19 November 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Raise the Dawn

Mass market paperback, 394 pages
Published 2012

Acquired September 2012
Read June 2019
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn
by David R. George III

August 2383–September 2384
Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn are definitely one of those duologies that's a single novel in two parts. In my review of Plagues of Night, I wrote, "Plagues of Night [is] very much a novel of set-up, especially for the traditional protagonist characters [...]. We get glimpses of Sisko captaining the Robinson, the Enterprise battling Tzenkethi privateers, and updates for a number of long-unseen characters on Deep Space 9 (plus introductions to new ones). These characters don't really drive any kind of plot, except on a personal level. The plot drivers all happen at the galactic political level, with characters like Praetor Gell Kamemor and President Nan Bacco making the choices that shape the story." I also said I felt like I couldn't really judge it until I read part two.

I don't think Raise the Dawn lived up to the set-up of Plagues of Night. Plagues of Night felt like watching David R. George play a game of cosmic chess, moving characters into position for some kind of exciting end game. Unfortunately, no exciting end game ever emerges. Instead, it feels as though the book is a series of conversations between people about how much they do not know about things. President Bacco talks to Esperanza Piñiero, Praetor Gell Kamemor talks to her nephew, Sisko talks to Odo, Kamemor talks to Bacco, around and around this novel goes with long conversations about how much no one knows about what's going on, with no new information being uncovered. It's especially frustrating because the reader does know what's going on. It's not until around 300 pages into this novel of almost 400 that I felt like people really began to figure anything out worth knowing. The end does have a pretty dramatic climax, but by that point I was too checked out to enjoy it very much, although Odo becoming a space creature and flying into the Bajoran Wormhole is pretty badass.

The really weird thing about the book is that when I got to the end, I realized Gell Kamemor is the protagonist. Its her decisions that tend to move things forward; the antagonists (Tomalak and Sela) are primarily operating against her. This is okay, though I wish Kamemor was more interesting; mostly she seems to just give long speeches about how she's a nice Romulan. I guess, based on some comments characters make, she was in The Lost Era: Serpents Among the Ruins? I don't remember her at all.

But if Gell Kamemor is the protagonist... what are all these other characters doing in the book? That Deep Space 9 should be destroyed in a book very much not a Deep Space Nine books reeks of the worst aspects of comic book crossovers, where some mid- or lower-tier character is cynically killed or maimed in a high-tier book to prove the situation is serious without actually hurting any high-tier characters (e.g., Infinite Crisis, Infinite Crisis Companion, World War III). It just seems weird that something as titanic as destroying DS9 would not really result in a story about DS9, but just raise the stakes in a story about Gell Kamemor. We get a lot of the DS9 crew on Bajor post-destruction, but it's not really a story, more snapshots of exposition so that we know where the new DS9 comes from when it finally materializes (it's halfway done by the time of the book's epilogue), so I assume I will be seeing it in future novels. O'Brien and Nog come back, Quark is doing a thing, Ro is in charge. It's all kind of pointless within the context of story actually being told here, and it's all very low-key given how weighty the actual destruction is. One would hope that the destruction of DS9 would feel important to the characters and stories of DS9, but it's just kind of a thing that happened.

Finally, Sisko. Sisko finally goes back to his family in this book, but I found the explanation of the Prophets' prophecy tortured and ultimately unsatisfying. Sisko couldn't be with Kasidy because it would lead to sorrow, but the sorrow actually came from not being with Kasidy because he ran away from her because of the prophecy, so he can be with Kasidy because... you can't step in the same river twice? What was the point of this whole storyline, because it just makes Sisko look like a giant asshole. It's hard for me to believe Kasidy would even want him back after all this, because who wants a spouse whose reaction to crisis is to run off with no discussion? He's clearly not committed to her or their child or their relationship in any meaningful way, even if he did technically come home in the end.

