30 April 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: April 2012

Pick of the month: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  This was a tricky one-- though I read some good stuff this month, nothing stood out particularly strongly to me.  I also really enjoyed Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 2 (though not as much as Book 1), A Life Worth Living, and Young Avengers.  But this was the only book this month that caused me to go around telling people I wanted to marry the protagonist, so we'll go with it.

All books read:
1. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy by Sandra D. Mitchell
2. Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 2 by Brian Michael Bendis
3. The Pulse: Thin Air by Brian Michael Bendis
4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
5. One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
6. The New Adventures: Mean Streets by Terrance Dicks
7. Professor Bernice Summerfield IV: A Life Worth Living edited by Simon Guerrier
8. Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Deadly Hands of Shon-Ju by Jeremy Barlow
9. The Head of the House of Coombe by Frances Hodgson Burnett
10. Checkerboard Nightmare: A Brief History of Webcomics by Kristofer Straub
11. The Pulse: Secret War by Brian Michael Bendis
12. Professor Bernice Summerfield V: A Life in Pieces by Dave Stone, Paul Sutton & Joseph Lidster
13. Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett
14. The White People by Frances Hodgson Burnett
15. Young Avengers by Allan Heinberg

All books acquired:
1. Mumbai Noir edited by Altaf Tyrewala
2. A Preliminary Discourse of the Study of Natural Philosophy by John F.W. Herschel
3. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 by Mary Poovey
4. The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment by Amanda Anderson
5. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens
6. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe
7. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove
8. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern by Douglas R. Hofstadter
9. The Flash Omnibus by Geoff Johns, Volume Two by Geoff Johns
10. Tales from Super-Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg
11. Dark X-Men by Paul Cornell

For the first time, I purchased books for my exam reading (#2-7)!  Stuff is about to get real.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 412


Faster than a DC Bullet: Jessica Jones, Part II: Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 2

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2003)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2012
Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 2

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Michael Gaydos (with Mark Bagley, Al Vey & Art Thibert and Rick Mays)
Colors: Matt Hollingsworth (with Dean White)
Letters: Cory Petit (with Richard Starkings & Wes Abbott and Jason Levine)

The second volume of Alias continues the excellence of the first. It continues Jessica Jones's investigations of the dark underbelly of the Marvel Universe, as she looks into the disappearance of one of the many superheroes known as Spider-Woman... who just happens to be the adopted daughter of J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson is always a great character, and he's even greater when he's legitimately worried about something. I would say that this story is my favorite of Alias's "cases," except that it's tied with the Rick Jones and runaway mutant cases in the first volume. (I do love those moments where we see Jessica's very awkward way of flying.)

As good as the first half of the book is, the second is even better. Intending to read just one chapter before I went to bed, I read all of them-- and when she read the book, my wife did the same thing! Here, we finally learn the "secret origin" of Jessica Jones. She went to Midtown High with Peter Parker, which maybe stretched credulity a bit, but as always I like the way that Bendis and Gaydos juxtapose Jessica's miserable life against superheroics. Part of the story is drawn in the style of Steve Ditko, and Bendis's naturalistic dialogue is put right alongside all-caps Stan Lee proclamatory stuff. Jessica says things like "I can't believe how badly I screwed that up" at the same time that a Midtown student says, "SAY, GANG! WE NEED ONE MORE GUY FOR THE DANCE! HOW ABOUT PETER PARKER OVER THERE?" I especially like it when Jessica calls Flash Thompson "a fucking repressed dickhead retard" and Peter replies, "I wouldn't put it in those words exactly."

As always, putting Jessica's life next to these other ones shows how terrible her life is. The secret origin starts with her getting a car crash, and things only get worse from there, as we explore Jessica's past and see how what's happened then relates to her present. It's great, terrifying stuff. Poor, poor Jessica.

As good as it is, though, there are three things I don't like about the ending. (YES, THIS PARAGRAPH HAS SPOILERS IN IT.) The first is that Jessica's "archnemesis," the Purple Man, thinks that he's a character in a comic book. It's too knowing, and I don't think it adds anything to the story. We already get when Bendis and Gaydos are doing if we're paying attention. The second is that when Jessica defeats the Purple Man because Jean Grey installed a psychic trigger in her all those years ago. That's it? Lame. Too easy. The third is Jessica's sudden decision that she loves Luke Cage, who we've seen on a total of three previous occasions this entire series. Really? Why? I just don't see what exists between them.

Aside from that stuff, though, Alias's second book is just as good, if not better, than the first. Good dialogue from Bendis and great art from Gaydos give us a gripping examination of what it means to be powerless-- and the lengths to which people will go to overcome that feeling.

