31 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Trade paperback, 90 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1918)
Acquired and read August 2016
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

It's probably a disservice to Rebecca West to read her work as part of an investigation into the life of H. G. Wells. Still, reading about her relationship with Wells made me want to find out what she was like as a writer, as I have never read any of her work, so I picked up The Return of the Soldier, the most popular of her books published during their relationship. (Though I am also curious about The Judge based on Wells's account of its composition in H. G. Wells in Love, and a friend recommended Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.) Like Catherine Wells, West's literary interests are very different from those of her lover, though I was amused when a "Bert Wells" rated a brief mention. (Seemingly no connection beyond the name, though.)

I knew The Return of the Soldier was a Great War novel going in, but that was pretty much all I knew, so I was surprised to find a book that wasn't as much about the war as I thought. Christoper Baldry is a soldier who returns from the front, yes, but his ailment is that he's forgotten his life since 1901, and the novel (or, more accurately, novella) is an investigation into why someone might do this. Sure, the war is the triggering event, but the novel is more a portrait of how the person we thought we ought to be turns out not to be the person we become, and the tragedy that can result from that. West observes character most acutely, and it's in the highs and lows of being where this novel really shines. Not that there's a whole lot else to it, at 90 pages. She sets things up so that the title has a pretty compelling and sad double meaning in the end, too. (Wikipedia reads the ending as much more pat than I think it is intended to be. The wound is healed, but the tragedy lingers.) West is working in that sort of Woolf school of early modernism, and I think one of its better practitioners. Quick, but complex.

Next Week: One last Wells woman, the spy Moura Budberg, who was A Very Dangerous Woman!

28 October 2016

Class and/or The Tomorrow People: Title Sequences

You know, for Series 9 I finally stopped downloading Doctor Who illegally and started just getting it through iTunes because I realized how cheap it was. This has turned out to be the exact wrong time to make such a decision, because the BBC's new Doctor Who spin-off Class debuted last week but won't materialize here in America until March or April! So I haven't seen it yet.

I did, however, seek out the title sequence on YouTube, which has a lot of weird images flying at the viewer through a kind of vortex:

The first time I watched it, I was like, "This all a bit The Tomorrow People."

Long before it was a one-season wonder on the CW, The Tomorrow People was a 1970s children science fiction show on ITV in Britain. It's arguably the worst television program that I've seen every episode of. (There are some things about myself I can't explain.) But the very best part of the show was the eerie opening titles, with a succession of images rushing at the viewer:

The most famous one is the big hand, which comes from a bit in the first episode, arguably the only good episode of the whole show. (Or maybe the title sequence inspired this moment, I don't know.) One of the Tomorrow People-- they're basically the X-Men, mutant teenagers with superpowers-- says to a new one who is coping with his new powers: "Imagine that your mind is a fist, a great big fist clenched tight. Now, let it open. Slowly. [...] Just think of the fist opening very slowly, like a flower." The opening hand is thus a central motif of the titles, representing the mind opening up to perceive the universe.


So when a giant hand flew up at me in the Class opening titles, I was like, "Aha, it is all a bit The Tomorrow People!"


Alas, the music for the Class titles, a song by British singer Alex Clare (Wikipedia says his genre is "Alternative rock / electronica / blue-eyed soul / drum and bass / dubstep / electro house / R&B soul") didn't work for me as well as Dudley Simpson's eerie theme for the original Tomorrow People.

So I decided to rectify this. I couldn't find a website that lets you play the music of one YouTube video over the images of another, and I'm too lazy to download a video, edit it, and re-upload it, so use this site: http://www.youtubemultiplier.com/5810bb0ca45bd-the-tomorrow-people-class.php

Your best bet is to quickly click the full-screen button on the video on the left, so you'll get just the Class imagery with the sound of The Tomorrow People. Someone on YouTube has done this, but they made an error in applying the Tomorrow People theme and it starts over halfway in.

Anyway, I like it. I dunno if it's better, but it made me smile.

27 October 2016

Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Trade paperback, 565 pages
Published 2013

Acquired August 2013
Read October 2014
Jim Henson: The Biography
by Brian Jay Jones

I'm not a Henson-ite the way other members of my generation are. I grew up on Sesame Street, but I never saw The Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock until I was an adult, though I did see most of the Muppet films at various points. I didn't see The Dark Crystal until adulthood; I've still never seen Labyrinth. But reading this book made me wish I had been a Hensonite, or at least would become one. I might have never seen Labyrinth, but now I'm even curious about Henson's early work in experimental film. I'm not a Hensonite, but I do like behind-the-scenes examinations of film and television, and getting a glimpse into creative people, and this book provides both of those, and in an area I don't normally go. (The making of The Muppet Show is very different to that of 2001!)

Brian Jay Jones writes an exhaustive and entertaining portrait of an endlessly creative and inventive mind. Both outside and within his puppet-related work, Henson was restless, continuously pushing the boundaries of what he thought possible, continuously trying new things. Jones captures that very well in this book, which despite its length, and despite being a biography (a genre I find tougher to read than novels), I tore right through. The ending, especially, is very moving, with an account of Henson's funeral that makes you feel like you were actually there. A good biography, I think, makes you feel like you've lost someone when you reach the end of their life, and Jones definitely does that here.

26 October 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part XVIII: Birds of Prey, Volume 2

Back in early 2013, I read all the Birds of Prey comics that then existed; since there, more have been published, and catching up on them is my last round of catching up before I turn my eyes back to other ongoing projects.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 1999)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2016
Birds of Prey, Volume 2

Writer: Chuck Dixon
Pencillers: Greg Land, Dick Giordano, Pete Krause, Nelson DeCastro
Inkers: Drew Geraci, Mark Propst
Colorists: Gloria Vasquez, James Sinclair
Letterers: Albert T. DeGuzman, Tim Harkins

DC Comics has been re-collecting the original Birds of Prey comics from the beginning. They're chunkier than the old collections, which means that Volume 1 of these new collections contained all the comics previously collected in Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress: Birds of Prey and some of those in Old Friends, New Enemies, while Volume 2 contains the balance of issues from Old Friends, plus a number of issues that have never been collected before at all, so that's were I'm starting in these new collections.

