31 May 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Tip of the Tongue by Patrick Ness

Mass market paperback, 61 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read May 2015
Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor: Tip of the Tongue
by Patrick Ness

Since I read this book, Patrick Ness was announced as the executive producer of the newest television Doctor Who spin-off, Class, which is going to be a YA show with supernatural goings-on. Based on the quality of this book, Class should be very good. Tip of the Tongue is told from the perspective of Jonny, a teenager in Temperance, Maine of 1945, where the newest fad is wearing Truth Tellers, creatures that speak the cruelest truth in social situations that normally no one dares say, like that everyone knows your wife is cheating on you, or that your butt does look big, or that you're gay. The fifth Doctor and Nyssa are minor, but well-depicted parts of this tale of the harsh realities of being a teenager. I really enjoyed it-- probably my favorite of this series thus far-- and it's this book more than anything else that has me looking forward to Class.

Next Week: The sixth Doctor and Peri attend a wedding in Something Borrowed!

30 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

27 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 May 2016

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

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

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

25 May 2016

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

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 1992

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batman: Night Cries

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

Year Seven, Autumn*
I love Jim Gordon.

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

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

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

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

Or answers at all.

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

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

24 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

23 May 2016

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

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

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

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

20 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 May 2016

Review: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 2 by Walter Simonson

First off, let me note the presence of another Torchwood audio review at Unreality SF: Gwen Cooper, Rhys Williams, and Yvonne Hartman return in episodes 3-4 of series 1, Forgotten Lives and One Rule.

Comic trade paperback, 236 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1984)

Acquired December 2015
Read April 2016
The Mighty Thor, Vol. 2

Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema
Inkers: Terry Austin & Bob Wiacek
Remastered Coloring: Steve Oliff
Letterer: John Workman

Volume 1 of The Mighty Thor ended with a somewhat complicated plot about elves and food and an old guy who looked young and Wild Hunt and cops? Something like that. To my surprise, this plotline blossoms in volume 2 and turns out to be the payoff to what was an ongoing thread in volume 1: a mysterious weapon being forged outside of time and space. Well, Malekith's dark elves are after the Casket of Ancient Winters, so they can deploy it in aid of Surtur, Ruler of Muspelheim, an ancient evil that once battled Thor's father Odin and his brothers. Odin's brother's sacrificed themselves to seal Surtur in Muspelheim, but now he's back, and he threatens all of the Nine Realms, especially Asgard and Midgard.*

What delights me about Thor, both on screen and now in these comics, is how it uses a heightened style: everything about these comics is always on the next level from our mere mortal existence. The gods of Asgard are always speaking in dramatic pronouncements; I loved how Odin's story of his first encounter with Surtur ended:
One imagines that Odin tells all his stories this way. "THUS DID I PERSUADE THE CASHIER TO ACCEPT MY COUPON BEYOND ITS EXPIRATION DATE. LO! SUCH IS THE RHETORICAL POWER OF ODIN, HONED IN HIS UNIVERSITY FRESHMAN ENGLISH COURSES!"
from Thor vol. 1 #349 (art by Walter Simonson)

In volume 1, Odin obtained intelligence that the final battle was coming, and so mustered the forces of Asgard throughout this volume, meaning that when Thor encounters the forces of Muspelheim on Midgard, Asgard is ready, having summoned not only the warriors of Valhalla and Beta Ray Bill and Lady Sif, but also many of the former enemies of Asgard who do not wish to see the Nine Realms burn. What follows is a four-issue battle between Asgard and Muspelheim, and it is incredible. I wouldn't have thought that I would like such a thing-- it occupies almost 100 pages, yet is never dull. The forces of Asgard cross the Rainbow Bridge to make a stand in New York City, assisted by the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and suchlike. The whole setup actually make me think somewhat of the first Avengers film, with alien demons swarming from a portal atop a New York tower. Deliberate or coincidence?

