31 March 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: March 2012

Pick of the month: Through One Administration by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I really wanted to go for Wives and Daughters, but that book didn't have the emotional impact I expected-- possibly because circumstances meant that it took me at least six weeks to get through the whole thing, in fits and starts.  But Through One Administration actually reminds me of Wives and Daughters in a lot of ways, with its positive depiction of science and its examination of what kinds of "performance" a woman has to put on in society, its forthright male character, and its close psychological realism.  On the other hand, Through One Administration is much, much sadder.  I also should give a shoutout to Burnett's The Shuttle, which was quite incredible, and only failed to be my favorite book of the month because the version I read was abridged.  Who'd have thought I'd be loving Burnett this much?

All books read:
1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
3. Lucifer: Morningstar by Mike Carey
4. Lucifer: Evensong by Mike Carey
5. Through One Administration by Frances Hodgson Burnett
6. Black Jack, Volume 1 by Osamu Tezuka
7. Professor Bernice Summerfield #6: The Big Hunt by Lance Parkin
8. Superman by George Lowther
9. Miracleman: The Golden Age by Neil Gaiman
10. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
11. A Lady of Quality: Being a most curious, hitherto unknown history, as related by Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff but not presented to the World of Fashion through the pages of The Tatler, and now for the first time written down by Frances Hodgson Burnett
12. Taft 2012 by Jason Heller
13. The Absolute Authority by Warren Ellis
14. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley
15. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
16. Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
17. Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
18. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley
19. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
20. Little Lord Fauntleroy: A Drama in Three Acts, Founded on the Story of the Same Name by Frances Hodgson Burnett
21. Wildthyme in Purple edited by Stuart Douglas and Cody Quijano-Schell
22. We3: The Deluxe Edition by Grant Morrison
23. Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century by Matt Hills
24. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I was flabbergasted to learn that twenty-four books makes this by best reading month EVER.  (Well, since I started keeping track in September 2003.) I'm not even sure how that happened.  I mean, eleven of them are comics, but if you subtracted all of those, you'd still have thirteen, which would beat my total for February.  Let's say I'm pleased.

All books acquired:
1. Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno
2. The Head of the House of Coombe by Frances Hodgson Burnett
3. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
4. A Lady of Quality: Being a most curious, hitherto unknown history, as related by Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff but not presented to the World of Fashion through the pages of The Tatler, and now for the first time written down by Frances Hodgson Burnett
5. Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
6. Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett
7. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
8. Constellation Games: A Space Opera Soap Opera by Leonard Richardson
9. Kraken: An Anatomy by China Miéville
10. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
11. Victorian Cities by Asa Briggs
12. The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann
13. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Manga, Volume One by Kia Asamiya
14. Letters to a Teacher by Sam Pickering
15. Wildthyme in Purple edited by Stuart Douglas and Cody Quijano-Schell
16. Star Wars: Invasion 1: Refugees by Tom Taylor
17. Star Wars: The Next Generation: Ghosts by Zander Cannon
18. Star Trek: Movie Classics Omnibus by Marv Wolfman, Andy Schmidt, Mike W. Barr, and Peter David

Only in this month could I pick up 18 books and still inch out of "book debt"!  I have my excuses, of course.  #1, 8, 9, and 14 were complimentary copies or gifts.  #2-7 were for school (we finalized the second half of the reading list for my Burnett/Gaskell course late).  #10-13 I got on a trip to a warehouse-sized used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I could not pass them up.  #16-18 were all remaindered for $2 at the Ocean State Job Lot.

And then, of course, #15 was my complimentary copy of a book I have a story in!

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 409

I added a bunch of library books to the list this month, which caused rather an upheaval.  First time crossing the 400 boundary...

30 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet Special: Superheroes and Utopia, Part I: Miracleman: The Golden Age

Comic trade paperback, 158 pages
Published 1993 (contents: 1989-91)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Miracleman: The Golden Age

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Mark Buckingham
Art Assist: Gail Pople
Painters: Sam Parsons, D'Israeli
Letterers: Wayne Truman, Elita Fell

Since reading Peter Paik's From Utopia to Apocalypse and then rereading some of the original Superman stories by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, I've become fascinated by the idea of superheroes and utopia. Superheroes are people with powers so immense that they can change the world for the better, but rarely do we see this explored in superhero fiction. We are drawn to Superman because we believe he can make America better, but most of his stories involve him slugging it out with Lex Luthor. Alan Moore's Watchmen is one of the few superhero texts to really look at the superhero's utopian potential, and his own Miracleman series is another.

Unfortunately, copyright tangles mean that his Miracleman stories are all out of print and difficult to get hold of, even through libraries, so when I decided to read some Miracleman all I could get hold of was one volume, collecting Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham's run. As far as I've been able to tell, at the end of the previous volume, Miracleman defeats the evil Kid Miracleman and takes over the world for its own good, ushering in a utopia. In their stories, Gaiman and Buckingham explore that utopia. It's rare enough for a superhero story to show a utopia being created, and much rarer for it to try to tell stories in it afterwards. What do you talk about in a world where, by definition, nothing can go wrong? The Golden Age doesn't provide one big answer, but rather a number of little ones, and so I shall provide a number of little reviews to correspond.

"The Golden Age"
This story is simply a series of beautiful shots of the new London and new Earth created by Miracleman, with narration telling us how amazing the new world is. It's merely a prologue setting the tone for the stories to come.

