29 August 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXX: World War III

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2014
World War III

Writers: Keith Champagne, John Ostrander, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid
Pencillers: Pat Olliffe, Andy Smith, Tom Derenick, Jack Jadson, Keith Giffen, Justiniano
Inkers: Drew Geraci, Ray Snyder, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos, Walden Wong 
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Travis Lanham, Pat Brosseau
Colorist: Alex Sinclair

World War III expands on week 50 of 52, giving details of Black Adam's war on the world, and in the meantime answering question no one ever cared about, like how did Cyborg get restored to normal, when did Supergirl return from the 31st century, why did (not-Martian) Manhunter quit her job, where did Booster Gold get a different device than the one he turned up with in week 52, and... uh... well, I'm sure it answered some other questions. Really, this is just pointless: Black Adam smashes things (people, mostly), Martian Manhunter ponders whether or not to get involved (I thought he was a hero? isn't this obvious?). Focalizing this through Martian Manhunter is supposed to make it more meaningful, I guess, but aside from the scene where he bumps into his coworkers from his old police detective days, it literally did nothing of interest. A completist might think you need to read this as part of 52, but really, omitting it from the Omnibus was the right call. (I do like what ultimately happens to Black Adam, but that's an event that happens in 52 proper, even though it's reprinted here alongside World War III.)

There's some focus on the Teen Titans here, which results in a couple of them getting punched so hard they die. Why anyone involved thinks that stories about teenagers being brutally killed is something I read I have no idea. Oh geeze, was a comic book about a group of teens who live together and fight crime on their own with superpowers somehow in need of gritty realism? Thanks, Geoff Johns. (Actually, John Ostrander writes the issue in question, but I'm willing to bet the action is Johns's fault.)

27 August 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXIX: Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters

Comic trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2014
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Daniel Acuña
Colors by Daniel Acuña and Javi Montes 
Letters by Rob Leigh

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters is the sequel to The Battle for Blüdhaven, like it taking place during 52; in this case, Uncle Sam covers the presidential election and its aftermath, beginning during week 26. To its credit, it is better than Battle for Blüdhaven, though that's not really thus much of an accomplishment. Thankfully, the overly large cast of its predecessor is excised in favor of just a few Freedom Fighters, and despite myself I even came to become interested in some of them, especially Doll Man and the new Ray, the former of which is tragic and the latter funny. (The previous Ray appears, too, but as someone who coincidentally just read thirteen issues of Christopher Priest's run on The Ray, he's very generic here.) Like its predecessor, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters tries to say something about America, but its villains are so ridiculously over-the-top it can't really be about anything meaningful. Perhaps I'm a fool to look for nuanced political commentary in a superhero comic, but I really think it is possible... but it definitely wasn't achieved here.

25 August 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXVIII: Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Blüdhaven

Comic trade paperback, 142 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2014
Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Blüdhaven

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Layouts by Dan Jurgens and Gordon Purcell
Finishes by Jimmy Palmiotti
Colored by Javi Montes
Lettered by Pat Brosseau and Nick J. Napolitano

One of the weirdest parts of Infinite Crisis was the Society's dumping of Chemo (a walking pool of toxic waste) on Nightwing's home turf of Blüdhaven, a move that didn't really seem to have anything to do with the story being told, nor did it crop up in its various spin-offs. Its aftereffects, however, are told here, in a story set between weeks 12 and 13 of 52 according to the timeline I am using, so that is where I read it.

Well, if it was all done for this, it was not worth doing. The Battle for Blüdhaven kinda gestures toward having something to say about the way the government responds to a disaster-- perhaps a heavy-handed Katrina allegory-- but soon goes off the rails when the U.S. government starts experimenting on people for no readily apparent reason and the villain is just a crazy person. This story unites a ton of heroes with patriotic pedigrees, especially the old Freedom Fighters, so many that you never really get who any of them are or what they do, and you certainly don't care about any of them. The Teen Titans and Green Lantern also show up for some reason. There are just fights, fights, fights. Really, this is superhero comics at their worst, but it's hard to get worked up about it because it's not actively bad in the way that, say, Jeph Loeb is-- it's just sheer laziness.

