31 December 2013

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Five by James Robinson with David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 1998-2003)
Acquired October 2010
Read November 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume Five

Writer: James Robinson
Co-Story on "Stars My Destination": David S. Goyer
Penciller: Peter Snejbjerg
Inker: Keith Champagne
Co-writer on Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. #0: Geoff Johns
Additional Pencillers: Steve Yeowell, Craig Hamilton, Chris Weston, Lee Moder, Steve Sadowski, David Ross, Tony Harris, John McCrea
Additional Inkers: Wade von Grawbadger, Steve Yeowell, Ray Snyder, Dan Davis, John Stokes, Andrew Hennessy, Tony Harris, Chris Weston, John McCrea
Colorists: Gregory Wright, John Kalisz, Craig Hamilton, Tom McCraw, Carla Feeny, Tony Harris
Letterers: Bill Oakley, Craig Hamilton, Kurt Hathaway, Ken Lopez

Volume Five returns the narrative energy to Starman; having launched into space, it's one zippy adventure after another. It's a very different tone to previous Starman stories: despite now being set in space, it's a much lighter set of stories, especially at first, as Robinson and Goyer use the new setup to revisit a neverending series of classic DC space characters. Which I love, of course, as the only thing better than sci-fi or superheroes is sci-fi and superheroes. I love Jack and Mikaal's visit to the future, and especially the three tales of Starman related by the Space Cabbie and his buddies, each of them more ludicrous than the last.

I also really enjoyed the final story arc, set on Throneworld and tying together a number of diffuse strands of the Starman mythos into a single story: Prince Gavyn, Will Payton, Mikaal, and Jack, all together in one story. (Gavyn returns in Rann-Thanagar Holy War and Strange Adventures, but I don't think those acknowledged his dual identity as Will.) Jack's complicity but attempt to abstain from revolutionary violence makes for an interest subcurrent in what might otherwise be a fairly simple space opera.

Meanwhile, on Earth, there are some interesting goings-on with the Starman of the 853rd century, not to mention an appearance by one of my favorites, the Elongated Man! A pleasant surprise, to be sure. (As was the appearance of the Dee Tyler Phantom Lady; I didn't realize she'd ever appeared again after her debut in Action Comics Weekly.)

Peter Snejbjerg didn't click for me at first as the artist in this volume, but as it went on, he got better, I think. His dark illustrations for the Throneworld issues in particular really shine. This isn't the best of the Starman volumes, but I think it succeeds perfectly at what it sets out to do.

30 December 2013

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Four by James Robinson with Jerry Ordway

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 1998-99)
Acquired February 2010
Read October 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume Four

Writers: James Robinson, Jerry Ordway
Pencillers: Tony Harris, Mike Mignola, Pete Krause, John Lucas, Mike Mayhew, Gary Erskine, Matt Smith, Gene Ha, Steve Sadowski, Wade von Grawbadger, Dusty Abell, Tim Burgand
Inkers: Wade von Grawbadger, Mike Mignola, Dick Giordano, Gary Erskine, Richard Case, Gene Ha, John Lucas, Mike Mayhew, Tom Nguyen, Drew Geraci, Tim Burgand, Ray Snyder
Colorists: Gregory Wright, Carla Feeny, Matt Hollingsworth, Glenn Whitmore, Pat Garrahy, Gene Ha
Letterers: Bill Oakley, Kurt Hathaway, Willie Schubert, John Costanza

Volume Four is maybe the weakest part of Starman. A lot of it feels like biding time. At the end of Volume Three, Sadie asks Jack if he will go into space to look for her brother, because (susprise!), she is secretly the brother of a previous Starman. But that doesn't happen in this book, and indeed, there's no emotional fallout from the fact that Sadie has basically been lying to/manipulating Jack their entire relationship. I get that she grew to love him, but there should be something to deal with it.

Also: the crossover with Captain Marvel doesn't quite work, though I don't have a good feeling as to why. I don't think the worlds are incommensurable, but the fight is forced, and the contrasts aren't hit quite the way one would hope.

While the book bides its time, it does have its highlights: a "Time Past" story of Ted Knight and the ever-lovable Etrigan, the cleverly constructed 80-page giant anthology (especially the appearance of "Those Li'l O'Dares (and Patrolman Clarence)"), and the story of the Mist's "team-up" with Mary Marvel, the exploration of the relationship between Ted and his cousin Sandra (the Phantom Lady) all stand out to me as some of the more memorable standalone Starman stories. Mike Mayhew's art on the latter is especially superb.

Also featuring superb artwork: issue #45, where Jack finally leaves for space. Tony Harris pulls out all the stops for his last issue on the title. The two-page spread of Jack and Mikaal boarding the rocket, saying goodbye to friends and family, is superb, and a worthy final effort from Harris, whose talents visibly grew over the course of the series. The rocket's launch is also magnificent.

Finally, I don't know why someone out there thought that Batman/Hellboy/Starman was a must-have crossover, but I could look at that beautiful Mike Mignola artwork all day. Combined with Matt Hollingsworth's colors, it's a stunning use of light and dark.

27 December 2013

Doctor Who at Christmas: The Silent Stars Go by

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published 2011

Acquired November 2013
Read December 2013
Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go by
by Dan Abnett

Since 2011, I've had an annual tradition of reading a Doctor Who Christmas book in December. Having exhausted the Christmas-themed Short Trips, I'm now onto The Silent Stars Go by, a novel featuring the eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory up against the Ice Warriors. It's not very Christmassy, to be honest, but it is pretty cold-- Abnett does a good job evoking the freezing cold. It's also quite fun: Abnett nails the character voices perfectly, and I even liked the Ice Warriors.

23 December 2013

Review: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

Trade paperback, 269 pages
Published 2007 (originally 1907)

Acquired November 2013
Read December 2013
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
by Joseph Conrad

Conrad takes on the "Greenwich Observatory Bombing" in this tale of anarchists, spies, and counter-spies, brilliantly satirizing a genre that was only just beginning to emerge. Conrad shows that we might prefer to think of as big, high-minded political events are usually nothing more than the immediate problems of scared individuals trying to find a way to act in their own lives that gets them what they think they want. The ironic narration is perfect for this book.

20 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part IX: House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

Comic trade paperback, 123 pages
Published 2008
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2013
House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

Writers: Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham
Artist: Luca Rossi
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Artists: Ross Campbell, Jill Thompson, Zachary Baldus, Steve Rolston, Sean Murphy
Short Story Colorist: Dave McCaig

The modern House of Mystery is a little more cohesive than the one of old; each issue includes two parts. The first is the next installment in an ongoing tale by Matthew Sturges, while the second is a story told by the character in that tale by Bill Willigham, nestled within.

This is indeed the House of Mystery that used to belong to Cain and reside next to a cemetery within the Dreaming, but exactly where it is now is one of the ongoing mysteries; all we know for certain is that Cain has lost his house. The House of Mystery now serves as a bar where various people pop in and out and tell stories in exchange for drink, only there are five people or so who can never leave-- they're trapped there, running the bar. Architecture student Fig Keele is the newest of these, and she serves as our viewpoint character, trying to figure out how she ended up in a house she dreams about every night.

