30 June 2016

Review: Utopia Ltd. by Matthew Beaumont

Trade paperback, 214 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2005)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
Utopia Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England, 1870-1900
by Matthew Beaumont

Beaumont's monograph examines the appearance of utopian ideas in late-nineteenth-century British writing, both fiction and not. I was looking for discussion of the creation of utopias, but didn't find a whole lot here, which probably does not speak ill of Beaumont's book. There are little glimpses of it, though; Beaumont discusses Karl Marx's take on Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which he condemned as "transform[ing] the real social movement which, in all civilised countries, already proclaims the approach of a terrible social upheaval into a process of comfortable and peaceful conversion, into a still life which will permit the owners and rulers of the world to slumber peacefully" (qtd. in Beaumont 78-9). I think Bellamy's utopian fiction is characteristic, however: many utopian stories elide or obscure the violence necessary for the realization of utopia, in favor of a vague, "progress happened."

Beaumont also discusses the appearance of "cacotopias" in Victorian fiction. These are kind of like dystopias, but worse. Cacotopia (at least as Beaumont puts it) isn't interested in the parameters of the "corrupt power structures of the putative socialist state" like an anti-utopian novel would be; a cacotopia is written to "portray[ ] revolution as a sexual and political apocalypse" (132). Beaumont argues that it "depicts the working class, in corpore, as dystopian" and thus having a "grisly fascination with chthonic insurrection" (132). Beaumont seems to mark it as an inherently classist form: the working class will not carry out reform in a socially acceptable because they are incapable of doing so. Beaumont's discussion of the form was the part of the book that was the most interesting to me, though I wish he had developed his idea that George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution was "a parodic reappropriation" of the cacotopia (149), as Angel is too complicated and too weird a work to be summed up so quickly (the novel gets only a paragraph) if one wants to be compelling.

One very praiseworthy feature of Beaumont's work is the sheer depth of reading he's done in his genre of choice. Some of the works I went on to read in the Eaton Collection, like Fergus Hume's The Year of Miracle (1895) and Charles Gleig's When All Men Starve (1897), but there are many many more I would still like to read.

29 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXVIII: Nightwing: Year One

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

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
Nightwing: Year One

Writers: Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon
Penciller: Scott McDaniel
Inker: Andy Owens
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Phil Balsman

Year Eleven, March
Nightwing: Year One is the last of the Beatty/Dixon-written "Year One" collaborations, both in my reading order and in terms of publication. This one expands on events only briefly chronicled in Batman: Second Chances to show how Dick Grayson decided to become Nightwing. It opens with Dick coming to Batman's aid in a battle with Clayface, but later than Batman would like, owing to Dick's duties with the Teen Titans.

They argue, and Batman ends up firing Dick-- this doesn't replace the firing depicted in Second Chances, though, as Dick declares he's been fired before, and the timeline of Dick's life in the front of the book includes the Second Chances firing in its events. So apparently much of Nightwing: Year One takes place during the single issue in Second Chances where Dick is fired and Batman first meets Jason Todd; the book as a whole overlaps with Second Chances a lot, as we don't see how Batman meets Jason or selects him as the new Robin, but we do see some of his training. In the meantime, Dick goes back to his old circus and gets a job there and meets Deadman, but the call of crimefighting pulls him, and building on a conversation he had with Superman, he decides to go into action again as his own man: Nightwing.

This book isn't terrible by any means, but it didn't really work for me. There are three main reasons, I think. The first is that Bruce Wayne is just an absolute asshole here. In Second Chances, he "fired" Dick because he was worried for Dick's safety. Here, he does it because Dick can't live up to the impossible standards he imposes on him, refusing to allow Dick defeating criminals with the Teen Titans to excuse him from working with Batman. I feel like you could write these two men drifting apart as they both grow older without making one of them as an arbitrary jerk, but I suppose no one ever hired Chuck Dixon to write a comic book with subtlety in its characterization.

"ANY POSITION LESS THAN TOTALLY UNREASONABLE IS ONE THAT IT IS SIMPLY WASTING MY TIME TO HOLD. (DON'T FORGET THAT I'M THE MAN WHO TOLD YOU PUNK MUSIC WAS SATANIC.)"
from Nightwing vol. 2 #101

The second issue I have is the book's last few chapters, which do retcon some of Second Chances out of existence specifically, the "ONE YEAR AGO" issue where Dick first meets Jason. Here, Bruce manipulates Dick into participating in Jason's "Gauntlet," his final test to be a full-time Robin, where the two of them are meant to team up to save Alfred from Two-Face (although Two-Face is actually Alfred in disguise). Things go awry, but the two succeed in saving the day without the help of a sedated Batman. It's a fun adventure on its own merits, but it's a weirdly Batman-centric choice for the climax of a volume about Dick Grayson becoming his own man. I'd rather have seen him fighting his own villain(s), far away from the whole Batman clan.

Lastly, there's the art. I've never liked the team of Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens, not since they were Judd Winick's artists on Green Arrow, and I don't like them here. I think it's their way with faces, which just look weird and indistinct to me.

Clark Kent pretending to like hockey is pretty amusing.
from Nightwing vol. 2 #102

This is a likable book. Dixon is always good at writing action. The appearance of Deadman is fun (if a little pointless), and I liked Dick's talk with Superman. Alfred's final gift to Dick is pretty nice, and makes perfect sense. I wanted to like the flirting between Dick and Barbara more, but I don't think McDaniel and Owens made their body language work, and Barbara felt weirdly subordinate to Batman in his secret plans-- she's usually much more off on her own in my experience. Overall, Nightwing: Year One is fun, but kind of misjudged.

Oh, that Dick Grayson. What a charmer.
from Nightwing vol. 2 #104

Incidentally, this is the last "flashback" tale in my readthrough, I believe; all subsequent stories will take place in their era of publication.

Next Week: The Joker is back, which is bad news for the Gordon family in The Killing Joke!

28 June 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Beast of Babylon by Charlie Higson

Meanwhile in the Doctor Who world, read my reviews of two recent Jago & Litefoot releases over at USF: Series Ten and The Haunting.

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

Acquired December 2014
Read September 2015
Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor: The Beast of Babylon
by Charlie Higson

One of the great boons of the 50th anniversary is that it gave us some of the first ninth Doctor fiction since 2005: an audio, a comic book, and this novella. This takes place during "Rose," in what must be a gap of around a century between when the Doctor leaves Rose and pops back for her, traveling alone in the meantime but searching for someone to share his travels with now that he's moving away from the horrors of the Time War. Higson captures the voice of the ninth Doctor well, and the relationship he builds up with potential companion Ali is also very interesting. A nice little story, horrifying in parts.

Next Week: The tenth Doctor and Martha Jones investigate The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage!