The one thing I liked is that when the Society gathers up a group of obscure villains from other comics with nuclear abilities to enter Blüdhaven (it's radioactive, for the reason we eventually learn is the return of Captain Atom, last seen in our universe in Superman Batman: Public Enemies), one of them is called Nuclear Family: a group of androids looking like a stereotypical family, all with radioactive powers-- even the dog. Delightful, but the only thing about this that is.

22 August 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XVII: Star by Star by Troy Denning

Hardcover, 606 pages
Published 2001

Acquired December 2001
Reread July 2014
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Star by Star
by Troy Denning

Year Three of the Invasion (Months 1-2)
I still don't know why Luke Skywalker was so opposed to Jedi taking action in the earlier New Jedi Order books, and thus why he suddenly decides it's okay to take action here isn't really explicable. But, I'm glad he does because though it isn't quite as good as Conquest, Star by Star is the book that really kicks the New Jedi Order up a notch. While Luke, Leia, Han, and company try to do what they can as the Yuuzhan Vong advance on Coruscant, Anakin Solo leads a team of Jedi apprentices on a strike team to destroy the voxyn queen, the "mother" of Force-sensitive, Jedi-hunting creatures starting to plague the galaxy. Unlike the ponderous space strategy of the earlier books, this is really effective.

It's a little different for Star Wars, but it works. Denning brings concepts into Star Wars that are new but work with what we've seen before. The Jedi shadow bombs are a clever idea, but I love the Jedi battle meld, which is used to co-ordinate the actions of the strike team, but also to really make that strike team come to life as characters: this is a group of desperate people, pushed to their limits, and it's utterly engrossing to read about. Anakin Solo was brought to life by Conquest, and Denning really sustains that development here, plus lifting up Jacen and Jaina for the first time in the series. Meanwhile, Leia and Han's adventures on Coruscant are the danger-a-minute escapes you'd expect from them; other than the strike team, these are the best segments of the book-- you can see why Denning went on to write Tatooine Ghost, as he gets these characters perfectly. There are even nice parts for Lando and C-3PO! Heck, he's even the first NJO writer to treat Borsk Fel'lya as a genuine character, and not just an improbable obstacle for our heroes.

Famously, this is the book that kills Anakin Solo. Though I'm disappointed it had to happen given how much Del Rey mishandled the Solo kids in the years to come, the death scene itself is incredibly well done, and it's the right choice for both the book and the series. Anakin consumed by the Force as he dies to save his teammates-- it's marvelous. And then... that scene where Leia and Han find out... you can feel their grief, I got shivers just from reading it. How utterly devastating. This is the emotional low point of The New Jedi Order, this is its The Empire Strikes Back, and it promises that nothing will ever be the same again...

20 August 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XVI: Rebirth by Greg Keyes

Mass market paperback, 292 pages
Published 2001

Acquired 2001(?)
Reread July 2014
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Edge of Victory II: Rebirth
by Greg Keyes

Year Two of the Invasion (Month 8)
Rebirth is not quite the triumph that Conquest was-- it's too diffuse to be as good a novel. Instead of the sharp focus on Anakin that Conquest gave us, Rebirth divides up a number of characters: Luke and Mara on the run from the government, Han and Leia and Jacen trying to organize the Great River, Jaina and Kyp and Rogue Squadron investigating a Yuuzhan Yong superweapon (picking up a dangling plot thread from Ruin), the shaper Nen Yim trying to save a dying worldship, and Anakin and Tahiri and Corran on a supply run that goes horribly wrong.

It's reminiscent of the expansive approach used by Luceno in his Agents of Chaos approach, but Keyes makes it work much better: each of the threads follows interesting characters, and he hangs a good character development thread on each plot. Han and Leia and Jacen fighting the Yuuzhan Vong is exciting, Star Wars action, but there's also a nice examination and improvement of the relationship between Jacen and his father. I also really liked the birth of Ben Skywalker in the Luke/Mara plot. The strongest of the plots is the Anakin and Tahiri one-- like in Conquest and Emissary of the Void, Keyes keeps the twists and turns coming, providing a rollicking fun adventure that allows some youngsters to grow into the roles of heroes. It's not a great book, but it's one of the better New Jedi Order ones.

