18 November 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #7: The Death of Superman

Comic trade paperback, ~168 pages
Published 1993 (contents: 1992)

Borrowed from a friend
Read November 2008
The Death of Superman

Writers: Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern
Pencillers: John Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice, Dan Jurgens
Inkers: Brett Breeding, Rick Burchett, Doug Hazlewood, Dennis Janke, Denis Rodier
Letterers: John Costanza, Albert DeGuzman, Bill Oakley, Willie Schubert
Colorists: Gene D'Angelo, Glenn Whitmore

DC Universe Timeline: Four Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1992

(Holy crap, we're vaulting to the present day at this rate. Apparently the past sixteen years of comics take place in four years? No wonder Superman decided to die-- he just wanted some time off.)

In the early 1990s, comic book writers decided to kill off Superman, knowing that it would allow them to sell a bazillion copies, even to schmucks who don't buy comic books. Rather than have someone awesome kill of Superman, like Lex Luthor, they decided to invent someone totally lame to do it instead. Meet the Darth Maul of the DC Universe: Doomsday.

We're introduced to Doomsday as a big green fist smashing its way through a wall. The best part of this is that breaking your way out of a subterranean capsule apparently makes the sound effect KRAAKK! KARAAKK! KRAKA-DOOM! I hope someone out there is collecting the stupid textually-represented sound effects comics are filled with; this one deserves to be on the list. As the issue's main plot progresses, we get little snaps of what this gigantic fellow is up to. His first act of violence? He kills a bird. Exactly how this is supposed to establish him as a threat is beyond me. "Oh no, how will Superman defeat the horrendous... BIRD KILLER? He has the power to crunch two-pound lifeforms with his bare hands!" He can also fell trees.

After that excitement-filled, opening, we cut to an orphan kid buying spraypaint in a hardware store. Apparently, his mother's been kidnapped by a gang of thugs looking to "steal electricity". Lois Lane gets some sort of tip, and leaves Clark a message on his computer. "Very high tech of her," comments Clark when he shows up at work. I think this is sort of putting paid to the notion that this story somehow takes place in 2004. The underground monsters end up stealing Metropolis's electricity, but Superman defeats them fairly easily. They're lead by a scruffy homeless man named Charlie who's actually working for Superman in any case; we're not exactly talking about a strong opposition. They come from a place called "War World"; no one ever bothers to explain why they're hanging out in the sewers or what they're going to do with their electricity. Superman leaves Charlie in the sewer in the end, because homeless people can't aspire to live better lives.

After this thrilling adventure, we cut back to the monster thing, who has just attacked a tanker... in Ohio! Apparently the monster thing came from Ohio. This makes me mildly better disposed towards him. Actually, I think this is the first time I've ever seen Ohio in a superhero comic. I bet he comes from Cleveland, though. The Justice League has been called in to deal with the tanker fire, as apparently they don't have firefighters in the DC Universe. An officer of the highway patrol thanks the Leaguers for helping out: "I'm well aware that Ohio is out of your normal area of jurisdiction--" What! I'm pretty sure this is set during the era when the Justice League was all "International" and worked for the UN; is Ohio not a UN member?

After the monster kills a deer, the Justice League springs into action (in Blue Beetle's totally awesome flying beetle) and combats him. They catch up to him outside Lex Oil's Ohio facility, where they are trounced pretty easily. Superman ditched a TV talk show where he's been doing an interview and flies to the rescue. "How could one man stand against the whole League?" he thinks. Whoa, slow down Superman. It's not like Wonder Woman, Batman, or even the Flash are part of the League now; we're talking about Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Bloodwynd, Fire and Ice, Guy Gardner, and Maxima. These aren't exactly heavy hitters. Guy, as much as I love him, is in one of the periods where he's been kicked out of the Green Lantern Corps, so he's dressed even worse than usual, and I'm pretty sure I could take out Blue Beetle. And I've never even heard of Bloodwynd or Maxima. This comic doesn't exactly inspire me to want to know more about them, either. I'm pretty sure Maxima's power is being stupid. And having an invincible midriff.

Superman finally shows up after half the League has been incapacitated. "I'm telling you, right now--" says Booster Gold "--it's like doomsday is here!" Yes, Booster, I can certainly see how wiping out a tanker and an oil facility would make this the biggest threat the League's ever seen. For some reason, Superman decides that "Doomsday" must be the monster's name. Not good with comprehension, our Superman.

It's the early 1990s, so unfortunately about half of Superman's opening battle with Doomsdayis intercut with a long-haired teenager with attitude who hates his mother. Superman hates this kid even more than I do, however; when he's trapped in a rampaging inferno, Superman flies away, thinking, "I have to... block out that plea for help!" What a nice guy.

Superman decides that even if the whole Justice League couldn't take Doomsday down, he can. He's got a point. Superman refers to the monster as "Mr. Destructo" at one point; I wish that name had stuck instead of "Doomsday"; it would have given this story the gravitas it deserves. We learn that the battle is occurring in "Kirby County, Ohio"-- there's no such place, though Wikipedia informs me that there is a "Kirby, Ohio" south of Findlay. On the other hand, Route 110 runs through the area, which is actually an 11-mile state highway in Henry County, west of Bowling Green. The governor of Ohio is mentioned; during this time, that would have been George Voinovich. The lieutenant governor actually particaptes in a phone conversation, where he is repeatedly insulted. Poor Mike DeWine.

For some reason, there's a sequence where Jimmy Olsen is dressed as a giant turtle. Then, a news anchor informs us that "It appears 'Doomsday' is on a straight path crossing from Ohio through New York State... Some theorize that the creature is on a straight course to-- or through-- Metropolis." Apparently, the news has magically got wind of Superman's misbegotten nickname for the creature. And Pennsylvania does not exist in the DC Universe. Thank God.

Superman fights Doomsday by a gas station. Can't anyone ever catch up to this guy not in proximity to flammable materials? Now we learn that the gas station is in "the village of Griffith in upstate Kirby County." Doomsday must be fluctuating the fabric of space or something, because Griffith is in eastern Ohio, nowhere near Kirby or Route 110. Alarmed by the fact that the writers don't know a thing about geography, Jack Kirby's Golden Guardian shows up. Now, I like random appearances by Fourth World characters as much as the next guy, but all he does is talk to Superman and telepathically commune with Dubbilex. Thanks a lot, dude.

All of a sudden, Doomsday's attacking a Lex-Mart in Midvale, which is about fifty miles northwest of Griffith. So much for his beeline towards Metropolis. And "Lex-Mart"? Are there any other megacorporations in the DC Universe? At the Lex-Mart, Doomsday watches an ad for a wrestling match at the Metropolis Arena. Why wrestling matches an eight-hour drive away are being advertised on this TV station is beyond me. Doomsday is intrigued by this ad and decides to head for Metropolis... despite a reporter telling us fifteen pages ago that he was heading straight towards it.

Superman and Doomsday continue to punch each other a lot. This has been going on for about fifty pages, now. I'm starting to miss the sewer folks. They might have been stupid, but that made them entertaining. Doomsday is pure tedium.

More proof that it's the early 1990s materializes with Lois Lane's awful aviators and Lex Luthor's long, flowing locks. Since when did Lex Luthor have hair, anyway? Or hang out with Supergirl?