27 June 2016

Revolutionary Reading: An Examination of the Legion of Super-Heroes Threeboot, Part I: Teenage Revolution

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

Acquired February 2016
Read May 2016
Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Barry Kitson
Additional Pencils: Leonard Kirk, Dave Gibbons, Scott Iwahashi
Inkers: Art Thibert, Mick Gray, Barry Kitson, James Pascoe, Drew Geraci, Scott Iwahashi
Colorists: Chris Blythe, Paul Mounts, Dave McCaig
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Jared K. Fletcher, Pat Brosseau, Rob Leigh

This is the new Legion of Super-Heroes. In the past, the Legion of Super-Heroes was a group of teenage superheroes from the future. This version, the third since the group was introduced in Adventure Comics #247 back in 1954, is something more: they are revolutionaries. They don't want to beat up bad guys (or they don't only want to beat up bad guys), they want to beat up the system itself. There are seventeen Legionnaires on the "core" team-- but they are only the vanguard of 75,000-member youth movement from dozens of planets across the galaxy.

from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

The idea of superheroes as revolutionaries isn't a new one. I would argue that it goes back the genre's ur-text, Action Comics #1 in 1938. Superman in that first story doesn't fight Lex Luthor: he fights war profiteers. And in later stories he tackles other aspects of the United States' economy and social structure, like slumlords and people fixing college football games and unsafe driving conditions. (Okay, and a leaking dam.) This doesn't last, as in Action Comics #13 it starts off about a taxi driver protection racket, but ends up being about the Ultra-Humanite, introducing the first superhero to his first supervillain.

But the idea that the superhero is a revolutionary figure recurs throughout the genre's history, and various creators take it on in various ways: Dennis O'Neill and Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1970-72), Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in The Authority (1999-2000), Joe Kelly in Action Comics #775: "What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, & The American Way?" (2001), Mark Millar in Superman: Red Son (2003), and Paul Pope in Batman: Year 100 and Other Tales (1998-2006). Alan Moore has taken on the idea repeatedly in his comics work, including in Miracleman (1982-89), Watchmen (1986-87), and V for Vendetta (1982-89). More on him later, though. I wouldn't suggest that revolution is the only project of the superhero genre (Amazing Fantasy #15, the debut of Spider-Man, captures a whole different part of it), but it is an important part of it.

If you know anything about the comics I listed, it's that they're excellent, but mostly dark, bloody, and dour. Teenage Revolution shows that a revolutionary superhero comic does not have to be like that. The Legion is bright and fun, rebelling against a future that's forgotten how to enjoy itself, where people communicate only via screens (even when in the same room), everyone goes outside completely bundled up, and children's locations are monitored at all times for their safety.

from Teen Titans/Legion Special #1 (art by Barry Kitson)

The teens in the Legion stand for a brighter, more exciting time, and they access this through-- in a sort of metatextual twist that's never really explained-- comic books published by DC Comics. They have spinner racks in Legion HQ:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...quiz each other on their DC Comics trivia:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #6 (art by Barry Kitson & Art Thibert)

...and even use them as a guide to what "dates" used to be like:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #3 (art by Barry Kitson & Art Thibert)

The superheroes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are a key part of the inspirations of the Legionnaires, as is reflected in their code names:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

But the parameters of the Legion's conflict with the wider society of the United Planets is often defined vaguely. The Legion doesn't want kids (or "underagers," as they are called) to have their locations monitored, but other than that, what are they fighting for? And how are they fighting for it? The comic skirts around these issues, not always willing to show the violence that comes with revolution. Often throughout the series, an external threat ends up diverting the Legion's attention, and their violence is directed against that.

How revolutionaries articulate violence against their own society is a key question in stories of revolution, I think. In his book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (2010), Peter Y. Paik argues that most would-be revolutionaries, and fiction about revolutionaries, flinches from these issues. But Paik praises Alan Moore's works (Miracleman, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta are all discussed) as being among those that examine this difficulty thoroughly. Revolutionary change requires violence, he says, but the moral cost is too high to bear, but "The grievous price of achieving utopia thus ceases to be terrible once Homo sapiens reaches the stage at which it feels free to shrug off as unduly burdensome the moral reservations entailed by the sacrifices that have been committed for the sake of advancing the progress of history."

How does one become able to "shrug"? How do you reach the point where you can say, "Killing all these people was okay because it advanced the progress of history"? Paik's analysis of Watchmen shows how the superhero Ozymandias is one such shrugger.

For the most part, Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's Legion of Super-Heroes avoids these issues. Things rarely get violent between them and the United Planets. (The first panel above refers to one such moment, where the Science Police tried to bulldoze Legion HQ. But the Legion's followers surrounded it and stopped it from happening with their bodies, and no one was hurt: there were no sacrifices.) I'll talk about one such moment when I get to the third volume.

But for now, the very first issue actually has one of the series' most protracted engagements with the idea of revolutionary violence. In this issue, the Legion is summoned to the planet Lallor, which is outside the United Planets, but allied to it. The Legion has been organizing underagers on Lallor into a political majority. It's a little unclear to me exactly what the backstory is. At one point, the leader of the Legion, Cosmic Boy, describes it as an "armed adult rebellion," implying the adults are rebelling against the underagers, but here, a dying Lallor underager tells Invisible Kid:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...implying that the adults were in control. Either way, there's some kind of armed conflict between the adults on Lallor and the Legion-affiliated underagers. Because the alliance between the United Planets and the government of Lallor, the U.P. government asks the Legion not to intervene against the Lallor government.

The Legionnaires, of course, ignore this edict. They justify their intervention-- they shrug-- in terms of preventing a larger outbreak of violence. Cosmic Boy argues that a number of planets are edging toward war:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

...and in a war, it's the young who will fight it on behalf of their elders. That it's the young who pay for decisions made by adults in which they have no say is a recurrent social criticism raised by the Legionnaires throughout the series. Here, the Legion engages in violence to prevent the larger violence of a full-scale war, knowing that the young, the disenfranchised will pay the most if there is one.

The United Planets' dithering is often portrayed as the biggest threat to peace. Because the United Planets is so big and so socially conservative, it is not quick to act. Because the Legion exists outside the government, they can act quickly and decisively to cut situations off before they escalate into larger outbreaks of violence. Thus, Cosmic Boy authorizes Legion involvement on Lallor.

from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #1 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

But this is a rare moment in the series. The youth movement that is the Legion of Super-Heroes never has direct, violent confrontations with the social order of the United Planets, something that's hard to imagine would be the case if this comic had been written ten years later, after Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Most of the time, the Legion doesn't have to shrug at all, and it feels like some of the potential of this version of the Legion has been left on the table as a result.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like about the "threeboot" Legion, but this essay is focused on one particular aspect, not leaving me with much room to mention how much I liked Barry Kitson's clean art, the pervasive feeling of optimism, the clever sci-fi ideas, and especially the character of Dream Girl, who is definitely my favorite in this incarnation. Like the best reboots, Waid and Kitson's take is at least as interesting as what it's replacing, and the differences are interesting enough to justify the undertaking.

