30 October 2012

Review: Two Years Ago—Vol. II by Charles Kingsley

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2004 (originally 1857)

Read July 2012
Two Years Ago—Vol. II
by Charles Kingsley

The impending cholera epidemic felt like a game-changing storm at the end of the first volume of Two Years Ago, so it's disappointing when it actually hits and turns out to be a few people getting sick (except for one). What does cast a long shadow over the rest of Two Years Ago is the Crimean War. I think that this is the first Victorian novel I've read to actually deal with this in a substantive way; almost all the characters end up serving in the war in some way, shape, or form. (Though it's not as hard-hitting as something like Master Georgie, that's for sure.) Beyond that, there's just a lot of moralizing here, both from the narrator and Tom's father, but don't you worry: Tom soon learns that his keen scientific gaze can be used in the service of God and not just money (even he was functionally kinda doing this already). It turns out that atheistic cunning is best as tying itself up!

It's not quite so one-note as I'm making it sound, as there's a minister who learns from Tom that sitting around thinking about dogma isn't terrible useful; this novel led to the coining of the term "muscular Christianity" and it shows.

29 October 2012

Review: Two Years Ago—Vol. I by Charles Kingsley

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2004 (originally 1857)

Read July 2012
Two Years Ago—Vol. I
by Charles Kingsley

Two Years Ago is the story of Tom Thurnall, the son of a doctor, and himself a physician-- and, like many physicians of his period, an amateur naturalist. So of course I was obligated to read it for my exams. Kingsley's big emphasis on what makes Tom as a scientist different from the people around him is his method of observation: he sees well. He doesn't conform to the stereotype of the scientist as socially clueless; rather, he's the sort of person who sees others very, very keenly. But not quite well enough: "He had watched human nature under every disguise, from the pomp of the ambassador to the war-paint of the savage, and formed his own clear, hard, shallow, practical estimate thereof." He understands people very well, especially their weaknesses... but is often unable to see their strengths. He can manipulate them, but not love them.

If you guess that this results in the novel being about Tom learning to see the goodness within people, you'd be right. But though the narrator always has time to stop and drop a moral judgment on Tom ("the possession of power, sought at first from self-interest, has become a passion, a species of sporting, which he follows for its own sake"), Tom is actually a very good scientist and a very good person, bringing a number of positive changes to the town where he takes up residence, and handling tricky situations in a way to fair to all-- even the terrible people! A lot of the last chapter is about his fear of an approaching cholera epidemic, and he does a lot to stop it from hurting anyone.

Running alongside his hijinks is a subplot about his love for Grace, who is (surprise) a religious woman. She loves him, too, but he suspects her of theft, and she can't tell him what she thinks did happen, so separate they shall remain. A lot of the novel's threads come together at the climax at the end of the first volume... but the cholera is still on its way and no one can stop it. Thankfully there's a whole second volume to drag his reformation out through.

26 October 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXIV: The Brave and the Bold: The Lords of Luck

Comic hardcover, 152 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
The Brave and the Bold: The Lords of Luck

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: George Pérez
Inkers: Bob Wiacek, Scott Koblish
Colorist: Tom Smith
Letterer: Rob Leigh

The first volume of the 2000s revival of The Brave and the Bold has some tenuous ties to Gaiman's Sandman: Destiny of the Endless appears here (though he was the one Endless who had been established before Gaiman came along). Destiny has subsequently appeared in his own spin-off, gotten a story of his own in Endless Nights, and even popped up in Lucifer.

Before I get to Destiny's role, though, I want to talk about The Lords of Luck as a whole. It's fun. It's amazingly fun. I wouldn't say that all superhero comics should be all fun all the time, but given their subject matter, there's often a surprising lack of the stuff. Well, not here: Mark Waid manages to give us a story that takes in the length and breadth of the DC universe, showing off just how awesome it is in almost all regards. The old Brave and the Bold comics was, I believe, one-and-done superhero team-ups; Waid hits the perfect middleground between that and the sprawling six-plus-part stories of the modern day by making The Lords of Luck a succession of team-ups that are all one story, meaning characters come and go from the story in rapidfire fashion. But Waid's a smart writer, and I was rarely confused, unlike with the deep levels of referencing going on in JSA: Mixed Signals.