27 April 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Jessica Jones, Part I: Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 1

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2001-02)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Alias: Ultimate Collection, Book 1

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Michael Gaydos (with Bill Sienkiewicz, David Mack and Mark Bagley & Rodney Ramos)
Colors: Matt Hollingsworth
Letters: Richard Starkings & Wes Abbott, Oscar Gongora & Jason Levine

Not only have I read a lot of superhero stories by this point, I've read a lot of "deconstructions" of superhero stories, stories where the tropes of superhero stories are turned on their head in some way. Sometimes this is done to make a clever point (i.e., Watchmen), but sometimes you wonder why the writer bothered. "Oh, you've proved that it would suck to be a cop in a world full of superheroes. Congratulations, so has everyone else who's written this story."

What differentiates a good deconstruction from a bad one, I think, is doing more than simply subverting a genre convention, but understanding what a genre means. Alias is, thankfully, one such book. It stars Jessica Jones, a former superhero, now a private investigator, and her cases take her into the dark underbelly of the Marvel Universe, as she crosses paths with Daredevil, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and J. Jonah Jameson. But why bother showing what the Marvel Universe would look like from this perspective?

What writer Brian Michael Bendis understands is that the superhero story is a power fantasy-- and Alias is a story about powerlessness. It tells the tales of people who were superheroes, or can't be superheroes, or have had brushes with superheroes, and contrasts the superheroes against their sheer inability to do anything whatsoever. Jessica Jones is a woman with low self-confidence who very rarely gets what she wants. Nothing can exacerbate the feeling that you can't control your own life like putting you next to people whose lives are magnificent. There are a few sequences in this book where Jessica tries to get in contact with the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, and she can't even get past the phone menu or the receptionists. She's completely powerless.

In her cases, she encounters a number of others trying to find power of various sorts: politicians, an ex-sidekick, a teenage runaway who might be a mutant. They're decent mysteries, but they're even better explorations of what it's like to amount to nothing, and what you might do to amount to something, anything. I particularly enjoyed the story where Jessica was trying to track down Rick Jones, who has been a sidekick to Captain Marvel, the Hulk, and Captain America at various times, which presented a very funny flip-side to the superhero archetype:
"This fucking guy doesn't shut up about the -- about the fucking -- what is it?"


"Kree-Skull War. And I have no idea what the fuck a Kree-Skull War is! Some big space war and he saved the planet and shit."
And of course, we're all powerless, right? At least that's what Bendis convinces me of by the time that the first volume of Alias is over. He's used the superhero genre to say something interesting and with thematic depth, and though I like a story where Superman-2 fights the Anti-Monitor just as much as the next guy, I like this a whole lot, too.

Bendis is aided in his "deconstruction" by the excellent artwork of Michael Gaydos. I mean, serious excellent. Gaydos as a very realistic style, suited to a grounded story like this, but what's best of all is Gaydos's masterful command of facial expressions. You always know exactly how Jessica (and all the other characters) are thinking and feeling. The art and dialogue move slow at times; there are two-page spreads that include 34 panels, continuously flipping back and forth between two characters. You really feel immersed in a scene and a conversation.

There's a lot of nice, little touches too, and big ones. I like Jessica's not-quite-trusting relationship with Ms. Marvel, and her own "sidekick," and her brewing relationship with nt Man, and every line of dialogue spouted by J. Jonah Jameson (seriously, give that man his own series).

Not to mention that it is the only superhero comic I have ever read where someone sits on the toilet.

25 April 2012

Dr Who and the Return of Media Studies

Trade paperback, 261 pages
Published 2010
Acquired December 2010

Read March 2012
Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century
by Matt Hills

I am pretty sure that I once saw someone point out that this is the first scholarly monograph that takes as its subject the new Doctor Who (i.e., 2005 and beyond).  As such, it represents an excellent next step beyond texts such as Time And Relative Dissertations In Space, which took the entire 26 years of the old show as their topic, bringing some focus to the enterprise.  Triumph of a Time Lord isn't much more focused than that, however-- there's no central thesis to Matt Hills's book that I can see, aside from 1) media studies can tell us interesting things about Doctor Who, and perhaps more usefully, 2) Doctor Who can actually upset some things that we think about media studies.

I found the first and third sections of the book the most interesting.  The first, "Fans and Producers," talks about Doctor Who's "author."  As a now-almost-50-year phenomenon with no clear George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry figure, Doctor Who has long resisted the idea of an "author," but Hills points out the ways in which Doctor Who is now coded (or was, anyway) as the work of Russell T Davies.  Linked to this is his upsetting of Henry Jenkins's work in the seminal Textual Poachers; Hills argues that fans no longer "poach" from Doctor Who, for the fans now run Doctor Who.  The discourse of the show is the fan one; there is no clear boundary between fan and professional anymore.  Similar themes permeate the last part, "Quality and Mainstream TV," which looks at how Doctor Who is positioned as either a "cult" or "mainstream" television show, ultimately arguing that the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Using various media studies texts lets Hills both how useful they can be, but also where their limitations are.

I might have found an overall argument easier to find if Hills's use of transitions was smoother.  He doesn't really do introductions or conclusions; rather, there are periodic paragraphs that say, "I have just argued [X]. I shall now argue [Y]."  I'd rather see something that drew [X] together and explained why it was the perfect lead-in to [Y].  I know what you just argued, because I just read it!