Continuity Notes:
  • No one mentions that this is actually the second time Odo plunged into the Bajoran Wormhole like a badass. (Time's Enemy is technically in continuity thanks to S.C.E. and DTI.)
  • Like me, David R. George seems to have found Nog's motivations for joining the Challenger crew in Indistinguishable from Magic confusing, so when Ro asks why Nog did it, Nog himself can't provide an answer-- and then provides four different ones, none of which convince. I feel like I would have glossed over this instead of spending two ultimately unsatisfactory pages on it.
  • Lots of discussion of the status of Andorians in Starfleet; no mention of how Starfleet recalled Andorians from sensitive posts in Fallen Gods. And hey, I'm assuming those transporter duplicates will become important any book now.
Other Notes:
  • This book could be a hundred pages shorter without all the exposition. I feel like the dialogue is always contorting to have the characters communicate things that 1) could be more smoothly communicated in narration, 2) the reader actually already knows, because they saw the tv show (or, in some cases, read this very book), and/or 3) don't actually matter. Like, there are multiple discussions of the so-called planet in the wormhole from "Emissary." But never upon watching "Emissary" did I think there really was a planet, and it ultimately doesn't even matter, so why does it need to be crowbarred into dialogue multiple times?
  • The narration itself does this too. For example, at one point Picard thinks to himself about who Kira is, how he knows who Kira is, and how the Enterprise rescued Kira earlier in the book. I don't need the specifics of Picard's knowledge of Kira spelled out (I'm happy to know they know each other), and why do I need to be told the Enterprise rescued her? I remember it because it happened in the book I am reading!
  • I found the motivation of the DS9 bomber profoundly unsatisfying and improbable.

18 November 2019

Review: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 826 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 1981-2019)

Acquired July 2019
Read August 2019
Always Coming Home: Author's Expanded Edition
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Always Coming Home is a critical utopia by Le Guin from 1985, here collected in a beautiful Library of America edition with many supplemental materials (I own all four LoA Le Guins, but this is the first I've read). The book is odd and tough to get into at first: Pandora, an anthropologist from our time, is doing a study of the Kesh, a civilization in the postapocalyptic Napa Valley. What we get are a mixture of texts: notes by Pandora on Kesh culture and language, Kesh poetry and song and myth, Kesh biography and memoir, short interviews with particular Kesh, and a partial Kesh novel. At first I admired it more than I liked it, but as I went on, I got into it more and more.

I particularly liked how it was structured: most of the biographies are short, but there's one long one, "Stone Telling," that's distributed in three chunks across the whole book. The first part is tough going, because you're thrown into this alien culture with pretty much no explanation. But as you read further into the book, moving back and forth between different kinds of texts, they start to reinforce one another. The specificity of "Stone Telling" brings some of the anthropological details to life, keeps them from being abstractions, but also by the time you get to the final chunk of "Stone Telling," you understand it a lot better because of all the other material about the Kesh you've read. It help that "Stone Telling" is about a Kesh who goes outside the valley; Le Guin correctly grasps that contrast is a strong way to reveal how something is constructed. We figure out the Kesh by seeing what they are not.

There are lots of neat little details. I like the train, and the Kesh lodges and houses, and the attention to how language structures thought, and the discussion of Kesh adolescence, and the Kesh term for "pets," and how some Kesh became warriors because of outside influence. I like how at first the society seems non-technological, but as you go you realize that this seemingly "primitive" people have solar panels on every roof and a computer access terminal in every village! I liked the City of Mind (a vast computer network) and the City of Man (the way the Kesh understand our civilization). As someone who reads a lot of nineteenth-century utopian literature, I liked when Pandora gets metatextual with one of her cicerones: "This is the kind of conversation they always have in utopia. I set you up and then you give interesting, eloquent, and almost entirely convincing replies. Surely we can do better than that!" (370) I laughed out loud at that (and then struggled to explain why it was funny to my wife). H. G. Wells made a similar joke in The Time Machine, but Le Guin takes it in a much more optimistic direction.

I don't think you have to read every word to enjoy this (I skimmed some of the poetry, sorry Ursula, and occasionally some of the narratives got a little too weird to be interesting), but by the end I was really enjoying it, and I feel like I learned something about my own society, which is what any good utopia should do. I don't think I would like being Kesh, to be honest, but thank you to Pandora and Le Guin for letting me visit them.