This early on, there's not a lot of story yet, mostly a number of mysteries, so I look forward to seeing how things unfold. Fig is a good protagonist, seemingly innocent, but clearly with some mysteries and depths of her own. I love that she used to be the protagonist of a YA adventure series; it's very "Dreaming" yet not a thing Gaiman actually did in The Sandman. The art of Luca Rossi is fantastic-- scratchy yet simple, and he's a dab hand with both facial expressions and supernatural horrors. It's not the lush, decadent pencils of past House of Mystery artists, but it really works here. And, of course, no story colored by Lee Loughridge could ever be anything less than brilliant.

The stories nestled within are good fun, too. Willigham uses some good tricks with narration that doesn't reflect the horror of the actual story, especially in the tale of a southern belle's marriage to a giant fly in "The Hollows" (art by Sean Murphy). My favorite was probably "Familiar" (art by Steve Rolston), about a princess exiled to our dimension who decides to abandon her responsibilities and just have consequences-free sex. This way of included tales from others is reminiscent of the early issues of The House of Mystery where Cain would relate tales of old residents of the House, but gives the concept a nice new spin.

Not a lot happens in this volume, but I'm interested in seeing where it goes next.

18 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part VIII: The Witching Hour

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2000 (contents: 1999-2000)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2013
The Witching Hour

Storytellers: Chris Bachalo and Jeph Loeb
Inker: Art Thibert
Colorist: Grant Goleash
Letterer: Richard Starkings

With The Witching Hour, I jump from the classic DC horror titles of the 1970s to their modern revivals. Beyond the presence of the title and some witches, this bears no relation to the classic The Witching Hour!; Mildred, Mordred, and Cynthia do not put in an appearance. This is a different group of witches, with a different modus operandi, migrating through the world to both sate their own desires and help those in need of it.

It's a complex tale, with flashbacks nestled within flashbacks, out-of-order storytelling, and seemingly unconnected plots. In a way, it feels like what James Robinson's WitchCraft aspired to be and failed at-- a magical tale of mystery and revenge, of the immortal entering mortal affairs. The dialogue is great, full of obscurities and digressions, rarely on point, mysterious in the way that people both real and unreal often are.

What makes it all worth it is Chris Bachalo's amazing art; there's some gorgeous stuff here, and I'm not just talking about how he draws women. I don't know who's responsible for the use of dots in key scenes, but it really works. Add to that Grant Goleash's judicious use of color, and you have a visual feast. It would be easy to get lost in the world of The Witching Hour, but Bachalo keeps you anchored all the way through. In all honesty, this book has very little to do with the classic Witching Hour! and nothing to do with The Sandman, but my time spent decoding it was well spent indeed.

16 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part VII: Showcase Presents Secrets of Sinister House

Comic hardcover, 496 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 1971-74)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Showcase Presents Secrets of Sinister House

Written by Joe Orlando, Len Wein, Frank Robbins, Mary Dezuniga, Mike Fleisher, Lynn Marron, Sheldon Mayer, John Albano, Robert Kanigher, Sergio Aragonés, Lore Shoberg, Maxene Fabe, E. Nelson Bridwell, Jack Oleck, Steve Skeates, John Jacobson, W. F. Harvey, Ambrose Bierce, Fred Wolfe, George Kashdan, Dave Wood, Leo Dorfman
Art by Don Heck, Tony Dezuniga, Alex Toth, Frank Giacoia, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Alfredo Alcala, Ed Ramos, Mar Amongo, Bill Draut, Nestor Redondo, Sergio Aragonés, June Lofamia, Sam Glanzman, Lore Shoberg, Ruben Yandoc, Alex Niño, Abe Ocampo, Rico Rival, Gerry Talaoc, Larry Hama, Neal Adams, Rick Buckler, Jess Jodloman, Jack Sparling, Romy Gamboa, Don Perlin, Vicente Alcazar, Ernie Chan, Ramona Fradon, Howard Chaykin, Win Mortimer, Sy Barry, John Calnan, Murphy Anderson, Angel B. Luna, Jerry Grandenetti, Gil Kane, Bernard Sachs

Secrets of Sinister House has a more distinct identity than some of DC's other horror titles; it actually starts off as The Secret House of Sinister Love and features issue-length stories, as opposed to The House of Mystery, The House of Secrets, and The Witching Hour!, which crammed three or so stories into each issue. In addition, the stories have a unique theme: gothic romance. Which seems to mean young ladies being lured into strange houses on strange pretenses to be manipulated into marriages. So kinda weird, but strangely enjoyable-- how many variations on that theme can be devised?

Not a ton, as with issue #6, the series switches to the more traditional collections of stories, but in the interim there's some strangely enjoyable stuff; the full-length stories mean these stories have much more of an impact than some of their contemporaries. Particularly there's some lavish artwork from some of DC's best, like Alex Toth in "Bride of the Falcon" (a young woman in Venice), or Tony Dezuniga in "Kiss of the Serpent" (a young woman in India).

The later issues lose this gimmick, but it still seems more cohesive than in some series. I did enjoy the creativity of "The Hag's Curse" and "The Hamptons' Revenge" (written by Sheldon Mayer, art by Sam Glanzman), two stories of different time periods that literally run in parallel to each other-- take that indie comics innovators of the 2000s.  We even get a story that seems rooted in DC's "Great Disaster," with "When Is Tomorrow Yesterday?" (written by Sheldon Mayer, art by Alfredo Alcala). The book does begin to get kinda dumb with its own theme by the end, though, such as issue #16, where each story is about a literal "sinister house"! Lame.

I picked this volume up because, as with its contemporaries, its host was reclaimed by Neil Gaiman as a resident of the Dreaming in The Sandman. But Eve is a virtual non-entity in these pages. The Secret House of Sinister Love actually begins as hosted by Cain, pulling out a file from the House of Mystery. Finally, with issue #6, Eve gets an amazing introduction, where Cain and Abel run away from the Sinister House because they don't want to be there when "that thousand-year-old female horror arrives!" (she's apparently been sleeping), but after that, she's just a recycled Alfredo Alcala headshot at the beginning of each story, with no personality. She does have a raven with her, though-- Matthew's predecessor? There's even an appearance in one story of three witches living in an apartment together-- Mildred, Mordred, and Cynthia of The Witching Hour! perhaps?

13 December 2013

Review: The New Adventures: Beige Planet Mars by Lance Parkin & Mark Clapham

Mass market paperback, 242 pages
Published 1998

Acquired October 2013
Read November 2013
The New Adventures: Beige Planet Mars
by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham

This Bernice Summerfield New Adventure is fun and light, and in that it achieves more than most of its brethren, but beyond some good jokes, Jason's job writing xenoporn, and villains Parkin would essentially recycle in Doctor Who: Davros, you can't point at a whole lot of note. There are rather a lot of good jokes, especially at the expense of academics, though, so there's that. As I near the end of the New Adventures, I am coming to feel like Virgin never really figured out how to use Bernice in Doctor-less adventures the way that Big Finish did a decade later.