Even when a slave laborer in a third-world country, Dinah looks good.
from Birds of Prey vol. 1 #3 (art by Greg Land & Drew Geraci)

Birds of Prey as originally conceived is undeniably a fun concept: Black Canary and Oracle, both characters with somewhat rocky pasts, moving on with their lives and kicking butt. During this period of the book, they've never met in person (well, not since Barbara Gordon became Oracle); Oracle's identity is a secret from Dinah, and there's also an online relationship brewing between Barbara and the mysterious "Beeb." What we end up with here are a variety of exciting, action-based stories by Chuck Dixon (undeniably an expert at exciting, action-based stories, but Birds of Prey is probably him at his best) and Greg Land and Drew Geraci (who draw attractive women without being sleazy). I already reviewed the first couple stories in this book in my review of Old Friends, New Enemies, so here I'll focus on what was new to me, though suffice it to say that I found the story where Black Canary and the Ravens both end up on vacation in Minnesota and a dinosaur comes through a time portal to be immense fun.

25 October 2016

Review: The Transformers Classics, Vol. 4 by Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 296 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1988-89)
Acquired August 2014
Read May 2016
The Transformers Classics, Vol. 4

Written by Bob Budiansky, Ralph Macchio
Pencils by Jose Delbo, Alan Kupperberg, Frank Springer
Inks by Dave Hunt & Don Hudson, Danny Bulanadi, Dave Elliott
Letters by Bill Oakley, Kurt Hathaway, Rick Parker
Colors by Nel Yomtov

At this point, you either love Bob Budiansky's approach to Transformers, or you don't. I don't. Characters with ill-defined gimmicks are just piled on again and again. I know this isn't all his fault, but I still have to read it, and I don't like doing so. The one bright spot for most of this book is Ratbat, Decepticon fuel auditor, the only evil leader awesome enough to gloat about his account books:
If I were a Decepticon, I would clearly be Ratbat. I gotta get me a Ratbat toy.
from The Transformers #41 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Jose Delbo & Danny Bulanadi)

But the Headmasters clog up an already overcrowded book, and there's not too much to inspire here, until the very end. The four-part "The Underbase Saga" starts off kind of dumb when Jesse infiltrates a Decepticon base disguised as a beach to rescue Buster, who has become a total waste of a character by this point. (I think he spends this whole volume as a hostage.) How the Decepticons could get away with this strains belief, even in this comic.

What does she even get out of a relationship with Buster, anyway?
from The Transformers #47 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Jose Delbo & Dave Hunt)

It all becomes worth it, though, for Starscream ascending to ultimate power. Previously, he's been a big nonentity in this series, but I always enjoy a good supervillain-on-the-way-to-godhood rant.

If enjoying this is wrong, I don't want to be right.
from The Transformers #50 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Jose Delbo & Dave Hunt)

It's not Bob Budiansky's best story, but it is his best in a long while, and a fitting subject for the climax of fifty issues of The Transformers.

In Two Weeks: Though there are three more volumes of The Transformers Classics, that was the last in the IDW Humble Bundle, so I'm skipping ahead quite a bit-- to what happens after the war in Regeneration One!

24 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Book of Catherine Wells

Hardcover, 323 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1928)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
The Book of Catherine Wells

Reading as much as I have about H. G. Wells and his relationships, I became curious about his second wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, who he nicknamed "Jane" (I think he felt "Amy Catherine" had a little too much flourish for a manager of a household). In his autobiography, H. G. mentions that Jane really liked the writing of Katherine Mansfield while he did not, and as I like Katherine Mansfield, that made me interested to read Jane's own writing-- or, more properly, Catherine Wells's. After she died in 1927, H. G. published a collection of the best of her short stories and poetry, along with an introduction on who she was to him. (This introduction is quite good and a little touching; their son G. P. Wells reprinted it in H. G. Wells in Love.)

(from Book of Catherine Wells, facing p. 24)
Catherine Wells turns out to have been a diverse writer. The first tale here is very funny, a charming modernized fairy tale called "The Last Fairy," about a fairy going on her last trip into the mortal world before retirement; the modern world has been getting a little too cynical and difficult for her: "Another time she had met a bright young Boy Scout who, in the course of business, had helped her across a crowded street, and to whom in return she had given three magic wishes; he had used the third wish to wish for three more and so on, until the poor old fairy had had to retire hastily to fairyland in a bankrupt state, and live very quietly and economically for several years to recover herself" (44). It reminds me of some of the early work of L. Frank Baum, who would have been writing around the same time (I'm not sure when any of the individual stories and poems in The Book of Catherine Wells were originally written or published; H. G. provides no indication). It features an accidental dragon, leaping cheeses, a grandmother transformed into the image of her granddaughter, and a man who runs and talks backward-- all good fun.

Most of the stories aren't this funny; in fact, they range from wistful to downright depressing, most of them in a style I would categorize as early modernist, like Katherine Mansfield or Dubliners-era James Joyce. It's weird suddenly gaining access to the mind of a person you've only encountered at a remove up until this point. In H. G.'s Experiment in Autobiography and its Postscript, we of course only see Catherine/Jane as H. G. presents her to us. Even in the Rinkels' The Picshuas of H. G. Wells, which is about their relationship, our view of Jane is entirely filtered through H. G. Here, suddenly, I feel like I know something about her as a person (inasmuch as you can know anyone through reading their fiction).

I'm always a little skeptical of biographical readings of fiction, but it's hard to resist that sometimes here, when there are several tales of married women in love with other men, or unmarried men in love with married women, all of whom are doomed to never be together: "May Afternoon," "Cyanide," and "In a Walled Garden" all concern such a situation. It's hard not to read what the unhappy wife in "May Afternoon" says to her suitor in light of the many affairs H. G. had: "marriage is a pretty straight bargain for a woman really, it has got no place for this love you bring me [...]. I can't run any risks. I'm married to a man who'd not excuse me-- if he saw you-- holding my hands-- as you did just now. Do understand me, my dear. All this life I have led so long has come to fit me like my skin. If it was torn off me, I should bleed to death" (120-21). Her husband has done something scandalous, described only vaguely, but I assume it involves another woman, and she must accept that yet she cannot embark on an affair herself. Is this how Catherine Wells felt? By all accounts she accepted H. G.'s affairs, yet most of those accounts are from H. G. It's hard not to see in these stories a wife yearning after the same kind of freedom to love that her husband possesses.