Doomsday looks at a sign and learns that he's only sixty miles from Metropolis. Which would place him and Superman somewhere in New Jersey, I think. What the heck? What happened to Midvale? Or all of Pennsylvania, for that matter? If you're wondering why I'm focusing on the geography so much, it's because it's the only interesting thing happening here. Unless you count Superman and Doomsday throwing each other at things again and again. Including the Wild Area, which is a giant treehouse outside of Metropolis. Why wasn't this retconned out of existence during the Crisis? The Golden Guardian is still tagging along, still doing nothing. He finally decides that Doomsday is too big for Superman to handle alone... and promptly never appears in the story again. Way to go, dude.

It wouldn't help much, though. Supergirl attacks Doomsday and gets turned into a featurelss purple thing with googly eyes. I don't know what kind of punch can do that, but it's one I'd stay away from.

"This insanity ends in Metropolis!" Superman shouts outside of a Lexpark Garage. What, were the geographically confused inhabitants of Kirby County, Ohio not worthy of your best efforts? I guess not-- Ohio's not part of the UN after all.

As sensitive as ever, Jimmy Olsen (thankfully not dressed like a turtle) is excited that Doomsday's killing hundreds of Metropolis residents because it gives him some good photographs. No wonder he can't ever get a girlfriend.

Superman's cape is torn off and wraps itself around a convenient wooden pole.

Superman and Doomday punch each other for a series of one-panel pages. Superman takes one in the jaw. "Bony protrustions... so sharp.. he cut me!" he shouts. Yes, my natural reaction getting punched is also to describe the punch.


Finally, Superman decides to punch Doomsday really hard. Hard enough to kill him. Why didn't he think of this earlier? I don't know, but it's too late. Because he dies.

The narrator tells me that everyone will remember this day for years because Superman dies. He doesn't bother to mention that he only stays dead for a few months. Personally, I wasn't crying; I was rejoicing. Because the whole mess was finally over.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

29 October 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #6: Crisis on Infinite Earths

Comic trade paperback, ~368 pages
Published 2000 (contents: 1985-86)

Borrowed from a friend
Read October 2008
Crisis on Infinite Earths

Writer: Marv Wolfman
Penciller: George Pérez
Inkers: Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, Jerry Ordway
Colorists: Anthony Tollin, Tom Ziuko, Carl Gafford
Color Reconstruction: Tom McCraw
Letterer: John Costanza

DC Universe Timeline: Six Years Ago
Real World Timeline: July 1985

(We've vaulted straight over the early careers of the modern superheroes-- it's been seven years since Superman For All Seasons and The Superman Chronicles, six years since The Long Halloween. It also happens to be the MONTH I WAS BORN. Coincidence that a multiverse-shaking event happened at that very moment? I sincerely doubt it. Though, going by DC Universe time, it's 1991 and I'm only six years old right now. Or maybe my body was infused with antimatter and I grew at a fantastically accelerated rate. In any case, I must be posting this on Usenet.)

It's a well-known fact that by the 1980s, the continuity of the DC Universe-- sorry, Multiverse-- was in such a state that students of Russian hermeneutics were rejecting it as too confusing. But Marv Wolfman was a man with a plan: destroy it and replace it with something even more bizarre and inexplicable. The vehicle for this transformation was Crisis on Infinite Earths, an twelve-issue miniseries that would change the state of comics forever, subjecting us to poorly thought out crossovers on a regular basis for the next 25 years and beyond, I'm sure. Actually, I've never read any of the other "crises", but my perusal of Internet bulletin boards has confirmed that I'm supposed to hate them.

Actually, I find it bizarrely hard to pass judgment on Crisis on Infinite Earths. It's not so much a work of art as a fact of life. It's not something you can judge, it just is. It's known for what it did, not how it did it. Because even if it had done it all poorly, it still would have been as famous and influential as it is today.

But I don't think it did do it poorly. Sure, it's melodramatic as possible sometimes, but it's a comic book crossover dealing with the collapse of an infinite number of universes, what do you expect? Most of the time, it's just plain fun-- Marv Wolfman has an encyclopedic knowledge of DC characters and continuity, and that shines through here in the ridiculous number of characters who appear in this comic. In fact, he knows so many obscure characters, it frequently becomes a problem-- when the Monitor assembles his team to defend his vibrational forks (whatever), he brings together Superman, Blue Beetle, Dawnstar, Green Lantern, Psimon, Geo-Force, Cyborg, Obsidian, Firebrand, Firestorm, Killer Frost, Psycho Pirate, Doctor Polaris, and a giant gorilla. Who the heck are these people? Obviously I known Superman and the other heavy hitters, but Geo-Force? Firebrand? Doctor Polaris, the Master of Magnetism? I don't think anyone yearning for a crossover of DC's infinite characters was ever clamoring for a Psimon/Doctor Polaris teamup.

The other problem is that when you've got a threat that's big enough to bring all these people together... it's a threat too big for them to actually handle. The protagonists in this story are little more than tools for the Monitor, who is privy to a plot that is never really fully revealed, jerking our heroes from point to point, having them run contrived little tasks, such as guarding his vibrational cutlery. Often, threats are contrived just to spice things up, such as when Lex Luthor, never to be outdone, decides that he's going to take over four Earths at once with the help of every supervillain ever, prompting a protracted battle to fill page space while the heroes fight back.

The deficiency of our own heroes in such cosmic occurrences is really shown fully in "Death at the Dawn of Time", when our heroes stand around watching the Spectre do all of the work that it takes to defeat the Anti-Monitor. Well, one of the times-- the Anti-Monitor comes back from the dead about three times after this, sometimes a mere page after his most recent demise. I was so happy when the Superman of Earth-2 punched him so hard that he exploded. Though why this should have killed him when the power of Darkseid could not, I have no idea.

I guess these are just the natural problems of writing a crossover this big. And most of the time, Wolfman is solid enough to keep you from realizing that the main characters aren't actually doing much other than looking at the oh-so-slow moving walls of antimatter. There's certainly a lot to like here, too. One of the biggest deals that of course happens in this book is that Supergirl is killed off. (Which is convenient, since she doesn't exist in the new continuity at the story's end. Indeed, all of the characters who don't exist in the new timeline are killed off at some point, all of them just happening to get in the way of one of the Anti-Monitor's blasts.) This didn't really affect me a whole lot when I read the story for the first time-- I knew it was going to happen (it's on the cover, for crying out loud), and I've never been attached to the Silver Age Supergirl.

But what did get me was the death of the Flash-- I had no idea! And it's such a great death, too. Despite everything that's happened to him, to his world, he just keeps on running and running and running, doing his best to stop the Anti-Monitor from making a giant cannon or whatever the heck it is, running so hard and so fast that he dissolves. How freaking awesome is that? I was genuinely moved the first time I read the book. Barry Allen, I'll miss you. Even if I've never read another story featuring you.

The other weird thing, but mostly in retrospect, is all the sideplots that were obviously setups for what was going to happen in other comic books. What's all that nonsense about the Red Tornado, anyway? And the blue dude with the horns meeting those guys in space? And you know I'm never going to pick up New Teen Titans #15 to read about Starfire's wedding plans. As for the new Wildcat? Who the crap cares?