11 December 2013

Review: Zalma by T. Mullett Ellis

Hardcover, 438 pages
Published 1895

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
by T. Mullett Ellis

If, like me, you are reading late-nineteenth-century revolutionary science fiction looking for scientists, then Zalma is an utterly bizarre goldmine. The novel sees Count Pahlen (a Russian nobleman, Tsarist counter-spy, and professor of biology) give his illegitimate daughter up to the Catholic Church, which raises her in a convent and plans to marry her to the heir to the throne of Dell-land (a thinly veiled version of England). The plan fails, and Zalma escapes the convent and joins her father, who is actually the ringleader of an anarchist conspiracy. Her father dies before he can bring his plans to fruition, and so Zalma decides to dump anthrax on all the capital cities of Europe from balloons. The novel ends with Zalma’s committing suicide at the moment of her strike, right when the British spy John St. Leger (who she loves but cannot be with because of their ideological divide) arrives. Zalma’s plot has been discovered, but it might not have been discovered soon enough to be stopped:
He [St. Leger] paused. Outside, the clamour of the mob recalled him to his duty.
“Is this the End of Anarchy?” he asked wearily; “—or is it the Beginning?” (438)
These are the novel’s very last words, the success of her plan and the future of civilization left ambiguous. This synopsis does not quite do its full weirdness justice-- we get dinner parties, anti-Catholicism, anti-vivisection tirades, but also mocking of anti-vivisectionists, and even a couple risqué seduction scenes. I get the feeling that at the same time we are supposed to find Zalma morally repellent we are also supposed to find her utterly hot (just like Olga in George Griffith's Syren of the Skies*). It's a long, meandering, sometimes dull book. Pretty typical, then, for early science fiction.

But how utterly fascinating! It seems to advocate for free love only to condemn it, but one suspects Ellis is trying to make his views and ideas palatable-- the radical viewpoints of the revolutionaries are given tons of time to be explicated, whereas their refutations are not even glossed. The revolutionaries justify themselves with the "survival of the fittest" (if Nature kills many to advance itself, why should Man not do the same?) which adds to the sense at the end that revolution is imminent even if Zalma's immediate plot has been defeated. Mankind will continue to progress and evolve, and if it is not into anarchy, the present state of affairs is too precarious to continue-- perhaps socialism? In Science-Fiction: The Early Years, Everett Bleiler suggests that Ellis’s “political sympathies would seem to be with Christian Socialism” (222), though I'm not entirely sure why.

In any case, this is an amazing book, though perhaps not always for the best of reasons.

* I would definitely read a Zalma/Olga team-up. Heck, I would even write it, though I suspect its audience would just be me and Jess Nevins.

09 December 2013

Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Trade paperback, 548 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2002)

Acquired September 2013
Read October 2013
by Sarah Waters

I was amazed to the extent to which this felt like an actual Victorian novel-- it was straight out of Wilkie Collins. Multiple first-person narrators, a convoluted will, double identities, triple identities, amazing twists. I was utterly engrossed throughout. A lot has been made of the homosexual relationship, and it is indeed beautiful, but I was also very intrigued by how the female asylum, that perennial "off-stage" threat in Victorian fiction, was brought right into the center of the narrative here. Chilling, harrowing, gorgeous.

06 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part VI: Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Three

Comic trade paperback, 518 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1973-74)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2013
Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Three

Written by Michael Fleisher, Maxene Fabe, Jack Oleck, Sergio Aragonés, Steve Skeates, Mark Evanier, Robert Kanigher, George Kashdan, Doug Moench, Sheldon Mayer, E. Nelson Bridwell, John Jacobson, Len Wein, Joe Orlando, David Michelinie, Gerard Conway, David Izzo, Dennis O'Neil, Marv Wolfman, John Broome, Paul Levitz, Bob Rozakis, Mark Hanerfeld, David Kasakove, Martin Pasko, Michael J. Pellowski
Art by John Calnan, Murphy Anderson, Alex N. Nino, Ruben Yandoc, Sergio Aragonés, Romy Gamboa, Adolfo Buylla, Sonny Trinidad, Nestor Redondo, Rico Rival, Gerry Talaoc, Fred Carrillo, Tony Dezuniga, Bernard Baily, Abe Ocampo, Alfredo Alcala, Frank Thorne, Bernie Wrightson, Michael Wm. Kaluta, E. R. Cruz, Ralph Reese, Ramona Fradon, Joe Orlando, Frank Robbins, Bill Draut, Howard Purcell, Dick Dillin, Neal Adams, Mort Meskin, George Roussos, Frank Giacoia, Mike Sekowsky, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Joe Giella, Jack Sparling, Pat Broderick, Leonard Starr, Carmine Infantino, Bernard Sachs, Bill Ely, Jess M. Jodloman, Curt Swan, George Klein

This is the last of the "House" volumes thus far released in DC's Showcase Presents reprint series. I'm not sure if there's more House of Mystery to reprint after this, but it's easy to see that the series ought to be ending if it did continue to limp on after this. The last three of the sixteen issues included here are 100-page super spectaculars, the majority of which are reprints. (Well, they're all reprints-- what I mean is that even in 1973-74, these were reprints.) Boo. Especially when they're reprints of material available in other Showcase Presents volumes.

Still, there's some decent material here, especially the completely creepy "Oh, Mom! Oh, Dad! You've Sent me Away To Summer Camp... and I'm So Sad!" (written by Michael Fleisher and Maxene Fabe, art by Alex N. Nino), about camp counselors and campers attempting to murder one another(!) and "The Night of the Teddy Bear!" (written by Michael Fleisher, art by Alfredo Alcala), about a creepy-faced serial killer and a weedy man. But unfortunately, this once-strong title could have done even better.

(Interestingly, a number of stories credit Russell Carley with "art continuity"; this Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed article explains what that means, but it baffles me that these credits are omitted from the book's table of contents, since Carley's role is far from incidental.)

04 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part V: Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume 2

Comic trade paperback, 493 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1972-74)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2013
Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume 2

Written by E. Nelson Bridwell, Bill Meredith, Jack Oleck, John Albano, Lore Shoberg, Sergio Aragonés, Sheldon Mayer, Raymond Marais, Steve Skeates, Bill Riley, Maxene Fabe, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Michael Pellowsky, Gerard Conway, Michael Fleisher, Doug Moench, David Micheline
Art by Bernie Wrightson, Nestor Redondo, Jack Katz, Tony Dezuniga, Frank Redondo, Vic Catan, Abe Ocampo, Lore Shoberg, Tom Palmer, Sergio Aragonés, Mike Sekowsky, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, June Lofamia, Ruben Yandoc, E. R. Cruz, Quico Redondo, Rico Rival, Jack Sparling, Virgilio Redondo, George Tuska, Gerry Talaoc, Jim Aparo, Bernard Baily, Jess Jodloman, Fred Carrillo, Flor Dery, Romy Gamboa, Rudy Nebres, Luis Dominguez, Nick Cardy, Frank Bolle, Nardo Cruz, Ramona Fradon, Ernie Chan, Gerry Boudreau, George Evans, Arthur Suydam

Like all the titles in the DC horror renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s, House of Secrets has its individuality drained out of it by the slow diminishing of its frames; what were once multi-page stories are now panels (or rarely a whole page) in an issue. It's disappointing, especially as the reason I am reading this is the presence of Abel, our stuttering, terrified host.