The book also contains three other sections: "Pandora Revisits the Kesh and Come Back with New Texts," "Other Writing Related to Always Coming Home," and "Essays." The first is some extra material Le Guin finalized just before he death, published here for the first time. The most noteworthy part is that Always Coming Home features a one-chapter excerpt from the Kesh novel Dangerous People, but here we get three chapters, and extra footnotes from Pandora; when I got to where Dangerous People was incorporated in the original ACH, I jumped ahead and read the version here, before going back. There's also some more poems.

The second section is Kesh-related material published elsewhere; the standout part of it is "May's Lion," a great little short story about a dying mountain lion, in both our world and the Kesh's.

The final section is a number of essays and lectures by Le Guin that illuminate Always Coming Home in some way. They did indeed deepen my appreciation for the book, and allow me to see more of the levels on which it was operating. But also Le Guin was an accomplished essayist, so these make for thoughtful, interesting reading on their own, especially "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" (about how to imagine utopias better), "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (fiction that moves away from conflict), and "Indian Uncles" (Le Guin's relationships with three Native men who were friends of her father, himself an anthropologist).
"Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural invention must have been a container to hold the gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier." So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women's Creation. But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a spaceship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don't know. I don't even care. I'm not telling that story. (726-7)

13 November 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #608-09: Ending Battle

Ending Battle: "Morning Twilight" / "Dawn's Early Light" / "In the Dark of the Noon Day Sun" / "The Thirteenth Hour" / "After School Special" / "Rush Hour" / "Nightfall" / "The Last Supervillain"

Action Comics vol. 1 #795-96, The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #608-09, Superman vol. 2 #186-87, Superman: The Man of Steel #130-31 (Nov.-Dec. 2002)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Joe Casey, Mark Schultz, and Joe Kelly

Pencils: Pascual Ferry, Derec Aucoin, Brandon Badeaux, and Duncan Rouleau
Inks: Cam Smith, Derec Aucoin, Mark Morales, Marlo Alquiza, and Mark Farmer
Colors: Tanya & Rich Horie, Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, and Moose Baumann
Letters: Richard Starkings and Ken Lopez 
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Ending Battle is the second-last of the Joe Casey-era Super titles crossovers, and arguably one of the more successful. Unlike the two Return to Krypton stories, it bounces through each of the four Super titles twice; unlike Our Worlds at War, it doesn't sprawl too much, but stays contained. There's still a lot of action, arguably too much, but the story also has a decent focus on character, and has clearly been designed so that the overwhelming amount of action is, in many ways, the point of it all.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #608
(script by Joe Casey, art by Derec Aucoin)
The story is a sequel to "What's So Funny about Truth, Justice, & the American Way?" (Action Comics #775), a satire on The Authority that thankfully I read many years ago. Manchester Black, after his role in Prelude to War! and All-Out War!, is back for revenge on Superman, but what he wants is nothing so mundane as Superman's death. Rather, Black wants to demonstrate that Superman is as prone to violent solutions as he is, and to push Superman to his limit. So, Black uses his mind control powers to make Superman's life-- or rather Clark Kent's-- hell. The first couple issues are just an onslaught of supervillains attacking key people in Clark's life, which keeps Superman busy to the point of exhaustion, and also lets him know that someone knows his secret identity. (That Black is behind it all isn't made clear until about halfway through the story.)

So Superman must protect Pete and Lana at the White House, then his parents (who have un-died at some point since Casualties of War!), then his high-school football coach, his dentist, his journalism professor, his local librarian, his optometrist, Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet office, and John Henry and Natasha Irons. Some of this works better than others. A lot of the supervillains are, quite frankly, C- and D-grade material. I guess that's kind of by design (I doubt Manchester Black could control an A-grade villain, and the A-grades he does control are saved for the climax of the conflict), but I'm not terribly into reading a whole issue where Superman fights a guy whose power is, apparently, "chains." Joe Casey handles it best in part 2 (Adventures #608), and Mark Schultz does a decent job of it in part 3 (Man of Steel #130). As one comes after another after another, we get a bunch of vignettes that amuse (the ridiculous of the villains in part 2 especially) but also raise the tension and demonstrate why Superman is Superman (he really does think everyone matters).