Anyway, Surtur devastates New York City, his effectiveness enhanced by his opponents having to flight through a worldwide glacier. Thor calls a rain from Asgard to stifle the flames of Surtur-- but Surtur uses the link to Asgard to travel there himself, where only Odin and Heimdall stand to protect the City of the Gods. Beta Ray Bill takes command of the Asgard forces while Thor follows Surtur, but Thor is too slow: Surtur defeats Heimdall and destroys the Rainbow Bridge. The scene were its pieces rain down on New York City is ominous:
Lady Sif is kind of impulsive.
from Thor vol. 1 #351 (art by Walter Simonson)

Basically, it's lots of fighting: Beta Ray Bill, Sif, and the Fantastic Four vs. the demons of Muspelheim on Midgard, and Odin and Thor vs. Surtur in Asgard. Simonson has a good grasp of character throughout; Bill and Sif keep the Midgard battle anchored, stopping it from becoming sheer overwhelming spectacle. I also liked Roger Willis, the Korean War vet whose mysterious father passed to him the task of guarding the Casket of Ancient Winters. He's an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary events who does his best to do the right thing.

Things in Asgard get epic when Loki turns up, too:
I guess it's no longer possible for such a scene in a Thor film, which is a shame because it would be amazing.
from Thor vol. 1 #353 (art by Walter Simonson)

There's also a nice subplot about Frigga, mother of Thor, getting the children of Asgard to safety. Simonson never forgets to leaven the seriousness. On all fronts, this is everything a giant superhero battle should be-- would it that they were all so good. Sadly, it all ends in the death of Odin.

What this review really omits is John Workman's tour-de-force lettering. I guess this will have to do.
from Thor vol. 1 #353 (art by Walter Simonson)

The whole thing is followed by a nice pair of aftermath issues. The destruction of the Rainbow Bridge means that the forces of Asgard are trapped in New York City; they decide to bivouac in Central Park. (Sif has the power to transport herself through spacetime, and I assume Beta Ray Bill can use his hammer, but otherwise they're all trapped.) The Warriors Three go to Macy's:
I love this kind of stuff. The best scene in the Thor films is the one where Thor goes to a diner and drinks coffee.
from Thor vol. 1 #355 (art by Sal Buscema)

I am of course looking forward to more culture-clash hijinks in volume 3. Meanwhile, Death herself turns up to collect Odin's soul, but can't find it. Thor lays the smackdown on Death, in what has to be one of my favorite scenes in any superhero comic:
You have to admire Thor's thought process (or lack thereof): "THERE IS NO PROBLEM, NOT EVEN DEATH ITSELF, THAT CANNOT BE SOLVED VIA A HAMMER SWUNG WITH SUFFICIENT POWER."
from Thor vol. 1 #354 (art by Walter Simonson)

Insisting his father is still alive, Thor heads out on a mystical quest (as you do). I look forward to seeing where this all goes in volume 3 as well. Simonson's run on Thor is clearly cyclical; as one big story cycles down, another one begins to cycle up in turn, and I'm sure this is all going somewhere new and exciting.

A final note: Simonson always pepper his stories with humor, which I appreciate. My favorite moment comes when (in a subplot I haven't had the space to mention in this review because this book is chock-full of them) Roger Willis doesn't buy Thor's girlfriend's explanation of how she saw through the disguise of Thor's secret identity of Sigurd Jarlson. She claims that "anybody would have known. You're just too big to hide behind a pair of glasses and an Izod shirt." But Roger is genre-savvy enough to know it doesn't work that way:
Someone's been reading his TV Tropes.
from Thor vol. 1 #349 (art by Walter Simonson)

I also enjoy the running gag about Sigurd's boss at the construction company where he works when he's not battling demon hordes (he doesn't come to work very much, to be honest) trying to guess which superhero he is. He's never right.

* Earth.

13 May 2016

Text and Paratext: Student Responses

I have ambitions for writing a larger, longer post (about a taxation metaphor in Middlemarch), but time has kind of gotten away from me, so instead I want to post a little bit about the wrapup of my teaching this semester. I taught a new-to-me course, "Honors I: Literary Study through Reading and Research," which basically is first-year writing for Honors students. It's kind of a mini-graduate seminar: we studied one topic in depth, and the students produced research projects at the end of the course on topics that they selected within the course's area of inquiry.