Perhaps the most impressive thing that Hills does in Triumph of a Time Lord is create "Who Studies" as a field.  Hills effortlessly quotes not just from other works in media studies, or even other scholarly works on Doctor Who, but articles in Doctor Magazine, blog posts, fanzines, reviews in the popular press, and so on, pulling them all together into a body of work that he can respond to and quote as need be.  At first I was like "Really? Blogs?" but fan amateurs have thought as hard about Doctor Who, if not harder, than many academic professionals, and ignoring their work would make very little sense.  Why should Hills reinvent work that has been done?  Triumph of a Time Lord is the first substantial contribution to a scholarly discussion about the Russell T Davies Doctor Who; with a starting point like this, it ought not to be the last.

23 April 2012

Doctor, Who is Required

Hardcover, 559 pages
Published 1959 (originally 1957)
Acquired October 2008

Read March 2012
Doctor Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak

Nine years ago, David Lean's Doctor Zhivago was one of my favorite films, though I've scarcely seen it since. I thought I would enjoy the book, but for whatever reason, I found it hard to get into, though I did read the whole thing (minus the poems at the end). It has moments of greatness, especially early on, but I would just lose focus and discover that incredibly important things had happened and I had missed them.  Pasternak's fault, or the translators'?  The best part was "Train to the Urals," a fifty-page chapter detailing the Zhivago family's journey from Moscow to the country during the Communist revolution.  Pull it out and you'd have an excellent standalone novella.

The long time it took me to read was exacerbated by my discovery that my copy (a January 1959 printing of the first edition of September 1958) was misprinted, with pages 373 to 404 appearing twice, and 405 to 436 not at all.  But I had gotten it for free, and I borrowed the library's copy to fill in the gaps, so all was fine in the end.

20 April 2012

It's Like Homeward Bound, but with More Blood and More Cyborgs

Comic hardcover, 116 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 2004-05)
Acquired January 2012
Read March 2012
We3: The Deluxe Edition

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
Colorist and Digital Inker: Jamie Grant
Letterer: Todd Klein

We3 is an odd little comic. It's about a government project to abduct three pets (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) and wire them into killing machines so you can have a living soldier on the battlefield without it being a human being.  The project gets shut down, and the scientist ordered to terminate the animals actually releases them, forcing the government to come after them, all guns blazing.

There are some great things about this book.  Most of that is due to Frank Quitely's art.  The absolute best page is where we see a man being torn apart by a hail of bullets, and we are positioned on the opposite side of his body from the shooter, all the bullets coming right at us after having passed through him.  It is the most beautiful image of a man being torn apart by bullets that I have ever seen.  Indeed, the whole book is filled with oddly beautiful images of violence, which cause you to reevaluate what you think of violence more than any number of gruesome images ever will.  In fact, the beautiful images that are not overtly violent are still only possible because of violence, such as the three animals' star-filled escape.  Sure, it's gorgeous, and sure, it's a two-page splash emerging from a cramped grid of panels-- but a page earlier those animals murdered a bunch of people.

The notes at the end by Morrison and Quitely indicate that they think they're doing something innovative, and I don't fully buy it, but they're almost there.  At first I rejected the tiny inset panels, though a great technique unique to comics, as having been done by Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985 (and though I like George Pérez, he's not exactly avant garde), but I realized that these are different. While Pérez's images show a number of moments all happening simultaneously to each other, Quitely juxtaposes multiple moments that don't actually take place simultaneously, but come on top of each other so quickly that they seem to. But I can't come up with an effect caused by the 3D panels that comics couldn't do before already.

The story itself is kinda obvious-- it really is any old "escaped animal" story but with violence and cyborgs.   The characters are mostly types, especially the human beings (but maybe that's the point).  We3 is formalistically complex, but not married to a story that makes full use of that complexity.

18 April 2012

Visit to a Ghost World Revisited

Comic trade paperback, 80 pages
Published 2008 (content: 1993-97)
Acquired June 2011

Previously read March and July 2011
Reread March 2012
Ghost World
by Daniel Clowes

This is my third time reading this book in twelve months.  I'm kind of tired of it now-- not that it's bad, but there are very few books I would enjoy reading three times in a year that aren't written by George Eliot.  I did, however, have a higher appreciation for some segments that I have in the past, thanks to an exercise where I went through noting all of the panel transitions' McCloudian types, which let me see what techniques Clowes uses and thus what effects he is creating with greater detail.

For example, in one chapter where there are a lot of "subject-to-subject transitions," I realized that this is because the chapter is all about Enid and Rebecca watching people, and so there are a number of panels where we see people from their perspective.  Realizing this made more potent a bit I'd previously never gotten, where a creepy guy leans out of his window and passes judgment on everyone he sees.  He's Enid and Rebecca, years later if they keep on doing what they're doing.  But in a world filled with terrible things and terrible people (or worse, mundane things and mundane people), what choice do they have but to pass judgment on what they see?  It's do that or become mundane themselves.