August 3, 1987: "A Prayer and Hope..."
In this story, a group of three people go to pray to Miracleman, which requires climbing up a tower so high that they need spacesuits near the top. It's hard to see some aspects of this story as utopian-- why does Miracleman make it so hard for his people to see him?-- but what is particularly interesting about this grueling climb is the ending, when Miracleman refuses one petitioner's request that his daughter be healed, but answers another's that she can't draw as well as she'd like with "You are correct; each of you should have the right to art. Yes. I will see what I can do." What is important in this utopia isn't an individual life, but the lives of many.

A group of schoolkids talk, drawn in a cartoony style. What I found interesting about this was that the counterculture that is springing up values Kid Miracleman, using him as the basis for their aesthetic. But aesthetic is all it seems to be, or at least the values are those of every coutnerculture movement.

A man paired with a woman by computer reflects as they lie in bed together after having sex. He very nearly missed out on dying in the battle between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman. This story shows us the emotional cost of utopia-- but also its power, in a flashback to a moment where the man, as a young boy, had a brief encounter with Miracleman and was awed. Despite it all, he admires Miracleman, not hates him.

June 1990: "Skin Deep"
A man recounts the story of how one night, working at a windmill in the middle of nowhere, he had sex with Miraclewoman, the embodiment of female perfection (just as Miracleman is male perfection). They have sex many subsequent times, but when he accuses her of being perfect, she reverts to her "civilian," non-superhuman form, and they have sex one last time. The story seems to say that Miraclewoman is not perfect, or rather that she is only perfect because all people are perfect; it is only easier to see with her. It's an interesting, touching story-- probably the one that stuck with me most out of the book-- and I like what it says about the superhero archetype, that it represents the possibility for perfection within all of us. But it suggests that archetype's dark side, too: that because we can never fully realize perfection in our own lives, we will always be disappointed...

May 1 - October 1, 1993: "Notes from the Underground"
This is an odd story: one of Miracleman's alien allies has created a series of androids based on Andy Warhol, but has also resurrected Doctor Gargunza, the deranged scientist who helped create Miracleman to begin with. The alien, we eventually learn, has been resurrecting Gargunza again and again, hoping to someday change him into a better person. It's a dark, unsettling story with interesting potentials.

October 28, 1993: "Winter's Story"
After his victory, Miracleman allowed women without children to apply to be injected with his sperm, creating a race of superbeings. This story shows a family with one such child, Mist, as they read about the first one, Winter. Again, it's an unsettling story: you have a woman granted the gift of life, but unable to connect with her daughter's cosmic consciousness. Does Mist treat her mother unfairly? Or is her mother simply failing to adjust to the glorious new world they live in?

"Spy Story"
A group of spies unable to let go of the old world have been made happy by being placed within "the City," where they can play out their spy games to their heart's content. Pretty good, but derivative of The Prisoner (or at least Danger Man), and pretty tangential to the world of Miracleman.

August 22, 1994: "Carnival"
The last story brings together at least one character who appeared in each previous story, on a day in London where Miracleman's triumph over Kid Miracleman is celebrated. It epitomizes what works about the rest of the book: at the same time we mourn the old world and people unable to transition out of it, we see the glimpses of potential that make this new world wondrous. The book's last two pages, as hundred of people take flight supported only by balloons, is wondrous.

It's a shame that we'll apparently never see more of this story to come, but in a way, I like that. The Golden Age explores the sadness that comes with the passing of a way of life, but if what comes next is a genuine utopia, it really would be impossible for there to be a sustained series of stories. The Golden Age really only succeeds at that by using Miracleman as a god, not a character. Without Gaiman's planned next two volumes, we'll never see the degeneration and corruption of Miracleman's utopia, and we'll be able to forever stop on that image of the people of Earth floating away on balloons. It makes The Golden Age a much more unconventional work than it might otherwise have been, one that shows a utopia that though it has cause for sadness, has much larger cause for joy and wonder.

28 March 2012

A Republican I Can Support (Though Maybe Not-- He's Pretty Big)

Trade paperback, 249 pages
Published 2012
Acquired February 2012

Read March 2012
Taft 2012
by Jason Heller

As a Cincinnatian (in spirit, if not current geographical location), I felt compelled to pick up Taft 2012, a book that asks the question that I suspect is on everyone's mind this primary season: "What if William Howard Taft suddenly reappeared and decided to run for president again?"  The premise reminds me, oddly, of the 2006 Robin Williams film Man of the Year, in that it features an unlikely outside candidate running for president, who is used to poke at the partisan problems of modern American politics, ultimately somewhat toothlessly.

The best part of Taft 2012 is that it's funny and light.  It never wears out its welcome, and even though Jason Heller goes to the fat jokes perhaps a little bit too much, I laughed at them more than I didn't, so it's hard to complain too much.  He doesn't even rely on the stock man-out-of-his-own-time jokes too much, perhaps aside from the bit where Taft tries to come to grips with Twitter.  The book is also peppered with little interstitials between the chapters, taken from media broadcasts, web postings, and the like; my favorite had to be the Etsy listing for a Taft mustache, but they were generally entertaining.  I enjoyed the first half of the novel, where Taft adjusts to life in 2011, but also kept on waiting for something more substantial to happen.