24 June 2016

How Now Pink Cow?: The Origins of Red Cream Soda

One of the things you learn when you move to a different region of the country is that many things you took for granted as being part of The Way Things Are turn out to be only The Way Things Are In The Place That You're From. Like, I was in my mid-twenties when I discovered what people from Cincinnati usually call "gym shoes" are in the rest of America called "tennis shoes" or "sneakers." Or, for example, my wife is really fascinated by how folks here in New England don't eat as many Jell-O-based foods as we do in the Midwest. Some regionalisms become points of cultural pride (we Cincinnatians love to talk about our distinctive chili, of course), but I suspect many more pass unnoticed because you never think about them until they're gone.

Something I only realized in the past couple years is that red cream soda is a regionalism. In Ohio, Barq's doesn't just sell root beer, but also "red creme soda." And Big Red was a staple of my high school years visits to White Castle. (There are other red cream sodas, apparently, but those are the big two for me, anyway.) Red cream soda ostensibly has nothing to do with any red fruit flavors, unlike some other red pops (like the strawberry-flavored Cherikee Red of Scranton, Pennsylvania). Information seems to be scant, but a Texas Monthly article on Big Red claims that despite its (infamous) bubblegum flavor, "the flavor is actually a combination of lemon and orange oils, topped off by a dollop of pure vanilla for a creamy aftertaste." And what we know about the origin of Barq's Red Creme Soda would also seem to indicate it contains neither bubblegum nor fruit, though I don't think it tastes like non-red cream soda.

But red cream soda is not a thing you can buy here in New England. Discovering this sent me on two quests: one, to bring some red cream soda back to New England with me, and two, to discover the origin of this regional foodway.

(My research largely consisted of Googling, so you're going to get what you pay for here. Maybe an more in-depth investigation awaits in my future. See below for sources.)

As far as my second quest goes, I learned Barq's is one of the oldest root beers in America, though not the oldest, and for a long time it didn't even call itself a "root beer," because a competing company had the term trademarked. (Later, the federal government banned caffeine in root beer, so Barq's removed "root beer" from its name again. You can read all sorts of fascinating things about the history of Barq's at the blog of Todd Nelson, most of which isn't relevant to my purposes here.) Edward Charles Edmond Barq, who had won a gold medal for his orange soda at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, started out in New Orleans, but by 1897 was set up in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Barq's biological son eventually took over his business, but Barq also had an adopted son, and Barq sold or gave him a production facility back in New Orleans. The adoptive son, Jesse Robinson, ended up with his own Barq's company, which had exclusive rights to the Barq's name and formula in all of Louisiana.

Most of what you can find about the history of Barq's focuses on the root beer, but eventually I discovered the origin of their red creme soda, and it shows that red cream soda has even closer ties to Cincinnati than I thought. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1937, three men from Cincinnati purchased a Barq's franchise and begin bottling root beer and creme soda locally. It was one of these men, Richard Tuttle, who had the idea to add red color to Barq's previously amber-colored creme soda. The resulting red creme soda was so popular that the parent company back in Biloxi adopted the same change. (Tuttle experimented with a bunch of other colors, too, but I guess red was the only one that lasted.) The New Orleans Barq's company adopted it, too, where the pop went under the name of just "Barq's Red Drink."

Big Red, which started in Waco, Texas, claims to be the original red cream soda, however, beginning life in 1937 (the same year Tuttle started his franchise), as the Sun Tang Red Cream Soda, before becoming Sun Tang Big Red Cream Soda, and then just Big Red. Supposedly the name changes came about because one of the company execs heard his golf caddies calling it "Big Red"; read here for the whole story. Though in high school we would always get four Big Reds and a Crave Case at White Castle, I find that Barq's Red Creme Soda has more of my allegiance-- perhaps I was subconsciously picking up on its Cincinnati origins?

John Ruch claims Big Red started life as "Big Green," but red turned out to be the more popular color-- but I can't find any mention of that on the Internet except at his blog. He also claims that red cream soda is actually not a cream soda; the designation is just used to make the suspiciously fruit free "red pop" have some kind of legitimacy.

I also learned that in Canada, almost all cream soda is red cream soda, to the extent that "cream soda" is understood to be red by default. Not sure how that ties in to everything else here.

I can conclude on something I do know for sure, having also achieved the goal of my first quest. If you have red cream soda, you can make a "pink cow," which is just a root beer float (i.e., a "brown cow") but with red cream soda.


This is the one I made myself Tuesday night. It was definitely delicious.

Works Cited
Billman, Rebecca. "Barq co-founder dies: Richard S. Tuttle Sr. added dye to soda to create red pop." Cincinnati Enquirer. 13 Jan. 2000. Web. <http://enquirer.com/editions/2000/01/13/loc_barq_co-founder_dies.html>.
Nelson, Todd. "Barq's Root Beet." Recycled and Recounted. 16 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://recycledandrecounted.blogspot.com/2015/10/barqs-root-beer.html>.
Ruch, John. "Red Soda." Stupid Question (TM) Archives. 27 Mar. 2008. Web. <http://stupidquestionarchives.blogspot.com/2008/03/red-soda.html>.

23 June 2016

Review: Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

Trade paperback, 249 pages
Published 2005 (originally 2004)
Acquired October 2013
Read January 2015
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

This work of neo-Victorian fiction is about the life of a girl who becomes a woman and becomes a photographer. It gets a little bit too cute at times-- our protagonist anticipating movies is one thing, but I rolled my eyes when she said something designed to be a pre-echo of Walter Benjamin. It's a transparent way of making your protagonist special. Anyway, this wasn't really bad (I liked it more than the similar Afterimage, which I read around the same time), but it never grabbed hold of me emotionally.

22 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXVII: Huntress: Year One

Comic trade paperback, 143 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2015
Huntress: Year One

Writer: Ivory Madison
Penciller: Cliff Richards
Inkers: Art Thibert, Norm Rapmund, Rebecca Buchman
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Year Eleven, February
Retcons are a weird thing, but they're a constant of the superhero comic book world. Helena Bertinelli was introduced as the Huntress in the 1989-90 ongoing series The Huntress, a dark, sort of moody noir series that stood on its own, though she did meet Batman once and was also a member of the Justice League International's American branch (since she lived in New York City). She faded away, but in 1992, Chuck Dixon brought her back for a two-issue story in Detective Comics, and then a key role in Robin III: Cry of the Huntress (1992-93), and finally her own miniseries (1994). Each of these tweaked her origin a little bit: soon she was from Gotham, not New York, and the exact details of how her family had been murdered fluctuated with each new story. Her origin got a wholesale retelling in 2000 with Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood (the only one of these I haven't actually read), and then another one in 2008 with this series, Huntress: Year One.