Some of her stories are forerunners of the horror genre, though I think like a lot of early horror, I didn't find them particularly frightening. I did like her Renaissance fantasy story "The Draught of Oblivion," about a woman trying to find a love potion but having to settle for a forgetting potion, which has a great twist ending. Her best stories are probably those that capture strange, wistful moments, like "The Dragon-Fly," where a young boy plays with a dragonfly, but the touch of the inattentive adults around him results in its death, or "The Emerald," about a shopkeep who unexpectedly finds a precious stone, which he sells to a young girl for a pittance.

It's interesting what a different writer Catherine was to H. G. She's definitely more interested in character and emotion than he ever was, and though H. G. started his career a master of mood, his science fiction definitely moved away from that as he grew more didactic. But many of Catherine's tales are haunting little vignettes it's impossible to imagine H. G. Wells ever writing. Another of my favorites was "Night in the Garden," about a governess who falls in love with an invalid from the Great War at a dinner party, and their brief imaginings of a future that can never be. H. G. Wells could never have written it-- but of course Catherine Wells was her own person. There's no reason for a husband and wife to write anything alike, but when all we know of a person is entirely filtered through another person's perspective, it's hard to capture what that person's independent existence must have been like. Even if she felt trapped by her husband ("Robe de Boudoir," about a wife daring to buy fancy lingerie, is another story that gives such an impression), she still had a space of her own inside her mind. Many of these stories are about those private spaces wives must cultivate away from their husbands in order to keep going, and The Book of Catherine Wells allows us to see into the private space cultivated by H. G.'s "Jane" when she was "Catherine."

Next Week: I track down another of Wells's women, by reading Rebecca West's The Soldier.

21 October 2016

The Diversity of Crewmember Surnames in All Five Star Trek Series: A Statistical Analysis

Lt. Singh (TOS, Indian)
Introduction
In my post from last Friday, I argued that the original Star Trek made a marked effort to give characters names with non-British/Irish origins. Not an enormous effort, perhaps, but something of one. Ex Astris Scientia did an analysis of all human characters listed in the 3rd edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, and concluded that 60% of the surnames names were of British/Irish derivations. The writer of that article argues that "[n]o present-day American phone book has such a low share of non-British/Irish names," and that "[t]he situation is worsening with Enterprise where there seem to exist no humans outside the USA at all."

J.-L. Picard (TNG, French)
In my post, I said, "What I kind of suspect, though, is that the ratio is actually better in the original Star Trek than in the later series." But was this actually true? Were the creators of Star Trek better at depicting a diverse future in the 1960s than they were in the 2000s? (Keeping in mind, of course, that surname origin is presumably a crude measure of diversity.) I decided to crunch the data and figure out for myself.

20 October 2016

Review: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Trade paperback, 236 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1957)

Previously read January 2007 and June 2008
Acquired June 2014
Reread November 2014
Justine by Lawrence Durrell

I love this book, and when I was assigned to teach a class on The Modern Novel (major novels after 1900), I knew I wanted to teach it. Many of my students sort of bounced off it: it's a difficult book to follow, and it was late enough in the semester that I don't think all of my students were being particularly careful readers. (The class average on the four-question quiz was 39%, even when I scored it out of three!) We ended up having to spend one of our four class sessions just discussing what was going on in it. Yet I don't regret my decision to teach it for an instant. Indeed, I wish I could teach a whole course on The Alexandria Quartet. Probably you'd want to read Justine twice over to make it really work.

One of the reasons I love it is that, like many postmodern novels, Justine is about the act of reading itself. At one point our anonymous first-person narrator reads a book that was "in the first person singular, and was a diary of Alexandrian life as seen by a foreigner in the middle thirties," a day-to-day account of life in Alexandria "accurate and penetrating" (52). This description could, of course, be applied to Justine itself, and he seeks answers in its pages. Reading art gives us insight into what we have experienced.

But when we try to render events into comprehensible narratives, we reduce their power. The character Clea argues, "It is our disease […] to want to contain everything within the frame of reference of a psychology or a philosophy" (65). Despite being told this, the narrator still attempts to do it. "[E]verything is susceptible of more than one explanation" (65), yet the narrator is constantly seeking to find the answer, the explanation that will finally allow him to comprehend Justine. He's doomed to failure, of course, as is everyone else who has tried to figure out Justine. If you stick to science, you'll get no further than the fact that "man […] is just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh" (81): true but useless.

Justine presents hope for the novel as a project, however. Our narrator has written Justine, and he has invented a new literary form in doing so. There are two times he sums up his approach the most effectively I think. On one occasion, he does it negatively, explaining why all his previous novels had not succeeded: "In art I had failed (it suddenly occurred to me at that moment) because I did not believe in the discrete human personality. ('Are people', writes Pursewarden, 'continuously themselves, or simply over and over again so fast they give the illusion of continuous features—the temporal flicker of old silent film?') I lacked a belief in the true authenticity of people in order to successfully portray them" (180). Ever since I first read the book, I've loved that parenthetical question by Pursewarden. It is why Justine is more a stream of incidents than a narrative: because that is all we are.

The narrator solves his problem as much as he can by devising a new way of writing, one he casually (as with Pursewarden's observation above) just drops into a parenthetical: "What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place—for that is history—but in the order in which they first became significant to me" (102). That is Justine, and that is one of the reasons it is beautiful.

That said, the form of the novel, even the postmodern novel still generates explanations. Hence the reason for the book's three sequels: each in turn reveals that the books before it were not the explanation of the events they covered. "[E]verything is susceptible of more than one explanation," after all. Durrell pushes at the limits of novelistic form, and manages to create a beautiful example of one all at once.

Also, given the title of the course, I had to appreciate this line: "The modern novel! The grumus merdae [specks of excrement] left behind by criminals upon the scene of their misdeeds" (124).

19 October 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXXIV: Dead Boy Detectives: Ghost Snow

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014-15)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
Dead Boy Detectives, Volume 2: Ghost Snow

Writer – story: Toby Litt
Penciller – layouts – story: Mark Buckingham
Finishers: Ryan Kelly, Al Davison, Emma Vieceli, Victor Santos
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein

The second (or fourth, depending on how you count) and final volume of Dead Boy Detectives pays off some plot threads left dangling from the previous volume. Dead boy Charles Rowland meets the half-sister he never knew he had, a Buddhist monk with a rationalist daughter. His sister tells him his father may have directly caused the dead of his mother, so it's up to the Dead Boy Detectives to investigate with the help of new friend Crystal Palace. At the same time, Crystal's comatose childhood friend Rosa is trapped in the dimension of the half-dead, the Neitherlands, along with another one of her friends, Hana, where a mysterious power is amassing to invade our reality. But Rosa's parents are read to pull the plug on her life support, which could doom both her and the universe.