My section (along with two others; this course is always taught in "pods") had the theme of "book history": how are books used by readers, how do the elements that are not the text of the book (i.e., the paratext) affect the way it is received? In class, we explored this through two case studies: Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford and H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. We read Cranford as a novel, but then explored its magazine serialization, its various early editions, its illustrations, its deployment as a school text in America in the early twentieth century, a stage adaptation, and its two television versions. After reading The War of the Worlds as a novel, we looked at its original magazine serialization, its unauthorized American newspaper publication, the Orson Welles radio drama, different covers, comic adaptations, and the Steven Spielberg film version. We did this to model the kind of work they could do with their final projects.

These final projects were the really impressive part of the course for me, and I felt the students did a great job producing a diverse range of approaches to a diverse range of texts. Here is the complete gamut of titles: (I've added a comment in brackets in some cases where specificity could be added)
  • 400 Years of Favor: The Origin and Sustainability of the King James Version of the Bible
  • Analysis of the Alternate Endings in A Clockwork Orange
  • The Art of Adaptation: From Coming-of-Age Story to Racial Courtroom Drama [in To Kill a Mockingbird]
  • Creating Sympathy for Criminals: Inevitable Subjectivity of a Holocaust Narrative in The Storyteller
  • Cuckoo’s Nest Book vs. Film
  • The Different Societal Notions Presented Through The Land of Oz
  • The Effect of Tyranny on an Author and the People [in 1984]
  • Examining the Author-Reader Relationship in Modern Romance: An Investigation
  • How Interactions Between Author and Reader Function as Promotion [in Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle]
  • The Impact of Society on the Conversion of Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm into Disney Movies
  • The Impact of the Preface in The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • “I Open at the Close”: An Evolution of Harry Potter Cover Art
  • The Influence of Race on One’s Reaction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Liberation, Vulnerability, and Contentment in Covers of Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • The Reality of 1984 [the use of "Orwellian" as a term in contemporary journalism]
  • Research on George Orwell’s 1984 [as Prophecy]
  • Shifting Political Interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • The Will of One: How Bill Watterson Made Calvin and Hobbes a Legend
  • The Young Adult Genre: The Power of Publicity in Bubble Gum Books
As you can see, most (though not all) even paid attention during my mini-lecture on the writing of good paper titles!

I really enjoyed teaching this class; there are things I'd do differently, but I was really impressed with the research my students did and (especially) the conclusions they drew about it. Shame they all want to be doctors, because some of them would make good humanists!

I've illustrated this entry with some of the more baffling War of the Worlds covers my students examined in class. These scans are courtesy Dr. Zeus's excellent The War of the Worlds Book Cover Collection.

12 May 2016

Review: ThermoPoetics by Barri J. Gold

Hardcover, 343 pages
Published 2010

Borrowed from my advisor
Read December 2012
ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science
by Barri J. Gold

There's a whole subgenre of Victorianist literary criticism that is "[science x] and literature": so you get books on evolution and literature, geology and literature, astronomy and literature, and in this case, thermodynamics and literature. Barri Gold's work is pleasingly interdisciplinary, looking at literature in the context of science and science in the context of literature, and I appreciate her warning in the introduction to not over-Darwinize. There are other nineteenth-century scientists, and other nineteenth-century sciences! I guess whether or not you like this book comes down to what extent you find this approach a rewarding one. Anne DeWitt warns against it in Moral Authority, and I kind of agree with her: other people can do it, but I'm not terribly interested in reading literature in search of details that I can argue were cribbed from science. Like are Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray "really" about entropy? I dunno. The Time Machine is, which Gold discusses, but in that novel, it's text, not subtext. This review feels dismissive, which it shouldn't be, but that's inevitable. As my scant two pages of notes on it show, ThermoPoetics is an excellent example of a kind of scholarship I am not personally very interested in.

11 May 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXII: Batman: Batgirl

Comic trade paperback, 47 pages
Published 1997

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batman: Batgirl

Written by Kelley Puckett
Pencilled by Matt Haley
Inked by Karl Kesel
Colored by Kevin Somers
Lettered by Willie Schubert

Year Five, April
This weirdly titled book takes place early during Batgirl's career-- possibly during Batgirl: Year One-- and details Barbara Gordon's first encounter with the Joker. Obviously this an event of some retroactive significance, given what the Joker will later do to Barbara, and indeed, Kelley Puckett depicts the Joker as something outside of Barabara's experience or understanding. But it's still a moment of strength for her; Barbara refuses to be cowed by him, or to take his bullshitting, and she does what she does best, managing to hold it together and save some lives, even if this whole vigilante lark is turning out to be less fun than she imagined.