16 April 2012

Grandmother vs. Scott Pilgrim, round two

Comic digest, n.pag.
Published 2005
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The thing I enjoy about Scott Pilgrim (other than the excellently-chosen captions) is that is takes place in a videogame world.  Fighting other people is a perfectly normal activity, as is them turning into piles of coins when defeated.  I enjoyed the flashback about Scott's high school battles-- everyone acts like a student being kidnapped by a rival school is a completely plausible occurrence.

Poor Knives Chau.

13 April 2012

Grandmother vs. Scott Pilgrim, round one

Comic digest, n.pag.
Published 2004
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
by Bryan Lee O'Malley

My favorite thing about this book is that, while I don't particularly like Scott Pilgrim himself, I am pretty sure that the narrative itself doesn't like him, either.  The book is peppered with captions that mock him, such as the panel showing his apartment with the owner of each object labeled-- and they all belong to his (cool gay) roommate.  Or when he finally gets to kiss Ramona Flowers, object of his desire, there's an inset of him rocking out on the guitar and a giant "NICE ONE, SCOTT! NOW TURN THE PAGE."  I don't really care about Scott and Ramona's relationship, but I laughed all the way through anyway.

11 April 2012

Whoops, Never Mind

Trade paperback, 229 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1886)
Acquired and read March 2012
Little Lord Fauntleroy
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Cedric is everything I hate about precocious children in literature.

10 April 2012

And Burnett Can Even Maintain Her Writing Skill Across Another Book

Hardcover, 363 pages
Published 1924 (originally 1896)
Acquired and read March 2012
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

Now, this isn't as good as Burnett's Through One Administration, but that's kind of a tall order. As Through One Administration was, though, it's a complete change of tack. Burnett's first three novels were Lancashire-set stories about the lower classes (kind of), while Through One Administration was about the political culture of Washington, D.C., during the Rutherford years. A Lady of Quality takes us back to England in the late 17th/early 18th century, chronicling a young woman named Clorinda. Clorinda is the third daughter of an English lord and the woman he used horribly, but unlike her older sisters, who are weak, she's strong, argumentative, and aggressive. She wins over her father and is raised as a boy-- until she hits sixteen or so and decides that she's going to be a woman. But she's not just any woman, she's the best dang woman who ever was. Having essentially been a "boy" for much of her life, Clorinda seems to have realized that gender is performance, and so she gives the best performances possible. She's a magnificent creation, one of those characters who is the best at everything, but it never bothers you that this is so because Burnett shows you why.

I'm going to get into spoiler territory, because what makes this novel truly interesting is a surprise. So don't read the rest of this if you intend to ever read A Lady of Quality (likely, I know). Just take me on trust that it's worth your time (mostly). So here it is: Clorinda flirts with one man, but marries another, who dies after only a couple years. When she's about to remarry, the first man comes back, threatening to reveal their "secret marriage" to the world. (I am pretty sure they just had sex, but whatever.) In a fit of rage, Clordina grabs a horsewhip from a table (she's just been riding) and beats him to death with it. Woah. There is no way in heck that I saw that coming; I was anticipating one of those Victorian "I've got to get the proof of our romance back from him" plots like in Wives and Daughters. What's more, she gets away with it. The last third of the book is about how wonderful her second marriage is. I certainly did not see that coming.

It's a great idea, and incredibly daring for an era in which so many people judged novels by their "moral" content, and the lengths to which Clorinda (and Burnett) goes to rationalize the murder as appropriate are interesting in and of themselves. Unfortunately, a third of a novel being about how happy someone is is dull reading. I don't object to Clorinda getting away with it-- and I love her cool, detached appraisal of what she has to do to cover it up when her rage has burnt itself out, not to mention the fact that she has visitors over while sitting on the couch the body is hidden under-- but it would have been more interesting for her to have to struggle to get away it a little bit more. I was fully expecting someone to turn up with an inkling of what transpired, and Clorinda to have to overcome him somehow, but that never happened. It just went on and on and on and on about how great everything was. So, there's a good, powerful idea at the center of A Lady of Quality, but I think it's hard to argue that Burnett doesn't explore its possibilities as well as she might.

09 April 2012

It Turns Out That Frances Hodgson Burnett Actually Knows How to Write

Google eBook, 564 pages
Published 1916 (originally 1883)

Read March 2012
Through One Administration
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

After Burnett's first three novels, especially Haworth's and That Lass o' Lowrie's, I was about to give up on her as one of the worst writers to ever pick up a pen. (I read The Secret Garden a couple years ago, it wasn't much cop, either.) But then, Through One Administration came along and completely changed all of that. Somewhere, somehow, Burnett didn't just learn how to write, but how to write very well. While her early novels are mostly dialogue and sketchy characterization, Through One Administration dives deeply into the psyches of its characters in a way that reminds one of George Eliot. There's a genuine attempt to understand why people behave and act the way that they do that is completely lacking from Burnett's first few novels.