There's a lot going on in this book, apparently.
from Dead Boy Detectives #8 (art by Mark Buckingham & Ryan Kelly)

I kind of like this set-up for the Dead Boy Detectives. Crystal Palace is great, as is Charles's skeptical rationalist niece, and the two cats that are each half a philosopher are fun. I'm less into the Buddhist sister, though at least Litt stops her from being a serene cliche. But I'd rather see the dead boys out in the world solving supernatural mysteries, not plunging the depths of their own backstories: I don't think we gain anything from Charles's family being anything other than an ordinary human family. Their deaths should have been an entry point into a weird world after banal yet horrifying lives, and involving Charles's family so much with ghosts and murder plots and mystical meditations undercuts that; it's like how Steven Moffat Doctor Who companions all have these complicated backstories where they're splintered across time or grow up near cracks in reality when Russell T Davies showed us all they really need is a life boring enough to want to leave it behind. This is a good set-up, but it's only being used to generate insular stories.

18 October 2016

Review: The Transformers Classics, Vol. 3 by Bob Budiansky, Don Perlin, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 308 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1987-88)
Acquired August 2014
Read April 2016
The Transformers Classics, Vol. 3

Written by Bob Budiansky, Steve Parkhouse
Pencils by Don Perlin, John Ridgway, Mike Collins, Jose Delbo
Inks by Brett Breeding, Ian Akin & Brian Garvey, Jim Fern, John Ridgway, Mike Collins, Dave Hunt
Letters by Janice Chiang, Rick Parker, Pat Brosseau, Richard Starkings, Jack Morelli, Diana Albers, Bill Oakley
Colors by Nel Yomtov, Gina Hart & Josie Fermin

Previously I claimed that every volume of Bob Budiansky's run on The Transformers had one real standout story that made it worthwhile. This is sort of true of vol. 3 of The Transformers Classics: "Man of Iron" is probably the best story of the Marvel Transformers series full stop... but it's not by Bob Budiansky. The UK creative team of Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgway, and Mike Collins (all familiar to me thanks to their work on Doctor Who Magazine) step in for a two-part story that is just incredible. Written almost entirely from the perspective of the human characters (the Autobots are investigating information about a ship beneath a castle in the UK), the story is entirely unlike any other Transformers story I've ever read: moody and frightening. The Transformers are inscrutable alien robots, even when in scenes written from their perspective.

I like the idea that the Transformers' names are codenames because their names are unpronounceable by humans. As far as I know, this has never been used anywhere else. (Though Tom Scioli's Transformers vs. G.I. Joe has them communicating in indecipherable electronic codes.)
from The Transformers #33 (script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway)

The story is told from the point-of-view of a child for large chunks, something often pooh-poohed by Transformers fans (including myself), but in the hands of these master craftsmen, that only makes the story even more frightening:
I don't think I would want to wake up to this outside my bedroom window.
from The Transformers #33 (script by Steve Parkhouse, art by John Ridgway)

The end of the first issue is even a terrifying kidnapping scene, as Jazz drives off with an unwilling Sammy while all his mother can do it watch. The second issue explains the Transformers a little bit more, but makes them cold and ruthless-- the Decepticons never speak, and the whole thing ends with a big blow-'em-up battle that is utterly-uncartoonish, and the death of two faithful Autobots who'd been waiting for the Ark for a thousand years.

Deadly and silent-- the worst the Marvel Decepticons have ever been.
from The Transformers #34 (script by Steve Parkhouse, art by Mike Collins)

It's a triumph of tone, and the best Transformers comic I'd read up to this point.

The rest of the book is... not as great. Grimlock becomes the leader of the Autobots, which should be hilarious and awesome, but just makes the Autobots look like indecisive incompetents who'll bow to anyone with a mildly strong will. The book does introduce my favorite Decepticon leader, Ratbat, a fuel auditor. From his base on Cybertron, he audits the Decepticon operation and determines it's wasting too much resources for too little profit, and assumes control by cutting off supplies if the Decepticons don't run things his way. On the other hand, his plan to mind-control America's greatest manufacturer of gasoline into building car washes that hypnotize their users into driving at night to a Decepticon base and siphon off their excess fuel isn't exactly an elegant plan itself.

I was also a little annoyed to discover that though the Headmasters spin-off series has a major impact on the events of the parent book, it's collected in The Transformers Classics, Vol. 7. Its issues really ought to have been woven into this one, in a sort of "meanwhile, elsewhere..." fashion like the original readers would have experienced it. As it is, a ton of new characters from Headmasters pop up out of nowhere and have a major influence on the plot.

Next Week: Bob Budiansky plots the climax to his run on The Transformers, in Classics, Vol. 4!

17 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Picshuas of H. G. Wells

Science fiction without any picshuas: I review the eighth Doctor's latest adventure on audio, Doom Coalition 3.

Hardcover, 251 pages
Published 2006
Acquired and read July 2016
The Picshuas of H. G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary
by Gene K. Rinkel & Margaret E. Rinkel

When reading Wells's Experiment in Autobiography, I was entertained but frequently perplexed by the "picshuas" he included: the sketches he would draw for his second wife, Jane, on letters, in her diary, on scraps of paper, and on the title pages of the books he presented her. The Rinkels' book collects many of the picshuas, with a higher quality of reproduction than in the Experiment, and some time spent deciphering Wells's handwriting, contextualizing them in a narrative of the domestic life of H. G. and Jane. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning in details, but the picshuas themselves and the Rinkels' interpretation thereof always carried me through. The Rinkels usually call the duo Bins and Bits, using their nicknames from the picshuas, a nice touch that makes the picshuas seem like an alternate world of sorts.

Bins's bravery was apparently not enough to save their picnic from being colonized by cows.
(from Picshuas of H. G. Wells, p. 26)

There is a lot of cute stuff here, like Bins and Bits going for a picnic and being accosted by cows, or Bits demanding the waves not hit their coastal home, Cnut-style, or Bins looking on nervous as Bits reads his latest manuscript (she was a strong critic, and a strong manager, of his writing career). I wish we knew more about Jane and how she felt about her husbands' affairs: a couple of the picshuas depict her as an avenging air-ship. Was this an attempt to paper over a serious rift, or a harmless bit of fun? The Rinkels also manage to explain all of Wells's weird nicknames for his wife (in addition to Jane and Bits, there's also "P.C.B."!). Wells is a pretty gifted sketch artist, I think, able to evoke a lot with just a few lines.