Unfortunately for Taft 2012, it also wants to be more hard-hitting and incisive than it is.  It keeps its references to contemporary politics vague (besides a couple oblique Obama and Romney jokes), and the only issue the resurrected Taft tackles is overly processed food, which isn't exactly controversial.  (Weirdly, I think, he connects it to the molecular gastronomy movement.)  And even that becomes bogged down in this weird conspiracy story, Taft 2012 having fallen into the same trap as Man of the Year: it is so unlikely for its central character to achieve political prominence that explanation of how it happened ends up taking over the story at the end.
I'm not sure what I think of the ending.  On one hand, it goes somewhere unexpected, on the other hand, it's kind of a more realistic take, and on yet another hand, I'm not convinced realism is what anyone wanted out of Taft 2012 to begin with.  The epilogue was oddly touching, though, for a book whose central character wasn't exactly deeply characterized.

Heller is a first-time novelist, and I think sometimes it shows; his dialogue is a little rough at times, and the novel doesn't always immerse you in a place.  Maybe this is sour grapes, as I was excited to read a novel with scenes set in Cincinnati, but the book is sometimes too light on scene-setting details.  This gets better as it goes, though; when the setting returns to Cincinnati later, there are some nice references.  Not a single one to chili, though!

It's fun, it's quick, and even though Heller never uses the phrase "Cincinnati Fatty" (one of Taft's actual press nicknames), it's still very enjoyable.

26 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #1: Superman

I've recently been curious about superhero prose fiction, largely spurred on by this almost-comprehensive list on Wikipedia. Lacking enough reading projects as it stands, I decided that between each phase of "Faster than a DC Bullet," I'd read another superhero novel. So, here between Lucifer and Alias, I get to experience (yet again) the origin story of

Hardcover, 215 pages
Published 1995 (originally 1942)
Borrowed from the library

Read March 2012
by George Lowther
illustrations by Joe Shuster

This is quite probably the first novel based on a comic book. Released in 1942, a scant four years after Superman debuted in Action Comics, I think this is the first extended take on Superman's origin story. The novel opens, like so many subsequent takes would, with a guy named "Jor-el" on Krypton fretting about the end of the world. (This was the first time Kal-el and his father had an "e" in the second syllable of their names, fact fans.) We then get several chapters of young Clark growing up on the Kent farm in Smallville, as his powers manifest gradually-- this was before "Superboy" became part of the character's history. There's not much of a role for Ma Kent (here named "Sarah"), but there's a nice relationship between Clark and his adoptive father (named "Eben"!), and the scene where Pa dies is probably the best one in the book. It reads a lot like the similar scene in Superman: The Movie, actually.

So, Clark heads to off to the city to get a job at the Daily Planet. In the book's second-best scene, he manages to save editor Perry White's life by pretending to bumble in, so no one knows he has superpowers. Clark asks for a job as a reporter, but has no background; Perry wants to do him a favor but can't justify hiring him, so he assigns Clark to investigate a ghost ship sighted in Maine, as he can't waste a "real" reporter on the case. Oddly, why Clark wants to be a reporter isn't really explained, other than that he got his best grades as a kid in English and always wanted to be some kind of writer.

Despite this, there's a heavy emphasis on Clark's investigative skills in the rest of the story. Clark's investigations drive the mystery plot, with him transforming into Superman just for the action scenes (fighting u-boats, punching out Nazis, that sort of thing). Yes, Nazis-- of course they turn out to be involved with the skeleton crew of a ghost ship. The plot actually gets pretty convoluted at some points, though it all comes out in the end. There's some Lois Lane, but perhaps not as much as one might like. The novel's end, Clark is only beginning to be attracted to her, and though she gets in there with the verbal jabs, she doesn't do anything plotwise expect need to be rescued. Superman won't wow you with its insight into Superman or Clark, but it passes the time. (And fairly quickly, at that; the 200 pages just fly by.)

Though I found it an interesting choice that Superman's first mission was a somewhat subdued mystery rather than a plot to take over/destroy the world, I was somewhat disappointed that the social mission of the early Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster version of the character has already vanished, only four years in. This Superman doesn't have the desire of the original to right wrongs in society like corrupt arms lobbyists and juvenile delinquency; he just wants to solve a haunting and defend America against nasty foreigners. This isn't a problem with the novel per se, but more an observation on how quickly that social crusader version of Superman vanished.

What is here of the original Superman are some magnificent illustrations from co-creator Joe Shuster. There are ten full-page illustrations, four of them in color, and they just pop off the page. Shuster shows that over seventy years later, he's still one of the best illustrators Superman has ever had; these are powerful, iconic images that really add to the story being told, and often surpass it.

Next issue: I look at a superhero who changed the world-- Miracleman!

24 March 2012

Audio Catchup: Two First Doctor Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier

written by Simon Guerrier
directed by Lisa Bowerman
released November 2011

Peter Purves as Steven Taylor
Tom Allen as Oliver Harper
Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles #6.05: The First Wave

Having enjoyed The Perpetual Bond and glorified The Cold Equations, you might imagine that I was a wee bit excited to get ahold of the final part of the Oliver Harper trilogy, The First Wave. As with the other two, this release was written by Simon Guerrier, directed by Lisa Bowerman, produced by David Richardson, and sound designed by Richard Fox and Lauren Yason. It stars, once again, Peter Purves as Steven Taylor and Tom Allen as Oliver Harper.