What are particularly charming are the recurrent "Cain & Abel" pages, single pages of three panels by Sergio Aragonés, each panel showing Abel and his murderous brother doing something different together. Sometimes these are simply Cain belittling or pranking Abel, but others give us something more-- Abel getting something good because he is good, Cain causing his own comeuppance, or at their best, a brief glimpse of the true affection the brothers share. In one, they stroll through a crowd of people horrified by a triple-bill of horror films they have just scene, the only ones smiling; I love the idea that they spend their time popping from the Dreaming over to Earth to see horror films. My favorite is one where they are playing what looks like "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots," only their two boxers are hugging, embarrassing them. It's all a warped but endearing depiction of brotherly love.

Individual stories still manage to do some good work, though. There's some child creepiness at work in "Goodbye, Nancy" (written by John Albano, art by Vic Catan, Frank Redondo, and Abe Ocampo), about a kid's odd new playmate. "Small Invasion" (written by Sheldon Mayer, art by Alex Niño), about an alien who means to conquer the Earth but ends up working in a logging camp, is oddly charming, and has some amazingly grotesque art. "A Lonely Monstrosity" (written by John Albano, art by Nestor Redondo) is a cruel tale about a couple who scheme to deprive a grotesque-looking man of his own fortune. I really liked "Skin Deep" (written by Jack Oleck, art by Alfredo Alcala), about an ugly man who commits murder and disguises himself to marry an attractive woman under false pretenses, as well as "Act III Eternity" (written by George Kashdan, art by Jess Jodloman).

There are many more-- despite its lack of the frames I enjoy so much, this is probably one of the better Showcase Presents volumes of vintage DC horror. Much of that is due to the dual artistic talents of Alex Niño and (especially) Alfredo Alcala, whose luscious, grotesque, beautiful art enlivens even the most stale of narratives. Even their lettering is a cut above the rest!

02 December 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part IV: Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 552 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1968-71)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume One

Written by Joe Orlando, Sergio Aragonés, Jack Miller, Bob Haney, Marv Wolfman, Charles King, Howie Post, Neal Adams, E. Nelson Bridwell, Jerry Grandenetti, Gil Kane, Mike Friedrich, Cliff Rhodes, Otto Binder, Robert Kanigher, Jack Oleck, Joe Gill, Gerry Conway, John Albano, Len Wein, Lore Shoberg, Virgil North, Alan Riefe, John Costanza
Art by Lee Elias, Doug Wildey, Joe Orlando, Sergio Aragonés, Bernard Baily, Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin, George Roussos, Jack Sparling, Sid Green, Bill Draut, Neal Adams, Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Jerry Grandenetti, Bernie Wrightson, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Frank Springer, Alex Toth, Wayne Howard, Al Williamson, John Celardo, Mike Peppe, Tony Dezuniga, John Albano, Leonard Starr, Tom Sutton, Ric Estrada, Frank Giacoia, Jim Aparo, Lore Shoberg, Gray Morrow, Don Heck, Russ Heath, Jack Kirby, John Costanza, Nestor Redondo

This volume of House of Mystery is where Cain, later of The Sandman fame, got his start. Unlike with House of Secrets, there's no set-up for the series: we simply launch into "The Wondrous Witch's Cauldron" (writer unknown, art by Lee Elias). The second issue collected here does have Cain briefly introduce himself before launching into a story, but it's just a page-- the origins of the House of Mystery aren't delved into at all.

That said, we do get bits of history that are built on. "The House of Gargoyles" (written by Bob Haney, art by Jack Sparling) is about a former boarder at the House of Mystery, in this case a fellow who was being pursued by gargoyles. The inhabitants of the nearby town are repulsed by them (House of Secrets will later tell us this town is located in Kentucky), but when the gargoyles get their man, they leave. However, they leave a little gargoyle behind who becomes known as Gregory-- and appears not only in this series, but in The Sandman (I think he might have birthed Abel's pet gargoyle, Goldie). Several other stories are about boarders at the House of Mystery, past or even present, such as "Boom!" (written and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti), where a dead parachuter spends the night there, or "Dark City of Doom" (written by Gerry Conway, art by Tony Dezuniga), about a guy who travels through time to ancient Egypt.

In "Turner's Treasure" (written by Jack Olek, art by Alex Toth), we even learn that before coming to the House of Mystery, Cain was the building custodian of the Philosophy Department at State University. Does this mean Kentucky State University? Why was this never mentioned in The Sandman? Maybe he left the Dreaming during Dream's long absence to take a new job?

Other good stories included "The Roots of Evil!" (written by Marv Wolfman, art by Jack Sparling), about two rival plant scientists, "The Game" (written and illustrated by Neal Adams), an atmospheric tale about a kid who shelters from a storm with a ghost kid, "What's the Youth?" (written by E. Nelson Bridwell, art by Win Mortimer and George Roussos), where a creepy guy buys a youth potion to hit on a younger woman, and "Dark Night, Dark Dreams!" (written by Gerry Conway, art by Bill Draut), a great first-person story about a woman on the run seeking refuge. As you can see from the credits, the book is blessed with some first-rate talent, and I suspect the black-and-white reproduction makes the art even better than it'd've been on original publication.

My favorite part of these early House of Mystery issues is "Page 13," a recurrent feature on (duh) page 13 of each issue. Here, some demon has a new message or game or token for the reader every week. Things like membership cards you can cut out, letters giving the owners bad luck, paper dice, and so on. In one case, a story is too long and runs onto page 13, so it's all messed up, with the demon chortling about the "dumb editor." Another starts on page 13-- with artist Gil Kane being sucked into it! He ends up being attacked by his editors, who are demons, and trapped inside the House of Mystery forever. There's a lot of fantastic black humor, and it's a real shame that this feature fades out.

The best is the second one, where you drop a pencil onto a circle containing a number of possible fortunes, including "You Are Drafted," "That Trip Will Cost You" (complete with psychedelic lettering on "trip"), "Your Father Found It," and "You Will Be Caught in the Dormitory"! I never expected to see even covert references to drug use, pornography, and masturbation!

01 December 2013

Reading Roundup Wrapup: November 2013

Pick of the month: Collected Works edited by Nick Wallace. A small month, so not a lot of options, but this was another of the generally high-quality Bernice Summerfield anthologies.

All books read:
1. Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume 2 edited by Scott Nybakken
2. Bernice Summerfield VIII: Collected Works edited by Nick Wallace
3. Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Three edited by Scott Nybakken
4. Bernice Summerfield IX: Old Friends by Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt & Pete Kempshall
5. The Witching Hour by Chris Bachalo and Jeph Loeb
6. The New Adventures: Beige Planet Mars by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham
7. The Starman Omnibus, Volume Five by James Robinson with David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns

All books acquired:
1. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 13 by Paul Levitz with Jim Shooter and Gerry Conway
2. Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet by Gerry Davis
3. Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby by France “Ed” Herron, Jack Kirby, and Dave Wood
4. The Demon by Jack Kirby
5. Tales and Sketches: Including Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, and The Snow-Image / A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys / Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys; Being A Second Wonder Book by Nathaniel Hawthorne
6. Doctor Who: A Fairytale Life by Matt Sturges
7. DC One Million Omnibus by Grant Morrison with Chuck Dixon, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Mark Schultz, Alan Grant, Jerry Ordway, Peter David, Karl Kesel, Chris Roberson, Ron Marz, Doug Moench, Jim Balent & Devin Grayson, James Robinson, William Messner-Loebs, Tom Peyer, Dennis O’Neil, Len Kaminski, D. Curtis Johnson, Christopher Priest, John Ostrander, Mark Waid & Michael Jan Friedman, John Francis Moore, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Ian Edginton, and Geoff Johns & Jeff Katz
8. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad
9. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
10. Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go by by Dan Abnett
11. Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams by Gareth Roberts

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 522

29 November 2013

Review: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Volume Ten: War

Comic trade paperback, 116 pages
Published 2012
Acquired and read May 2013
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Volume Ten: War

Script: John Jackson Miller
Pencils: Andrea Mutti
Inks: Pierluigi Baldassini
Colors: Michael Atiyeh
Lettering: Michael Heisler

It was around three years ago that I finished up Knights of the Old Republic, the only Star Wars comic series so good that I persuaded my wife to read it. War is a coda to it, which I finally picked up so that she could have an uninterrupted reading experience. It's okay. Zayne has gotten hit by a bit of an idiot ball at the beginning, and KotOR just isn't KotOR without most of the supporting characters, but once the big cons start coming, it feels just like the Knights of the Old Republic I knew and loved. I just hope this isn't the last we see of Zayne and the gang.