We start with a team-up between Batman and Green Lantern, who discover that something powerful is after two weapons, and they split up to pursue each weapon. Green Lantern and Supergirl head to a casino planet following one. This is my first exposure to the 2000s Supergirl after Jeph Loeb's mediocre introduction of her, and (perhaps obviously) Waid writes her a heckuva a lot better; she's smart but seventeen, and wins you over even when she does stupid stuff. Then we get Batman teaming up with Blue Beetle, Supergirl teaming up with Lobo(!), and Batman teaming up with the Legion of Super-Heroes (!!).

Each of these is more awesome than the last. I always enjoy a bit of Lobo, and the banter between him and Supergirl never stops being entertaining. Even better, though, is watching Batman one-up the Legion of Super-Heroes; one should never give Batman a flight ring, apparently. I was laughing all the way through. It's a very real love letter to the DC universe and all the marvelous strangeness it contains. This is how you use continuity to your advantage. It helps that Waid treats his characters like people with personalities, not datapoints with histories.

It helps even more that Waid is paired with the legendary George Pérez on art.  Pérez's art is always great; he has storytelling skills that are rarely matched in modern comics. His pages are dense and eventful in the best way, and his splash pages have real impact. His characters are as fun-looking as the story, and he even manages to restrict himself to just one Supergirl panty-shot. (Sigh.)

Destiny himself is not exactly the imperturbable Endless we usually see; here, he's distracted and amnesiac, having given up control of the Book of Destiny that contains all history. He seems a little less inscrutable when he talks to Lobo and Supergirl as opposed to Dream and Lucifer, but watching Lobo drive his motorcycle through Destiny's garden is worth the price of admission.

The Brave and the Bold is kind of comic I'd wish I'd read when I was a kid, and that I hope my kids will read one day. I'm going to read the next volume because it too has some Sandman connections, but I'm looking forward even more to my eventual readthrough of the whole series. Cool stuff.

25 October 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXIII: JSA: Mixed Signals

Comic trade paperback, 136 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
JSA: Mixed Signals

Writers: Geoff Johns, Keith Champagne
Pencillers: Don Kramer, Dale Eaglesham, Jim Fern, David Lopez
Inkers: Keith Champagne, Art Thibert, Mick Gray, Fernando Blanco
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Rob Leigh

This is the last JSA collection with a Sandman connection, taking place amidst the chaos of the Infinite Crisis. Apparently, in the previous volume (Black Vengeance, which I skipped) my favorites Hector and Lyta Hall, parents of the second Dream of the Endless, were transported into Hell for defying Nabu, the Lord of Order.

I didn't understand much of what was happening in this book; heroes and locations are thrown at you like mad, and no one takes the time to explain who they are. Hal Jordan and Alan Scott chase Air Wave (a superhero who is apparently Hal's cousin), being driven mad by strange transmissions, into space, and end up at the source of the signals. "New Cronus," exclaims Air Wave upon seeing a planet, as though it explains everything. But what's New Cronus? Then Wonder Girl appears, and takes Air Wave with her. Why? Much of the book is just as confusing.

But since I was there for just Hector and Lyta, that was all right: they had no more idea what was going on than I did. Every chapter of Mixed Signals gives a couple more pages to them, as they travel through a desolate mountain range, under assault by demons for reasons they don't understand. In the end, Lyta has a dream that she's talked to their son, and they travel through a portal into the Dreaming, finally safe.

Awww. It's a great moment, and a great ending for these long-suffering characters, though to my knowledge they don't pop up in the Dreaming in any later stories. Their corpses lie on the ground after they travel through the portal-- was it all just a dream of Lyta's? But even if it was, would that matter in the Dreaming? From the Silver Scarab to Brute and Glob to the Furies to Nabu, Hector and Lyta have always lost control of their lives to supernatural entities, and it's fantastic for them to finally get some peace. Thanks, Keith Champagne.

24 October 2012

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

Comic digest, 124 pages
Published 2005
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
The Dead Boy Detectives
by Jill Thompson

The Dead Boy Detectives is the second solo outing for the two ghosts who previously appeared in The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives-- yeah, that's not confusing at all. This volume sees Jill Thompson (of The Little Endless Storybook fame) take over for Ed Brubaker and Bryan Talbot, and convert the whole thing into a manga style. While Thompson's previous attempt at the manga-conversion in At Death's Door didn't really work for me, I ended up enjoying this one a lot. 