As you read new versions, it's sometimes hard to judge them on their own merits. The original Huntress series by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton isn't perfect, but it is distinctive, with dark, moody artwork and a heroine who's not always attractive, physically or elsewise. Though later takes on the Huntress would be darker and more violent, and though the plots of the ongoing sometimes got silly, there's a real sense of the series trying something not because it's tried and true, but because it's new and distinctive. The 1990s would take "dark and gritty" in bad directions sometimes, but I enjoyed what The Huntress seemed to be striving towards, even if it didn't always hit it.

I guess this explains why Batman doesn't like the Huntress.
from Huntress: Year One #5 (art by Cliff Richards and Norm Rapmund & Rebecca Buchman)

So, my problems with Huntress: Year One aren't really its own fault. Its Huntress is a different character than the one created by Cavalieri and Staton, and she has a somewhat different history. I'm not sure what I think of her being raised in Sicily, or having a lost love: I liked the damaged, lonely warrior of the original series that didn't have anyone to support her. But the story Madison Ivory and Cliff Richards tell here is not bad, just different, and on its own merits, it's pretty good-- if nothing exceptional.

Instead of the gritty urban vigilante aspects of the character, this really focuses on mafia princess components, as Helena untangles a conspiracy to deprive her of her inheritance, and much worse, that runs from Sicily to the Vatican to Gotham, and leads to her meeting Batman, Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Catwoman, among others. Like a lot of conspiracy stories, some of it went over my head, and there's a lot of characters to keep track of, but Ivory keeps things pretty interesting, and I enjoyed the clean linework of Cliff Richards, Art Thibert, and Norm Rapmund, especially their regal, statuesque Helena.

Here's a weird fact: people would write into the letter column of the Cavalieri/Staton Huntress complaining Helena was too ugly. As a result, the editor asked people to write in about whether they thought that mattered! But I'm pretty sure Staton didn't intend Helena to be unattractive; that was just the way he drew everybody. Anyway, seems unlikely anyone wrote in complaining about that this time out.
from Huntress: Year One #2 (art by Cliff Richards and Art Thibert)

But I just couldn't shake the versions I'd read before from my head. Usually, I feel like I'm better at this. Oh, well.

Next Week: It's Year One again again as Nightwing makes his debut on the Gotham stage!

21 June 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Spore by Alex Scarrow

Mass market paperback, 67 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read August 2015
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Spore
by Alex Scarrow

Despite the fact that he originated in a very different style of television, Big Finish and BBC Books both wasted no time forcing the eighth Doctor into the mold of classic Doctor Who: BBC Books' Eighth Doctor Adventures felt of a piece with the Virgin New Adventures, while Big Finish locked him into the same 4x25 format as the classic Doctors, despite him never having appeared in such a format on telly! The eighth Doctor, after all, originally appeared in a 90-minute telemovie of the week. One could imagine an alternate world where Fox commissioned a series of them, the eighth Doctor periodically appearing on American television screens for a standalone adventure, like how The Librarian was originally. If that had happened, I think you'd have ended up with stories very much like Spore: the Doctor turns up in contemporary America, discovers something odd is going on, befriends a local woman, and puts a stop to it. Slight, like a lot of these novellas, but an intriguing glimpse of a version of Doctor Who that never was.

Next Week: A missing adventure for the ninth Doctor in The Beast of Babylon!

20 June 2016

Review: Lemistry edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

Trade paperback, 292 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1959-2011)

Acquired June 2012
Read April 2016
Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanisław Lem
edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

When I picked this book up, I thought it was a collection of essays about Stanisław Lem with a couple Lem stories thrown in. It turns out to mostly be works of fiction assembled in tribute to Lem. This genre of anthology is always a bit tricky, I think-- I remember not being a very big fan of Foundation's Friends, for example, which was written in tribute to Isaac Asimov, and the fiction in the Ursula K. Le Guin tribute 80! was its weakest part. The problem here is that Lem is in my Top Five science fiction authors and that the contributors here, well, aren't. So when they attempt direct pastiche of Lem, they come up short, and when they try to do something more oblique, you wonder what it has to do with Lem at all.

The book begins, however, with three stories by Lem-- for all of them, this is their first appearance in English. The best of them is definitely "The Lilo," about a man who starts to wonder if he's been placed in virtual reality without his consent or knowledge, and wants his psychiatrist to help him out of this dilemma, but the psychiatrist can't... or won't. Like a lot of Lem stories, this takes a strange premise to its logical conclusion with perfection.

The pastiche of the other authors is at its most direct with Ian Watson's "The Tale of Trurl and the Great TanGent," a tale of Trurl and Klapaucius of The Cyberiad fame. It's okay. It feels more random and arbitrary than the actual Cyberiad tales that I remember, like Watson doesn't quite grasp what makes those stories work so well. I was surprised that this was the only story to reuse Lem characters directly: there are no tales of (say) Pirx the Pilot or Ijon Tichy here, no return to (thankfully, I suppose) Solaris.

Some just seem to be about robots with little else that makes them obviously Lemmian, like Toby Litt's "The Melancholy." Annie Clarkson's "Toby" is about a man who married a robot woman contemplating adopting a robot boy: I'm not sure what it has to do with Lem, though I did find the central conceit pretty interesting. It just kind of fizzles out at the end, though, after an interesting start. "Terracotta Robot" by Adam Marek is just kind of baffling, about a guy, his son, a newly married woman, and her husband all on a sightseeing tour of an ancient robot factory. The guy keeps hitting on the newly married woman even though it's her honeymoon. It's more like a piece of literary fiction that has a robot in it for no explicable reason. Take the robot out and put it in a different book, and I probably would have liked it a lot; as it is, I was baffled.

Others, and these ones felt more Lemmian, play with concepts of reality. "The 5-Sigma Certainty" by Trevor Hoyle is about a journalist who interviews Philip K. Dick, who tells him that Lem isn't a real person but a Communist committee. (This is a thing that Dick actually believed.) The journalist decides to go to Poland to investigate for himself. I liked the story at first, but in the end, it didn't seem to have much to say; there's a punchline of sorts, but it doesn't justify the buildup. The best along these lines is "Stanlemian" by Wojciech Orliński, about people who gamble in a virtual reality simulation of pre-9/11 New York City. The title is mean to be in opposition to "phildickian": whereas phildickian describes situations where reality is difficult to determine, stanlemian is used to describe situations where the problem has been solved. The premise of the story is that everything goes when it comes to getting money out of the simulation back into the real world, and so the protagonist is a guy hired on behalf of a gambler to extract the money from the simulation without running afoul of the gambler's crooked girlfriend. Great ideas that develop some stuff Lem played with, especially in Summa Technologiae, but in directions I don't think Lem would or could have gone, which is surely what you want out of this kind of volume, but it rarely achieves.

Some of the stories ape the way Lem would play with genre: "'Every Little Helps' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, reviewed by Stanisław Lem," for example, is Boyce writing as though he's Lem reviewing a nonexistent story by Boyce. I like the idea, but the execution is not very compelling: you're basically just reading a synopsis of a story that seems somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough.