The First Wave isn’t quite as immersive in the 1960s as its predecessors were, but it still has a feeling of staunch emotional realism for all the characters involved, but especially Steven. Steven has rarely been treated so well as a character as in The Cold Equations, and that trend continues here. Once again, the characters are in a space environment that lets Steven shine but also feels utterly real — and completely resonant with the emotional tone of the story. The First Wave takes place on an mostly airless planetoid at the fringes of the solar system, and the starkness mirrors Steven’s mood. He’s seen Katarina and Sara die… and the Doctor too. How can he and Oliver possibly survive this one?

( Read more... )

written by Simon Guerrier
directed by Ken Bentley
released January 2012

Peter Purves as Steven Taylor
Jean Marsh as Sara Kingdom
Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles #6.07: The Anachronauts

What was good? The three Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier about Sara Kingdom. What was great? The three Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier about Steven Taylor. So what could possibly be even greater except a Companion Chronicle by Simon Guerrier featuring both Jean Marsh and Peter Purves as Sara and Steven? Doctor Who: The Anachronauts, this year’s double-disc/double-voiced Companion Chronicle is exactly that, uniting the Doctor, Steven, and Sara in the gap in the middle of The Daleks’ Master Plan.

The story picks up right from the end of The Feast of Steven with the TARDIS crew celebrating Christmas when the Ship collides with another timeship in the Vortex. The crews of both ships are flung on an alien beach, beginning a journey that will take Steven and Sara into an alien jungle, the depths of the TARDIS itself, and East Berlin during the Cold War…

22 March 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Curse of the Standalone Novel

Hardcover, 169 pages
Published 2004
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield #6: The Big Hunt
by Lance Parkin

Back at the beginning of its Bernice Summerfield series, Big Finish Productions published five paperback novels.  The first two were dull romps (but then, they were by Justin Richards and Stephen Cole, so you ought to expect little else), while the last three demonstrated a rise in quality.  None of them sold particularly well, though, and the line was cancelled.  Three years later, Big Finish took another stab at a Bernice novel line, launching with Lance Parkin's The Big Hunt.

The Big Hunt was apparently designed to stand alone, and presumably attract new readers, or at least readers who had fallen away.  There's little reference to the recent harrowing events in Benny's life depicted in Life During Wartime, Death and the Daleks, and The Grel Escape.  This is a shame, because it stops Bernice from feeling like an actual character.  The novel seems to dodge characterization; the beginning hints that Bernice wants to take a break from the tough times she's been through recently, but avoiding even mentioning the Braxiatel Collection by name, those events have no weight.  As a result, Bernice feels like an unrooted character, existing solely to go through the motions of the protagonist in a pretty generic action-adventure/mystery plot.

It doesn't help that Bernice herself seems uninterested in what's going on.  Early on, a character dies to heighten the tension, but Bernice barely reacts emotionally.  If the novel did something with this-- such as look at how the Fifth Axis occupation has hardened Benny-- then perhaps that could be interesting, but it's just there, and so it falls flat.  If no one in the book cares that this person is dead, then why should I?  There's not a lot of interesting characterization in the book all around, with Beardmore being the only exception. (As a side note, I would like to make an addition to the Bernice Summerfield list of clichés that Simon Guerrier mentions in The Inside Story: the "surprise" revelation that the person who sent Bernice on a seemingly normal archaeological expedition but paid her an absurd amount of money has a hidden malevolent agenda.  It is long since played out.  Also the hidden agenda doesn't make a lot of sense; I'm not convinced that anything illegal was going on before the deaths started happening.)

The Big Hunt is a quick, light read, but therein lies its problem.  At a point where the Bernice Summerfield is finding its legs, dealing with complicated issues in a literary style, it's a return to the kind of storytelling that the series had managed to get away from.

20 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part XII: Evensong

Comic trade paperback, 212 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2002-06)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Lucifer: Evensong

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Jon J Muth, Zander Cannon, Dean Ormston, Aaron Alexovich
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, Guy Major, Fiona Stephenson
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher

The last volume of Lucifer ties up everything in the series nicely, so that it can end with no dangling loose ends. Over the course of the eleven volumes of this tale, we've seen universes begin and end, Heaven and Hell crumble, gods rise and fall, so it's nice to get a set of small-scale stories at the end, letting us breathe and reflect on what's gone by. Thankfully, it also turns out to be one of the best Lucifer collections yet.

The first story, "Fireside Tales," reunites Elaine Belloc with the boy from the Stitchglass storyline of Exodus. It's a last chance for us to see the centaur people of Lucifer's creation, as well as one the stories-within-a-story that Lucifer often delighted in. It also gives us a cute example of teen love.

"Evensong" shows us one last mission for Lucifer, as he reclaims the writ of passage that he used to make the portals to his creation. The best part of this story was the final conversation between Lucifer and Mazikeen, two complex characters with a complex relationship, finally her consummated... in their own strange way.

Any regular reader of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I loved "The Gaudium Option," the last chance to see my favorite ex-cherub in action. Gaudium and his sister, Spera, get a chance to show they really do have what it takes when the new God, Elaine Belloc, sends them into the subbasement of the universe to shut down an afterlife that keeps on limping along. Not only do they deal with God's worst angel, Remiel (I used to like that guy), they also end up reunited with their brother, the unfallen cherub Lumen. Ah, greatness. I read an interview with Carey where he regrets that they never did a Gaudium spin-off, and it is indeed a bummer.