Death from above!
(from Picshuas of H. G. Wells, p. 152)
Other good ones I could have scanned: the triumph of Bits and Bins when they get their first garden vegetable, everyone falling asleep when Bins gets to lecture at the Royal Institution.

The Rinkels indicate that only the sketches from Bins to Bits count as picshuas (answering a question I had after reading H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, which also includes a number of doodles by Wells), and say that you could fill a whole 'nother book with the existing non-picshua sketches. I'd read it, but ten years on with no sign of it, its existence seems unlikely to me.

Next Week: But who was Jane? I try to find out by reading The Book of Catherine Wells.

14 October 2016

Giotto, Rahda, and Singh: Diversity of Names in the Original Star Trek

Recently, a group of fans created a list of the names ascribed to Star Trek television characters in non-television sources. Like, say, Commander Giotto, security chief on the original Enterprise (from "The Devil in the Dark"), who has received the first names Barry, Antonio, and Salvatore in various novels. Or, even, characters with no on-screen name, like the original chief medical officer on Voyager, whom the novelization named Fitzgerald and another book named Bist.

My theory: Giotto was always changing his name to make it harder for Captain Kirk to assign him landing party duty. That's how he got to be the oldest redshirt and thus security chief.

It got me thinking about the naming practices of the original Star Trek (not for the first time). Something that I don't like in the original series novels is when authors give characters the first names of the actors who play them. Not only is it unimaginative, it is often contra the spirit of the original series, which had a commitment to diversity, including in naming: a lot of background characters in the original show have markedly "ethnic," non-Anglo names, like Esteban Rodriguez and Karl Jaeger, but many of the actual actors did not. Rodriguez was played by Perry Lopez, but Jaeger by a guy named Richard Carlyle. So giving Ensign Rahda (evidently a misspelling of the Indian surname "Radha") the first name Naomi because she was played by an actress named Naomi Pollack doesn't seem quite in the proper spirit, given that Naomi is a Hebrew name.

Rahda has even more first names than Giotto: Manjula, Naomi, Sitara, and Tora. Weirdly, two of them come from different novels by the same writer.

One should note that despite its commitment to diversity in character naming, the original Star Trek didn't always cast members of the relevant ethnicity. Naomi Pollack, for example, played Rahda in one episode and a Native American character in another, but the actress was the founder of a San Francisco-based Jewish theatre group, and Pollack is a Polish surname, so she was probably a Polish Jew. Blaisdell Makee, a Hawai'ian actor, appeared as two different Enterprise crew members in his time: one named Singh and one named Spinelli!

Hawai'ian, Indian, or Italian? Up to you, apparently.

The website Ex Astris Scientia has a good article about the predominance of British names in Star Trek; the writer listed all human last names from Star Trek and classified them as either "British/Irish," "Rest of the world," and "Uncertain or multiple possibilities." If you take a look, you will see that the names are overwhelmingly British/Irish. What I kind of suspect, though, is that the ratio is actually better in the original Star Trek than in the later series. I'd be curious to see if that's true, but I don't have the time right now to crunch the data. To Be Continued...?

13 October 2016

Review: Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence by Lawrence Frank

Hardcover, 249 pages
Published 2003
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle
by Lawrence Frank

Lawrence Frank discusses how the methods of detectives in Victorian fiction parallel actual scientific methodologies. For example, Holmes explicitly connects his methodology to science in “The Five Orange Pips,” where he compares himself to the paleontologist Georges Cuvier: “As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.” Like a scientist, Holmes’s eye of reason takes in sights unknown to the eye of the body. Frank points out that Doyle had Holmes refer to “the scientific use of the imagination,” a reference to an essay by John Tyndall “of which Doyle himself need not have been fully aware” (19), the idea being by then so ingrained in British culture. Frank’s discussion of the Holmes stories (133-201) emphasizes the way that Holmes “reads” the world around him in a similar way to natural historians such as Darwin; his chapter “Reading the Gravel Page: Lyell, Darwin, and Doyle” (154-75) is especially compelling and useful. Frank explores to what extent detectives like Holmes really were emulating the methods of science, and what kind of science it was-- even Holmes finds that some things are beyond the reach of the scientific method.

12 October 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXXIII: Dead Boy Detectives: Schoolboy Terrors

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2013-14)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
Dead Boy Detectives, Volume 1: Schoolboy Terrors

Writer – story: Toby Litt
Penciller – layouts – story: Mark Buckingham
Inkers: Gary Erskine, Andrew Pepoy
Finishers: Russ Braun, Victor Santos
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein

They've had a couple of confusingly-titled standalones to their names already,* but the Dead Boy Detectives have finally landed an ongoing series, some twenty years after the characters originally debuted in The Sandman (and almost as long since they became detectives in The Children's Crusade). I'm not sure why, but I committed to reading every Sandman spin-off years ago, so here I am!

Schoolboy Terrors contains three stories. The first, "Run Ragged," is a short tale of the two ghost boys (Edwin, d. 1910s, and Charles, d. 1990s) helping find a lost dead cat; events quickly spiral out of control and they end up enrolled in a creepy school. This is fun, if inconsequential stuff: like Jill Thompson did in her run on the characters, Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham extract a lot of humor from the two boys' interactions with girls. (Charles is obsessed, Edwin less so.)

Weirdly, after the first story sets up these girls and their claim on the Dead Boy Detectives' treehouse, they basically don't turn up again except very briefly, and then we get a whole story about the boys making a different female friend. Not sure what that's about.
from Time Warp vol. 2 #1 (art by Mark Buckingham & Victor Santos)

School turns out to be a fruitful setting for the Dead Boy Detectives (Thompson's run was also set in one), as in the title story, they end up traveling to St. Hilarion's, the very school in which both boys died, eighty years apart. They're there to protect Crystal Palace, the daughter of a performance artist who likes MMORPGs but is possibly being set up as the receptacle for demons coming through from another dimension. I like the idea of taking the boys back to the scene of their demise, but it shows up one of the fundamental difficulties of the Dead Boy Detectives premise. What happened to these boys was terrible and gruesome-- they were both killed by bullies-- but the inclination is to put them into light-hearted goofy adventures. The plot in "Schoolboy Terrors" is about kids being killed so demons can use their bodies, sure, but the writing and especially Buckingham's art emphasizes the goofiness more than anything else, and the danger is all "fantasy violence," not realistic violence. Yet the boys have this fundamental, disturbing trauma in their backstories that is difficult to reconcile with their ongoing adventures, and bringing them back to the scene of their deaths makes that disjunction hard to ignore. Neil Gaiman is actually pretty good at mixing horror with childlike whimsy, but Toby Litt is not as talented a writer (no slight to him, of course).