It's one of these, though, that's the best story in the whole book: "The Apocrypha of Lem by Dan Tukagawa, J. B. Krupsky, and Aaron Orvits, reviewed by Jacek Dukaj" reviews a book about the novels written by three different computer simulations of Lem. One was programmed with the conditions of Lem's life, one was programmed with Lem's DNA and brain scans, and one is but one of millions of people simulated in a construct of twentieth-century Europe as a whole. Dukaj is playful and inventive in the best Lem tradition; this is like the best parts of Imaginary Magnitude, but playing with Lem himself. For example, he points out that one might want one's Lem simulation to write more Lem books (naturally), but Lem decided he had said all he wanted to: "the more faithful their postLem was to the original, the less likely it was that he would write anything new." The different postLems end up suing each other for copyright over their works, and the review attacks the idea the biological Lem is the best instantiation of Lem, anyway: "Where does the certainty that Stanisław Lem, born 12th September 1921 and deceased 27th March 2006 in Krakow, is such an ideal model of Lemness, come from? Simply because he was reflected in a biological form and not in a digital one? But that is pure racism!" All the works of all the postLems together will give you the data you need to isolate who Lem really was, and why should it happen to be the one that was a physical human being? It's a very fun little thought experiment.

And then there are the ones that have no obvious reason to be here, like Brian Aldiss's "Less Than Kin, More Than Kind," which feels like he just sent the editors a story he hadn't been able to get published anywhere else.

The book ends with a few nonfiction pieces. The best was "Stanisław Lem - Who's He?" by Andy Sawyer. I didn't expect to like this, since I thought I knew already, but Sawyer provides a nice overview of Lem's fiction and its major themes, and I especially liked his consideration of Lem's place within the genre of science fiction itself, given Lem's disdain for the genre.

The book has its highlights, but it really does illustrate the peril of its own project: Lem is too good at what he does for most others to be able to touch him. The few good stories show it can be done, but most of what's here reveals what an immense achievement it was to write and think like Stanisław Lem.

17 June 2016

Alert New London!: The Lost Names of the Backroads of Rural Ohio

I recently had cause to be driving around the backroads of Butler and Hamilton Counties, Ohio, right on the Indiana border, in this area:

It's a pretty undeveloped area, lots of farmland and tiny little towns that consist of one stop light and three stores. It was a nice, sunny day, so it was a good drive, made especially so because I got to drive past one of my favorite roads, Alert New London Road. It's not important enough for Google Maps to label at the zoom level I was using when I took this screenshot, but you can see it there. It's the road that connects the towns of Alert and Shandon. I like it because it sounds like an order: "Alert New London! The Indians are coming!"

I must not be the only person who thinks it's a good name, as there's apparently a Columbus, Ohio, dream-pop band called Alert New London.

The road's name's origins are pretty mundane, however. A lot of roads in this region (and I can't imagine this is an uncommon thing nationwide) are simply named for the two places they connect: Alert New London Rd., Cincinnati Brookville Rd., Okeana Drewersburg Rd., Hamilton Scipio Rd., Peoria Reily Rd., Reily Millville Rd., and so on.

This may seem like a boring naming scheme, but I will tell you as someone whose belief in his own sense of geography sometimes outstrips his actual abilities, these naming schemes sure could help you in the pre-smartphone era when you were driving around lost in the backroads of Butler County. I remember coming upon Oxford Middletown Road in the middle of the night and arbitrarily picking which way to turn on it, figuring that a 50% chance of ending up where I wanted to be (Oxford) was better than the minuscule chance I'd had up until that point.

A lot of these roads are the only remaining signs of the existence of the places they once connected. Scipio is a sort of nonplace on the Ohio-Indiana border, for example, one of those places Wikipedia calls an unincorporated community, and there's nothing to indicate any real town-ness other than that houses cluster there. As far as I can tell (admittedly just from an evening's electronic research), according to the book Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio, Scipio was destroyed in 1884 by a tornado:
Now all that remains of Scipio is its name on roads and cemeteries, little bits of history that have escaped overwriting but lost their context.

Like I said above, Alert New London Road connects Alert to the town of Shandon, but as you might guess if you've been following me so far, Shandon used to be called New London. In fact, Shandon is ostensibly the Butler Community to have had the most names, having also been known as Paddy's Run, Vaughan's Crossing, Glendower, Cambria, and Bagdad. The locals, who were Welsh, wanted the post office to be called New London, but the postmaster general called it Paddy's Run after a local stream, but the locals found being called "Paddies" offensive. Hence all the fluctuations as they tried to settle on something everyone could accept. (At one point the citizens boycotted the post office to get their way.) Things were apparently finally stabilized in 1906, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names issued the following ruling:
It seems they had a lot of options to rule out.

Now, I've known of New London, Ohio, for at least twelve years, but looking at the map today, the first time doing so after eight years of being a Connecticut resident, what immediately jumped out at me was the juxtaposition of New London and New Haven, which are of course both major cities in Connecticut. Northern Ohio was originally the "Western Reserve" of Connecticut: could my adoptive state have also influenced the southwest corner of my birth state?

The answer is mixed. New Haven, Ohio, an unincorporated community now surrounded by the Miami Whitewater Forest, a county park, was definitely named in honor of Connecticut. It was founded in 1815 by Joab Comstock, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, and the first frame house was built in 1826. By 1894, it had a population of 200; now its population is almost 600. Comstock apparently liked founding villages, because he had also founded nearby Crosby in 1801, which was named after his wife's maiden name. New Haven's location was picked because it was at the intersection of the Cincinnati-New Baltimore highway and the Hammond-Lawrenceburg road. I guess those last three places were much more important in 1815 than they are in 2016, because I don't think there's much to be got out of being at their intersection today.

The appearance of a New London, Ohio, in 1803, twelve years prior to the founding of New Haven, Ohio, seems to be a complete coincidence. Even though the two Ohio towns, some four miles apart, both share names with prominent Connecticut cities, some fifty miles apart, I can find no indication that the naming of New London, Ohio, has anything to do with New London, Connecticut. The settlers of New London, Ohio, were predominantly from Wales (hence one of its many names, Glendower), and though I don't know why the Welsh might have wanted to name a city after London, England, I feel they had even less reason to name one after New London, Connecticut.

The influence of Connecticut on the parts of Ohio outside of the old Western Reserve seems to have been pretty limited after all. So the very supposition that launched me on this investigation turns out to have no basis in reality, though I have learned a lot about the area of Ohio I once called home. Seriously, now I want to drive back up to Shandon and look at its Old Welsh Cemetery!