What's that little thing on the inner corner of your eye called? Whatever it is, when I see it in a comic, I always interpret it as a symbol that REALISM IS HAPPENING HERE. (Click to enlarge.)

At 47 pages, it's a slight story, but enjoyable nonetheless. I really liked Matt Haley and Karl Kesel's art. They have a style I think of as very 1990s, but in a good way. Not the EXTREME, scribbly stuff, but realistic without being gritty, detailed while still retaining a certain cartoon-y boldness. Just as the kinetic style of Batgirl: Year One was perfect for it, so too is this perfect for this comic about Barbara Gordon moving through a darker world but refusing to be caught in it.

Next Week: Our third straight week of Batgirl shenanigans with The Cat and the Bat!

10 May 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Nameless City by Michael Scott

Mass market paperback, 81 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read February 2015
Doctor Who: The Second Doctor: The Nameless City
by Michael Scott

This is an okay book. The Doctor and Jamie travel to a strange city outside of time and space filled with nameless horrors, drawing on the generic tropes of the Lovecraft mythos. It's decent, but never quite frightening enough, and the ending is cheesy. I liked it more than A Big Hand for the Doctor, but it left less of an impression.

Next Week: The third Doctor travels back in time in The Spear of Destiny!

09 May 2016

Review: Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds by Richard Bruning and Andy Kubert

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2003 (contents: 1990)

Acquired and read April 2016
Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds

Writer: Richard Bruning
Illustrator: Andy Kubert
Color Artist: Adam Kubert
Letterer: Todd Klein

I only just realized that I missed this story in my journey through DC's "space heroes" comics; I should have read it around the time I read L.E.G.I.O.N., though it's not a big deal, as its connections to other comics are slight. The Man of Two Worlds is definitely a product of the time that brought us Animal Man and Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters: this is a darker reinvention of the Adam Strange story. Adam is a archaeologist periodically transported from Earth to the planet Rann by the zeta beam, which allows him to adventure there (complete with jet pack) for a short time before he's zapped back to Earth until the next zeta beam hits. On Rann, he has a wife named Alanna, whose father, Sardath is the inventor of the zeta beam and the leader of the council that rules Ranagar, the foremost citystate of Rann.

It's sort of a modern Doctor Who question, isn't it? What kind of home life must someone have who's like, "Well, I'm going to cut off contact with everything and everyone I ever loved and have space adventures"? Though I'd probably go for space adventures no matter how good my home life was.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #1

Bruning questions this whole setup in classic late 1980s/early 1990s fashion. Why would Adam be so willing to give up his home planet? Why can't the people of Rann solve their own problems? He explore Adam's family history, and also the political and biological situation on Rann: the planet is sterile, both literally and spiritually. Thanks to technology, reproduction rates and sexual interest are plummeting, and the Rannians lack the spiritual energy to do anything about their own problems. They can't do anything without Adam, but they resent him for that fact, which Sardath is careful to keep from him, since he needs Adam to reinvigorate Rann: Alanna is pregnant with Adam's child, the first child to be born on Rann in a generation.

It's a "dark" and "gritty" take on what was a pretty clear-cut superhero archetype. On Earth for the last time before the "mega zeta beam" whisks him to Rann permanently, Adam visits his sister and his dying father, and remembers the aspects of his childhood that turned him into a loner and an outcast, the kind of person who would be eager to give up his life and start a new one that is fundamentally a fantasy. But for reasons Adam doesn't quite understand, he's afraid of moving to Rann permanently, and he almost cheats on Alanna with Eve Fox, the doctor caring for his father. It would be easy to dismiss this as gratuitous "grittiness," but it really works on a couple levels.

06 May 2016

Good Morning, Mr. Zip, Your Dining Car Is Looking Mighty Fine

Recently, I had the pleasure of eating dinner at Zip's Dining Car, a diner in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. I learned two things as a result of this visit. The first is that a "dining car" is in fact, not actually a dining car from a train, but a term describing those long, shiny prefabricated buildings one thinks of when one thinks of "diners":

I didn't know this, but apparently they're designed to be shipped prebuilt, like a mobile home, hence their long and skinny nature. They're not common where I grew up in Ohio, but I can think of a number of them within a relatively short distance of my Connecticut home.