"Eve" is a magnificent story. What could have been a facile comedy tale-- Elaine unites all the series's female characters for a night out-- is actually oddly touching. Elaine, Jill Presto, Mazikeen, Spera, Rachel Begai, and Mona (goddess of hedgehogs) go out for drinks, and we get to see how these people have all touched one another. Elaine gives many of them one last gift-- a lover for Jill, a brother for Rachel-- and even writes herself out of her parents' lives, replacing herself with her brother, the failed half-angel who died a couple volumes ago. And then at the end, having realized that micromanaging the universe is never going to get her anywhere, she sinks into creation.

Elaine was my second-favorite character in Lucifer, and her journey here is excellent-- as is her solution to the problem of omnipotence that has plagued Lucifer throughout the series. It's a solution that Lucifer could never have taken, though, as he didn't want to rule justly, he just wanted to not be ruled. Elaine, in a sense, will always be ruled by everyone; she saves the universe at the cost of her own individuality.

The last story, "All We Need of Hell," shows Lucifer as he journeys outside of creation. He experiences his own past: his rebellion against God, and then his opening of Hell, a replaying of the events of Season of Mists from his perspective. There's a long section that uses the dialogue from Neil Gaiman's original story over again, and it's odd seeing it in the mouth of Carey's Lucifer. Gaiman's Lucifer is long-winded and prone to speeches, whereas Carey's never explained himself this well in his life. The two don't entirely fit together.

I really like the final conversation between God and Lucifer, Lucifer's final rejection of God, and then those closing pages, as Lucifer goes somewhere we can never see, having finally found what he always sought in the only way possible...

Unfortunately, this is followed by "Nirvana," a Lucifer story that was released as a standalone around the time of The Divine Comedy and take place then, too. It's noteworthy in that it gives us Lucifer's only encounter with the new Dream, but little else about it is interesting. It's one of many early Lucifer stories where he goes up against a god-like entity and wins because he's Lucifer. I wish it had been collected back then and not tacked onto the end of this volume, because it's a poor coda. Jon J Muth's beautiful art lacks much storytelling ability, too.

In his afterword to this volume, Mike Carey declares that Lucifer was supposed to be the next chapter in a saga whose previous installments were the Bible, Paradise Lost, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Sandman. Placing one's self with Milton, Blake, and Gaiman is a tall order indeed, but I feel that Carey very nearly pulled it off. When actually discussing and examining the character of Lucifer and his effects on others, Lucifer was on fire; it was only when it became a fantasy hack-and-slash or a story about the universe's foremost wizard that it became uninteresting. If every story in Lucifer had been the caliber of the end of Children of Monsters, A Dalliance with the Damned, The Divine Comedy, Mansions of the Silence, "Wire, Briar, Limber Lock"/"Stitchglass Slide", "The Yahweh Dance", and this volume itself, it would have been a great series. As it was, it was an average-to-good one with occasional flashes of brilliance.

Next issue: an adventure in prose with the Man of Steel: the first comic book novel ever, George Lowther's Superman!

19 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part XI: Morningstar

Comic trade paperback, 189 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Lucifer: Morningstar

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Colleen Doran, Michael Wm. Kaluta
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

The structural similarities between The Sandman and Lucifer continue: the climax of Lucifer comes in its second-last volume.  Most of this volume is given over to the epic story "Morningstar," where everything comes to a head.  Lucifer decides to save the universe from Fenris, and in doing so, must return to Hell to convince the new ruler of Hell, Christopher Rudd, to side with the Silver City and not against it.  The story has its moments (Lucifer, Mazikeen, and Elaine Belloc are all badass), but too much of it is again generic fantasy without much in the way of apparent rules.

It all picks up when Elaine sits on the Primum Mobile, placing herself at the highest point in creation, and making contact with God, who is outside it.  The conversation between Elaine, Lilith, and God over the fate of the universe is great, as is Elaine's journey into Lucifer's universe to save all three creations from destruction.  The end of the book, as Elaine sits in ascendancy over the remaining combined universe, is fantastic.  (I also amazed when Elaine reverted to the age she held at the beginning of the series when she sat on the Primum Mobile.  I hadn't realized how much she'd aged since then; the artists have done it very gradually, which is quite clever.)

Despite the epic events of this volume, Carey still finds time for two side stories.  The first, "The Wheels of God," is another featuring Solomon, and I didn't see the point of it, besides wrapping up the fates of some of the random side characters I'd long forgotten about.  It still has its moments, though.  The second is "The Beast Can't Take Your Call Right Now," which tells what happens when a magician summons the most powerful demon in Hell... only Rudd's taken them all out and so only Gaudium and Spera are left.  Hilarity ensues (except that though Michael Kaluta's art is good, it took me too long to figure out who Gaudium actually was).

16 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part X: Crux

Comic trade paperback, 167 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2004-05)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2012
Lucifer: Crux

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Marc Hempel, Ronald Wimberly
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Though I have enjoyed Lucifer on the whole, its major plot strands sometimes became less than interesting-- and even when they might have been okay on their own, they got dragged out far too long.  Crux is a good example of this, at exactly the wrong time.  The previous volume, The Wolf Beneath the Tree, introduced the threat of Fenris; by the end of Crux, Fenris's threat still hasn't been resolved, and a snarling wolf-god who wants to unmake the universe when its death is already imminent for not-very-well-explicated reasons isn't interesting enough to be the major threat for this much of the story.  Nor was I particularly interested in the people hanging out with Lilith who wanted to do much the same for only-slightly-better-defined reasons.