26 November 2013

Review: Old Friends by Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt & Pete Kempshall

Hardcover, 274 pages
Published 2006

Acquired April 2013
Read November 2013
Bernice Summerfield IX: Old Friends
by Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt & Pete Kempshall

This is third "novella trilogy" in the Bernice Summerfield, and the most successful one. It takes a slightly different format to the earlier ones-- instead of being three largely parallel tales, we get the first part of a larger story in Jonathan Clements's "Cheating the Reaper," an extended flashback in Marc Platt's "The Ship of Painted Shadows," and then the end of the larger story in Pete Kempshall's "The Soul's Prism."

Let's talk about the flashback story first: Platt's tale oozes atmosphere, and I liked his depiction of "young" Benny (she's 23, I think), who is plausibly the same character, but less experienced without being written as stupid. He write great characters all around, as well as a great setting, but I never fully understood why anything was happening, especially the history of the villain. Parts of it reminded me of Platt's own Paper Cuts.

The main story sees Bernice and Jason attending the funeral of a character Benny first met in "The Ship of Painted Shadows." Clements doesn't quite get the dialogue voices of the principal characters, I don't think, but he gets their interiority very well-- his Jason especially balances the man's desire to do well with his baser instincts in a way that doesn't make him seem a moron. There's not a ton of plot, but this story really gets us into Benny's emotional space-- the woman who left everyone behind, and for a long time. The last line, by the way, is utterly perfect.

"The Soul's Prism" continues this story, but adding some physical danger to what had been a mood piece. It has to do a lot in a brief space, and I don't think it playing coy helps it along-- someone from Benny's past turns up, but it isn't made clear what this person actually did to Benny until late in the game. If I'd read all of the New Adventures, I think I'd know, but I haven't. There are also some contrivances about a character being unable to find Benny that I don't really buy. But on the whole, this is an enjoyable tale, and it succeeds at the doubly tough job of finishing Clements's story while resonating with Platt's admirably.

25 November 2013

Review: Collected Works edited by Nick Wallace

Hardcover, 283 pages
Published 2006

Acquired January 2013
Read November 2013

Bernice Summerfield VIII: Collected Works
edited by Nick Wallace

I've said it before (I think), but in any case, I'll say it again: the best Bernice Summerfield stories are the short-story anthologies. They're works of art, they are, taking shorts by various writers about various characters and managing to blend them into a coherent whole. Collected Works spans the events of the audio dramas in Bernice Summerfield's seventh season, picking up after the events of Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Crystal of Cantus, and ending around the time of The Oracle of Delphi. (See the timeline for more details.)

This book does everything I like about the Bernice anthologies, giving a strong, character-based focused to Benny and the other residents of the Braxiatel Collection, the fallout from The Crystal of Cantus proving a strong hook to hang a lot of stories from. I especially liked the renewed focus on Bev Tarrant (who has really benefited as a character in general from the prose anthologies) and, surprisingly, Parasiel. (Bev especially does well in "The Cost for a Collection" by Ian Mond.) As a result, it's hard to single out any particular favorites; it'd be like claiming chapter 4 was the standout bit of a novel.

That said, there are some strong ones: Wallace's frame story and "Work in Progress" provide a great start, the latter especially haunting in light of what I know is to come in the series' future. Simon A. Forward's "Grey's Anatomy" brings back Mordecan from Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Bone of Contention and  Doctor Who: The Sandman, who I like, and it was an enjoyable story in its own right. Eddie Robson's "The Two-Level Effect" is a fun look at Jason Kane with a cheeky Doctor Who nod, and Hass (the gaseous life-form turned gardener) gets a good turn in "Let There Be Stars" by Mark Michalowski. Dale Smith ties up many of the book's (and, in general, the seventh season's) threads with the chilling "Mother's Ruin." And, of course, I liked Philip Purser-Hallard's recurrent "Perspectives," about a strange group of futuristic historians visiting the collection, a whole lot. No one does this thing quite like Purser-Hallard can-- I like it when my aliens are genuinely alien, and these ones technically aren't even aliens!

Picking out favorites feels like cheating, though. This is another Bernice Summerfield collection with scarcely a weak link, and I continue to love the way the series weaves between media-- each format lends strengths to the others, and Collected Works plugs right into the heart of the seventh season.

22 November 2013

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Three by James Robinson

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 1997-98)
Acquired June 2009
Read October 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume Three

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Tony Harris
Inker: Wade von Grawbadger
Colorist: Gregory Wright
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Additional Pencillers: Steve Yeowell, Gene Ha, Mitch Byrd, J. H. Williams III, Bret Blevins, Michael Zulli, Richard Pace, Dusty Abell, Mark Buckingham, Phil Jimenez, Lee Weeks, Stefano Gaudiano
Additional Inkers: Drew Geraci, Gene Ha, Bret Blevins, Michael Zulli, Dexter Vines, Norman Lee, Phil Jimenez, Robert Campanella, Steve Yeowell, Stefano Gaudiano, Ray Snyder, Wayne Faucher
Additional Colorists: Pat Garrahy, Dave Hornung, Gene Ha, Trish Mulvihill, John Kalisz, Noelle Giddings, Lee Loughridge
Additional Letterers: Chris Eliopoulos, John Babcock

Volume Three was the weakest installment of Starman for me thus far. Not that it's bad or anything, but that I felt there was a little too much Shade, not quite enough Starman. Throughout the series, I've felt that maybe James Robinson likes this character more than I do-- he strikes me as someone best used in small doses, but we lead off with a large one: four issues of "The Shade" miniseries, plus some diary excerpts, plus the Shade intervenes (yet again) at the end of a story in order to resolve it when it gets out of Jack's control. All of this is a shame, though, because "The Shade" miniseries, about the Shade's recurring rivalry with an English family, is actually very, very well done, especially the issue with the Flash. It's just that when you bundle the whole Starman series together, "The Shade" feels like a mistimed digression.

The first actual Starman story, "Infernal Devices," is only okay, which exacerbates the problem. The stuff with Solomon Grudy is fine, and I loved the appearances of Batman and Alan Scott, but there didn't feel like there was enough of a personal connection for Jack. (I did really like the Woody Allen movie metaphor, even if, unlike Batman, I have actually never seen a Woody Allen movie.)