from Superman: The Man of Steel #130
(script by Mark Schultz, art by Brandon Badeaux & Mark Morales)
Each of those two writers also layers in details that make their issues sing a little bit more, make sure that they do more than play their part in the ongoing storyline. Casey parallels the action with a politician on the morning talk show circuit complaining that superheroes do more harm than good; I don't always like this kind of thing, but here it's thematically appropriate. Has Superman's insistence on facing Manchester Black his way just caused more problems in the long run? Schultz has the nice detail of Lois and Clark having a contingency plan for Clark's secret identity being compromised; like in his installment of Prelude to War!, Lois shines with her human determination in face of superhuman threat.

I also enjoyed the confrontation with Lex Luthor in Joe Kelly's part 4 (Action #795). Most of the villains don't know why they're attacking these people, they just are, but Luthor does know... and so therefore refuses to make use of the knowledge: "I was given the information -- [...] Your identity was given to me. On a platter. A mysterious file. A naive employee. No witnesses -- [...] I didn't look a gift horse in the mouth... but I have not done this. I refuse to be a pawn." As has been consistent throughout this era of Superman, putting Lex into a position of power has allowed for an exploration of some of the interesting aspects of his character.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #795
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Duncan Rouleau & Marlo Alquiza)
After a promising first seven-sixteenths, though, I found the storyline went downhill. Superman fighting the Elite again wasn't very interesting (I don't think the Elite are very interesting in and of themselves, only as tools of Manchester Black, and he's only interesting as an embodiment of the anti-Superman philosophy of The Authority), and then Metropolis has been taken over by Mongul, Bizarro, et al. I think it's only the third time since Joe Casey came on board that Metropolis has been hit by a massive disaster... but three massive disasters in less than two years of comics makes for an overused trope. Casey does manage to do something interesting with it all in part 6 (Adventures #609), but it feels like it's in spite of the actual storyline. There's some focus on the politician guy again, which I liked, and once again Casey delves into Superman's thoughts about the massive violence he's able to deploy whenever he wants to. But the actual plot is just another big throwdown.

The whole thing comes down to a battle between Superman and Manchester Black, where Superman thinks Lois Lane is dead, and Black mentally abuses Lois, either revealing or creating-- I wasn't sure-- memories of her abuse at the hands of her father. This seemed unnecessarily dark to me, and the whole conclusion (Action #796) doesn't quite come off. What Ending Battle wanted to be was Superman pushed to his limit, and he still doesn't snap... but you never feel like Superman actually would snap. All of these terrible things have happened to him in one awful day, but he just kind of shrugs it all off and does the right thing. Which, fair do, Superman should always do the right thing... but in life doing the right thing is rarely easy. Here's it's almost flippant how Superman is like, "You murdered my wife but I will take the moral high ground."

from Action Comics vol. 1 #796
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Duncan Rouleau & Marlo Alquiza)
I'm not sure how I would do it differently. I don't want to read a "dark Superman" story. But if you do all of this to Superman and can't make it seem like he could snap but doesn't, then really, I don't think you should have done the story in the first place. I liked Manchester Black and the Elite in "What's So Funny about Truth, Justice, & the American Way?", but they seem like a set of characters molded for one story and one purpose, and not flexible enough to keep reusing. The more they turn up, the less they seem like whatever they were originally supposed to do.

All that said, the story is one of the better of the Super title crossovers, which I guess is damning with faint praise. It has length enough to fit its scope, but doesn't sprawl; the emotional throughline is more thought out and thought through than in Return to Krypton, Our Worlds at War, or Return to Krypton II. Only Lost Hearts (still to come) was better, but on the whole, I feel like it was a format the writers and editors of this era never really worked out to its best.


12 November 2019

Review: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume One by Paul Levitz, Mike Grell, James Sherman, et al.

Every six months, I read a volume of The Legion of Super-Heroes. This time around, it's...