Through One Administration is set, largely, in Washington, D.C., during the administration of one president (well, duh), following a group of characters acquainted with Bertha, the beautiful daughter of an entomologist, now married to a lawyer. (One assumes that "Bertha" was a much sexier name to our ancestors than it is to us.) The protagonist is Colonel Philip Tredennis, who knew her when both were young, but comes to D.C. to accept a political post after fighting Indians to find her married-- only she's not in love with the man she married. Tredennis and Bertha's struggle to figure out what to do in such a context makes up the main plot of the novel, such as it is.

The best section of the book is definitely the part when Bertha has taken her children to the Virginia countryside when they fall ill, and her husband can't be reached, so Tredennis goes and helps her. They are never physically intimate, but they are emotionally intimate, and Burnett ably makes this section extra-melancholy by telling it all in retrospective; almost as soon as Tredennis arrives, we are told that he left, but then she jumps back and fills in what happened between the two of them while they were there, so you spend the whole time knowing this idyllic moment of happiness is going to be a brief one.

Tredennis is an awesome character, a man apparently not attractive, and not very loud, but forthright, and very honest. My favorite Tredennis moment comes when he is talking to Bertha's father ("the professor") about Arbuthnot, another man who is in love with Bertha:
"'This Arbuthnot,'" interposed the professor, with a smile. "It is curious enough to hear you entering upon a defence of 'this Arbuthnot.' You don't like him, Philip. You don't like him."

"I don't like myself," said Tredennis, "when I am compared with him; and I don't like the tendency I discover in myself, the tendency to disparage him. I should like to be fair to him, and I find it difficult."

"Upon my word," said the professor, "it is rather fine of you to make the effort, but" --giving him one of the old admiring looks-- "you are always rather fine, Philip."

"It would be finer, sir," said Tredennis, coloring, "if it were not an effort."

"No," said the professor, quietly, "it would not be half so fine."
I think that's incredibly perceptive look into the mind of a person who finds it very hard to live up to his own moral standards. That someone's dislike of someone else would be intensified by not liking himself for disliking the other person is very touching. And if the professor is right, then the whole exchange is rather reassuring. I've read this page over a few times since reading it the first time, and I continue to be impressed by its complexity. (This discussion is probably revealing more about me than Through One Administration, but I guess that's literature for you.)

Speaking of the professor, he's a pretty awesome guy, too. I read Through One Administration at the same time as Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, and like that novel, this one has a rare positioning of the scientist's powers of observation as positive. The professor views his daughter like one of the insects he chloroforms, pins, and studies... and that's a good thing! Watching her so acutely means that he understands her in a way that few others do, and indeed, he's the moral center of the novel. When he approves of a character, we know that we are meant to, too.

Also, Bertha herself is a very interesting question. Through One Administration is very conscious about the fact that women are looked at, and Bertha herself-- thanks to her father's scientific training?-- is conscious of this herself, and uses it utterly. I was reading an 1885 overview of Burnett's career from Time written by a Clementia Black that explains this book's stance better than I could myself, which says that Burnett "keeps present the sense that the enclosure [of society] is artificial, and that only artificial natures (if the expression may be allowed) can move freely in it. And she lets us forget that there are, below the surface smoothness, such things as sincere feelings running in a straight channel without pause or divergence, and that in a nature of any value, there are such elements as struggle and self-conquest" (82). This is an excellent summation of the major trend of the novel, revealing that even facile people have some level of depth; you just have to know where to look. We learn this of Bertha, Arbuthnot, and others, even learning that it often takes a lot of work to be as facile as those people seem. The world is artificial, and so we must be artificial to succeed in it.

It's not all amazing-- the third quarter of the novel is surprisingly incident-free-- but on the whole Through One Administration is an incredible achievement in character-depth and melancholy. As Black says, "We are left at the end with a feeling of sad and irredeemable complexity, and a conviction, such as real life often enough brings up, that a knot so manifold as this is beyond all human untying, and that Death's is the only sword strong enough to cut it" (84). Certainly the best Burnett that I've read, and I can't believe that it's not more widely read; there's not a single modern reprint that I'm aware of. In the annals of nineteenth-century fiction, this deserves to be a minor classic.

08 April 2012

Audio Catchup: Three Fifth Doctor Lost Stories

written by Barbara Clegg & John Dorney
directed by Ken Bentley
released October 2011

Peter Davison as the Doctor
Janet Fielding as Tegan
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa
Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #3.1: The Elite

The third season of Big Finish’s Doctor Who: The Lost Stories is here. The scars still haven’t healed since Andrew Cartmel inflicted Season 27 on us, but regardless, we soldier on into the future. Or rather, into the past — the third season takes us back to Season 20 of classic Doctor Who, reuniting the Fifth Doctor with Tegan and Nyssa in the gap between Arc of Infinity and Snakedance. The Elite is written by John Dorney, based upon a scrap of an idea by Barbara Clegg. It’s not quite “authentic” (are these Lost Stories ever?) as Clegg pitched The Elite after Enlightenment, which means it could never have featured Tegan and Nyssa, but on the other hand, it’s one of the most authentic-sounding Lost Stories yet.