I've been remiss-- all this time and I've yet to mention George Pérez's artwork. Because that, more than anything else, is what sells this story. I find it amazing that the man could pump out work of this caliber on a monthly basis-- and some of the issues are double-sized! The level of detail is extraordinary. Some of his panels feature Every Character Ever-- and all of them are recognizable! Well, recognizable to someone much more well-versed in DC minutia than myself. And as for his layouts... some of these pages feature more than a dozen panels! All of them clear and distinct. A Pérez comic does not waste space. He chooses his full-page panels carefully. The destruction of entire universe can sometimes be one panel out of many-- when he does a two-page spread, you know it's important! I wish I could say more about his artwork, but I don't know a thing about artwork, and the best I could do would be to say "It's awesome" again and again. (Oh, I really dig the black-and-white extracts from "The Monitor Tapes" at the bottom of the pages of "Death at the Dawn of Time!" Obviously Pérez was a master of any color scheme.)

Great Rao, this review has been all over the place. But I think that's appropriate for a story like Crisis on Infinite Earths, one so big it could scarcely be contained or summed up in an effective manner, thanks to Marv Wolfman's encyclopedic knowledge and cosmic plotting and George Pérez's masterful artwork and incredible layouts. One can only hope that like Crisis, the legacy of this review will live on... forever! Or at least the next 25 years of Faster than a DC Bullet.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

16 September 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #5: The Superman Chronicles, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 204 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1938-39)

Borrowed from a friend
Read September 2008
The Superman Chronicles, Volume One

Writer: Jerry Siegel
Illustrator: Joe Shuster

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1938-39

(The stories in this volume obviously take place during Superman's first year in Metropolis-- no one knows who he is at the beginning, but he rapidly becomes famous. The 1930s setting is pretty obvious-- which I guess means the present day of the DC Universe is the 1950s? Comic book time is a bizarre thing.)

The Superman Chronicles is a series with a rather ambitious aim-- to reprint "every Superman story in exact chronological order!" I don't know how far they plan on going with this thing, but right now they are up to five volumes of this stuff, which covers about three years of publishing, so they've got a ways to go, even if they are only doing the Golden Age. (Unfortunately, James only owns the first volume.) The first volume contains seventeen stories, mostly from various issues of Action Comics, though there is also one issue each of the New York World's Fair and Superman books. I'm not going to review all of these stories, however, because that would get pretty redundant.

Action Comics #1 ("Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!") of course created a splash on its initial publication, and it is easy to see why. Because Superman is awesome. In this first issue, he stops a woman from being wrongfully executed, stops a wife-beating in progress from a tip at the Daily Star (though who exactly phones a newspaper to inform of wife-beatings in progress is beyond me), takes Lois out for a dance, prevents Lois from being raped, and intimidates a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. This is a much more down-to-Earth Superman than the modern reader is used to-- not in the sense that he's more relateable as a character, because he's absolutely not-- but because he's got a much lower powerset (he can't yet fly, though he can run fast and jump high, and he has enormous strength, but no laser vision or anything like that), and he deals with much more "normal" problems. There's only one supervillain in this entire collection-- Ultra-Humanite makes his appearance in one of the last stories, and even then his plan is to take over the world via a taxi protection racket.

So Superman pretty much spends all of his time righting human wrongs-- and he does this in a most entertaining fashion. In Action Comics #2 ("Revolution in San Monte, Pt. 2"), he takes the boss of the aforementioned lobbyist to the South American country where his company is selling munitions to spur on a civil war, forcing him to enlist and then enlisting alongside him! Hilarity ensues as the lobbyist discovers the horrors of war, Lois is nearly executed for some random reason, Superman battles an airplane, and the war ends when the leaders of each side suddenly realize they have no idea what the war's about. How could you not enjoy this?

Of course, random South American countries aren't all Superman cares about. This early Superman is always sticking up for the little guy, and of course you know he's always going to win, because no one remotely capable of threatening him even exists. Where the entertainment value in these stories generally comes from is in how Superman rights his wrongs-- usually by giving the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine: he traps a negligent mine owner in his own mine (along with a group of bored socialites), he solves the problem of tenement housing by destroying the housing so that the government will have to build nicer housing (not exactly on the side of the law, this Superman), he puts a crooked prison warden in his own prison, he gets back on a group of stock swindlers by making them think their own shares are worth millions... and then wrecking their oil wells permanently, and he combats reckless driving by smashing up used car lots.

Of course, sometimes you have to wonder if he doesn't have better things to do, such as when he investigates cheating on the "Dale" and "Cordell" college football teams, or when he joins a circus to increase its flagging ticket sales. Though, in the end, there's usually an attempted murder, which would seem to justify his super-involvement.

The early Clark Kent persona is interesting-- I prefer a much more confident Clark myself, but this Clark is an absolute pansy. One is somewhat unsure why he must play at being such a pansy; at one point Clark gives up a source to a man likely to kill him just to keep up his persona! Of course, Superman rescues the man, but surely that wasn't necessary? Still, it's also interesting to note the overlap between the two persona-- frequently, he ends up embroiled in an adventure when using his Superman persona to do some investigative journalism that Clark doesn't have the powers to carry out. On the other hand, God knows what he's playing at with Lois Lane. For some reason, he seems purposefully mess things up with her as Clark, but when she's obviously willing to jump Superman, he acts entirely aloof and noncaring! (One can't blame him for having a thing for Lois, though-- even this early on, she's plucky and courageous, always doing what needs to be done for her story, and she doesn't take crap from anyone. And she's apparently a helluva kisser to boot.)

But by the end of the volume, this early Superman is starting to come to an end. As appealing as the idea of Superman, Champion of the Oppressed is, it can't work forever. When Superman's always going to win, it's eventually boring (the Superman vs. a cracking dam story is a great example), and he can't reshape the social structure of America-- which Superman could if he was real. The coming of Ultra-Humanite signals the end of this approach to Superman, as unrelentingly fun and enjoyable as it might be.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

09 September 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #4: Batman: The Long Halloween

Comic trade paperback, ~368 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1996-97)

Borrowed from a friend
Read August 2008
Batman: The Long Halloween

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Colors: Gregory Wright
Letters: Richard Starkings

DC Universe Timeline: Twelve Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1987-88?

(Much like the same authors' Superman For All Seasons, this could pretty much be set at any time. In the DC Universe, it follows on the heels of Batman: Year One, covering eighteen months in Batman's early career, from June to December of the following year. I'm uncertain how much time has passed since Year One because I don't have that book on hand anymore.)

You know, there's this thing about Batman. There are a lot of people out there who like Batman more than they like Superman. And I'm actually okay with that, because I know that when it comes down to it, Superman could beat Batman in a fight so easily, and that's what matters most of all when you're talking about superheroes. What I'm not okay with is their reasons. "Batman is more realistic than Superman." Or "Batman is more relateable than Superman."

Excuse me, what?

