man was created by nature so he could learn her ways. In his endless search for the truth, man is condemned to knowledge.

His emotional demons satisfied, Kris can resume "his endless search for truth"; the love story ended, Kris can turn his attentions back to the scientific problem. Tarkovsky's Solaris is both a scientific problem and a love story, about both a man's emotional catharsis about his past and his confronting of the vast, forbidden frontier of the unknown. The end makes you think he's gone home at first; Soderbergh's pulls a similar trick. But while Soderbergh reveals that Kris actually stayed on the station to be with Rheya, Tarkovsky reveals that what seems to be Kris's father's house is actually a newly formed island on Solaris.

Though, even on Solaris, man finds a mirror.

Also, my new favorite burn:

24 September 2015

Review: Star Trek: Captain's Log by J. K. Woodward et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)

Acquired May 2012
Read May 2015
Star Trek: Captain's Log

Written by Stuart Moore, Scott and David Tipton, Marc Guggenheim, Keith R.A. DeCandido
Art by J. K. Woodward, Federica Manfredi, Andrew Currie
Colors by J. K. Woodward, Andrea Priorini, Moose Bauman
Color Assists by Chiara Cinabro
Lettering by Robbie Robbins, Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry

This collection consist of four tales of Starfleet captains from the edges of the Star Trek universe: Christopher Pike of the original Enterprise from "The Cage" and "The Menagerie," Hikaru Sulu of the Excelsior from The Undiscovered Country, John Harriman of the Enterprise-B from Generations, and Edward Jellico of the Cairo from "Chain of Command." It's an okay set of okay stories, on the whole-- nothing great, nothing terrible, all pretty disposable.

The stories vary in quality and interest. The Pike tale, by Stuart Moore and J. K. Woodward, could be decent, but feels compelled to show up Pike's last mission on board that training vessel for the umpteenth time, and in a way that doesn't even really seem consistent with what "The Menagerie" establishes about it. Because it crams both that and an unseen "Cage"-era mission into 20 pages, there's not really time to do much of interest, though I appreciated seeing Yeoman Colt, long a favorite of mine from "The Cage" itself and the old Early Voyages comics. But thinking of Early Voyages just makes me regret that they didn't get Dan Abnett and Ian Edginton to do this one!

The Sulu story by the Tipton brothers and Federica Manfredi is decent, a showdown with the Tholians that lets old Hikaru show some backbone and gumption. Decent stuff, let down by Manfredi's inability to use the right starships in the artwork; the other Federation starship is Oberth class but suddenly becomes a Constitution in one panel, and one panel of the Excelsior streaking into warp is blatantly the original Enterprise, lifted from The Motion Picture.

The Harriman tale by Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Currie could be good, but it's let down by too much focus on a visiting Doctor McCoy and rehashing of old events, especially The Search for Spock and Generations. There are a lot of Harriman tales where he "proves" himself by overcoming someone's expectations; I'd rather Harriman tales just get on with him being awesome, as any captain of the Enterprise must be.

Finally, there's Keith R.A. DeCandido and J. K. Woodward's take on Jellico. Jellico defenders like to point out that he's just following protocol... while that might be true, good leaders don't act like assholes to their subordinates in the pursuit of protocol, either. I'm not convinced this is the redemptive take on Jellico it wants to be.