18 August 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XV: Emissary of the Void by Greg Keyes

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2002

Read July 2014
Star Wars: Tales From the Great River: Emissary of the Void
by Greg Keyes

Year Two of the Invasion (Month 8)
Getting hold of this story is nearly a story in itself. It's a six-part, 40,000-word novella: the first three parts were serialized in Star Wars Gamer and reprinted on StarWars.com; the last three ran in Star Wars Insider. I managed to get the whole story through a combination of the Wayback Machine and DD/ILL requests and assembled it all into a Kindle eBook. I know I read this when it came out, but both reading on a screen (for episodes 1-3) and reading serially (for episodes 4-6) meant I retained very little of it.

Which is a shame, because this is good fun. Like with his work on Edge of Victory I: Conquest, Keyes shows that he gets Star Wars. Other than Uldir Lochett (who appeared in three kid's novels in the 1990s!) there are no familiar Star Wars characters here, but it instantly feels recognizably Star Wars, but switched up enough to be fresh. You have a somewhat straight-laced smuggler with his crew (except they're working for Luke Skywalker) coming into contact with a wildcard Jedi Knight, sending them on an adventure that risks both their lives and the whole galaxy. The relationship between Uldir and Klin-Fa feels like Han and Leia, if Han was a female Jedi!

Keyes really gets the serial format: each installment ups and changes the stakes, as our heroes go from avoiding pursuit on a Peace Brigade planet to fighting droid starfighters to uncovering the Emperor's secrets on Wayland to freeing refugees to trying to stop a bacta-poisoning plot! It's a great roller coaster with great twists, and it's a real shame it's been relegated to obscurity by never being collected anywhere or anything.

The subtitle, "Tales From the Great River," would seem to promise more adventures from this era (or at least other characters working for Luke to save Jedi from the Yuuzhan Vong), but that never seems to have happened. In one sense, I'm disappointed we've never gotten more adventures of the crew of No Luck Required (they're a great lot), but on the other, I like that we can get these one-off peaks into corners of the Star Wars universe and still recognize them as Star Wars.

(Continuity fans should note this story occurs in parallel with Edge of Victory II: Rebirth; during episode 6, the No Luck Required briefly intersects with events of Rebirth's climax. Indeed, considering that Rebirth consists of a number of parallel stories that only partially touch on each other, Emissary of the Void could easily be distributed among them as another part of the novel.)

15 August 2014

Review: The New Adventures: Tears of the Oracle by Justin Richards

Mass market paperback, 277 pages
Published 1999

Acquired and read July 2014
The New Adventures: Tears of the Oracle
by Justin Richards

Finally, we get a novel that really follows up on what the events of Where Angels Fear mean to Bernice herself. It's a little weird at first-- Bernice meets up with Braxiatel again, and they go on a mission to Dellah to rescue Commander Skutloid, a nonentity of a recurring character from Justin Richards's previous New Adventures. Given how much work Benny went through to sneak on and off Dellah two books prior to rescue Wolsey, it feels repetitive and easy and pointless. In fact, the whole beginning is surprisingly energy-less: instead of doing anything about the Gods, Benny, Braxiatel, and company decide to go off on a jolly archeological expedition to find the Oracle on asteroid KS-159 (which readers of Big Finish's Bernice stories will know later becomes home to the Braxiatel Collection and Bernice herself, though I don't remember the giant ringed planet ever being mentioned). Eventually this does turn out to intersect with the Gods arc, by way of the People, but that doesn't become clear to the reader for some time. In any case, it turns out to be a decent novel, definitely Richards's best Bernice New Adventure, with more character insight and narrative flair than I usually associate with him. Benny, Braxiatel, Jason, Chris, and Clarence are all here, and all put to good use in a clever plot. The framing device is excellent. Not the best New Adventure, but definitely the continuation of a pretty solid run since the big shakeup in Where Angels Fear.