The premise of two ghosts who only other kids can see is played for laughs, much as it ought to be I think, and this is only heightened by the manga-style hijinks: Charles and Edmund have to go undercover at an elite all-girl boarding school in Chicago to find a missing student. Wackiness is basically the order of the day, and that's just fine. Their fish-out-of-water status is utilized more than it was in Brubaker's story. 

Thompson's art is also suitably cute, with the manga styling put to good use. Though I had difficulty distinguishing the female students from each other sometimes, I typically enjoyed it. I'd read more adventures of the Dead Boy Detectives if she wrote them, though after seven years that seems a bit unlikely.

09 October 2012

Back to Burnett: In the Closed Room

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2002 (originally 1904)

Read July 2012
In the Closed Room
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A novelette originally released as a super-fancy standalone book, In the Closed Room is more Burnett creepiness along the lines of her later The White People. In the Closed Room is more effective, though I think it still moves a little bit too slow. I think I'd better not say much more about it; I suspect my enjoyment was diminished by knowing about the ending before I began reading.

08 October 2012

Back to Burnett: His Grace of Osmonde

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2005 (originally 1897)

Read July 2012
His Grace of Osmonde: Being the portions of that nobleman's life omitted in the relation of his Lady's story presented to the World of Fashion under the title of A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Lady of Quality wasn't my favorite book by Frances Hodgson Burnett-- it's no Through One Administration or The Shuttle-- but it's still a pretty good read, so I was looking forward to reading this book, which retells the events of Lady of Quality from that book's protagonist's husband's perspective. Is the first sidequel in literature? Probably not, but 1897 does seem kinda early for this kind of thing.

Unfortunately, His Grace of Osmonde adds nothing to A Lady of Quality other than creepiness; you learn that Osmonde knew of Clorinda long before she knew of him. I don't really know what this is meant to add, but we learn nothing about Osmonde beyond the fact that he is your typical Burnett male: a fine specimen of manhood with no personality. There could be some potential with Osmonde's knowledge that Clorinda murdered her first lover, but it's completely unrealized. Utterly pointless in every way, and it actually dampened my appreciation of Lady of Quality in retrospect.

07 October 2012

Audio Catchup: Three First Doctor Stories featuring William Russell

What if William Russell read every Big Finish story, whether he was in it or not? The world would be a better place, that's what.  Recently I listened to:
  • Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles #7.01: The Time Museum by James Goss
  • Doctor Who: The Lost Stories #3.7: The Masters of Luxor by Anthony Coburn (adapted by Nigel Robinson)
Though both are good looks back at the earliest Doctor Who on the eve of its 50th anniversary, The Masters of Luxor is great a perfect recreation of the 1963/64 era, yet something new and different... which is quite an accomplishment for a story from that time! On the other hand, The Time Museum manages to present an oft-referenced onscreen moment in an entirely new and interesting light, which I was not expecting.

05 October 2012

Review: From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature by Roslynn D. Haynes

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published 1994
Borrowed from the library

Read July 2012
From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature
by Roslynn D. Haynes

Haynes's book charts the depiction of the scientist in literature, as one might imagine from the title, going all the way back to medieval alchemical texts and up to contemporary science fiction films. This is the book that when I discovered it, I wish I had written it myself. Fortunately for me, I suppose, its breadth is both a blessing and a curse. It covers so much material that it's guaranteed to be useful for anyone starting to look into scientists in literature-- goodness knows that a number of books on my exam reading lists came straight out of here-- but it's not able to talk about any one time period in more than vague generalities.

Haynes has a very historicized reading of the literature she discusses, often linking the way scientists were depicted in a period's literature to what scientists were actually up to at the time; this is most prominent in her discussion of scientists in post-World War II fiction, where she connects a growing negative response to science's roles in the Holocaust, atomic weaponry, and environmental pollution. In my own research, I'm more interested in the epistemologies at stake in these kinds of texts (I think a lot of how people react to scientists has nothing to do with what scientists do, or even with what we imagine scientists to do, but how we imagine scientists to think), and so it would have been nice to see more of that in play. Philosophically, she also seems to think that some of the anti-science sentiment of the past few decades is justified, which is a position I've never had much time for.