Comic hardcover, 304 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 1977-78)
Acquired June 2017
Read August 2019
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume One

Plotters: Jack C. Harris, Gerry Conway, Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg, and Jim Starlin
Writers: Jack C. Harris, Gerry Conway, Paul Levitz, and Paul Kupperberg
Pencillers/Layout Artists: Juan Ortiz, Ric Estrada, Mike Grell, George Tuska, James Sherman, Mike Nasser, Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin, and Howard Chaykin
Inkers/Finishers: Bob Smith, Jack Abel, Vince Colletta, Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Rick Bryant, and Bob Wiacek
Colorists: Liz Berube, Jerry Serpe, Anthony Tollin, Mike Nasser, Adrienne Roy, and Cory Adams
Letterers: Ben Oda, Milt Snapinn, Gaspar Saladino, and Shelly Leferman

The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives series stalled out at volume 13 in 2012, collecting up through Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #233. The Great Darkness Saga: The Deluxe Edition picks up with issue #284, leaving a fifty-some-issue gap. Thankfully, in 2017 DC published this volume to begin to plug the gap, collecting #234-40, plus assorted other appearances from the late 1970s.

Very ominous! Yet they all do get on pretty well.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #236 (script by Paul Levitz & Paul Kupperberg, art by James Sherman & Bob McLeod)

Thankfully also, it's good. The Legion Archives were wildly inconsistent. Superboy and the Legion is still somewhat inconsistent, especially since the book has no regular team, but Paul Levitz's developing writing style are beginning to make this the Legion I like best, one with character and history. Levitz is good at bringing out the characters' diverse personalities, aided by James Sherman, whose art is more interested in using different "character angles" and uses close-ups on faces to good effect. Nothing here is as serialized or as dramatic as what Levitz would later do in Great Darkness Saga, but I found it a consistently enjoyable volume, with a lot of neat standalone, character-driven adventures.

That's one big ship. It feels a bit Star Wars-y to me, and judging by its cover date, the issue would have been drawn right around the time it came out.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #236 (script by Paul Levitz, art by Mike Nasser and Joe Rubinstein & Rick Bryant)

Highlights included Mon-El singlehandledly saving a science platform from a Khund assault; I particularly liked how Mike Nasser drew the space stuff in the more gritty style of DC's Time Warp, instead of the usual Legion style of cheesy early sf. I liked the exploration of Wildfire as team leader. Vhe story where Ultra Boy is a murder suspect was a little contrived, but gave some great moments as Ultra Boy and Chameleon Boy face off against each other. It was nice to discover a little more about Dawnstar.

I like that Cham is somehow both optimistically chipper (as per above) and deeply suspicious. I guess it makes sense as a personality for a friendly shapeshifter.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #239 (plot by Jim Starlin & Paul Levitz, dialogue by Paul Levitz, art by Jim Starlin & Josef Rubinstein)

That's not to say it's not without its doofy low points. The Composite Legionnaire story was dumb, and the story about how Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad got married packed too much into its length: the idea of how the Time Trapper changed time seemed like it could have had more exploration.

You can overdramatically explain timeline changes to me any day, Princess Projectra.
from All-New Collectors' Edition #C-55 (script by Paul Levitz, art by Mike Grell & Vince Colletta)

I thought it was interesting that Levitz explained how the series could have been running so long but everyone is still a "Lad" or "Lass": the 30th century has life extension knowledge, so people in their twenties are still kids. But Superboy's mind is always wiped of that information, so that he won't be tempted to take it back to the 20th century and save the Kents! (Back in the 1970s, the Kents died before Clark became Superman.) I'm not sure it really needed attention called to it, but the idea that the future represents a temptation to Superboy is an interesting one.

I didn't know Dawnstar was in Legion Academy. I also didn't know she was such a jerk!
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #240 (plot by Paul Levitz, script by Paul Kupperberg, art by James Sherman & Bob McLeod)
Next Week: Back to Star Trek-- on Deep Space 9, it's time to Raise the Dawn!