13 August 2014

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

Comic hardcover, 238 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2013)
Borrowed from my wife
Read July 2014
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search

Script: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru
Lettering: Michael Heisler

Now this is more like it! The Search takes the potential that Yang and Gurihiru demonstrated in The Promise and really capitalizes on it-- this book really captures the characters and gives us a compelling, emotional story. Zuko was always one of the best parts of Avatar, and The Promise explores his mother's history with some heart-wrenching twists; some stuff that was in plain sight in the television series but I never put together is combined with new information to great effect. I also liked his reaction to some of the key revelations in the series. Azula is well-used, too, and the trip into the world of the spirits is really well done, too. The Mother of Faces is creepy and awesome, one of Avatar's best renditions of a spirit. This is great stuff, and I am really looking forward both to the next volume (The Rift) and finally starting Legend of Korra.

11 August 2014

Review: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 161 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1897)
Acquired May 2014
Read July 2014
The Invisible Man
by H. G. Wells

Rereading The Invisible Man-- which I last read when I was a kid, we're probably talking twenty years ago-- furthers my supposition that Well's main m.o. was to take tropes of the nascent science fiction genre and do them right. Wells gives us the fantasy of being invisible, but then works out what problems would logically have to follow on from it, and it turns out to be rather dreadful on the whole. (Though as Andy Sawyer points out in his notes to my Penguin Classic edition, he does ignore the fact that a completely invisible person wouldn't be able to see.) There's a lot of great stuff here, especially the slow build of who the mysterious traveler is-- those scenes where people get glimpses are haunting. But there are also a lot of small touches; in terms of have actual characters inhabit it, this is one of Wells's best scientific romances, I think; it's almost like this invisible man has walked right into the middle of a group of Thomas Hardy rustics. I think my favorite part is a small one: that image of the invisible cat, prowling the streets of London.

08 August 2014

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

Comic hardcover, 238 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Borrowed from my wife
Read July 2014
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise

Script: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru
Lettering: Michael Heisler

My wife has spent the past seven months or so forcing me to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender with her (she had just watched the series through with a friend). Well, I say "forcing," but what began as skepticism soon transformed into enthusiasm. Avatar is a great television series, of exactly the kind I like: a scrappy group of outcasts having adventures. I loved the story, I loved the worldbuilding, I loved the characters, especially Sokka and Iroh. So I was excited to read the sequel comics as preparation for proceeding on to The Legend of Korra.

What struck me pretty quickly is the more complicated political backdrop of this series: though the show has some nuanced Fire Nation characters, most of them are out-and-out villains. Here, though, we see that decolonization is not a simple thing, no matter how laudable its goals are, and even though the Fire Nation may have invaded the Earth Kingdom, that was a century ago, and time has changed things more than most people realize. I appreciate these additional complexities to the world of Avatar.

The story, though, is a little haphazard. I like the central idea of Aang's promise to Zuko, but it doesn't quite come off in the execution, and it feels like things fizzle out. For Aang to thing of actually fulfilling his promise would require a desperate situation, but I don't think the comic quite succeeds in making the situation seem that desperate. The characters feel too reactive, as well, especially Katara, who mostly is there as Aang's girlfriend, not the outspoken idealist she was from the beginning of the show, and Sokka is not quite the leader he became by the end.

That said, Yang and Gurihiru capture the characters' voices perfectly: it's easy to imagine the voice cast delivering the lines given here to Aang, Sokka, Zuko, Toph, et al., and Gurihuri's art is a dead match for the art used on the show. Perhaps the funnest part (and the book at its most Avatarish) is Sokka's attempts to upskill Toph's metalbenders in their showdown with the firebenders. It's fun stuff, and it bodes well for the next Avatar comic if it can get itself more focused.

(The "library edition" we own contains marginal commentary from writer Yang and artist Gurihiru. It's often interesting, moreso Yang's than Gurihiru's. I like knowing Yang's thoughts on colonialism; it's less interesting to hear Gurihiru observe that it's easier to draw scenes without backgrounds.)