11 October 2016

Review: The Transformers Classics, Vol. 2 by Bob Budiansky, Don Perlin, et al.

I just realized I've been neglecting to mention my work at USF the past couple weeks, which have seen four of my reviews materialize: The New Counter Measures: Who Killed Toby Kinsella? (Christmastime during the Three-Day Week), Doctor Who: Aquitaine (the Doctor meets a robot butler who can butle with the best of them), The Avengers: The Lost Episodes, Volume 6 (Steed and Keel fight crime in the streets of London, at a shipyard, and at a fun fair), and Doctor Who: The Peterloo Massacre (the Doctor visits North and South, only it really happened).

Comic PDF eBook, 284 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1986-87)
Acquired August 2014
Read March 2016
The Transformers Classics, Vol. 2

Written by Bob Budiansky, Len Kaminski 
Pencils by Don Perlin, Graham Nolan, Herb Trimpe
Inks by Al Gordon, Keith Williams, Tom Morgan, Vince Colletta, Ian Akin and Brian Garvey
Letters by Janice Chiang, Bill Oakley, Hans Iv
Colors by Nelson Yomtov

Even within the bounds of what you can or should do with comic books based on a toyline, The Transformers is not and never will be great. There are just too many characters with too little personality to distinguish them from one another, and more are constantly being introduced, meaning you never get to know anyone long enough to care about them. Plus, Bob Budiansky's plots range from bizarre to far-fetched: this volume features a Decepticon plot to steal music from a rock concert, an out-of-work comic book writer hired by the government to pretend to be a terrorist controlling the Autobots and Decepticons, a group of Decepticons who go rogue to leave graffiti on human monuments, and Optimus Prime committing suicide when non-player characters are accidentally killed when he has a videogame duel with Megatron. This isn't great comics; it's not even great hokum.

I love the idea that Megatron is so convinced that Optimus is not dead, he kills himself to get one over on Optimus.
from The Transformers #25 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Don Perlin and Ian Akin & Brian Garvey)

(You do, I think, have to give Budiansky credit for never settling into a repetitive status quo: the Decepticons are always shifting their leadership and plans throughout the series. I'd take Shockwave over Megatron as leader any day.)

Terrifying death by acid disintegration, that's what this kid's comic needs.
from The Transformers #17 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Don Perlin & Keith Williams)

That said, every now and again, Budiansky hits it out of the park; each volume of The Transformers Classics usually has one story that sticks out above the rest, and vol. 2 actually has two. The first is "Return to Cybertron," a two-part tale that shows what life has been like on Cybertron since the Ark left three million years or so ago. In a word, it's completely terrible: it's a huge contrast between this and the kind of wacky hijinks this title is usually populated with. It's a gritty story of a world where the Autobots are barely hanging on under the cruelty of a Decepticon dictatorship, where most robots don't even have the energy or parts to resist. Characters can die here, and their deaths have real emotional consequences. If only Budiansky's run was always like this, it would have been incredible. (Though, perhaps, not very uplifting.)

This is definitely a euphemism for something sexual.
from The Transformers #20 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Herb Trimpe and Ian Akin & Brian Garvey)

This volume actually has two very good stories, the other being "Showdown!" After a big Autobot/Decepticon battle, the Autobot Skids is left for dead, stuck in his vehicle mode (a van), where he's found by Charlene, a grocery store cashier who dreams of a better life, and who needs a new car. Charlene has Skids repaired, and, tired of war, Skids decides to lay low and just act as her van. Of course, circumstances force him to reveal himself to her-- but they decide they like the arrangement and become fast friends. It's a story of two different sides. In one sense, it's a cute slice-of-life tale. In another sense, it's the story of a wounded soldier trying to escape an endless war that has caused him nothing but pain and anguish. It's at once adorable and weighty, and it's probably Budiansky's second-best work on the Marvel Transformers title.

Next Week: The nadir and the peak of The Transformers, in Classics, Vol. 3!

10 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: H. G. Wells & Rebecca West

September might be over, but my celebrations of the 150th birthday of H. G. Wells aren't! I continue my investigations of the life of the man with

Hardcover, 215 pages
Published 1974
Acquired March 2009
Read June 2016
H. G. Wells & Rebecca West by Gordon N. Ray

Wells doesn't say a whole lot about the disintegration of his relationship with Rebecca West in H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography. West was one of three women who bore him a child (that he knew of). Wells couches the end of their relationship in terms of his concept of "the Lover-Shadow," the ideal lover of whom all actual lovers are only a reflection, and thus one perpetually seeks. After one of their separations, he reports, "I was secretly in intense misery and haunted to an extraordinary extent by the thought of Rebecca. At that time I was feeling too acutely to observe myself. But I see now that Rebecca had become for me the symbol of the Lover-Shadow and that I was unable to conceive of it in any other form than hers-- or exist without it. I began to see her on balconies, away across restaurants. Any dark-haired woman would become Rebecca for me. I felt I must at any cost get her back to me and get back to her. I sent her a telegram [...] suggesting we should [...] make another try at a life together. But Rebecca was now inflexibly in revolt."

Published ten years before Wells's take on the relationship in the Postscript was finally released, Gordon Ray's H. G. Wells & Rebecca West reconstructs the relationship between the two from the existing letters, supplemented by interviews with Dame Rebecca herself. Most of the letters that survive are those from Wells to West, leading to a necessarily incomplete account. Wells's perspective comes from the moment, as expressed in the letters, while West's comes in retrospect, meaning it is more considered. But it is what it is.

My impression is of two very intelligent people, drawn to each other yet unable to coexist for any length of time. I wish we had West's letters, because Wells often comes across as unpleasant and condescending, yet we don't have her words to judge his responses by. As the relationship goes on, things get worse and worse between them, and I feel like Wells wanted something West could never give him. Wells wanted another version of his second wife, Jane, a helpmeet who would help him execute his great work, except this one would also have sex with him. But the very things that drew him to West meant she could never supply him with that; she would never subjugate herself to his desires, even though biology and finances meant that she was the one who had to take care of their child together.