16 June 2016

Review: Summa Technologiae by Stanisław Lem

Trade paperback, 409 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1964)
Acquired December 2014
Read March 2015
Electronic Mediations, Volume 40: Summa Technologiae
by Stanisław Lem

I was very excited to read this new translation of a previously untranslated Lem philosophical treatise on technology. There's the occasional side comment that I found thoughtful, but I got really bogged down in this on the whole. I know many smart people have praised it, but I came to dread picking it up everyday and slogging through a few more pages. I guess I like Lem more when he expresses his complicated ideas through fiction, especially fiction with a lighter touch. Probably my favorite of his observations was this comment from near the end of the book:
     What is therefore possible? Almost everything, with just one exception. Having conspired in advance, people could decide one day, many thousands of years from now, "Enough! Let things be the way they are now; let them remain like this forever. Let us not change, seek, or discover anything new, since things cannot be better than they are now, and even if they could, we do not want it."
     Even though I have outlined many unlikely things in this book, this one seems to me to be the most unlikely of them all.

15 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXVI: Batman: Second Chances

Comic trade paperback, 276 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1986-87)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2015
Batman: Second Chances

Writers: Max Allan Collins, Jo Duffy, Jim Starlin
Pencillers: Jim Starlin, Denys B. Cowan, Chris Warner, Ross Andru, Dave Cockrum, Kieron Dwyer, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle
Inkers: Jim Starlin, Greg Brooks, Mike DeCarlo, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Norm Breyfogle
Colorists: Daina Graziunas, Adrienne Roy
Letterers: John Costanza, Todd Klein, Agustin Más, Albert DeGuzman

Year Ten, October
Out of universe it's been ten years, but in universe it's just been two since Batman moved to a downtown penthouse and Dick Grayson went off to college. Now Bruce is back in Stately Ward Manor and there's a new Robin in town. Second Chances collects twelve stories, whose unifying feature is that the majority of them are by Max Allan Collins, and all of them feature Jason Todd as the new Robin. (Unfortunately, there's almost no consistency in the artistic team.)

The book opens with a two-part tale: "There's Nothing So Savage-- As a Man Destroying Himself!"/"One Batman Too Many." Criminals are turning up violently murdered... seemingly by the Batman! Jim Starlin provides some great, dynamic layouts in the first half, which I really enjoyed; the second part, where the faux Batman escapes Arkham and Batman hunts him down, was less interesting, partly because the art of Denys Cowan and Greg Brooks was not as sharp as Starlin's. In this story, Jason is already the new Robin, and evidencing a slight bloodthirsty streak, as he wonders if Batman maybe should be employing some of the techniques of his impersonator.

The book then jumps backward to explain how Jason got to be the new Robin; "Did Robin Die Tonight?" opens with Dick Grayson still operating as Robin, receiving an injury at the hands of the Joker. Bruce fires Robin: "In what I do, there is no place for a child. [...] Son, I'm sorry. And you are a man-- man enough to accept my decision." We don't even see what happens to Dick, though; he informs Bruce that though Robin will stay "dead," he has a destiny to pursue, but as far as we see, he doesn't even leave. What's he off doing? Who knows! After operating solo for a little bit, Batman goes to visit Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents' death, where while he's out walking (Batman strolling down the street, saying "Gentlemen" to a pair of men on the sidewalk, is a surreal sight), a juvenile delinquent steals the tires off the Batmobile.

Batman enrolls Jason in a reform school, but in "Just Another Kid on Crime Alley," it's revealed the school is actually a front for a crime ring, which Jason helps Batman break up. And then, even though Batman just claimed he didn't want any kids around, he's calling Jason "Robin" just like that. If I was Dick, I'd be ticked off! I know from reading interviews with Collins was that the idea was Jason would live a life so dangerous on the streets that being Robin was actually a safer alternative, but no one in the story actually says this, and it's not convincing: surely Bruce making Jason his ward without revealing he was Batman would be safer than either crime or crime-fighting!

"Dick Grayson? Who cares about Dick Grayson? Screw that guy."
from Batman vol. 1 #409 (script by Max Allan Collins, art by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano)

The next few stories chronicle the early days of Jason Todd as Robin, as they face Two-Face, who turns out to be responsible for Jason's father's death. It's a lot of weird, Silver Age-style hijinks, with Two-Face employing the "Dopple Gang" and robbing one of Gotham's two major league baseball stadiums during the second half of the second inning when there's two strikes, two balls, and two men on base! It's not Starlin's best work on the title. I assume the intro story about the false Batman slots in here, before the next couple tales, each more weird than the last: an evil mime and a samurai ghost.

That last tale is by Jo Duffy, and then Jim Starlin takes over as writer. His first story is a sort of grim, but consequence-free story of Batman hunting a serial killer. With only 22 pages to make us care about some woman and kill her off, the story isn't big enough to succeed. Then Batman discovers Commissioner Gordon is a Manhunter in a crossover with Millennium that totally does not stand on its own, and then Dick Grayson comes back in "White Gold and Truth"-- which is dated "ONE YEAR AGO." I have no idea where that's mean to place it relative to the other stories in the volume.

This story finally fills in what Dick Grayson has been up to. In a retcon I don't think later writers abided by, allegedly all of Dick's adventures with the Teen Titans occurred after he left Batman's company. Dick's retelling of their split is also a little more acrimonious than the one we saw in "Did Robin Die Tonight?" Bruce and Dick argue, but Dick and Jason team up to beat up some criminals while Bruce smiles from the rooftop, unseen. It feels more like a patch over Collins's sparse story than a story of its own.

Collins isn't all done; the last story in the book is "Love Bird," a cute tale illustrated by Norm Breyfogle about a paroled Penguin seeking love and trying to go straight.

A common denominator between many of these stories is the presence of Vicki Vale as Bruce's girlfriend who hates the Batman and also hates Bruce's idling about all the time. Her presence is inconsistent; Collins seems to keep forgetting about her. As a result, I never really had a good feel for what she and Bruce saw in each other, so she comes across as largely superfluous.

"Batman, if you just drive a couple more miles to the other Kroger's, their bananas are two cents cheaper!"
from Batman vol. 1 #402 (script by Max Allan Collins, art by Jim Starlin)

So: historically important tales, yes, but inconsistent in quality. But I got very intrigued from this era of Batman history, and I actually added a few more 1980s/Jason Todd stories to my list after reading it, wanting to flesh him and his era out before hitting A Death in the Family. These came out after Batman: Year One, but that story didn't change the other Batman tales overnight; these later stories feel like a weird jumble of the Silver Age aesthetic and the Frank Miller one (Commissioner Gordon looks more like a jolly grandpa than a hard-hitting cop/special forces vet), and I look forward to seeing how that changes over time.

Next Week: It's Year One again as Huntress makes her debut on the Gotham stage!