However, there was some great stuff in Crux regardless.  "The Eighth Sin" takes us to Hell, where we see that Christopher Rudd, the damned man liberated from his torment, has become a messianic figure, preaching a message that neither damned nor demon needs to be subject to the torments of Hell, pointing out that it is unjust for God to keep them down there (little does he know that God absconded from the universe three books ago). (An appearance from Gaudium, the cigar-chomping-ex-cherub-with-a-heart-of-gold-but-not-much-competence doesn't go amiss, either.)

The best part of the book was of course "The Yahweh Dance"; Lucifer is at its most interesting when discussing the problems of being a deity, and "The Yahweh Dance" is no exception.  The archangel Michael has passed his demiurgic power onto Elaine Belloc, his half-human daughter, and she is struggling to maintain some kind of control over it-- and in doing so, accidentally creates a universe.  How do you balance wanting to protect people from harm with wanting to let people make their own decisions when you have omnipotence?  It turns out to be harder than you'd think.  In glimpses of another universe, this story plays out some of the fascinating ideas that keep me coming back to Lucifer every time.

14 March 2012

Manga Doctor

Comic digest, 288 pages
Published 2008 (content: 1973-83)
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Black Jack, Volume 1
by Osamu Tezuka

This is without a doubt one of the strangest books that I have ever read.  Black Jack is a physician without a license, who can cure the strangest diseases you've ever had... for a price.  A very large price.  This volume of manga contains a number of standalone stories, each showing a different one of his many strange cases.

There is one where Black Jack makes telepathic contact with a tumor on a famous women, the tumor being the organs of a twin that never fully formed.  There is another where he talks to a boil on a man's face that takes over his personality periodically. There is another where he watches as a young boy with polio walks across Japan to raise awareness for the disease.  There is another where he transplants the brain of a painter with radiation poisoning from a nuclear bomb test into a new body.  This is another where he intervenes in office politics at a local hospital.  There is another where he is called in to operate on a robotic doctor that has decided it is a human being and not a robot.

Some are gross stories, some are melodramas, some are horror, some are humorous (ostensibly anyway).  I can't say I've ever read anything like it, and I have absolutely no idea what I think of it, other than that it was worth my time to experience something so strange and unusual.  And that my favorite joke was the fact that a distinguished doctor (not Black Jack) at one point informs the other characters that he is the best-selling author of the book How to Poop.

12 March 2012

Why Does Every "Literary" Graphic Novel Have a Subtitle That Clearly Indicates It's a Comic, Anyway?

Comic trade paperback, 232 pages
Published 2007 (originally 2006)
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel

Here's the fourth "literary" graphic novel I've reviewed in a row here (I am catching up on my class reading), and though I liked it as much as any of the others, I don't have much to say about its form.  Bechdel doesn't do anything groundbreaking with word/image interplay-- indeed, this is a very word-driven comic, with at least one narrative caption overlaid on almost every panel. 

But its content got right to me.  This is the story of a woman recounting her girlhood in a family where no one ever quite emotionally connected, so much so that she did not know her father was gay until it was too late for that information to ever influence her relationship with him.  They're a strange unusual family, and it's one of those books where you can't help thinking of your family the whole time through, and drawing connections, and feeling something as a result. (This may indicate more about me than the book.) Bechdel reminds me of Jeanette Winterson, though not entirely for the most obvious reason.

Likable all the way through, painful when it needs to be, occasionally funny, and the only missed note is really the ending, because it is just obviously false, but I guess that's memoir for you.

09 March 2012

My High School Experience Was Nothing Like This... Thank God

Trade paperback, 301 pages
Published 2002
Acquired January 2012

Read February 2012
The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures
by Pheobe Gloeckner

I read this book for my seminar on the graphic novel, but it's one-quarter comics at best.  Most of it is a diary written by a girl who is sleeping with her mother's boyfriend, doing drugs, and other various shenanigans.  At times it is harrowing and/or touching (especially in the last section), but it is mostly an unremitting stream of problematic behavior with no clear motivation or self-reflection, which gets old after a while.  Also I feel like this is one of those books that wants to be about "real" teenagers when it's no such thing at all.

The comics were the best part.  They're clearly not the work of the book's narrator, Minnie, seemingly drawn by some third-person omniscient narrator instead. There's no overt narrative voice-- the only captions just give locations-- letting us step outside of Minnie momentarily, and thus actually feel for her.  We can reflect even if she can't.

Two of the comics were even better than that: they were Minnie's "own" work, crude comics resembling the "comix" she loves so much and showing what she thinks about sex, women, her family, and herself.  I felt like these brief strips were much more potent looks into her thoughts than the other 300-something pages of the book.  Had there been more of these, I'd've been more interested all along, I think.