Wells actually uses that child as a weapon against her late in their relationship, alternately threatening to take him away from her and to stop seeing him altogether, depending on his whims. It's hard to blame her for being "inflexibily in revolt" given how much of an asshole he could be, and his reaction to feeling "intense misery" seems to be to make her feel that way, too. Wells was not always an emotionally mature man, to say the least.

Dinner party: H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Rebecca West, Mrs. Hardy
Thomas Hardy is just going on and on about "skellingtons" he found when he built his house; West can only go, "Lovely, lovely" in response. Mrs. Hardy is depressed.
(from H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, p. 95)

It's not all misery. There are cute doodles by Wells (I wonder if he called them "picshuas" as he did the doodles he drew for Jane), and they clearly were two intelligent people enjoying each others' intellectual, emotional, and sexual company when their relationship began. But I feel like the seeds of their relationship's disintegration were planted early, even if took them a while to realize it.

Next Week: I delve into the relationship between H. G. and Jane by unearthing The Picshuas of H. G. Wells!

07 October 2016

The Problem with Prequels

In his history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss discusses how the pleasure of sequels is innately different from the pleasure of original works. We can only ever go to Arrakis for the first time once. No subsequent Dune novel cannot capture that feeling. It's not that sequels are necessarily inferior, but just that they do something different than original works. If you want the pleasure of discovering the new, you cannot get it from a sequel, only the pleasure of recognition. (I'm going from memory here because my copy of Aldiss is on campus and I am not.)

That said, I would add that rarely is a sequel good if is precisely apes the original work. The best sequels are often repetition with variation, enough alike the original work to deliver the pleasure of recognition, but different enough to deliver the pleasure of discovery as well, even if less so than the original work.

As far as I remember, Aldiss has nothing to say about prequels, but there are obviously some related issues there. Recently, I watched a video recorded a couple years ago, where Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, creators and executive producers of Enterprise (later known as Star Trek: Enterprise) discuss the series some ten years or so on:

They talk about their reasons for doing a prequel for the fifth Star Trek series, which was feeling that the future of the future was not going to be distinctive enough from the future. I don't think this had to be true, but Rick Berman had worked on Star Trek since season one of The Next Generation in 1987, and been co-executive producer or executive producer of every season of Star Trek since 1988.

By the time Enterprise came around in 2001, Berman had executive-produced twenty seasons of Star Trek in thirteen years.  Brannon Braga came to Star Trek as an intern on Next Generation in 1990. After taking various writer and producer titles on both Next Generation and Voyager, Braga became a co-executive producer on Voyager in 1997, and an executive producer in 1998. Someone else might have been able to envision a new twist on the Star Trek formula by going forward, but they could not.

So they went back. When you go backwards, you get the same thing, only different. And, maybe even better, you get to see how something different becomes the same thing. Ideally, the pleasure of discovery is the discovery of recognition in this case.

I even have a t-shirt with this slogan on it.
Now, it's a long video, and I'm not here to nitpick my way through it or anything, but they spend much of it defending Enterprise, but not always in a compelling way-- the problem of the show is not in its fundamental premise, but in how they went about it. (And in that it probably has the dullest main cast of any Star Trek series.) They talk about how the whole point of Enterprise was to show everything we were accustomed to from the earlier shows as new: phasers are new, warp drive is (kinda) new, beaming is new. But, they say, once these things are shown as new... they kind of stop being new.

It's like, Captain Archer goes, "I've never phasered someone before," he then phasers someone for the first time, and now there's no reason for him to treat a phaser differently than any other weapon. Same for transporters: "Oh no one's ever beamed a human before. Well that worked fine. Let's beam all the time."

In the video, Berman and Braga seem to use this as the reason Enterprise turned out to not be very distinct from the previous Star Trek shows, in a way that indicates they find the answer acceptable. After all, they seem to be saying, how many times could Archer say, "Wow phasers"? But when I watched the video, I found this part really frustrating, because it shouldn't be a shrug, oh well, what could we do? moment. The problem with Enterprise is that too much of it is just like what came later. It's a problem that Enterprise's "phase pistols" were the complete same as the ones on the original show, that they could always rely on the transporter when it mattered, that their "slow" warp drive still moved at the speed of plot. They took the setting of the prequel, and then told a lot of the same dumb Star Trek stories.

But they should have been rethinking and reexamining these core concepts of Star Trek. Their phasers should have been different-- or they shouldn't have had phasers at all, and whatever weapons they used should have actually been different in a way that would affect the storytelling. Like, the ship on Enterprise didn't have shields, but it could "polarize" its hull plating, and they treated this exactly like shields on The Next Generation and the later shows, down to the fact that characters would say nonsensical things like, "hull plating at 34%." Like, what could that even mean, because I can see in the exterior shots that 66% of the hull plating is not missing. Substituting new words into the same old stories is not actually making a prequel.

Enterprise should have been as different from the original Star Trek as The Next Generation was from it. Later in its run, it moved in this direction, with mixed results, but its first two seasons mostly failed to deliver on its premise. Like I said above, Berman had been behind twenty seasons of Star Trek already, and Braga had worked on eleven. They were clearly out of ways to tell Star Trek stories that were the same but different, that combined the pleasures of discovery and of recognition, but moving backwards instead of forward didn't somehow magically give this to them.

Plus the characters were mostly dull, and the actual episodes often misjudged, but that's a whole different blog post.

TIL it's impossible to find a picture of Captain Archer where he doesn't look like a doofus. Sorry, Scott Bakula, you really were excellent in Quantum Leap.

06 October 2016

Review: Afterimage by Helen Humphreys

Trade paperback, 248 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2000)

Acquired October 2013
Read October 2014
Afterimage by Helen Humphreys

Long and immaculate descriptions of nothing happening, people with weirdly muted reactions to things happening around them. It just meanders into tedium, into details of weird people doing weird things, seemingly with no point and no end. I found it difficult to care because no one in the book seemed to care about anything either.

Then, on page 220 or so (out of 248), the fire happens, and the book becomes utterly captivating: Helen Humphreys' style suddenly has a point other than beauty for its own sake, and the imagery is gorgeous. But 28 pages from the end is a little too late to hook me.