14 June 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Ripple Effect by Malorie Blackman

Mass market paperback, 85 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read July 2015
Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor: The Ripple Effect
by Malorie Blackman

The idea of the Doctor being forced to confront good Daleks has potential, but I don't think it's always realized to the extent that it could be. Dark Eyes explored it as part of its theme of "hope," for example, but sort of chickened out before the end, not quite tackling the idea that the one bit of hope the Doctor will never allow himself to have is that the Daleks could be good. The Ripple Effect offers some interesting moments, too, and some effective characterization of the seventh Doctor and Ace (one of my favorite TARDIS teams), but the necessity of returning to the status quo means the story gets too bogged down in "TIME WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE THIS WAY," which I think is hard to create compelling drama from.

Next Week: The eighth Doctor goes it alone against an alien Spore!

13 June 2016

Review: The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio

Also: take a look at Unreality SF to read my review of Big Finish's first UNIT audio, Extinction.

Comic hardcover, 516 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1974)
Borrowed from the library

Read May 2016
The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
translation by Matt Thorn

The Heart of Thomas is the most recent English translation of a piece of shōjo manga by Moto Hagio, and reading it means I've finally read all of Hagio's work available in English. (For a brief period, anyway; there's a translation of Otherworld Barbara coming out this fall.) It's the first long-form work by her to be translated into English; previous volumes have collected her short fiction. It's also her first piece of realist fiction in English, with no fantasy or science fiction elements.

Hagio's layouts are typically dramatic and emotional.

Heart of Thomas is about a boy at an all-boy German boarding school who commits suicide; from what I had read, I expected to be because of homophobia. Heart of Thomas is a very different book than that, though, and much more complicated. Thomas actually dies right in the opening chapter, and the book chronicles the effects his death has on the community, especially Juli, with whom Thomas wanted to be involved, and a boy named Erich who comes to the school just days after Thomas's death and looks a lot like him. Many of the boys at Schlotterbach are interested in other boys; there's no hint of homophobia, and the male-male romantic and sexual relationships are diverse in their types.

This is an unflipped manga, i.e., don't forget that it will make little sense unless you read it right-to-left.

There are a lot of characters; in addition to Thomas, Erich, and Juli, there's Ante (a young manipulator who competed with Thomas for Juli's attentions), Oskar (a world-weary older boy who is Juli's only confidante), and many more. Hagio is impressive in the depth of her characterization: the 500 pages of this book are a slow unspooling of information about the characters, and situations that initially seem obviously are slowly revealed to be more complicated as time passes. Each and every character turns out to have a subjectivity that's not obvious when the book begins, but influences their actions and feelings throughout. In their ways, each boy here is damaged and hurt, and some of the sections where we find out what's going on are riveting and painful. It's over 500 pages long, but it never feels padded or dull; Hagio keeps things going at exactly the right pace.

If the book is summed up by anything, it's by this exchange between Juli and Erich:
Something that threw me about the coloring conventions used here at first is that even though Juli's hair is dark black, when there's a light shining on it, Hagio renders it completely white, like she does for blond characters.

There's no easy solutions here, because few of the characters are in love with ones who love them back; indeed, I think every love here is unrequited: but by the book's end, some of the characters have opened up enough to reciprocate and form real relationships, even if they're not necessarily romantic or sexual. It's a beautiful book, in both word and image, and Hagio even throws in a few jokes for good measure. I've really enjoyed everything I've read by her, and Heart of Thomas continues that trend. Here's hoping for more translations soon.

I really liked the comedy background students, though they do put paid to McCloud's notion that the central characters are the ones that are more cartoony, in order to promote reader identification.

10 June 2016

John Ashbery's "...by an Earthquake": A Visual Guide

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a friend read "...by an Earthquake," a poem by John Ashbery. I don't want to violate copyright, so I'll just excerpt four lines for you:
A, a crook, seeks unlawful gain by selling A-8 an object, X, which A-8 already owns.
A sees a stranger, A-5, stealthily remove papers, X, from the pocket of another stranger, A-8, who is asleep. A follows A-5.
A sends an infernal machine, X, to his enemy, A-3, and it falls into the hands of A’s friend, A-2.
Angela tells Philip of her husband’s enlarged prostate, and asks for money.
You can read the full poem here at the Paris Review web site. I highly recommend it; it is an oddly captivating poem, suggestive of the strange tangle of human relationships, but also much more. Parts of it chronicle mundane happenings, parts of it fantastic ones.

The exact nature of this tangle is probably beside the point, but I thought it would be fun to trace out, and I spent an hour or so working it out in yEd Graph Editor. Here are the fruits of my labors:
Unless you've got better eyes than I, click to enlarge.

I should note that I did not include characters without names unless they had significant relationships to named characters, and that I simplified the nature of some relationships to stop the labels from being overly long.

It does reveal some interesting facts. First, is that there are really just two tangles of relationships. There are all the intersections of A, who is married to B-3, and later B, and is nephew of U, and so on. No character with an actual name connects to A's cluster except for Herschel, and no character with a letter name is not contained in it, except for A-4, about whom we know only that he is "missing food from his larder." (Was it stolen by A, though? We know he is a crook.) Some characters are mentioned in multiple contexts, which becomes suggestive: does the tragic adventure that A and A-2 go on, resulting in A-2's death, have anything to do with the infernal machine that A sent to his enemy, A-3, but ended up in the hands of A-2? If A caused the death of his friend, it seems even more tragic than at first glance,

The other significant cluster is in the top middle of the graph, and this one is made up of all named characters (except for a little girl who is mean to a rabbit and transforms into a grown woman). This one is much less centralized than the A cluster, and the relationships more tangled; there are lots of unreciprocated loves and such.

What struck me when doing this visualization was the number of characters in no relationship at all. When they're all arranged in whitespace like this, with no lines going in or out, it seems rather sad. It's an interesting way of looking at an interesting poem.

09 June 2016

Review: Fictions of a Feminist Future edited by Kate Macdonald

Hardcover, 305 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1908-11)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2015
Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction, Volume 2: Fictions of a Feminist Future
edited by Kate Macdonald

This books contains two relatively forgotten pieces of Edwardian science fiction: Allan Reeth's Legions of the Dawn (1908) and Una L. Silberrad's The Affairs of John Bolsover (1911). They're not quite "Fictions of a Feminist Future" in a conventional sense: these aren't depictions of futures where women are equal to men. Rather, they explore the nuances of gender in a science fiction context.

Legions of the Dawn is about two men who end up following some hot chicks to their colony in Africa, only to find it is a women-ruled society, where the men are stay-at-home husbands who have been what I guess you might call "feminized." They struggle to adapt themselves to this new world, and throughout the novel we learn something interesting ideas about gender and some repellent ones about race. (Black men do not come away very well.) It's not a story of total reversal: a male alleges that a women tried to rape him (he wants to exploit the accusation for his own benefit), only to learn that part of what makes women superior to men in this society is the knowledge that men commit sexual violence and not women. Mostly it's not very good, but it is a weird snapshot of both Edwardian gender roles and what was considered subversive at the time, too.