Who on Earth can relate to a man who saw his parents brutally gunned down in an alley when he was eight years old, spent his young adult life traveling the world and being trained by the greatest masters of martial arts, science, and awesomeness, and now uses his billionaire wealth and mega-corporation to fight crime in the alleys of Gotham City dressed up as a giant bat? He's nothing like anything anyone has ever experienced! Superman, on the other hand, is an ordinary decent person who woke up one day to find out he could fly. And shoot lasers out of his eyes. Incredible unrealistic in a sense, but-- you could be Superman. You could not be Batman.

As more more realistic? I think Batman's lack of superpowers make him less realistic, not more. Superman's powers come from a yellow sun and his Kryptonian heritage; if you happened to have that, you could do all of the things Superman does. Batman has got no excuse for the fact that he can do all of these amazing things. He just can. And no matter how much you or I trained, no matter how much we hung out with Liam Neeson in the mountains of Tibet, we could not be Batman.

This, I think, is the fundamental root of my problem with the Batman comics I have read so far in this incredibly drawn-out blogging series. (I mean, one comic a month? How hard can this be?) The Superman we see in Superman For All Seasons is a guy we can relate to, as I hammered home in that review again and again. Even the one in Birthright fairs pretty all right. But Batman... he's never really depicted as a character. He's just there, this force of nature that spends all his time disappearing mid-conversation with Commissioner Gordon and kicking people in the face. You never get a feeling that he's an actual person, a man with struggles and difficulties and problems.

Except for once. In chapters 8 and 9 of The Long Halloween, which take place on Mother's Day and Father's Day, respectively, Batman's long, drawn-out hunt for the serial killer known only as "Holiday" is paralleled with his youthful memories of his parents. Of course, Batman does everything he does as part of some almost insane devotion to his long-dead ancestors. And here, that really comes through-- you feel that when Batman's failed, he's not just failed himself, he's failed his mom and his dad. And for a man who's spent his entire life making up to them, that's a pretty crushing blow. For once in the book, you know what it is to be Batman. And these chapters were my favorite parts of the story.

Not that the rest of it is terrible. But... what it seems to come down to in the end with this, just like Batman: Year One is... it's not as good as Batman Begins/The Dark Knight. Everything this comic does, those movies do better. In them, Batman does feel like a person you can relate to and understand. His actions really do feel like a struggle. I think that's because the movies use his supporting cast, especially Alfred, much more effectively. In this comic, much like Year One, Alfred is a two-scene nonentity with no real impact. And I think Dent's descent into Two-Face was much more effectively handled in the films-- the coin thing feels incredibly random here, as it's scarcely mentioned before he goes evil. In the movie, it's an integral part of his personality from the beginning.

Of course, not being as good as Christopher Nolan's Batman films is hardly the worst criticism you can give something.

This comic is good. It's got some problems-- most of the time, it feels like our protagonists are just standing around waiting for Holiday to kill someone else. Which I suppose might happen with real serial killers, but it makes for dull reading at times. The final solution as to who Holiday is is at first a cheat and then just muddled. But aside from that, the story is decent enough.

Most of the supporting characters are well-handled, especially the members of Batman's Rogue Gallery. I really like how the Joker, the Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy, and the Scarecrow were handled. I really liked how the Riddler was handled, which is surprising, as I usually find his character pretty stupid. Catwoman confused me more than anything else: in Year One Selina Kyle's a prostitute, in this story she's part of Bruce Wayne's social circle. The gangster stuff was very well done, too, and probably some of my favorite parts-- another area where these comics obviously infuenced the Nolan films.

Jim Gordon continues to be awesome. Actually, I really like the stuff with the GCPD in general; Wikipedia tells me they got their own comic book series called Gotham Central, and I mean to check it out someday. This small group of people in their enternally-losing battle can't help but be appealing.

Tim Sale's art, of course, is fantastic, aside from the occasional panel where Batman is somewhat over-muscled. Overall: it was decent, but the lack of real character in Bruce Wayne/Batman prevents it from becoming great. Not so much a mixed bag as just... average.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

01 August 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #3: Batman: Year One

Comic trade paperback, ~144 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1987)

Borrowed from a friend
Read July 2008
Batman: Year One

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colorist: Richmond Lewis
Lettering: Todd Klein

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1986

(If this story doesn't take place in the 1980s-- when everything was grim and gritty all the time and they didn't have light-- then I don't know what the 1980s are. The year of publication seems like a good bet in that case. Though this would seem to make the present day 1999. So maybe it takes place in 1995, but I remember there being lightbulbs by then. Also, colors other than green and brown.)

So, Frank Miller. I've actually made a number of Frank Miller cracks over the past few years (i.e., "Name a female character in Sin City who's not just a sexual object."), but I'm actually not that familiar with his work. Comic-wise, all I've read is The Dark Knight Returns (which I remember appreciating more than enjoying) and whatever particularly egregious bits of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder that make their way onto Scans Daily. And I've seen the movie versions of 300 and Sin City. So, I actually don't have much real experience at all, and I was eager to remedy that-- as well as read one of the stories that allegedly inspired Batman Begins.

The thing is... it's not a very good Batman origin story. Oh, sure, Bruce Wayne makes his decision to become the Batman here, but it's not treated with very much depth. Bruce is sitting around, bemoaning the fact that he has botched his attempts at crimefighting and failed his father (we get a one-page flashback to the Wayne murders) when all of a sudden a bat crashes through his window! And so, he's Batman. Where have I seen all this before? Oh, that's right: Detective Comics #33. In 1939. Fortunately, there's not a "cowardly and superstitious lot" here. Actually, that might make it better.

Not to say that Frank Miller's Batman is bad; indeed, he's pretty much spot on. And by "spot on", I mean "owns everyone all the time". That's pretty much all chapter three is about, as Batman manages to take out nineteen hundred cops while he's cornered in a firebombed warehouse. And who says that he doesn't have superpowers?

But despite the constant extracts from Bruce Wayne's diary, we never really get inside his head, we never feel Batman's plight, Batman's dilemmas, not in the way that Batman Begins made us do. This Bruce Wayne, except for an early botched attempt, just is Batman, and the psychological complexity that drives the character in his best stories is just not there. As a Batman adventure, it's fine-- indeed it's better than fine, it's a very good example of its breed. But as an origin story, it falls short on anything other than a perfunctory basis. (It can't help that on every point I was constantly comparing it to Batman Begins. Of course I found it lacking. Most glaring, in my mind, was the lack of supporting characters-- Alfred is pretty much a nonentity in this story, and he's all there is. Aside from a certain someone that we'll get to soon.)

There's supposed to be a transition between Bruce Wayne's inexperience and Batman's experience as he gets the hang of crimefighting... but I just didn't feel it. In the beginning he struggles a lot, and he really messes up an attempt to stop some guys from stealing a television set. Then, all of a sudden, he's totally awesome all the time. I would say "why the transition?" but there isn't a transition-- first he's one way, then all of a sudden he's another. This makes it hard to swallow his early failures as anything other than plot contrivance, when there doesn't seem to be a reason for him to suddenly start succeeding.