Thankfully, a number of the one-shots are strong. "Stars in My Eyes!", where Jack tells his girlfriend three tales of superhero romance, was excellent: I liked the story of Scalphunter, but as a big Black Canary II fan, I was really pleased to see her mother's relationship with Jack's father fleshed out and expanded on, following on from two Silver Age tales where the characters team up. It's an oddly bittersweet story about fidelity and trust and truth. This year's "Talking with David," where Jack has dinner with the dead members of the Justice Society, was good too.

On the other hand, the issue where the Mist kills off Justice League Europe just to prove how badass she is is the most crass, cynical kind of superhero storytelling. "Oh, these characters are in limbo-- let's brutally murder them!" I expected better of Robinson (though maybe I shouldn't have, given he'd go on to kill kids to prove the situation was serious in the awful Cry for Justice).

Thankfully, that bad taste is leavened by the final story, the parallel "Talking with Ted..." and "...Talking with Jack...", where Ted tells Jack's girlfriend about Ted while Jack tells his tattoo artist about his dad. If Starman has an emotional core, it's the father-son relationship between these two, all the respect they can't bring themselves to say, and the parallel narratives here develop that beautifully. Jack might struggle with his father's superheroic identity, but we all struggle with our parents' identities. The final page, especially, got me right in the heart. Brilliant stuff, even if the volume as a whole seemed to tread water a bit.

20 November 2013

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume Two by James Robinson

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 1996-97)
Acquired March 2009
Read October 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume Two

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Tony Harris
Inker: Wade von Grawbadger
Colorist: Gregory Wright
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Additional Artists: Craig Hamilton & Ray Snyder, John Watkiss, Steve Yeowell, Matt Smith, J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray, Bret Blevins, Guy Davis, Wade von Grawbadger, Chris Sprouse, Gary Erskine
Additional Colorists: Kevin Somers, Pat Garrahy, Melissa Edwards, Debbie McKeever, Trish Mulvihill, Dave Hornung
Additional Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos

This book collects a couple storylines of Starman; the first big one is "Sand and Stars," which see Jack Knight traveling to New York City to check in on Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont for a case he's working on. As someone who loved Sandman Mystery Theatre, I really appreciated this storyline-- it's awesome seeing Wes and Dian sixty years on, older but still recognizably themselves. The story even ends with Wes and Dian heading off on a final globetrotting journey, which will lead into their final appearances in Sleep of Reason and Justice Be Done. The plot here is kinda so-so, but who cares? I especially liked the fact that Jack primarily geeks out over Dian, not Wesley. Nice to see that she got that writing career off the ground!

It is a little weird to see a story that very much uses the Sandman Mystery Theatre version of the Sandman but also acknowledges the Sandman's participation in the Justice Society, something very much against the tone and feel of SMT itself. What's really awesome, though, is a flashback drawn by Guy Davis, the main and best of the SMT artists-- it really adds to the whole feel of the story as authentically rooted in the other series (which takes place way in the past, but was then-ongoing, I believe).

From there, we segue into "Hell and Back," where Jack and the O'Dares must figure out how to activate a poster that's a portal into hell, inside which the Shade and and one of the O'Dares has been trapped. It's a good story, with nice insights into our characters, but I really loved Tony Harris's decorative borders for the pages. I don't know what it adds, specifically, but it really adds something.

My favorite story in this volume, though, is definitely "Christmas Knight," a simply, sappy, Christmas story, where as characters roll into the O'Dare house for Christmas, Jack helps a mall Santa Claus get his life back together. Yes, I did get a little misty-eyed. Christmas is awesome, and so are superheroes.

18 November 2013

Review: The Starman Omnibus, Volume One by James Robinson

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 1994-95)
Acquired June 2008
Read October 2013
The Starman Omnibus, Volume One

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Tony Harris
Inker: Wade von Grawbadger
Colorists: Gregory Wright, Ted McKeever
Letterers: John Workman, Bill Oakley, Gaspar Saladino
Additional Pencillers: Teddy H. Kristiansen, Matt Smith, Tommy Lee Edwards, Stuart Immonen, Chris Sprouse, Andrew Robinson, Gary Erskine, Amanda Conner
Additional Inker: Matt Smith, Christian Hojgaard, Bjarne Hansen, Kim Hagen, Gary Erskine
Additional Letterers: Bob Pinaha, Ken Bruzenak

I've owned the first volume of Starman for five years now(!), but my desire to read it goes back even further than that-- I remember reading about it in Scott Tipton's Comics 101 column, which rated it as one of the very best comic books ever. Thankfully, that turned out to be exactly that. Starman tells the tale of Jack Knight, son of the original Starman, Ted Knight, and a young man who never wanted to be a superhero... but found himself forced to be one by circumstances... and found himself starting to like it.

That "liking" is a key part of what I find appealing about this book. Starman goes to dark places, both narratively and visually, but it's often enjoyable, often fun. This isn't a series about a grim antihero, but one about someone who likes being a hero. There's a sense of joy, of enthusiasm, of heroism to the events that happen here. This book doesn't ask, "Do we really need heroes?", it just gets on with the business of having them. But it's not a Golden-Age froth fest; this is a story about terrible things happening to good people... just thank goodness that sometimes the good people can stop those terrible things. This is the ethos I like from my superhero comics.

This was writer James Robinson's first real big break, I think, and it shows-- in a good way. This book bursts with new ideas and reworkings of old ideas: the O'Dares, the Shade, the Mist, Mikaal, the "Conversations with David" segments (where Jack talks to his dead brother), the evil poster, the evil circus, the mysterious Hawai'ian shirt. There's a lot going on, and little of it is generic superhero vs. supervillain theatrics. I like how Starman has a third-person narrator, one with a distinct voice and tone. I think this was Tony Harris's first big break, too, but he also shines here, with art that's purposefully a little rough, and perfectly suited to the task.

Like a lot of DC's Modern Age work, this retcons levels of personality and depth onto Golden Age characters that, quite frankly, was not there to begin with, just like in Sandman Mystery Theatre. Most blatant in this regard is "13 Years Ago: Five Friends," a bleak story of how a few members of the Justice Society reunited to take out a killer cult-leader. The JSA stories in Crisis on Multiple Earths were never like this! But of course, I like this, and I like this mode of going about; this is the kind of thing I think the best modern comics do: respect the past, use it as a foundation to build on, but not be overly beholden to it.