Also: isn't it a little weird that the book's whole premise is that it's based on real photographs of a real Victorian housemaid, images so strange that Helen Humphreys felt compelled to write a novel about them, yet the cover uses a contemporary stock photo?

05 October 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXXII: The Sandman: Overture: The Deluxe Edition

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2013-15)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
The Sandman: Overture: The Deluxe Edition

Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by J. H. Williams III
Colors by Dave Stewart
Letters by Todd Klein

There have been a lot of Sandman spin-offs over the years. This is the 32nd one that I have read, not counting independent ongoings like Sandman Mystery Theatre, Lucifer, or House of Mystery. But this is probably the only one people were ever really asking for: what was it that left Dream depleted and powerless enough to be captured by a human sorcerer before the events of issue #1 of Gaiman's series? Finally that story is being told.

Overture, first and foremost, is a beautiful book. J. H. Williams III is always a dependable artist, but it seems unlikely to me that he'll ever surpass the work he's done here:
This took me forever to work out, but the lights at the top spell out "FOUR" because J. H. Williams works the chapter number into the beginning of each chapter. For a while I saw "FOV" and didn't recognize the "R" at all.
from The Sandman: Overture #4

And it's not just beautiful, as Williams uses the layouts and form of his art to really tell a story:

04 October 2016

Review: The Transformers Classics, Vol. 1 by Bob Budiansky et al.

Last year, I reviewed the components of IDW's Doctor Who Humble Bundle; IDW also has done a couple Transformers Humble Bundles, and I've downloaded the components of both of them and have been reading an issue a day over breakfast, on days where I don't have other comics to read. There are diverse range of comics on hand, and I'll be reviewing them in some semblance of continuity order, beginning with the first volume of the collected Generation One comics:

Comic PDF eBook, 315 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1984-86)
Acquired August 2014
Read November 2015
The Transformers Classics, Vol. 1

Plots by Bill Mantlo, Jim Salicrup, Bob Budiansky
Scripts by Ralph Macchio, Jim Salicrup, Bob Budiansky
Pencils by Frank Springer, Alan Kupperberg, William Johnson, Ricardo Villamonte, Herb Trimpe, Don Perlin
Inks by Kim DeMulder, Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, Alan Kupperberg, Kyle Baker, Brad Joyce, Tom Palmer, Al Gordon
Letters by Michael Higgins, Rick Parker, Janice Chiang, John Workman, Diana Albers
Colors by Nelson Yomtov

I have a bit of a mixed relationship with The Transformers. I loved the two spin-offs of the original cartoon, Beast Wars and Beast Machines, both of which I followed devotedly in high school. But my attempts to return to the source material have done little for me: I don't care for any single episode of the original 1980s Transformers cartoon I have seen, aside from the 1986 film, which I like not so much for its quality, but for the sublimely unique experience that is watching it: toy robot advertisements meets mythological saga, featuring both Orson Welles and Weird Al. But I always like the idea of the Transformers-- how could you not?-- and with the cheapness of a Humble Bundle, I'm willing to give it another go.

Unfortunately, I think the opening volume of the 1980s Marvel Transformers comic betrays all the weaknesses of the format. While I think the Beast-era cartoons managed to put storytelling above toy-selling, this comic drowns in its toy-commercial roots, driven home by the giant panels where umpteen characters introduce themselves, their gimmicks, and potted explanations of their own personalities:
And, get this, this is only half of the spread! There are two whole pages of Autobots doing this, plus another whole page for the Decepticons earlier in the issue.
from The Transformers #1 (plot by Bill Mantlo, script by Ralph Macchio, art by Frank Springer & Kim DeMulder)

The worst part of it is that little of these introductions even matter! You never hear from most of these characters in any substantive way, and when you do, they're written completely generically-- the little bits of personality they deploy here never matter. This is probably unavoidable by the design of the comic; when you have eighteen good guy characters and eleven bad guy ones, and are constantly adding new ones as new toys come out, it becomes impossible for more than a handful of them, if that, to receive any kind of focus in a 22-page comic book!

The human characters are few and distinctive enough to pop, though not always for the best. There's a kid who's an obvious reader surrogate, "Buster" Witwicky, son of a mechanic but with no mechanical aptitude himself, but I find myself gravitating more toward his single father, "Sparkplug", a grizzled Vietnam vet who is scared by these strange alien robots but still has a heart of gold.

Surprisingly serious stuff, actually.
from The Transformers #4 (script by Jim Salicrup, art by Frank Springer and Ian Akin & Brian Garvey)

I also found myself liking Ratchet, the ambulance Transformer who is the Autobot's mechanic, but I think that might be because I imagined him voiced by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Jeff Combs, who voiced Ratchet in the 2010-13 cartoon Transformers: Prime.

Initially, the first four issues are written by three writers (Bill Mantlo, Ralph Macchio, and Jim Salicrup), but after that, the long-serving Bob Budiansky takes over. I've of two minds about Budiansky's work. He obviously doesn't want things to be stale. While on television, The Transformers was about Autobots led by Optimus Prime and Decepticons led by Megatron fighting an unchanging war, Budiansky is constantly adjusting the status quo. The logical Shockwave assumes control of the Decepticons, and manages to subdue and capture most of the Autobots. The Shockwave-Megatron throwdown is probably the best sequence in this whole volume, but other than that, the old status quo had so little time to bed in, that seeing the Autobots scattered and leaderless isn't all that effective an upset, and the Autobots don't end up with a whole lot of focus.

That said, this is a pretty great issue-ending image.
from The Transformers #5 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Alan Kupperberg)

Budiansky likes to sprinkle in tales that put some focus on the human element, with mixed results; the trucker whose trailer is stolen by the Decepticons has some potential; the man who finds his life of crime enhanced by his possession of a Megatron locked into handgun mode is much more entertaining. So there's obviously potential here, but thus far I feel like Budiansky and his very varied artistic collaborators aren't really delivering on it.

(One last note of complaint: two issues here feature Marvel-owned characters, Spider-Man and Circuit Breaker, in issues #3 and #9. IDW actually did get the rights to reprint them in hard copy, which was, I believe, a first, but apparently not electronically. I understand that these things happen, but the e-book version of this collection doesn't explain their omission, just cutting from issue #2 to #4, and from page 55 to page 81, without a single comment!)

Next Week: Bob Budiansky does his best-ever work on The Transformers, in Classics, Vol. 2!