As Dorney points out in the liner notes, The Elite opens the way many Nathan-Turner/Saward stories did: the Doctor and his companions in a long TARDIS scene, discussing the previous adventure and bickering a bit. For someone like me who considers Seasons 18 through 21 to be one of his favourite periods of Doctor Who, it’s a joy to listen to. Dorney writes the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa perfectly. But he’s not above a bit of modern joking at the expense of the era, as we find out why Tegan wore that tube top all season long. There’s also a reference to the Big Finish adventure Omega. I feel like I shouldn’t like these ahistorical components, but they work here, making the story not just a pastiche of the era it’s recreating, but a knowing one. The music all adds to the experience — moreso than any Lost Story so far, it sounds perfectly like the music of the era. You can imagine Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland slaving away in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop producing this score. It’s the work of Fool Circle Productions (I see what you did there), who were previously responsible for excellent work on Cyberman 2. The sound effects get it, too.

( Read more... )

written by Hazel Adair, Peter Ling & Paul Finch
directed by Ken Bentley
released November 2011

Peter Davison as the Doctor
Janet Fielding as Tegan
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa
Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #3.2: Hexagora

Hexagora is the second of the Lost Stories to feature the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan, following straight on from The Elite in a way that feels nicely authentic to the 1980s. The original outline for Hexagora was written by Peter Ling and Hazel Adair (Ling was the writer of The Mind Robber back in the 1960s), and it was adapted to audio by Brian Finch (who’s penned a few Big Finish stories the past couple years, including a Sixth Doctor Lost Story, Leviathan). Vacationing in Australia, Tegan alerts the Doctor to the fact that a guy she knew at school has gone missing… and of course the Doctor determines that he’s been abducted to another planet. But when the TARDIS arrives on Proxima Centauri, they find not an advanced civilisation, but a recreation of Elizabethan London.

Hexagora starts off roughly, with a hoary scene where Mike Bretherton talks to his editor on the phone in a distracting accent when he sees a meteor, then a couple scenes where the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa work to track Mike down that are high on technogubbins and low on energy. But once the plot makes it to Luparis, it picks up in energy. At first, I was worried because Hexagora seemed to do that thing that bad Doctor Who stories do — jam together a number of disparate elements in the hope that it creates something interesting — with Elizabethan London, Proxima Centauri, alien insects, and court politics, but in fact as the story unfolds, we see that all of these elements go together quite nicely.

written by Christopher Bailey & Marc Platt
directed by Ken Bentley
released December 2011

Peter Davison as the Doctor
Janet Fielding as Tegan
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa
Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #3.3: The Children of Seth

The Fifth Doctor strand of Doctor Who: The Lost Stories comes to a close with The Children of Seth, written by Marc Platt from a story by Christopher Bailey. Bailey of course wrote Kinda and Snakedance, the former of which is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories. So the promise of a Bailey Lost Story, written by one of Big Finish’s best writers, was one I couldn’t resist.

The Children of Seth delivers. While this isn’t as good as Kinda, it’s better than Snakedance. More importantly, it has the same kind of feel as both — that the Doctor and company have stepped into a large and complex adventure close to the end. There’s a whole world in place here already, built up through tiny mentions and a series of excellent performances, not to mention some brilliantly atmospheric sound design/music by the always-reliable Richard Fox and Lauren Yason. (Once again I’m bummed that The Lost Stories use interviews as extras on both CDs, and no music.) I loved almost every guest character. David Warner puts in an unusually subdued performance as Siris, Autarch of the Sirius Archipelago. Honor Blackman is brilliant as Anahita, his wily wife. My favorite of all, however, was Vernon Dobtcheff’s Shamur, an old soldier forgotten by the empire who goes back into battle to save it despite itself.

06 April 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1891: Homosexuality (Revised and Expanded)

Trade paperback, 229 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1891)
Acquired January 2007

Previously read February 2007
Reread March 2012
The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

As an experiment, I chose to reread the 1891 novel edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray after reading the "uncensored" version edited by Nicholas Frankel for the first time.  Of course, the toned-down references to homosexuality stuck out a lot, but the other change made for this version was the addition of a few chapters.  I don't think these really do a whole lot.  One gives Dorian's background in greater detail, but who cares?  Another gives us more of a look at Sybil Vane, but I feel that giving her a backstory undermines the point of her character.

On the upside, it's certainly more portable than the 2011 version of the 1890 edition.

05 April 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1890: Homosexuality

Hardcover, 295 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1890)
Acquired July 2011

Read January 2012
The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition
by Oscar Wilde
edited by Nicholas Frankel

The most commonly reprinted version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the 1891 novel version, which added several chapters but also removed some of the content, of the novella originally published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott's.  The Lippincott's version has been reprinted from time to time, but never before printed is Wilde's original typescript for the Lippincott's version.  The Lippincott's editors toned down some of the homosexual references in the typescript, and Wilde himself toned down many more for the 1891 version.