Her main argument in the chapter on Victorian scientists is that though the portrayals of scientist are unusually positive at the beginning of the period compared to those of the Romantics, they become increasingly bleak over the course of the century, as geological, astronomical, and evolutionary discoveries lead to the image of the scientist rendered unfeeling by his discovery of his place in the universe. She connects this both to the Romantic stereotype of emotionally deficiency in scientists and the twentieth-century one of unfeeling and indifferent to the consequences of his research. This, she says is representative of a paradox in depictions of science: it is assumed to be both more powerful than humanity, because it can explain its place in the universe, but also subject to humanity, who hopes to use it for his own needs (127). Haynes suggests that "realistic portrayals of nineteenth-century medical researchers are, almost without exception, complimentary to the point of eulogy" (109). In general, she says, natural scientists in late Victorian fiction were idealized as crusaders for knowledge, working without desire for profit or persona gain, in works by authors such as Charles Kingsley-- himself an amateur scientist. The Faustian taint, she says, had been totally removed by this point. There is no Faustian taint, that's true, but to say that scientists were idealized in, for example, Kingsley, undersells the extent to which Kinglsey satirizes scientists in The Water-Babies as people arguing over trivialities and rejecting the obvious, and also ignores the fact that the scientist-protagonist of Kingsley's Two Years Ago is an excellent scientist, but needs to become a Christian before he can become an excellent person.

She then moves on to professional scientists, depicted in novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and George Eliot's Middlemarch (111-3). These figures are much more realistic depiction of the scientist, experiencing the financial difficulties of working in this new field, made possible through the authors’ real-life associations with scientists: Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters is modeled on Charles Darwin, while Eliot extensively consulted actual medical researchers. I think some more idealization seeps through than Haynes fully admits (Roger's trajectory in Wives and Daughters is largely one of his scientific education being vindicated over his brother’s classical one), and she also does not fully draw out the extent to which Roger's power of observation serve him positively, which ought to be presented as a sharp contrast to other Victorian scientists, who are typically either made impotent or morally deficient because of their observational skills, whereas Roger is both moral and observant. (Except when it comes to Cynthia Kirkpatrick.)

The other work that she discusses that I've thought about a lot myself is Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, which she gives one brief paragraph, where she emphasizes Doctor Fitzpiers's "detached view of humanity," and says that he is similar to Faustus and Frankenstein in studying at a German university, but dissimilar in that he is more of an "intellectual dilettante" with to commitment to the search for truth, merely passing curiosities that he flits between inconsistently (126). Haynes concludes that "he is a cold and calculating personality, and it would seem clear that… Hardy intends to associate such traits with a scientific training." Perhaps the most interesting facet of Fitzpiers that Haynes raises is in an endnote, where she says that "in his scientific determinism and in his belief that marriage is merely a civil contract" he actually strongly resembled Hardy himself (347n60)! I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but I'm sure there's something

As well as with Kingsley, I had some issues with what she said of postwar sf writers like Isaac Asimov and James P. Hogan. The fact that the areas I know best (Victorian literature and mid-century sf) don't fully convince me makes me a little suspicious about the rest of the book, but that doesn't blunt the effectiveness of her exhaustive catalog. Or the very useful classification system she sets up in the book's introduction, which I would have liked to see her make more of.

03 October 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, XXI: JSA: Lost

Comic trade paperback, 199 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
JSA: Lost

Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencillers: Dave Gibbons, Don Kramer, Tom Mandrake, Jerry Ordway, Sean Phillips
Inkers: Keith Champagne, Wayne Faucher, James Hodgkins, Tom Mandrake, Sean Phillips, Prentis Rollins
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Rob Leigh, Ken Lopez

There are a couple Sandman elements in this volume of JSA, mostly stemming from the presence of Hector Hall (a.k.a. Doctor Fate f.k.a. the Sandman f.k.a. the Silver Scarab) and Lyta Hall (a.k.a. Fury) on the team. First off is a brief cameo from their son Daniel, the new Dream, who intervenes to keep the JSA's nemesis Per Degaton (what kind of name is that!?) off their back with a quiet word of warning. You don't actually get to see Daniel, which is okay, but what is not okay is that letterer Jared K. Fletcher completely fails to carry over the distinctive lettering style that usually accompanies Dream's dialogue. Without it, his words just lack... gravitas. (So does Ken Lopez, in a later sequence.)