15 November 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part III: Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 541 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 1969-72)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume One

Written by Mike Friedrich, Gerard Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Steve Skeates, John Costanza, Robert Kanigher, Raymond Marais, Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier, Virgil North, Sergio Aragonés, Lore Shoberg, John Albano, Jack Oleck, Mark Hanerfeld
Art by Jerry Grandenetti, George Roussos, Bill Draut, Jack Sparling, Werner Roth, Vince Colletta, Dick Dillin, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Alex Toth, Mike Royer, Mike Peppe, Sid Greene, Jack Abel, Don Heck, Ralph Reese, John Costanza, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Gray Morrow, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Frank Giacoia, Rick Buckler, Wally Wood, Sam Glanzman, Murphy Anderson, Bernie Wrightson, Alan Weiss, Tony Dezuniga, Jim Aparo, Sergio Aragonés, Nick Cardy, Lore Shoberg, Bernard Baily, Joe Maneely, Nestor Redondo, Bill Ely, John Prentice, Ralph Mayo, Jose Delbo, Mike Roy, Adolfo Buylla

The House of Secrets begins with a fairly lengthy (for this kind of comic, anyway) origin story for the House of Secrets itself. "Don't Move It!" (written by Mike Friedrich, art by Jerry Grandenetti and George Roussos) tells this whole tale of a house in Kentucky, built by one Senator Sandsfield with his bare hands entirely from materials found in Kentucky, who swore no one who wasn't of "pure Kentucky stock" would ever live in it. Quite what this means, I don't know, but when our story opens, the House's new owner is trying to transport it over state lines. (Presumably into Tennessee, as no river is mentioned, and I believe Kentucky's southern border is the only one not determined by a river.) With the House 200 yards from the state line, the owner dies, and the House stays where it is, and some time later, Abel shows up, recruited as caretaker by a mysterious man who turns out to probably be an embodiment of the House itself. How all this squares with the histories of Cain and Abel given in The Sandman, I don't know.

Like in The Witching Hour!, the reader is often a viewpoint character in House of Secrets, coming to visit Abel and hear his stories-- along with Goldie, Abel's friend that no one else sees or hears. In The Sandman, Abel had a pet gargoyle named Goldie, evidently after this invisible friend. The frame stories are fairly fun. They're never quite as complicated as those in The Witching Hour! at its heyday, but they usually run a few pages and feature Abel and Goldie up to something, often investigating the strange House they live in. Cain pops up a lot, and you can see the seeds of their wonderfully macabre relationship in The Sandman, though Cain never murders Abel here.

I liked the reference to a "wandering wolfman" who told Abel one of his stories-- presumably the wolfman's name was Marv. There's even one story where Abel and Goldie wander into the nearby suburbs for some tale-telling, pass through the middle of a tale currently happening, and end up meeting Mordred from The Witching Hour! (In another, all three witches come over for a visit.) Not to mention that at one point, we readers get to enjoy a comic book that Abel himself is reading: "Reggie Rabbit, Heathcliffe Hog, Archibald Aardvark, J. Benson Babboon and Bertram the Dancing Frog" (written by Len Wein, art by Ralph Reese), who end up mocking their own dialogue balloons! House of Secrets is definitely more inventive than the other series in this way, I think. With time, alas, the frames shrink away to just a page or so, and Cain stops appearing.

As in both The Witching Hour! and House of Mystery, there are some good stories here. I particularly enjoyed "Bigger than a Breadbox" (writer unknown, art by Mike Royer and Mike Peppe), where an elderly woman enjoys a postal romance, "The Ballad of Little Joe" (written by Gerard Conway, art by Bill Draut), where aliens mistake a man's beloved puppet for an Earth life-form, "After I Die!" (written by Jack Kirby and Mark Evanier, art by Bill Draut), about a man determined to find out what the dying see, "World for a Witch" (written by Jack Oleck, art by Bill Draut), about a group of orphans whose orphanage-runner escapes her life's misery in a magic picture, and, of course, "Swamp Thing" (written by Len Wein, art by Berni Wrightson), the beginning of that much-famous character. I also really enjoyed "The Day After Doomsday..." (written by Len Wein, art by Jack Sparling), a recurrent series of two-page shorts about Adam and Gertrude, the last two humans alive after a holocaust (the same as Kamandi's Great Disaster?). They're both kinda hilariously dumb.

Overall, it's another good bunch, and I'm glad The Sandman led me to it, even if the two series don't line up quite precisely. (Well, unless the Dreaming is in southern Kentucky.)

13 November 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part II: Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Two

Comic trade paperback, 552 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1971-73)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Two

Written by Joe Orlando, Sergio Aragonés, Jack Oleck, Gerry Conway, Lore Shoberg, Len Wein, Sam Glanzman, Archie Goodwin, Lynn Marron, John Albano, Steve Skeates, Robert Kanigher, Virgil North, Carl Wessler, Mike Fleisher, E. Nelson Bridwell, Virgil Redondo, Bill Meredith, Joe Schenkman, Sheldon Mayer, Bill Riley, Maxine Fabe
Art by Joe Orlando, Sergio Aragonés, Nestor Redondo, Mort Meskin, George Roussos, Ralph Reese, Bernie Wrightson, Bernard Baily, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Gray Morrow, Alex Toth, Wayne Howard, Lore Shoberg, Nick Cardy, Gil Kane, Frank Giacoia, Jack Sparling, Leonard Starr, Dick Dillin, Mike Sekowsky, Sam Glanzman, Carl Anderson, Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Rich Buckler, Bob Oksner, John Giunta, John Albano, Bob Brown, Tony Dezuniga, Adolfo Buylla, Ruben Moreira, Jim Aparo, Gene Colan, Sid Greene, John Prentice, Ernie Chua, Win Mortimer, Alex Niño, Gerry Talaoc, Alan Weiss, Ralph Reese, Bill Payne, Tom Palmer, Ernesto Patricio, George Tuska, Dan Adkins, Joe Schenkman, E. R. Cruz, Ruben Yandoc, Alfredo Alcala, Bill Riley, Rudy Nebres, Jose Delbo, Dan Green

The House of Mystery is hosted by (and the House of Mystery is resident to) Cain, who in The Sandman we'll find out is a resident of the Dreaming, so here I am. There's not a lot to him here, as in most of the issues, he's just there for a page of introductions, usually with some kind of quick gag. Cain has a well-developed personality in those comics, but there's not much to him here. Interestingly, "Sno' Fun!" (written by Sergio Aragonés, art by Wally Wood) establishes that the House of Mystery takes in tenants, one of whose tales Cain tells, but this is the only time we hear of this idea.

These were enjoyable stories, if less fun than those in The Witching Hour! or the earlier issues of The House of Secrets. I particularly enjoyed "Ghost Ship" (written by Jack Oleck, art by Jack Sparling), about a writer on a doomed 1858 sailing ship, and "The Poster Plague!" (written by Steve Skeates, art by Sergio Aragonés), where mysterious posters appear on a college campus, is interesting, even if it doesn't quite add up. Also,  I hope that the idea that a real space camp exists on Earth, as established in "The Secret of Camp Galaxy" (writer unknown, art by Bob Brown) is used elsewhere in the DC universe. I'm not sure the depiction of Death in "Mr. Mortem!" (writer unknown, art by Leonard Starr) is very consistent with Gaiman's, though.

There's an awful lot of people murdering their spouses for money-- especially men murdering women. I guess it quickly establishes where your sympathies should lie. The real highlight of the often-repetitive stories is the artwork: there's many talents you've heard of, and many you haven't, but their artwork is gorgeous, lush, and evocative; these stories wouldn't be half so good without it.