Though I think that the editor of this edition, Nicholas Frankel, perhaps overstates the amount of "censorship" that happened (he has a giant, expensive hardcover to sell, after all), this edition still makes for interesting reading.  The cuts are not major, but they are consistent, and it is impossible not see a project of reducing the potentially-scandalous homosexual content of the book as one looks through them.  It is most definitely a worthwhile endeavor, then, for the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray as Wilde originally intended it to have finally taken place.

In addition, this edition features extensive annotations, which are quite helpful in explaining Wilde's heavily referential work and in placing him in context. (I was pleased to see a couple references to Professor J. Kerry Powell, in whose Miami University seminar on "performativity" I read Dorian Gray some five years ago now.) Also, there are lots of full-color pictures, of people and things mentioned, as well from various adaptations.  It's a beautiful book, and well worth owning simply because of that if nothing else.

04 April 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1864-66: Rationality

Trade paperback, 679 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1864-66)
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters is surely unique among Victorian novels featuring scientists, in that the scientist turns out to be an excellent romantic choice. (I'm actually working on verifying this.) And it's because he's a scientist that he's an excellent romantic choice.  What woman wouldn't want to marry Roger Hamley?  His scientific powers of perception carry straight over into his personal life, where he knows what you're thinking and what you're worried about and how to take care of it.  Of course, he can't tell that you are the one he is meant to be in love with and not your flashy stepsister, but I suppose we can't have everything.  

I was struck by the contrast between the two scientific characters, Roger and Mr. Gibson, and Mrs. Gibson.  Mrs. Gibson is no scientist, just a woman, but her self-interest is far stronger than either of theirs-- as is her rationality.  She does things not because they are morally right, but because they will help her, or because she is socially obligated to.  Mr. Gibson, a surgeon, spends his time with dying patients, but she criticizes him, pointing out that he doesn't help them at all, it just makes the family feel better.  "Rational self-interest," as we might call this attitude, is then not aligned with scientists, but with people who are not scientists: a scientist's perception of others is too acute for him to behave this way.  Similarly, the poet Osborne Hamley is constantly described as "sensitive," and normally we'd expect an author to like a poet more than a scientist, but Osborne is sensitive to no one other than himself.

Wives and Daughters is a cute romance, though by no means is it little; it's Gaskell's longest book, and she died before finishing it!  Had she finished it, I am confident it would be her best book, filled with a level of psychological insight that only George Eliot exceeded her at, but also plenty of charm and humor.  The book's opening chapter, where young Molly Gibson spends a fairy-tale night at "the Towers," is probably the best bit, but it is all good.  Sometimes wishes Molly might do a bit more, but she is as well-realized internally as any of Gaskell's uniformly excellent heroines.

02 April 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet Special: Superheroes and Utopia, Part II: The Absolute Authority

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 1999-2000)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
The Absolute Authority

Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Bryan Hitch
Inker: Paul Neary
Colorist: Laura DePuy
Letterers: Bill O'Neil, Ryan Cline, Ali Fuchs, Robbie Robbins
Additional Colors: David Baron
Additional Inks: Andrew Currie

The title of The Absolute Authority is a fortunate congruence: this is simply the "Absolute Edition" of a series called The Authority, but unlike the case of, say, Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth or even The Absolute Watchmen, the title actually has a meaning apart from that. The Authority is about a group of superheroes who have set themselves up as Earth's utmost authority, since that's the best way that it can be protected.

It's fascinating in the way that it chooses to depict utopian violence. Peter Paik, as I've said many times, argues that you can't get a utopia without violence. What then interests me is the way that utopian stories elide violence to make the utopia more palatable. Superhero comics were originally utopian, and the original Siegel and Shuster Superman stories solved this problem by simply being very cartoony. Superman is making the world a better place by putting arms lobbyists in war zones, trapping corrupt mine owners in dangerous mines, smashing used car lots, and destroying entire neighborhoods, but somehow no one ever gets hurt. This isn't a gritty, realistic world, so you believe it. Watchmen moves Superman's fantasy violence into a gritty, realistic world, and shows you the consequences of one man using his power to shape the world: mass death. But possibly also world peace? Moore's depiction is surprisingly nuanced, in that I think it's completely impossible to see who in the story he agrees with (if anyone).

The Authority continues the tradition of these earlier texts, but weirdly merges the optimism of the 1930s Superman stuff with the realism of Watchmen. Which is to say that this is a comic book about people who do very violent things to make the world "a better place" but the narrative seems to be endorsing their perspective entirely. Some folks argue that the comic wants you to take the Authority as the actual villains, but if so, it's pretty subtle, which perhaps makes the whole thing more clever. But regardless, at its best, The Authority is a very intriguing depiction of utopian violence.