07 March 2012

The Death of the Super-Man

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2003 (originally 1995-2000)
Acquired January 2012

Read February 2012
The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured
by Chris Ware

This may be the saddest book that I have ever read. Not in terms of how many sad things happen; there are plenty of books out there where tons of sad things happen. Sad things all over the place. No, Jimmy Corrigan is the saddest book that I have ever read in the sense that when I finished it, I felt utterly miserable, depressed, alone in the world. Very rarely has a book been capable of altering my emotional state as much as this one did. I could natter on a lot about how Chris Ware achieves this through his masterful use of the comics medium (I like how he keeps a figure the same size, but suddenly enlarges the panel to show how alone the character is; I like how he uses repeated imagery; I like how he has large, anchorless words float above the characters' heads right in the panels; I like how he parallels the present, the past, and fantasies, especially how he makes time pass in the latter), but I suspect wiser brains than mine have already explicated on this at length.

I do want to give a shoutout to two specific aspects of the story. The first is Ware's clever use of utopian motifs, in the 1893 Chicago Exposition (also known as "White City") and the appearances of Superman (looking like his 1930s self). Seeing these ostensibly triumphal figures in a story like this only makes everything worse, in a good way. They also edge Jimmy Corrigan from being the story of one man's loneliness to something bigger. As does the second thing I want to talk about: the text on the back of a set of depressing picture postcards from Waukosha, Michigan, a blackly humorous skewering of American values. (Actually, all the paratextual stuff is quite funny; I also enjoyed the mocking of literary folks who like comics on the inside front cover.)

I've been avoiding recommending this to people because of how it will make them feel, but it really is quite excellent. If you consider great literature to be something that moves you, be that positively or negatively, then pick up Jimmy Corrigan. (Then again, a friend of mine thinks it's one of the funniest books he's ever read, so what do I know?)

05 March 2012

From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes...

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2003 (contents: 1976-87)

Acquired January 2012
Read February 2012
American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
and More American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

Stories: Harvey Pekar with Joyce Brabner
Art: R. Crumb, Kevin Brown, Gregory Budgett, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray, Sean Carroll, Sue Cavey, Val Malyerik

As far as I can tell, this shouldn't have worked. American Splendor isn't ever about anything, or rather it's about everything, with Harvey Pekar just picking moments in his life that he finds vaguely interesting. Or not even that.

Many of Pekar's stories are almost anti-comic in the amount of narration that Pekar provides to go with the art. There's no word/image hybridity here; without the narration, the pictures would just be isolated fragments, and it would be nearly impossible to deduce the stories. In the story "American Splendor Assaults the Media," there's so much text that there's barely room for images in the panels-- and the images are just Harvey Pekar as he tells you about the events. With little-to-no-alteration, it could be a straight text piece.

But somehow, American Splendor is utterly comics. I'm not sure why the pictures are there sometimes, but if they weren't, you'd have something very different. The stories might be dominated by Pekar's voice (so much so that sometimes who the artist is seems irrelevant), but the art does a lot to give it that voice. The first story in the book, "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," is the clearest demonstration of that. This story is just four pages of headshots-- the incidents the story describes never appear on-panel-- meaning that the illustrations are used to convey Pekar's body language as he "tells" the story. Though the narrative communicated would be same if Pekar had simply typed up the story as straight prose, the comic form gives it a sense of timing and humor. I actually once did an experiment where I gave the story as prose to my class and then as a comic, and all of them reported enjoying it much more as a comic. I myself liked American Splendor a lot, and I think I would have found it unsatisfying in any medium other than comics, so clearly Pekar is doing something right.

(My favorite story, by the way, was the one about Harvey's relationship with the guy he would bum rides off of, but refused to do any favors for in return.)

02 March 2012

Rewatching the Watchmen

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 1986-87)

Previously read November 2008
Acquired January 2012
Reread February 2012

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins

Can I just say that I strongly dislike the cover of the most recent edition of Watchmen? Something just turns me off about that CG-looking blood splatter on the smiley-face eye. I don't know what it is, but I much prefer the cover of the 1987 trade paperback edition.

That aside, there were a number of things that stuck out at me on this rereading of Watchmen, and I'll attempt to highlight those rather than do some kind of comprehensive review of the book. (Besides which, I've reviewed the book as a whole before.)

Foremost among these aspects was the utopian underpinning of the superhero concept. This is an aspect of the superhero that's arguably waned over the decades, but it dates back to the original Superman stories by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. That Superman was on the side of justice, not necessarily the law, and willing to do whatever he had to if it served the cause of right. Of course he never killed anyone, but he dropped a munitions lobbyist into a warzone, destroyed a bunch of dangerously made cars, imprisoned a mine owner in his unsafe mine, and destroyed an entire housing district to force the government to rebuild it better. The reader gets to see the negative aspects of their own society purged, and the implication of the stories is that what is built in their place will be better, leading to a better society. Relatively quickly Superman moved on to battling supervillains and cosmic menaces, but the utopian fantasy clearly underlies most superheroes.

What, then, is Ozymandias's destruction of New York City but Superman destroying the housing district on a massive scale? Through destruction, he can cause the world to be rebuilt. The superhero fantasy is that with a sufficient level of power, you can change the world for the better-- but of course, the deployment of power requires the release of violence, and the violence is unlikely to be as contained as Siegel and Shuster's Superman was always able to do. Ozymandias knows this, but rather than shrink from the violence, he embraces it and uses it to make the world better. Many commentators on Watchmen ask if it is Ozymandias or Rorschach who is in the right, and for some reason, most of these commentators seem to think that Rorschach is right.