So if it's not actually Batman: Year One, then what is it? Well, that's an easily answered question. What Frank Miller actually wrote here was Jim Gordon: Year One. Because 1986/1995 was not just Batman's first year in the city, it was Jim Gordon's. Running in parallel with Batman's story the entire time is Gordon's, also represented by what I assume to be diary extracts of some sort. And while Miller's Batman just is-- even when he's struggling, you don't really feel anything except maybe "awesome!"-- his Gordon is a man you can believe in. A guy trying to do right by his job, his duty, his city, and his family, even though he frequently fails at all of the above. You can't help but feel sympathy for this guy: while Batman just magically succeeds all the time, Gordon does his best, but it's hard to have an impact.

But of course it is. The opposition he faces is nearly overwhelming. There's a whole city out there that doesn't want Gordon to succeed, but damnit, he's pitted himself against it anyway. He even faces opposition from himself, as he keeps being drawn towards his leggy and blond coworker despite the fact that his wife's got a bun in the oven. But despite it all, he just keeps on going, dealing with the corruption and lack of support from his own department as best as he can. Usually his solution involves beating someone, but I suspect that other methods tend not to meet with much success in Gotham.

Whenever the story focused on Bruce/Batman, I found myself impatiently waiting for Gordon's next appearance. The fact that this story is really about Jim Gordon is made most explicit in the final chapter. What's the climax of the book? Not Batman defeating some supervillain or thwarting criminal enterprise forever-- the climax is Jim Gordon deciding to 1) trust Batman and 2) keep on fighting the good fight. That's the moment the book hinges on; Batman's battle is just window-dressing (and indeed, Wayne scarcely appears as Batman in the last chapter, performing his last-minute rescue sans costume).

Catwoman also appears in the book, but I don't really know why. She's a prostitute who decides to don a cat costume and become a burglar for no readily apparent reason. One of her cats gives away Batman's hiding place at one point, and later her intervention botches up one of his operations. I guess she's well-depicted; I'm not really a Catwoman person.

And then there's the art. I was already familiar with David Mazzucchelli from his work on Paul Auster's City of Glass, and I kept on thinking, "It's just not as good." But then I remembered: City of Glass is absolutely amazing, and not as good as that is still quite exceptional. And this art is. It's striking without being forced, grim without being over-the-top, dark without being muddy. It's everything you could ask for from a Batman story, and never disappoints. Always clear, always well-drawn. And his Bruce Wayne, Batman, and James Gordon all look just right. (Gordon even manages to look like Gary Oldman!) Richmond Lewis's use of color is also pitch-perfect.

There is a lot of Batman Begins in here, though-- the corrupt Gotham City Police Department, the bat-summoning device in the boot, the mob-controlled and crime-ridden city, and indeed the entire tone of the book. Though it's a not a very good Batman origin, it's easy to see how it could become one, which is exactly what Christopher Nolan went and did.

But do you know what? I don't mind that the book's more about Jim Gordon than Batman. Because Jim Gordon is awesome. Especially if you imagine that Gary Oldman is playing him. Overall, Batman: Year One is is a good Batman story, a poor Batman origin, an excellent Jim Gordon story, and an enjoyable comic story. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

17 June 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #2: Superman For All Seasons

Comic trade paperback, ~208 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 1998)

Borrowed from a friend
Read June 2008
Superman For All Seasons

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Colorist: Bjarne Hansen
Letterer: Richard Starkings

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: Timeless America

(This story occurs in and around Birthright. Most of the spring issue takes place just before Clark leaves Smallville to wander the world, and the rest of it covers his first year active in Metropolis. The fall issue would seem to pick up shortly after Birthright, as Lex has just been released from prison. Its real world date is pretty impossible to pin down-- either the 1930s or the 1990s, most likely both.)

It's another Superman origin story. Sort of. Superman For All Seasons doesn't give you any of the humongous backstory-- at one point Pa Kent mentions that they found Clark in a rocket, but that's about it. I don't think the word "Krypton" is ever used. Rather than on an exotic alien world with Kal-El's father babbling about exploding planets, this story opens in Smallville, Kansas with Clark Kent's father talking about farming... and his son.

It's divided into four sections, one for each season of course. And each section is narrated by a different key figure in Superman's life. As I alluded to earlier, "Spring" is narrated by Pa Kent, talking about Clark's last year of high school and the changes he went through as he started to realize his power. "Summer" is narrated by Lois Lane, talking about this new "Superman" that so fascinates her... not that she's in love or anything. "Fall" is narrated by Lex Luthor, as he fumes over the new arrival in his city. And "Winter" is narrated by Lana Lang, discussing what it's like to know Clark and Superman.

The characterization of this thing is pitch-perfect. Pa Kent is exactly what Pa Kent should be-- a good guy working a farm. There's no deep-seated paternal issues or overdramatic angst here. Which is not to say things are perfect between Clark and Kent, but it's the sort of problems every father and son should have: a son uncertain about his place in the world now that he's growing up, and father who doesn't know what's going to happen to his son... and unable to help. Since Pa's narrating, there's necessarily less of Ma, but what's there is handled well too. "Be gentle," says Ma as her husband goes out to talk to their son, who's overcome by fear as he begins to grow up. "Yep," says Pa as he goes out, thinking about being a father. The father of a boy, soon to become a man. Not a Superman.

Lois... Lois is Lois. Unfortunately, she doesn't contribute directly to the story much, but she comments on it. A cynical woman who, on some level, just doesn't like that Superman has disrupted her carefully constructed portrait of the world... but finds herself drawn to him nonetheless. Speaking of double-L love interests, this was my first real encounter with Lana Lang in, well, anything. I guess I haven't read/seen much Superman material dealing with Smallville. I like what I see here. As one of the few people who know the Clark/Superman secret, she's one of the few people who understands either of them. Superman is who he is because he is Clark Kent, and Lana may have pined for Clark as a child, but she too must grow up on move on to the next stage of her life.

And as for Lex... Lex Luthor. The 1990s cartoon is my favorite depiction of Lex bar none, but this is right in line with that. This is a Lex with no personal vendetta against Superman... at least not at first. Lex Luthor is the greatest man ever, a man who controls everything... Superman is better than him, and out of his control. His narration is brilliant: "The public needs to be spoken to. Often, they need to be spoken to as children. So they can grasp my position. Simply because my position is never wrong. Never. I poured my life into this city. I gave it a personality. A look. A kind of elegance. She was my fair lady. I've grown accustomed to her face. And yet... I was betrayed." That, ladies and gentlemen, is Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our time. Always in control, and always afraid of losing it. No hackneyed mad scientist traits or Smallville backstory required.

What of the character of Superman himself? Obviously, since the story is narrated by others, we get little of him directly. Superman can be a somewhat unfathomably distant person sometimes. How can you emphasize with a man who has powers like that? And yet, Loeb manages it. Superman has the weight of the world on his shoulders... and yet, don't we all? This story is about growing up and finding your place in the world-- drawing it not from some alien heritage, but from yourself. Even for Superman, it's hard to do what you need to do day in and day out, with a world trying to drag you down. Like anyone, when things get tough, he retreats from his problems-- in this story, Superman's "fortress of solitude" is Smallville, not some crystalline alien structure at the North Pole. But like the best of us, Superman doesn't stay in retreat. He doesn't know everything, and he certainly doesn't always know how to cope with the world... but when it comes down to it, he knows he has to do what has to be done, and he does it. Plus, he gets some of the best lines: "Nice costume," says a kid Superman has just saved from falling off a skyscraper. "Thanks," replies the Man of Steel. "My mom made it for me." Which is really everything you need to know about Superman right there.