The Affairs of John Bolsover is impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so sorry: the "John Bolsover" of the title is in fact "Jean Bolsover," a failed governess who goes into politics under the guise of a man for complicated reasons, and ends up using her keen attention to social detail to be a force for world peace. Like Legions it's not exactly good (lots of the political cases Bolsover solves are dead dull) but what a wacky, fascinating premise.

08 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXV: Batman: Strange Apparitions

Quick note: read my review of Doctor Who: You Are the Doctor and other stories at Unreality SF. Today!

Comic trade paperback, 175 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1977-78)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2015
Batman: Strange Apparitions

Writers: Steve Englehart, Len Wein
Pencillers: Marshall Rogers, Walt Simonson
Inkers: Terry Austin, Al Milgrom, Dick Giordano
Original Colorists: Marshall Rogers, Jerry Serpe
Letterers: Ben Oda, Milton Snapinn, John Workman

Year Eight, November
All of the Batman stories I've read so far (in this project) have been "flashback" tales: they haven't been set in what was the current continuity at their time of publication, but rather have been set in some earlier period. Strange Apparitions marks a first for me, then, in that this is the first Batman story I've read that took place in the "present" when it was published. This is no flashback to the early days of Batman, but simply the next adventure of Batman.

Much has changed of late. The Caped Crusader is fundamentally solo again, as Dick Grayson is off attending Hudson University. He's grown up so fast! In addition, Bruce Wayne has moved from Stately Wayne Manor to the actual city of Gotham; he now resides in a penthouse on the top floor of the new Wayne Foundation tower, beneath which there is, of course, a cave, where he's relocated all his stuff. An secret elevator directly connects his penthouse to the cave. I like this change: if you imagine Gotham as a New York, it strains credulity to anyone who's ever driven anywhere near New York that Batman could effectively police the city from the location where his manor ought to be. I was surprised, though, to learn that the Wayne Foundation was not in the heart of the city, but rather past "the impressive rows of ancient brownstones" in "Gotham's humbler districts, where the Wayne Foundation towers above the lower, leaner skyline."

Strange Apparitions collects the full run of the creative team of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin on Detective Comics, which despite its significance, was a mere six issues long. It also collects, however, two issues Steve Englehart wrote but someone else drew, and two issues that Marshall Rogers drew, but someone else wrote. I was surprised to read in Englehart's introduction to the collection that while he and Walt Simonson worked from the "Marvel style" (the writer plots, then the artists draw, then the writer does dialogue) and he and Marshall Rogers worked "DC style" (the writer does a full script, the artists draw), and that Englehart actually wrote all six issues without even knowing who would draw them, because Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers mesh perfectly. Englehart's writing and Rogers's illustrations support each other perfectly to create a moody, atmospheric, but ultimately fun story, whereas the first two issues drawn by the great Walt Simonson are just kinda there (though necessary for Englehart's eight-issue plot).

Strange Apparitions begins with a so-so story about a new Batman villain, one Doctor Phosphorous, a medical doctor who invests his money in a nuclear plant where disaster strikes: "Five million slivers of red-hot sand were driven through my body! But not--hee hee-- ordinary sand! No! Radioactive sand--blasted upward one level on the chemical scale!" I'm sure this is all very scientific. Doctor Phosphorous doesn't appear again, but the two issues do introduce a couple of important characters: Rupert Thorne, chairman of the City Council, and Silver St. Cloud, a socialite with whom Bruce Wayne quickly becomes sexually involved.

Scott McCloud would be proud of this use of the gutter.
Also, get your mind out of it.
from Detective Comics vol. 1 #472 (script by Steve Englehart, art by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin)

Englehart's story is a tour through a sequence of Batman rogues in a way that I really enjoyed, bringing in one for an issue or two at a time, and then moving on to another one, without feeling contrived or pandering. With the wounds he sustained at the hand of Phosphorous not healing, Bruce Wayne checks himself into a clinic for Gotham elites renowned for its discretion-- only to discover that the clinic manager is actually Hugo Strange in disguise: Batman's very first supervillain opponent, from Batman and the Monster Men. Batman shouts, "Professor Hugo Strange! I thought you were dead!" and indeed, when we last saw Strange in Batman: Prey, he was quite clearly dead, his body having been impaled on a metal pole for several days before it was found. But Strange apparently wasn't really dead, just in Europe. Even though The Monster Men and Prey were written much later, these stories are all of a piece, Strange's obsession with Batman here leading him to actually take over Bruce Wayne's life. (Amazingly, at one point he wears a Batman mask over a Bruce Wayne mask.) The work of Englehart and Rogers is perfectly simpatico here: it's a moody, splashy, nightmarish tale with some great twists and turns. Dick Grayson guest stars to help Bruce reclaim his life, but then leaves for an issue of Teen Titans when Wonder Girl calls.

Everything continues from there. Having deduced Batman's identity, Strange wants to sell it to the highest bidder, but he decides Boss Thorne isn't worthy of it, prompting Thorne to have him killed. (No doubt he'll get better again.) While Strange's ghost heckles Thorne, the Penguin (having lost his bid) decides to carry out a scheme anyway. Batman puts him in jail, where his escape gadget is stolen by Deadshot, who escapes himself to get revenge on Batman for putting him away. Meanwhile, Bruce's romance with Silver has been turning into one of real emotion, and Silver works out that Bruce is Batman-- and when his fight with Deadshot ends up in her place of work (Silver runs a convention center), Batman realizes she knows! Then the Joker turns up with a wacky but deadly plan, and so on. Meanwhile meanwhile, Boss Thorne is trying to eliminate the Batman while being haunted.
Sound effects never looked so good.
from Detective Comics vol. 1 #473 (script by Steve Englehart, art by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin)

Englehart and Rogers have a handle on each and every one of these villains, not to mention Batman himself, who is clearly a man as much as he is an unstoppable force of the night. The story is moody without being grim in a way that hits the exact tone I want out of a Batman tale: darkly fun.

The book wraps up with a two-issue Clayface story written by Len Wein (in a surprising display of fan pedantry, it is actually titled "The Coming of... Clayface III!", making a fan's numerical bookkeeping part of the actual narrative), that follows on from the events of Englehart's run. I've read and liked other stuff by Wein, but it pales in comparisons to Englehart's work; suddenly Batman is melodramatically shouting his feelings at everyone: "Blast it--it's all going sour!! [...] Alfred, things couldn't be more wrong! I let two punks I tangled with tonight get to me--and that's a luxury I cannot afford!" Still, it comes to a suitably tragic conclusion, and I also noted that the trick Prey pulled with Strange's manikin lover was actually first used here with Clayface III.

On the whole, this is one of the best stories I've read so far on this project, and probably one of the best Batman books I've read full stop. Englehart and Rogers perfectly balance ongoing plots with standalone stories, and character insight with fun adventures in darkness.

Next Week: Out with the old Robin, in with the new Robin, in Second Chances!