I like the aesthetic of them, but the quality of the food is often variable. It's hard for me to recommend the Aero Diner in North Windham, for example, even though it has a pretty storied history: one of two dining cars built in 1958 by a manufacturer of hospital equipment that traveled from Hartford to Southbury to South Windham to North Windham, and was at one point donated to the American Diner Museum. (Their website says of the restoration they had to do: "The manufacturer's 1958 advertisement claims that the 'Bramson is built like a battleship' and, like a battleship, it leaked rainwater in from every imaginable spot!") The best dining car I've been in around here, I reckon, is the East-West Grille in West Hartford, which serves delicious Thai and Laotian food.


Zip's was pretty good: I would recommend getting the chicken-friend steak, which was delicious.

But the whole time I was there, I had a song stuck in my head, and that brings me to the second thing I learned. When I was in Boy Scouts, we would often sing a song at summer camp that went:
Good morning, Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip
With your hair cut just as short as mine,
Good morning, Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip,
You're looking mighty fine!
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,
If the [scoutmaster] doesn't get you,
Then the [cooking] must.
Good morning, Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip,
With your hair cut just as short as,
your hair cut just as short as,
your hair cut just as short as mine.
Different words could be subbed into the brackets; those are just the ones that occurred to me when writing this up. My wife had never heard of it, despite being a camp song aficionado herself. (I think Christian camp and Boy Scout camp had very different song repertoires.) I looked it up, and it turns out to be a very popular song from the First World War. Which makes sense of what seemed to me to be nonsense lyrics when I was a kid: everyone's hair is cut short because they're in the Army, and I think the "Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip" of the title is meant to evoke the "snip-snip-snip" of the barber's cutting.

The original's lyrics are slightly different, most notably that the bracketed words are Camels and Fatimas, both brands of cigarettes! I don't know how it became a Boy Scout camp staple, but I guess that change was pretty inevitable. There are also verses that we never sang at all.

You can hear a 1918 recording of it by Eugene Buckley and the Peerless Quartette on YouTube below:

I highly recommend watching it, as the poster has done some delightful work with the video, animating old Army iconography. The 1918 version is a bit more jaunty than what we would sing in the Boy Scouts.

I like to imagine this fellow came back from the war and opened a dining car in northeast Connecticut.

05 May 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Terror of the Air by William le Queux

Hardcover, 312 pages
Published 19?? (originally 1920)
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Terror of the Air by William le Queux

William le Queux got his start in the 1890s and 1900s writing anti-German invasion fiction. The Terror of the Air reads like an attempt to port the conventions of the George Griffith narrative over into the post-Great War setting, though here the secret cabal of aerial pirates are the bad guys, a group of Germans bitter about losing the war. Their plan is a bit incoherent, though: first they raid air-ships, then they make terrorist threats and disintegrate Charing Cross (a lot like in The Three Days' Terror) then they release a plague, then they attack London's food supply, then they release poison gas. The pirates at one point seem to be like those of many 1890s revolutionary sf stories, with ideological motivations, given their threat:
WAR!
THE COUNCIL OF TEN
declare war against the social order.
CAPITALISM is abolished!
Everyone must live in absolute equality.
The social revolution is proclaimed anew.
In three nights London, the centre of Capital-
ism, will be punished for its crimes. Heed
this warning!
AND ACT!
But this seems to just be a ruse, as the ideology is never followed up on.

The ostensible protagonist is Major Alan Maclean, an officer in the British Imperial Air Force, but le Queux gives all the good ideas to his girlfriend Violet Eustace, and she's a better flier to boot. She saves his life more than once, yet the narrative always treats her as a sidekick. It's weird. Also she's about the only interesting thing in this tedious book. It ends with some points unresolved; I don't know if it was to set up a sequel or just sloppy writing.