I haven't read anything else by Loeb, but I really should. (And I believe I've got a couple of his works in my pile.) This is a man who knows how to use the comics medium. Many writers, when using narration, convey information you're already getting in the dialogue and images (John Byrne, I'm looking at you). But the solution is not to drop the narration. Loeb's narration boxes harmonize with the scenes they depict, sometimes contrasting, sometimes reinforcing. Oftentimes, the narration boxes overlay events the narrators actually know nothing about: Lois ruminates on what Superman does when he's not rescuing kittens as Clark returns to his apartment, Lana talks about the lack of Clark in Smallville as we see the lack of Superman in Metropolis. This is exceptional use of the form. And as I've gone about at length, his grasp and use of the characters is perfect.

The art is fantastic, too. Stylized, clear, usually... "gorgeous" is the wrong word. Handsome, maybe. Sale really captures the strength of Superman in one panel and the vulnerability of Clark Kent in another, but they're clearly the same person in different modes. The only problem I have is that sometimes the childish giant look he gives pre-Superman Clark comes across a little... goofy. He looks too child-like and too awkward. But on the other hand, his Lois Lane is every bit as gorgeous as Lois should be.

All I've done here is rave. Did I dislike anything about this story? I thought the "Fall" section could have been improved. Lex's plan was pure Lex-- gassing a whole city yet only killing one person just to get at Superman is absolutely something he would do-- but the Clockwork Orange-style scenes of mental conditioning had a tone just a little too... harsh for this lovely gem of a comic. And I think Jenny Vaughn's story would have been more tragic if she hadn't adopted the strange supervillainesque codename and costume for no apparent reason of hers or Lex's. But these are quibbles, really.

This is without a doubt one of the best comic books I have ever read, and the best Superman story. Almost every note is pitch-perfect-- if you want to know who he is, read this story. If you want to know who Clark Kent is, read this story. If you never read another Superman tale, read this story. "The whole world was resting on his shoulders and maybe, just maybe, they weren't big enough to carry the load." That's Superman in a nutshell. But more than that-- it's all of us.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

09 June 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #1: Superman: Birthright

Here's a new feature. Before he left for St. Louis last August, my friend loaned me his collection of DC comic trade paperbacks. I added them to my pile and, of course, am only getting to them now. Being me, I arranged them into a rough in-universe chronological order, and you get the pleasure of journeying through them with me over the next couple months!

Comic trade paperback, ~314 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from a friend
Read June 2008
Superman: Birthright

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu
Inker: Gerry Alanguilan
Colorist: Dave McCaig

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: March 2002

(To get that date, I'm being generous and assuming that the joke on p. 88 about the terror alert system was made before such jokes had been beat into the ground, which narrows the story down to the week after the system was announced. But I'm confused as to how this story can take place 13 years ago in March 2002. Is it 2015 now? Or did September 11th happen in 1994 in the DC Universe?)

It's another Superman origin story. The comic book world needs these like it needs more Batman angst. In my mind, the perfect Superman origin hasn't been done, but it would fall somewhere between John Byrne's The Man of Steel and Superman: The Movie. With Braniac there, like he was in the 1990s Superman cartoon. But until this perfect origin is created, I've got no interest in a new origin story.

So perhaps I was a bit biased going into the story. It irked me right from the start. The opening pages didn't help me. I like John Byrne's Krypton-- mostly because of the sterility of the culture there. That sterility has one important consequence: Kryptonians do not engage with one another on any physical level. They do not have sex; they procreate via machines. Their babies are born out of machines. And when little baby Kal-El is launched towards Earth, he has not yet been hatched from the machine. The Last Son of Krypton is born on Earth. I think that's great; that's my favorite part of Byrne's reboot. I think it's perfect in every way. Which means that when this story has a virile-looking Jor-El (he's no Marlon Brando, that's for sure) kissing his wife as the rocket launched off carrying their infant son, my thought is "I liked it better the other way."

Another thing not to like: angst. Superman doesn't have angst. He's not the new series Doctor Who. He's the last of his kind... but he's okay with that. (Except in Superman Returns, where this is executed well. For once.) The family he left behind is one he never knew, one that was never relevant to him in any way, shape, or form. He doesn't spend his time agonizing over how he's not one of us... because he is one of us. He's just a better one of us. Better not because of superpowers, but because of the upbringing he received from his parents. The Kents are perfect parents, who raised a son who does the right thing not because his parents were gunned down in an alley or because his uncle got murdered by a guy he should have apprehended, but because it's the right thing to do. And Clark Kent does not have father issues that result in a twenty-plus pages of a graphic novel being taken up by juvenile arguments, hissy fits, and other antics. Seriously.

Yet another thing not to like: Lex Luthor should not be from Smallville. Lex Luthor hates Superman because Superman is better than he is. Lex Luthor does not hate Superman because Superman was the reason that Lex's hair was burnt off of his head. How small world is that? It's terrible. Lex shouldn't be a mad scientist, either. My ideal Lex is the one from the 1990s cartoon... the corporate villain who can't be matched for sheer power... except by Superman. Yet this comic tries to have it both ways. Lex spent some time in Smallville... yet (ostensibly) has no memory of Clark. Lex has a major corporate empire... yet is bizarrely referred to in all the news reports as "astrobiologist Lex Luthor". Though apparently his astrobiological skills lead him to be able to make wormholes to the past of other galaxies. Of course. It's doesn't help that the story just stops for thirty pages so that Clark can explain Lex's backstory to his father... a backstory his father was present for and already knows.

So: bad Krpyton, bad angst, bad Lex. What else can Waid get wrong? Bad plot. Do you know what I hate? When superheroes save the world from problems that wouldn't have existed without the superhero's presence. How does that make a superhero useful or wanted? That's one of the (many) problems of the Fantastic Four movie-- Doctor Doom was only a danger because he was trying to take down the Fantastic Four. Here, Lex's only reason for invading Metropolis is to discredit Superman. If there was no Superman, there would have been no invasion. Less people would have died if Superman had never existed. Wow, way to affirm the existence of your hero.

Furthermore, I don't think Waid gets Superman. In his afterword, he talks about how Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise. This same hogwash was peddled in the closing minutes of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, resulting in a generation of teenagers who believe this because they've never correctly experienced the saga of Superman. The real person... is Clark Kent. But not the Clark Kent that hangs out with the staff of the Daily Planet. He's the Clark Kent that helps his parents. Who can be "super" and a good son at the same time. Superman is an exaggeration in one direction, the Metropolis-Clark in another. The Smallville-Clark, however, is the real deal. And though Waid might espouse his view in the afterword... it doesn't come through in the text. The moments we feel closest to Clark/Superman are the moments where he's with his parents, able to be who he truly is without any sort of pretense. No capes, no forced meekness. Just Clark Kent talking to his folks.

Also: the art is horrendous. Just look at that cover. How could anyone think that's attractive? Clark Kent/Superman should be good looking. Lois Lane should be good looking. No one is this book is remotely attractive. Jimmy Olsen looks more like a monkey than a human being. (Maybe that's intentional, though.)