The first story is "The Circle." Grant Morrison likes to talk about how this story's opening was a big deal, about how it made him sit up and pay attention to superhero comics again. (He says this in both this book's foreword and Supergods.) I don't know about that. Maybe I just have the benefit of another 13 years, but it's all pretty normal stuff: bad buys destroying a city, the civil authorities having no idea what to do, a villain who's a pretty terrible racist caricature. The Authority doesn't show up in time to save Moscow, but they do intervene in London during the Gamorran terrorists' second attack. There's a lot of violence; what makes it noteworthy is how fun the comic makes it. One of the characters, Jack Hawksmoor, says at one point, "I've been waiting to punch someone in the brains all goddamn day." And then he does just that. (Though he does it a couple pages earlier because the narrative is out of sequence.)

Eventually, the Authority beats the Gamorran terrorists to the punch, and they're waiting for them when they attack Los Angeles. But not only do they defeat the hundred of clone warriors flying into Los Angeles, one of the Authority (the Batman analogue "Midnighter") plows a spaceship through the capital city of the Gamorra Island to wipe out their base of operations, grinning while he says, "I love being me." Between Los Angeles and Gamorra, I am certain that millions lie dead at the end of the story.

One of the Authority, Swift (who we are told used to be a pacifist, only "it's just not a good enough world that you can work for it without hurting people badly") asks at the story's end, "How many people you think we killed?" Jack Hawksmoor replies, "How many people would've died if we hadn't been here? It's not a great answer, I know; but it's the best answer there is. We saved more people than we killed." There's something jarring but sort of energizing about a superhero comic that's willing to be so blasé about death. Millions just died, and hey, you should just roll with it. The utopian stuff comes in pretty explicitly on the next page, when Jenny Sparks, the leader of the Authority, points out that with what the United Nations captures from Gamorra, they'll have the capability of performing mass cloning and the key to instantaneous mass transit. Plus the UN will know that the Authority knows they have it, so they'll be sure to use it for good-- or else. Through the threat of violent action, "the world will be a better place." Awesome!, right?

This right here is the single best page of The Authority. It's the last page of chapter two of "The Circle." The issue doesn't end on a bad guy threat or an attack. It ends on a character-- our protagonist-- declaring that "there had to someone left to save the world. And someone left to change it." Jenny Sparks isn't the first superhero to say something like this, but usually when one does, they're going evil. Think of Superman in Red Son ("I could take care of everyone's problems if I ran this place and, to tell you the truth, there's no good reason why I shouldn't"), or maybe Hal Jordan when Coast City is destroyed. When they say things like that, it means they're going bad. The imagery shows them as deranged, mad. But here, we see a beautiful image of a wistful Jenny Sparks looking out a window, the light of the multiverse playing off her face, as she declares her intention to change the way people live. And that's it-- end issue. What an idea! Not to mention, what great art, from Bryan Hitch's pencils and Paul Neary's inks down to Laura DePuy's consistently amazing colors.

The rest of The Absolute Authority is not as good as "The Circle." Or rather, it's just as good, but that's a problem; the stories keep on doing the same thing again and again. These are "widescreen" "decompressed" comics, which would be fine if something happened. The second story, "Shiftships," has Earth attacked by people from an alternate reality, but the first three of its four chapters are taken by information gathering. Information gathering that's ultimately pointless, as the Authority just bombs the crap out of the other world.

The story gets interesting right then, as Jenny Sparks tells its inhabitants:
Albion is free of the Blue. Sicily and the Italian capital infrastructure are gone. If needed, we can annihilate the Hanseatic regions within the hour. If we're asked to, we will go into China and Japan. If we have to, we will personally expunge the royal blood and military rape culture from the face of the planet. We're here to give you a second chance. Make a world worth living in. We are the Authority. Behave.
Then, when the Engineer expresses reservation about what they've done (and I would argue that this is actually an authorizing move for a writer), Jenny Sparks says, "Maybe we just did what we said we would, all along. Changing things for the better. One Earth down, one to go." Oh, now this is getting interesting!

Wait, the story's over? That's where "Shiftships" comes to an end; all the ideas raised by that ending go entirely unexplored. How would they actually enforce their control over this world? Why don't they do this to their ("our") world? In his foreword, Morrison claims that The Authority is more realistic than other superhero stories, but it's making the same elision of violence that the original Superman made. The massive, violent change happens on a world we'll never see again, so there's no real consequences.

The last story, "Outer Dark," is maybe entertaining in a comic book kind of way-- the Earth is attacked by globs of stuff that actually lived there first and want it back-- and moves faster than the previous stories, but is otherwise unimpressive. There is an interesting bit where we see Jenny Sparks's all-guns-blazing approach to reform be overridden, but that's about it.

The Authority has the temerity to raise more interesting problems than it's capable of dealing with. I don't want it to be dark and Watchmen-type serious, but on the other hand, it doesn't have to be as splashy and inconsequential as it sometimes is. There's good writing, good art, and good colors here, but they're not always being harnessed to something that actually needs their potential level of power.