The more involved Sandman-related subplot is about Sanderson Hawkins, former sidekick to Wesley Dodds. Just as the former minions of Dream, Brute and Glob, once tried to turn Hector into a replacement Dream in a replacement Dreaming while Dream was captured, they attempt to do the same here with poor Sanderson. While some members of the Justice Society track down his physical body, others must travel into his mind, including Hector and Lyta. This gives the two of them a chance to figure out what Brute and Glob did to them back in the day (apparently their memories are rather fuzzy) and get their own back. Go Lyta! I was excited to see her back in fighting form as Fury; she deserves it after the long series of traumas she received at the hands of Roy Thomas, Neil Gaiman, and Mike Carey.

I was even amused when Geoff Johns explains why Lyta never interacted with the superhero community while she was in Vertigo titles: Nabu "cast a blinding spell so that [she] might not ever see the world of costumed heroes around [her]." This is either grossly stupid or utter genius, and I'm not sure which. But other than seeming to not even know they have a son, much less that he is Dream, Lyta and Hector seem to have finally got the happy ending they deserve, and Geoff Johns deserves plenty of kudos for that.
"The last few years, I barely remember anything. It was like a nightmare. Images of strange creatures, beings I couldn't understand. I always see myself running. My whole life started that way. When I was first adopted, I used to run away at least once a week. I'd race to the beach. Looking out over the water. Wondering if I could swim to Themyscira. If I could find it on my own. I spent my summers training under Hippolyta. Learning how to use my strength and speed. Learning how to fight. How to run. But I'm tired of running."

02 October 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XX: JSA: Black Reign

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2003-04)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
JSA: Black Reign

Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencillers: Rags Morales, Don Kramer
Inkers: Michael Bair, Keith Champagne
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Ken Lopez

This is surely stretching the definition of The Sandman spin-off, but here I am. When we last saw Lyta "Fury" Hall, she was deciding to move on with her life-- since her run-in with the Furies in Greece, she seems to have been captured by a Lord of Order named Nabu. Her husband, the former Sandman, now Dr. Fate, Hector Hall has been looking for her, and he finally finds her, trapped inside his own mind (or something I didn't really understand completely). Lyta is my third-favorite Sandman character, and it's great to see her back in action... but we see here lasts for only a moment. Hopefully there's more of her in JSA going forward.

01 October 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XIX: Thessaly: Witch for Hire

Comic trade paperback, 95 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2005)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
The Sandman Presents: Thessaly: Witch for Hire

Written by Bill Willingham
Illustrated by Sean McManus
Colored by Pamela Rambo
Lettered by Nick J. Napolitano, Rob Leigh, Phil Balsman

Thessaly: Witch for Hire is a sequel to Willigham's own "The Thessaliad," a story in The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales. Looking back, I found that story okay: some great ideas but "the characterization was a little too straightforward" is what I wrote at the time. Well, Witch for Hire is a completely disappointing story. The plot is basically a straight line: Thessaly finds out she's going to die, Thessaly follows a number of fruitless lines to solve the problem, Thessaly wins anyway. Sure, Willigham makes an ironic joke about it by ending the third chapter with "NEXT: No More Talking Heads. It's All Monsters From Here On Out," but it's not the lack of monsters that's the problem, it's the lack of impactful incident. The last chapter is no better for having a giant flaming demon stomping through it.

Thessaly was cool in A Game of You because she seemed like a shy, withdrawn, plain girl, but she was actually a completely ruthless murderer (she pulls the skin off a guy's skull, hangs it on the wall with a nail, and reanimates it to get the information she needs!), and Willingham and McManus completely fail to get that. Their Thessaly is pushed around, unassertive, and spends all her time showing off her pouting lips, big butt, and midriff. Can you picture this woman having a relationship with Dream himself? I sure can't.