And some of the pictures in this book are just goofy. I mean, what's up with this:

So... did I like anything about the book? Well, Clark's adventures in Africa were pretty good. A good look at what a pre-Superman Clark might have done with his powers. But that's a largely irrelevant thirty-plus pages in an otherwise horribly misconstructed 287-page graphic novel. Oh, and Perry White was well-written. I like the bit with his list of reasons to keep or fire Lois Lane. Actually, most of the Planet staff was well-written, even Lois.

Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu.... I'll just keep on imagining that some day my perfect Superman origin story will actually happen. Until then, I'll crack open The Man of Steel again, pop Superman: The Movie in my DVD player, and keep on dreaming.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

11 January 2008

Here is a story about Christmas and its most important part, getting books.

This year, LibraryThing ran an event called SantaThing.  It was essentially a Secret Santa event-- all the participants paid $25 to LibraryThing, who then connected all of the participants to one another.  You could post comments about what you wanted, and then your SantaThinger would select books for you, which LibraryThing would order off Amazon-- so no exchanging of addresses with Internet strangers.  You were limited in your purchases to books available from the appropriate regional Amazon (US, UK, or Canada), worth less than $20 total, and numbering no more than two.

I decided to sign up because it sounded like it could be fun-- I love picking books, and I love getting books even more!  This is what I put:

The authors currently on my "target list" are (hold your breath): Edwin Abbot, Paul Auster, Beryl Bainbridge, Iain Banks, James Blish, Octavia E. Butler, Italo Calvino, Paul Cornell, Lawrence Durrell, C.S. Forester, Elizabeth George, David Gerrold, James Hamilton-Paterson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, David Lodge, Scott McCloud, Walter M. Miller Jr., Alan Moore, Christopher Morley, Larry Niven, Dan Simmons, Ali Smith, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Neal Stephenson, Karen Traviss, and P.G. Wodehouse. Basically, any book I don't already own by these folks would be marvelous.  No Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or other media tie-ins. If I wanted it, I would've bought it myself.
I know, it's a lot, but I didn't want to limit anyone.  I figured that with that many, one of those authors had to be a favorite of whoever my SantaThinger was, and that there had to be a beloved book by them I didn't already own.  (The wonderful thing about LibraryThing is that you know you are not going to buy someone a book they already own.)

Meanwhile, I was selecting a book for someone else.  This is what he put:
I like urban fantasy, histories of food, surreal comedies, mysteries (if the protagonists have a sense of humor)....what I'd really like to try is some world lit. I have always read mostly American / Western European authors & there is a whole wide world out there that I'm missing.  Please, please no sports books. Or anything with World War II.
Talk about broad!  The first thing to pop into mind for "surreal comedy" was James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca, which I read last semester in Dr. Hardesty's modern British literature class and thought vastly amusing.  Plus, the protagonist is a sports biographer and hates it, so I figured that would be appropriate.  That came up to just $10.17, so I decided to find another book-- something non-Western, to fulfill one of his other desires.

The problem is that, on a normal Amazon discount, a normal trade paperback comes to $10.17!  It was impossible to find a second book of the appropriate price!  The other problem was that I'm not very familiar with non-Western literature, so I didn't know what to suggest.  But, thanks to my Kafka class from a year ago, I had heard of the author of Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, so on a whim I decided to get one of his books.  As luck would have it, his book A Wild Sheep Chase seemed to be surreal and a detective story, fulfilling a number of my SantaThingee's desires!

But it was $10.17.  I searched for ages for something cheaper, but with no success.  Finally, I gave in and just plunked both into my request, figuring that I wasn't even fifty cents over the twenty-dollar limit, and who could get bothered about that?

Meanwhile (this was late December after all), my Aunt Janet had contacted me-- she had me in the family gift exchange this year, and were there any books I particularly wanted?  I sent her my target list, a list of authors (usually with specific books attached) that I search for every time I enter a used bookstore.  Obviously there was some overlap with my SantaThing author list, but I figured that with such large lists, the possibility of coincidence was low.

My book from SantaThing showed up a couple days before Christmas Eve-- James Blish's A Case of Conscience.  This is what my SantaThinger (LibraryThing's sysadmin, actually!) wrote me:
I have agonised over this. I'm recommending A Case of Conscience by James Blish, ISBN 0345438353.

This user lists James Blish as one of the authors they're after. They also have several of his books - star trek novelisations!! And yet they *don't* have this book, a hugo award winner and (IMHO) one of the best examples of "good" sci-fi. I had some reservations because it's not a very long book, and at $19 I've put all my bets on the one horse. As well as this, religion (specifically catholicism) is central to the plot, and so some knowledge in this area would be helpful. Still, this is all about surprises and the opportunity to read something you might otherwise not have picked up off the shelf, right? ;)

Here's a note for the recipient:

Hi! I noticed you're after more from James Blish, but don't have "A Case of Conscience". This is one of my favourite SF books so it seems like a good choice. It's unconventional sci-fi - it explores the concept of morality with a Jesuit biologist as the main character - but it's well written with believable characters, and a worthy winner of the Hugo award. I hope you enjoy it!
He needn't've worried!  I read Blish's The Devil's Day a few months back, and A Case of Conscience was one of the other two books in his loose After Such Knowledge sequence-- essentially, it or Doctor Mirabilis were the books I had meant when I put "James Blish" down on my target list!  As as for Catholic/Jesuit knowledge... well, I certainly have no shortage of that.

My selections were approved, but I don't know what my SantaThingee thought of them; he never contacted me.  In fact, they haven't even been added into his library!  But then, neither has anything else since November.

Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, my Aunt Janet did well-- I received the next two of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries-- Deception on His Mind and In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner-- as well as Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales from Earthsea.  All not only books I wanted, but books I really wanted.  Aunt Janet reported that she had fun perusing the used bookstore as well, and she'd even figured out my list's organizational system.

And luckily enough there was no overlap.  I hope SantaThing is run next year as well, for I found it good, solid fun.

07 January 2008

Archival Review: Doctor Who: Short Trips #15: The History of Christmas edited by Simon Guerrier

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published 2005
Acquired July 2006

Read December 2007
Doctor Who: Short Trips #15: The History of Christmas
edited by Simon Guerrier

Inappropriately enough, I got this book for my birthday in July of 2006.  Appropriately enough, I read it just after Christmas 2007.  The second of Big Finish's Christmas-themed Short Trips books, it was enjoyable enough, though towards the end I started to get tired of the Christmas theme coming again and again-- a problem that never afflicted me with Paul Cornell's A Christmas Treasury, despite the fact that that book had more stories!  I feel as though the earlier book had a wider variety of stories, but this book was by no means poor.  My favorite was probably Eddie Robson's "Not in My Back Yard", with Joseph Lidster's "She Won't Be Home" a close contender-- no surprise there, since they're both among my favorite Big Finish writers.