It's not that I think that Ozymandias is right, but that to think this is an either/or proposition underestimates how complicated Moore and Gibbons are. Even Peter Paik, whose book From Utopia to Apocalypse is a substantial influence on my own thoughts on the utopian aspects of superheroes, falls into what I call the "Rorschach trap"; when you find yourself agreeing with a psychopath, you might have done something wrong. Rorschach is simply Ozymandias on a smaller scale. He commits countless acts of violence in pursuit of his vision of justice, against people who are innocent of the crimes he is investigating.

Indeed, one of the supplemental text sections reveals that Rorschach admires President Truman for being willing to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki-- which probably killed more people than Ozymandias's faked alien attack on New York City. Rorschach commits the violence that it is in his power to commit to change the world to the form he sees as optimal, as do all those who exercise power. And thereby Moore and Gibbons make their book about something other than superheroes.

But it is about superheroes, too, and does all sorts of things to them that have since become intrinsic to the genre. A friend of mine insists that Watchmen is the single most important superhero story ever written, and I think he's wrong about that. Genres are filled with stories that cause them to mutate, but those changes become absorbed, and the stories' significance underestimated. Where would be without Amazing Fantasy #15, for example? What makes Watchmen so significant, though, is that it is both genre-redefining and very good. (This is harder than you'd think.)

Watchmen is simply an excellent comic book, by which I mean an excellent use of the comic book medium. Watchmen never tries to be like a movie or anything like that (though it certainly uses some cinematic techniques), but it tries to do things that only comic books can do.

The use of repeated panels is one that sticks out at me the most. In a sequence early in the book, we see the Comedian murdered. Images from this sequence pop up throughout it, interspersed into other parts of the narrative. I don't think film could pull this off quite the same way. It would have to be a snippet of action or motion, and it would have to be brief. A comic book, though, can show us a single wordless panel, isolating a moment in time that our eye can linger over without it using up much space in the story.

Comics are perhaps unique for the fact that the size/duration of something is unrelated to how much time you spend with it. Both words and moving images go by at a constant rate, so if you want your reader/viewer to spend time with something, you have to devote time to it. Comics don't have to do that; a single image of a single moment can arrest the reader. Moore and Gibbons also use this effectively in the chapter where Doctor Manhattan and the Silk Spectre talk on Mars; the perspective keeps shifting to a perfume bottle slowly turning in the Martian atmosphere. Only it's probably moving quite quickly.

It also actually does not actually get thrown until the end of the chapter, showing another technique that Moore and Gibbons use to great effect: images from different times in sequence. The chapter explaining Doctor Manhattan's history uses this best of all. Doctor Manhattan views all times simultaneously, and so does the viewer of a comic book, since your eyes can scan back and forth across the comic panels at will. It's a very clever way to make the reader become Doctor Manhattan in a sense, and again, a trick that could never have the same effect on film. (It's definitely the best chapter in the book.)

There's also the jumping between multiple plots in rapid succession, such as when we see what's going on in New York, what the superheroes are up to in Antarctica, and what is happening in the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter. Moore and Gibbons even place the dialogue or narration boxes from one of this threads within the image of another. Again, it can only really work in comics, where the eye can linger and figure out how everything goes together. It would be cacophonous to cut a film together this way.

With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons not only scrutinized and redefined the superhero genre, they exploited the comic book medium to its utmost, and the two of the these two actions make Watchmen the legend that it is. Given all of this, it's no wonder than the Watchmen film turned out to be largely pointless. Zack Snyder's slavish adherence to the visuals of the comic underestimates the extent to which the structure of the book was intrinsically comic-y in ways that the film could never hope to transfer. (That said, the film's best sequence is also the part where we learn Doctor Manhattan's backstory, because it exploits an exclusive part of the film medium: sound. The soundtrack seals the deal.) And, of course, the book had already redefined the genre and the tropes it spawned had been incorporated into countless superhero films already. What could the film hope to do in this regard?

As far as adaptations go, by sheer coincidence, I was reading Watchmen when the news about Before Watchmen broke. Personally, I'm interested enough; DC has put together a top-flight of creators, and I think that they could create a series of top-flight superhero stories. They won't utterly change superhero comics the way that Watchmen did, but I don't expect them to.

01 March 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: February 2012

Pick of the month: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured by Chris Ware.  This could have been Watchmen easily, except that I try to not pick rereads if at all possible.  But Jimmy Corrigan is every bit as good a choice-- both books demonstrate an astounding understanding of the comics medium, pulling off techniques that it would be utterly impossible to do elsewhere, to great emotional effect.

All books read:
1. Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter
2. Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree by Mike Carey
3. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Ten: Extremes by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
4. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Eleven: War by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
5. Watchmen by Alan Moore
6. Professor Bernice Summerfield III: Life During Wartime edited by Paul Cornell
7. Haworth's by Frances Hodgson Burnett
8. American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar and More American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar by Harvey Pekar with Joyce Brabner
9. Lucifer: Crux by Mike Carey
10. The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured by Chris Ware
11. A Fair Barbarian by Frances Hodgson Burnett
12. The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner

All books acquired:
1. Taft 2012 by Jason Heller
2. Professor Bernice Summerfield VI: Parallel Lives by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold, and Dave Stone
3. Professor Bernice Summerfield VII: Something Changed edited by Simon Guerrier
4. Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 375