11 November 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part I: Showcase Presents The Witching Hour!, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 551 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1969-72)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
Showcase Presents The Witching Hour!, Volume One

Written by Dennis O'Neil, Alex Toth, Don Arneson, Alan Riefe, Steve Skeates, Gerard Conway, David Kaler, Marv Wolfman, John Costanza, Mike Friedrich, Jack Miller, Sergio Aragonés, Ron Whyte, Len Wein, Jack Oleck, Alan Gold, Murray Boltinoff, George Kashdan, Phil Seuling, Carl Wessler, Charles King, Howie Post, Bob Haney, France "Ed" Herron, Jack Phillips
Art by Pat Boyette, Alex Toth, Jack Sparling, Dick Giordano, José Delbo, Sid Greene, Vince Colletta, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Sekowsky, George Roussos, Stanley Pitt, Mike Roy, Mike Peppe, John Celardo, John Costanza, Bill Draut, Jack Abel, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Bob Brown, Murphy Anderson, Gray Morrow, George Tuska, Gil Kane, Frank Giacoia, Jeffrey Jones, Al Williamson, Carlos Garzon, Wally Wood, Art Saaf, John Calnan, Bernie Case, Tony Dezuniga, Lee Elias, Joe Orlando, Don Heck, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Sherman Howard, Jerry Grandenetti, Jim Aparo

My quest to read every comic remotely linked to The Sandman continues with its (hopefully) last strand: those horror comics whose hosts were later appropriated by Neil Gaiman to be denizens of the Dreaming. The Witching Hour! is hosted by Mildred, Mordred, and Cynthia, the three-part witch-being who popped up in various guises throughout Gaiman's Sandman run. Post-Sandman, the Witches got their own story in James Robinson's awful WitchCraft, but maybe he should have taken a page from this book, because it is good plain fun.

Most of the stories were disposable, but they were usually also enjoyable. The highlight of the book, though, is definitely the frame narrative. Mildred and Mordred are "traditional" witches, while Cynthia is "mod"-- dressing in the latest fashions and using store-bought canned soups in her witches brews. They constantly bicker over what a good witches tale is, as well as how their never-seen manservant Egor should be treated (Cynthia likes him more than the others). Each issue weaves some small plot around their storytelling competition, like an attempt to take a group photograph, new neighbors at the swamp, or a visit from Cynthia's old college flame. Alex Toth usually provides the amazing artwork for these frame stories. The reader is often directly addressed, putting one in mind of the issue of Gaiman's Sandman where the reader is positioned as a dreamer talking to Matthew the Raven, Abel, Cain, et al. in the Dreaming-- which is presumably where all this takes place?

The witches eventually move to an apartment in the city for some reason, which would seem to promise some new hijinks, but unfortunately by that point the frame story has been squeezed down to a mere page or two per issue, rather than its original five or so. I'm not sure why that happened, but it robs the issues in the second half of the volume of a lot of their character.

The stories are pretty good throughout. Obviously a lot are about witches, and ostensibly each of the witches has a "theme" to their stories, but this is honored as much in the breach as in the observance-- Cynthia is criticized for telling "modern" stories, and then one of the other two will come out with one about a psychologist or computer dating! (In fact there are three stories about the perils of computer dating... I wouldn't've guessed it was already a thing and a worry in 1969-72.) I particularly enjoyed "Trumpet Perilous!" (writer unknown, art by Jack Sparling and Jack Abel) for its audacious ending ("I'll grant you a little creativity Mordred--but what are you going to do with the world totally destroyed?") and "The Maze" (written by Al Gold and Marv Wolfman, art by Gray Morrow), which is about a guy trapped in a formless dimension, accompanied by some effective and chilling second-person narration. The whole issue of space horror stories, culminating in, of course, "The Haunted House in Space!" (writer unknown, art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon) was pretty fun, too.

It seems unlikely that anyone will be scared by any of the stories in here, but they're pretty enjoyable when you're in the right mood, and those three witches can lift most any material, no matter how weak.

07 November 2013

Review: Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Comic hardcover, 120 pages
Published 2012

Borrowed from Hayley
Read April 2013
Harvey Pekar's Cleveland
by Harvey Pekar
illustrated by Joseph Remnant

One might wish that this history was a little more Cleveland and a little less Pekar-- the autobiographical details will often be familiar to anyone who's read previous Pekar works. But then I supposed it wouldn't be a Pekar book. I'm not from Cleveland, but my wife is, and I am from Cincinnati, so I enjoyed this take on the city's history. Pekar's affection for his oft-mocked home city really shines through, and it's a good (if slight) read.

05 November 2013

Review: The New Adventures: Another Girl, Another Planet by Martin Day and Len Beech

Mass market paperback, 245 pages
Published 1998

Acquired and read July 2013
The New Adventures: Another Girl, Another Planet
by Martin Day and Len Beech

In terms of emotional complexity, this is one of the best Bernice Summerfield New Adventures-- on the scale of insight into adult, human emotions, this is like the excellent Professor Bernice Summerfield anthologies (such as A Life of Surprises and A Life Worth Living) later published by Big Finish. The relationship between Bernice and her new "old" friend, and between that friend and her ex, feel startlingly real. Unfortunately, in terms of plot, it's a bit of a non-starter-- another dig with a mysterious backer goes awry, blah blah blah, someone's a traitor, blah blah blah...

04 November 2013

Reading Roundup Wrapup: October 2013

Pick of the month: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Wilkie Collins, but with lesbians! Flipness aside, this is a beautiful book and a suspenseful one. That said, before this came along, I was having a tough time picking my pick: coulda been either of the first two volumes of The Starman Omnibus (some of the best superhero stuff I've read in a while) or Seeing Like a State (certainly the best academic monograph I've read since finishing my exams).

All books read:
1. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
2. The Starman Omnibus, Volume One by James Robinson
3. Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City by E. Douglas Fawcett
4. Showcase Presents The House of Secrets, Volume One edited by Scott Nybakken
5. The Dark Clue by James Wilson
6. Looking Within: The Misleading Tendencies of “Looking Backward” Made Manifest by J. W. Roberts
7. The Starman Omnibus, Volume Two by James Robinson
8. The Final War: A Story of the Great Betrayal by Louis Tracy
9. The Outlaws of the Air by George Griffith
10. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
11. Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume One edited by Scott Nybakken
12. The Starman Omnibus, Volume Three by James Robinson
13. His Wisdom the Defender: A Story by Simon Newcomb
14. Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 by Lady Florence Dixie
15. Zalma by T. Mullett Ellis
16. Showcase Presents Secrets of Sinister House edited by Scott Nybakken
17. The Starman Omnibus, Volume Four by James Robinson with Jerry Ordway
18. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

All books acquired:
1. Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics edited by Mike Madrid
2. The Fantastic Four Omnibus, Volume 1 by Stan Lee
3. The Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus, Volume 1 by John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman, Bill Mantlo, Stan Lee, and Roger Stern
4. Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman
5. Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual by Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation #7: Masks by John Vornholt
7. Star Trek: The Next Generation #13: The Eyes of the Beholders by A. C. Crispin
8. Star Trek: The Next Generation #33: Balance of Power by Dafydd ab Hugh
9. The Shade by James Robinson
10. The Golden Age: A Different Look at a Different Era by James Robinson
11. New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future by Mrs. George Corbett
12. What's the World Coming To?: A Novel of the Twenty-First Century, Founded on the Fads, Facts, and Fiction of the Nineteenth by W. Graham Moffat and John White
13. Afterimage by Helen Humphreys
14. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
15. The New Adventures: Beige Planet Mars by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham
16. The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells
17. The New Machiavelli by H. G. Wells
18. The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution by H. G. Wells
19. The Last War: A World Set Free by H. G. Wells
20. In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells
21. Screenshots by Lauren A. Walton

Okay, that's not good.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 519