11 November 2019

Review: Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2007)
Acquired December 2017
Read March 2019
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil

Written and drawn by Jeff Smith
Colored by Steve Hamaker

I liked this, but I wanted to love it; I got interested in reading more modern takes on Captain Marvel after enjoying the character's appearances in The Multiversity and Convergence: Infinite Earths. I don't think The Monster Society of Evil quite hits the notes of joy or childlike wonder that those stories do; Smith's take on Captain Marvel is a little too... bogged down. It's nowhere near grim and gritty, but it feels bound in a way that those other stories don't. Still: Smith's artwork is delightful and the story does a great job playing with a lot of classic Captain Marvel concepts but updating them for the 2000s. I can always go for a talking tiger.

08 November 2019

Reading Roundup Wrapup: October 2019

Pick of the month: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. This was a good book, but in a month of four, it does rather win by default. I've gotten mired in a book I absolutely do not care for. Gotta power through!

All books read:
1. Doctor Who by Gary Russell
2. Star Trek: First Contact by John Vornholt
3. Night Watch: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett
4. Paper Girls 6 by Brian K. Vaughan

All books acquired:
1. Paper Girls 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
2. The Walking Dead: Compendium Four by Robert Kirkman
3. Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology edited by Pever Ahlstrom
4. You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

Books remaining on "to be read" list: 651 (down 1)
Books remaining on "to review" list: 9 (up 1)

06 November 2019

Joe Casey Jay Faerber's Adventures of Superman #607: "Alienation"


The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #607 (Oct. 2002)

Guest Writer: Jay Faerber
Guest Penciller: Brandon Badeaux
Guest Inker: Mark Morales

Colorists: Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Assistant Editor: Tom Palmer, Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Here we come to this marathon's first installment with no actual Joe Casey content. This issue, in the gap between Super title crossovers Return to Krypton II and Ending Battle, is a fill-in by Jay Faerber. Faerber had just come off a three-year run on The Titans when this was released, and indeed, the issue focuses on a Titan I'd never heard of, Argent, coming to Superman for advice.

I was expecting it to be terrible. A fill-in by a writer I'd never heard of featuring a character I'd never heard of-- and with an awful-looking cover, with a gross looking Alienesque creature. The tagline "Inner Demon!" implied someone battling an anger within, one of my least favorite comic book tropes.

Surprisingly and thankfully, it wasn't. It's not a complex story, but it is a decent one. Argent (whose superpower seems to be how her costume doesn't reveal all at any moment) was recently outed as half-alien, and she feels like people view her differently now. More distantly, more as an object. So she's come to Superman for advice on how to be an alien among humanity.

They have their conversation while Superman is only patrol around Metropolis, and it's the touches that Faerber weaves into this that makes the story come to life. I always like it when Superman is the upstanding moral exemplar, and this story gives us that in spades: he just goes about his business, but keeps reassuring Argent the entire time. At one point he swoops in to save people from a car crash, but tells Argent to keep talking, listening to her with his super-hearing while he casually saves lives.

That's basically it. They talk while they save lives together; of course, she resolves her issues pretty patly when they encounter a situation that mirrors it. It's a simple story, and it's not a great story, but it is an enjoyable little slice of life in the day-to-day of Superman. Faerber gets the character, and tonally it fits with Casey's approach on his own standalone issues, being more about character and the impact of Superman's ideals than fights or action, like #599 and 600 especially.

Brandon Badeaux's artwork is occasionally a little awkward (too many lines), but fundamentally solid, and Mark Morales is one of those consistent inkers of the 2000s I'm always happy to see more of.


05 November 2019

Review: Star Trek: First Contact by John Vornholt, Terry Pallot, et al.

Perfect-bound comic, 48 pages
Published 1996
Acquired June 2019
Read October 2019
Star Trek: First Contact

Adapted by John Vornholt
Art by Terry Pallot (pages 1-36 & 40-48)
Layouts by Rod Whigham
Pencils by Rod Whigham (pages 37-39)
Inks by Philip Moy
Color Design by Shannon Blanchard
Lettered by Edd Fear

In my review of the Generations adaptation, I said the First Contact adaptation from Marvel (the last-ever adaptation of a Prime Universe Star Trek film) hadn't been collected. I tracked it down to read it and discovered that even though it's a one-shot comic... it has an ISBN for some reason. Which under my personal rules means I can count it as a book. I don't know why, but I'll take it.