04 May 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXI: Batgirl: Year One

Comic trade paperback, 213 pages
Published 2003

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2015
Batgirl: Year One

Writers: Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon
Penciller: Marcos Martin
Inker: Alvaro Lopez
Colorist: Javier Rodriguez
Letterer: Willie Schubert

Year Four, July
I had wanted to really like Robin: Year One from (mostly) the same creative team as this story, but found it a bit disappointing. Not terrible, but I didn't feel like it really gave very much insight into Robin. So it was with a little apprehension that I approached Batgirl: Year One-- but that needn't have been the case, as Batgirl: Year One is excellent. The story covers the first few months of Batgirl's career, filling in with the occasional flashbacks to Barbara Gordon's pre-crimefighting life. Barbara wants to enroll in the police academy, but is too short, and beside, her father is entirely against letting her be in the same line of work as him. Deciding to tweak him by turning up at a costume benefit gala in a homemade Batgirl costume, she ends up accidentally becoming a crimefighter when the Killer Moth turns up, and then decides to run with it.

Batgirl: Year One gives us a succession of adventures as she "proves" herself to Batman. (Robin is, of course, smitten from the beginning. I think Barbara is 16 and Robin 14 during this time?) Along the way, we also see the miserable career of the Killer Moth (who no one takes seriously), Barbara teams up with Black Canary for the first time (but certainly not the last!), and Batgirl and Robin take down the Condiment King (yes!). The book is just fun and vibrant: the main tension with Batman comes from the fact that Barbara doesn't have a "reason" to fight crime. Bruce and Dick both lost their parents to crime, but Barbara just wants to help as best she can, and this turns out to be enough.

Some of the pages of my library copy are a little wrinkly.
from Batgirl: Year One #8

Everything conspires to make this book work: the charming narration by Barbara, the banter between the characters (like in Snow, I can totally hear Kevin Conroy saying all of Batman's dialogue), Javier Rodriguez's vibrant colors, and most of all, the expressive artwork of Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez. Their art is energetic and dynamic, their storytelling is rock-solid, and they just bring the whole book to life. The book was a joy to read from start to finish. I'm not saying every superhero comic should be this way, but it wouldn't hurt if more of them were!

Next Week: Batgirl continues her adventures in the confusingly titled Batman: Batgirl!

03 May 2016

Review: Doctor Who: A Big Hand for the Doctor by Eoin Colfer

Speaking of Doctor Who, I have a review of the first two releases in an audio series based on its anagramatic spin-off Torchwood over at Unreality SF: Captain Jack and Ianto Jones star in The Conspiracy and Fall to Earth.

Mass market paperback, 68 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read January 2015
Doctor Who: The First Doctor: A Big Hand for the Doctor
by Eoin Colfer

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who was, in one way, perfectly timed: with eleven Doctors, it meant that basically every medium of Doctor Who tie-in could do a monthly series, which one adventure for each Doctor. Audio gave us Destiny of the Doctors, comics gave us Prisoners of Time, and prose gave us 11 Doctors, 11 Stories, a series of e-novellas by contemporary children's writers, allowing experienced writers new to Doctor Who to each take a spin at it. In late 2014, they were all collected in a sexy box set with covers based on each Doctor's costume, and I resolved to read them monthly in 2015-- so only two years later.

The first is A Big Hand for the Doctor, by Eoin Colfer of Artemis Fowl fame. Colfer is going for something whimsical, I think, maybe projecting the sensibilities of Douglas Adams (he also wrote the seventh Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel) and the Steven Moffat era back onto the 1960s. I'm not against this kind of thing in the abstract: though Big Finish has created some great audio dramas by emulating the writing and production style of the 1960s as much as possible, that's not the only valid approach to early Doctor Who. The problem with the book is that it isn't very good, full of "jokes" that aren't very fun, and just kind of flail there, or feel out of character for the first Doctor-- who could, after all, be quite whimsical and mischievous when he wanted to.

But I don't think he would have ever thought, "Mano-a-mano. And that pirate is a much bigger mano than I am." Nor should anyone, much less him. Colfer uses a lot of asides like "if one could be reminded of the future," which are less funny versions of jokes Douglas Adams was making thirty-five years ago. Once you get past that, there's not a lot of substance here, even for a 60-page novella. Plus there's an eye-rolling epilogue where you learn how this adventure inspired J. M. Barrie, one of my least favorite sci-fi time-travel tropes.

Next Week: The second Doctor encounters the Master and Lovecraftian horrors in The Nameless City!