Archival Review: Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury by Aaron Allston

Mass market paperback, 368 pages
Published 2007
Acquired and read December 2007
Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury
by Aaron Allston

By now, we all know what to expect from a Legacy of the Force novel: Jacen-- sorry, Darth Caedus--  will do evil, and the Jedi won't react enough to it.  They're going a bit more proactive in this installment of the series, but the metaplot is still only crawling along, even as the stakes heighten.  Caedus is a bit of a clumsy villain, too.  I feel that Allston is less suited to the grand plots found here and in The New Jedi Order and more to the smaller scale of his X-Wing novels, but he still writes a solid entry; his command of the characters, especially Luke, Ben, Wedge, Jag, and Han/Leia is what really recommends this book.  Mostly fluff, but enjoyable, well-written fluff.

Archival Review: The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Hardcover, 750 pages
Published 1978 (content: 1967-78)
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Dragonriders of Pern
by Anne McCaffrey

Last March, a friend of my mother's gave me the opportunity to look through those books that had belonged to her now-deceased brother and make off with what I wished.  He was an sf fan, and almost all of the books were sf ones, including some old Star Trek hardcovers.  This is the first of that collection of books I have gotten around to reading; it collects the three novels in the original Pern trilogy, Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon.  I enjoyed the first-- Lessa is an interesting protagonist, full of contradictions, strong, and sometime too much so.  Unfortunately, once time travel entered into the mix, the story became a bit too predictable-- it was all "wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey" in a way that removes all concept of jeopardy or suspense.  Dragonquest I found somewhat tedious-- the internal political squabbles of the dragonriders hold little appeal-- but it established my love for Masterharper Robinton.  The White Dragon was better, focusing as it did on one boy and his struggles.  But while I found the books themselves average, the world McCaffrey has built, centered around aiding the Weyrs and fighting the Threads, yet fallen away from both ideas, fascinates me, perhaps more than the stories themselves, and it was always the reason I wanted to keep on reading.  It and Robinton, at least.

Archival Review: Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt

Trade paperback, 304 pages
Published 1993 (originally 1992)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
Angels & Insects
by A. S. Byatt

This is another of my catchup reads from my last semester of school.  This book is actually two novellas, tenuously linked by the fact that they both occur in the Victorian era.   We read the first, Morpho Eugenia, in class, but not the second, The Conjugial Angel, so I added the book to my list.  The Conjugial Angel is a story about grief and how people move on; Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. plays a heavy role in the proceedings.  I'm not sure if I could explain what happened, but I love Byatt's way of writing-- she has a playful tone that jumps all over the place and (gently) mocks her characters, but becomes suitable somber when events warrant it.  Ideas are her forte, though, and Byatt explores those of grief, mourning, and judgment quite well.  I look forward to reading more by her.

Archival Review: The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

Mass market paperback, 270 pages
Published 1986 (originally 1956)
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov

Apparently, I'm on a bit of an Asimov kick these past few months.  Or rather, I was when I acquired all these books last spring.  This isn't one I loaned and lost, though; rather, I never owned it at all for some reason!  Still, I'd borrowed the library's copy several times, so it wasn't unfamiliar.  But acquiring means reading, and so I did.  I enjoyed it as much as ever-- it's a typical Asimov mystery, though not as good as The Caves of Steel.  Asimov gets in some of his best world-building with Solarian civilization, the mystery is fairly decent, and a visit from R. Daneel Olivaw is always a treat, even if Elijah Bailey is rather cruel to him at times.

Archival Review: The Malcontent by John Marston with John Webster

Trade paperback, 136 pages
Published 1998 (originally c. 1603)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
The Malcontent
by John Marston with John Webster

This is one of the plays we were supposed to read in the revenge tragedy course that I took last spring, but after I had purchased it, the professor dropped it from the syllabus in favor of Titus Andronicus.  My interest in Tudor revenge tragedy was sparked by the (brilliant) cinematic adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy, and none of the other examples of the genre have ever quite lived up to that one-- full of wit, melancholy, and cheerful violence. (Well, Hamlet is better, of course, but it's not exactly a typical revenge tragedy.) Still, I was looking forward to this one, but as I was reading it, I was struck by the fact it sure was taking a while for the revenging to happen.  Well, it never did.  Marston wrote a subversive take on the genre, where everyone reconciles in the end.  I don't know if it was good or not; I just wanted my bloodbath!

Archival Review: Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Incorporating the Junior Doctor Who Book of Lists) by Chris Howarth and Steven Lyons

Mass market paperback, 224 pages
Published 1996
Acquired December 2006

Read December 2007
Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Incorporating the Junior Doctor Who Book of Lists)
by Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons

This book is two men listing everything they can think of relating to Doctor Who in alphabetical order, and it is hilarious.  Featuring entries on items as diverse as "cunning disguises of the Master" and "wooden acting", it's the guide "packed with information so trivial we guarantee it will have no relevance to your life (if you have one)."  There's apparently both a sequel and a Star Trek version; I must seek them out.

Archival Review: The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

Hardcover, 204 pages
Published 1993
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Positronic Man
by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

This is another of those Asimov books I loaned off six years ago and never got back.  Like Nightfall and The Ugly Little Boy, this is Silverberg expanding an Asimov short story into a novel, and this is the most successful of the lot.  Unlike Nightfall, where the extra bits felt extraneous, Silverberg's expansions onto the already-excellent "The Bicentennial Man" just make a good story even better, providing detail where Asimov skimped-- it is, after all, a story that has to cover two centuries!  One of my favorite Asimov stories, and it was even made into a decent Asimov movie.

Archival Review: The New Doctor Who Adventures: Just War by Lance Parkin

Mass market paperback, 272 pages
Published 1996

Read December 2007
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Just War
by Lance Parkin

I'd heard the Jacqueline Rayner audio drama of this novel, which changes it from a Doctor Who story to a Professor Bernice Summerfield one (in fact, it's literally my current car listen), and I've always found it quite excellent, so I was eager to read the book, both to see if it was as good, and to see just how Rayner turned a story featuring the seventh Doctor, Benny, Chris and Roz into a story featuring Benny and Jason-- with a good deal less "running time"!

It was every bit as good as the audio-- I'd be hard-pressed to pick the better one, because they both do what they set out to do exceedingly well. Parkin captures all four protagonists perfectly, and his story's many subplots (the Doctor scheming, Benny tortured, Chris as action hero, and Roz in love) are all very different yet cohesive. The audio drama leaves Benny's part largely intact (though it gives her some of the Doctor's), and what remains of the Doctor's, Chris's, and Roz's plotlines wind up dumped on Jason. As I said before, I knew I needed more Paul Cornell in my library, and now I'm starting to think the same about Lance Parkin.

Archival Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Trade paperback, 400 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1914-15)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce

I read this in high school.  I liked it all right, but I like Joyce's short fiction better.  I had to read it again in a class I took in the spring of 2007, but a misunderstanding in our assignments meant I fell behind and had to skip sections 3 and 4 so I could give a presentation on section 5.  So I slotted the book into my list, and finally got around to reading those missing sections.  They're the parts where Stephen renounces sin (following the amazing description of hell) and then, some time later, also rejects the priesthood.  Which ties into what our professor told us-- Stephen has to reach a point where he doesn't make one of two choices, but rejects the choice altogether.  Whatever.  It's James Joyce, and he really needs to discover the quotation mark.