If you haven't seen the film or Voyager, it's not even clear this guy is a hologram! What's an "EMH"? (art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, & Philip Moy)

John Vornholt scripts; I didn't know he did any comics work, actually, as I primarily know him as a prolific Star Trek novelist in the 1990s, including the YA novels of all four Next Generation films, meaning this is one of two adaptations of First Contact that he wrote. It's an okay script. The first half captures the film well, but something is off with the pacing, and the second half gets very choppy, with a lot of the movie's great scenes cut down so much they lose their impact. The argument between Picard and Lily where he breaks his ships becomes a calm conversation; the great bit about Moby-Dick literally becomes: "You're like Captain Ahab." "Have you read Moby Dick?" "Actually, no." Zefram Cochrane is a particular victim of the condensation; the values conflict between him and the Enterprise crew doesn't come off at all.

The thing about Cochrane's music also doesn't come off in a medium that can only represent "Ooby Dooby" and "Magic Carpet Ride" with "TWANG-DA-DA-TWANG!" (art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, & Philip Moy)

The art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, and Philip Moy looks nice; it has that nice 1990s pre-computers style that I like, reminding me of people like Mike Collins or Matt Haley. (Which I guess makes sense, because Mike Collins worked on Marvel's 1990s Star Trek comics.) The action is often confusing, though, especially the shipboard fights against the Borg. I'm not sure a reader could follow the Dixon Hill scene if they didn't see the film. But then, who is reading this who didn't see the film? Like most film-to-comics adaptations, I'm discovering, it's serviceable, but adds little to your experience.

Next Week: From the 24th century to the 30th: I revisit Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes!

04 November 2019

Review: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Three edited Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor

Hardcover, 623 pages
Published 1982 (contents: 1965-69)

Acquired January 2009
Read August 2019
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Three: Nebula Winners, 1965-1969
edited Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor

My reading of the first two volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (which actually occupied three books) predates this blog, but I enjoyed volumes one and two B, and found volume two A lacking. In the stronger volumes, it felt like every story was a great, just one after another after another. Which, one supposes, is what you want out of a series called "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame." Volume three is somewhere in the middle; while I remember mostly bouncing off volume two A, volume three contains some great work, some important work I'm glad to have read, and some stuff that while not terrible, did little for me.

Highlights included the two stories by Harlan Ellison: "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "A Boy and His Dog." The latter, about a boy and his telepathic dog in a postapocalyptic wasteland, is kind of a predictable Twilight Zoneesque affair, but with more sex and violence, elevated by a strong sense of voice. The former was excellent sf-as-satire, and feels even more pressing in the 2010s than it did in the 1960s, I suspect. After reading Ellison's biography last year, I realized I'd read little of the man's actual work, so it was nice to have some fall into my lap.

There are a couple Roger Zelazny stories as well; while I found "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" kind of meh, I really enjoyed "He Who Shapes." More intelligent dogs, this time used to aid blind people. Interestingly, Zelazny can imagine self-driving cars... but not text-to-speech or speech-to-text technology! But it's a cool concept, well-executed, and the self-driving cars are kind of an incidental detail of the story, but one whose implications he pursues in interesting ways nonetheless.

Of course I was fond of Brian Aldiss's H. G. Wells pastiche, "The Saliva Tree," which does a good job of doing the Wellsian thing of reimagining humanity's place in the universe through biological analogy. The bit where he stuffs in all the story titles was a bit much, but overall this gets both the flavor and the mission of the early scientific romances.

Samuel Delany is someone else I'm always meaning to read more of. "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" was strong on atmosphere, but a little impenetrable; however, I was very impressed by "Aye, and Gomorrah . . .", which imagines not only a group of sexless spacers (the radiation of space damages the sexual organs), but a group of people who would be attracted to them.

I was also pleased to read some more of Robert Silverberg's short sf, another person I feel like I haven't read enough of; "Passengers" is grim and well put together. And I've read Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonrider" before (it's a novella that became the middle third of her novel Dragonflight, which I read as part of The Dragonriders of Pern omnibus), but it mostly works on its own, too, and I enjoyed it all over again; it reminded me that I have a few more Pern novels I have never read.

Other good stories, though not as strong as the above, included Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" and Richard Wilson's "Mother to the World." And then there are several more besides. It's a big book, with sixteen stories ranging from about ten pages to ninety. There were only two stories I bounced off completely: Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place" and Kate Willhelm's "The Planners." I don't think either was bad; they just never grabbed me. It's a good hit rate for an anthology.

Unlike volumes ones and two, volume three of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is no longer in print, but if you come across it in a used bookstore (as I did), it's worth your time and money. I look forward to reading volume four and beyond in time.

30 October 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #606: Return to Krypton II

Return to Krypton II: "Rising Son" / "Culture Shock" / "Blood and Heresy" / "Dream's End"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #606 (Sept. 2002)
Superman: Return to Krypton (2004), reprinting Action Comics vol. 1 #793, Superman vol. 2 #184, Superman: The Man of Steel #128 (Sept. 2002) 

Writers: Geoff Johns, Joe Casey, Mark Schultz, and Joe Kelly
Pencils: Pascual Ferry, Duncan Rouleau, and Karl Kerschl
Inks: Cam Smith, Marlo Alquiza, and Karl Kerschl

Colors: Tanya & Rich Horie, Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, and Moose Baumann
Letters: Ken Lopez
Assistant Editor: Tom Palmer jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

I had mixed feelings about the original Return to Krypton; my feelings about its sequel are more straightforwardly negative. It seems to me that both of these storylines threw away a potentially emotionally powerful premise in favor of a combination of empty action sequences and unnecessarily complicated continuity "fixes."

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #606
(script by Joe Casey, art by Duncan Rouleau & Marlo Alquiza)
In this story, the Jor-El of the Phantom Zone duplicate of Krypton manages to travel from the Zone into the real world, seeking Superman's help in pushing back against a tide of fundamentalist Kryptonian zealots who don't like Jor-El's new enlightened age. Honestly, for a supposed utopia, Krypton seems like a giant shithole, perpetually on the verge of complete social collapse at the drop of a hat. They ally themselves with General Zod's lackies against the zealots, trying to save Jor-El's wife and baby Kal-El before it's too late. It just all seems like pointless action sequences.

Then in the end, we finally get an explanation for this Krypton. I thought when reading the original Return to Krypton that all this was intended to retcon away John Byrne's Man of Steel vision of a sterile Krypton; that story claimed Jor-El presented a lie of a sterile Krypton to Kal-El so that he wouldn't feel so sad about his dead homeworld. This story rewrites that, so that we learn that after the Imperiex War (I think), Brainiac 13 time-travelled to pre-destruction Krypton (which really was the sterile world John Bryne showed us) and tried to kill Jor-El to stop Superman from being born. He failed, but made off with Jor-El's diaries and the Eradicator Matrix (I guess this is related to one-time Superman villain "the Eradicator," a.k.a. the Cyborg Superman, but I don't know enough to know), which he used in concert to make a fake Krypton as a trap for Superman. Only since Jor-El was a weirdo, his diaries recorded not the actuality of Krypton, but his dreamed, ideal Krypton. So this Krypton is a real place, a planet in the Phantom Zone, but it is not the real Krypton. Phew.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #793
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Pascual Ferry & Cam Smith)
It's not an explanation that convinces. Why would Jor-El dream up a Krypton where the government is a fascist dictatorship that suppresses dissent with lethal force, and where psychotic fundamentalists lurk in every corner? Like, dream up an actual utopia, dude!

And why did Return II even need to retcon the retcon? This was published in Sept. 2002; exactly one year later, Superman: Birthright would begin publication, removing Byrne inventions like the birthing matrix from continuity just as the first Return seemed like it was going to. By the time Return II came out, editor Eddie Berganza had to have known those changes were coming, so I just don't even get why this story-- which retcons the retcon of a retcon-- even exists.

And if you subtract the continuity jiggery-pokery, there's nothing here worth discussing. None of the five Super title crossovers published during Joe Casey's run on Adventures were exactly great, but Return to Krypton II is definitely the worst of them.

I did like that Krypto was in it, I guess, but Superman is not always a good dog-owner.