31 January 2013

Review: Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks by Paul Scoones

PDF eBook, 82 pages
Published 2008 (originally 2000)
Read August 2012
Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks
by Paul Scoones

Resurrection of the Daleks is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories: a grim, tense portrait of the Doctor in a situation escalating out of his control and out of his morality, pushing the edge of what he can take. There's so much going on, and he can but push at the edges. Unfortunately, that feeling doesn't come across at all in this bland adaptation, where it may as well be Black Orchid for all the proceedings seem to impact the Doctor. A missed opportunity, though I liked the prologue/epilogue-- the only parts of the book with any style to them. (Perhaps not coincidentally, they're the only parts of the book to not happen on screen.)

30 January 2013

Review: Doctor Who and Shada by Paul Scoones

PDF eBook, 88 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1989)
Read July 2012
Doctor Who and Shada
by Paul Scoones

Shada is probably Douglas Adams's weakest Doctor Who work, but it's still got some spark, judging by the audio drama. You wouldn't know that by reading this.

29 January 2013

Review: Doctor Who and the City of Death by David Lawrence

PDF eBook, 86 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1992)
Read July 2012
Doctor Who and the City of Death
by David Lawrence

Of all the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club novelization writers, David Lawrence is the only one (as far as I know) not to write any subsequent Doctor Who books. This is quite a shame, as Doctor Who and the City of Death is clearly the best of the NZDWFC novelizations. On television, City of Death is sheer joy, simple bliss, possibly the pinnacle of Doctor Who (check out the Wife in Space for a convincing take), and though this book is not the pinnacle of Doctor Who, it does a fantastic job of reminding you of it. Not because it apes the episode, but because it recreates the episode's rambling, hodgepodge quality in prose forms, with diversions and good lines a-plenty.  Made me want to buy the DVD, though I'm obviously poor, otherwise why would I be grubbing around for free eBooks to put on my Kindle?

28 January 2013

Review: Doctor Who and the Pirate Planet by David Bishop

PDF eBook, 88 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1990)
Read July 2012
Doctor Who and the Pirate Planet
by David Bishop

This is the first (continuity-wise, anyway) in a series of fan fiction novelizations published by the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, which plug the gaps in the classic stories that weren't novelized by Target Books.  The Pirate Planet was Douglas Adams's first Doctor Who script back in the 1970s; this is a decent stab at a novelization. Perhaps too decent, since you expect that Terrance Dicks could have turned in something just as good with about half the effort. And I don't even like Terrance Dicks.

25 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part III: DC Comics: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner

Comic hardcover, 292 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1998-2012)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
DC Comics: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner

Writers: Barbara Kesel, Chuck Dixon, Jai Nitz, Terry Moore, Patton Oswalt, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti, Judd Winick, Amanda Conner
Penciller: Amanda Conner
Inkers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner
Letterers: Gaspar Saladino, Clem Robins, Kurt Hathaway, Albert T. De Guzman, Phil Balsman, Rob Leigh, Ken Lopez, Wes Abbott, John J. Hill
Colorists: John Kalisz, Pamela Rambo, Tom J. McCraw, Carrie Strachan, Paul Mounts, Rod Reis

Amanda Conner first came to my attention with her fabulous "Supergirl" strip in Wednesday Comics-- rarely is any comics artist able to master facial expressions so well, and even more, she used them to humorous effect. The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner collects a number of different examples of her work for DC Comics over the years, and I like her stuff enough to make it a must-read.

I'm reading it now, though, because it collects issues #47-49 of Birds of Prey (vol. 1), the only collected issues in the gap between Old Friends, New Enemies and Of Like Minds.1 The story is "The Chaotic Code," and it features Barbara and Dinah fighting to protect a young girl with the astounding power to undo the effect of entropy on people. Of course, like all advanced medical science in a comic book world, There Are Things That Man Was Not Meant To Do, and it'll kill you if it lasts too long. Also the guy the girl is working for is evil. The interesting part is that Barbara temporarily regains use of her legs; there's a great page where she jumps out of a window after some fearsome hand-to-hand stuff, and there a couple good jokes. What's unfortunate is that the fact she is forced to go back to the way she was isn't really dealt with.

Meanwhile, Dinah gets in trouble for parking illegally, and it escalates crazily from there. This is goofy, action-driven fun, a dynamic that the post-Green-Arrow Black Canary is well-suited for, I think.  Unfortunately, she's already back in her old outfit, though at least it's drawn better here than it was in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I miss the full-body jumpsuit! She ends up throwing down with Talia al Ghul, who is working for President Luthor for some reason.

Conner is maybe the perfect artist for Birds of Prey: fun and even sexy, without ever feeling crass and exploitative. Her faces, especially for Dinah as the situation gets worse and worse, are great, and she choreographs potentially-confusing action scenes quite well. It's a shame that she only ever drew this single three-issue arc.

The book is, of course, overall an excellent showcase for her immense skills; I'll touch just briefly on the other tales here. Superman: Lois Lane #1, the not-properly-titled first story by Barbara Kesel, features Lois on her own, battling in a submarine. This is definitely the action-Lois of the 1990s (as seen in World Without a Superman, for example), and it's fun in much the same way Birds of Prey itself is.

Geoff Johns's "Power Trip" takes place on the eve of the Infinite Crisis, with the Psycho Pirate trying to confuse Power Girl about her tangled origin story. I'm not sure why, as the story takes four issues to not answer any questions. It also features the completely stupid explanation of the "cleavage window" on her costume. Some good jokes, though. Some obvious ones, too.

"Scared Straight" has the most anal rape jokes I've ever encountered in a superhero comic, and I have no idea what the hell it even is. I'm afraid finding out will just make things worse, though.  And Ame-Comi Girls featuring Wonder Woman #1 has a charming scene where the protagonist wants to know why she's dressed in a ridiculously exploitative costume and no one answers her and the thing just keeps on happening!

The best story in the book is clearly the one Amanda Conner wrote herself: "Fuzzy Logic," a charming short where Power Girl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl fight a tentacle monster, and then Wonder Woman gives Power Girl advice about her cat.

1. There are some other collected issues in this gap, actually, but they're all in collections branded with other series titles, like Batman and Nightwing.

23 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part II: Old Friends, New Enemies

Comic trade paperback, 223 pages
Published 2003 (contents: 1997-99)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Birds of Prey: Old Friends, New Enemies

Writer: Chuck Dixon
Pencillers: Greg Land, Dick Giordano
Inkers: Drew Geraci, Wayne Faucher
Colorist: Gloria Vasquez
Letterer: Albert T. DeGuzman

The second volume of Birds of Prey collects the series' last two one-shots ("Wolves" and "Batgirl"), and then the first six issues of the ongoing series-- so popular had been the one-shots, that DC decided they could sustain an ongoing. Old Friends, New Enemies is perhaps more consistent and settled than Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress, but also less striking and less fun: fewer highs and fewer lows.

The good news is that the stories here don't feel curtailed. In part, that's because Dixon can write every story across multiple issues if it's that complex, but even the one-shots are more curtailed, as though he's finally gotten to grips with the format. The first of those, "Wolves," runs two largely parallel stories: Dinah meets up with her ex-husband(!), while Barbara almost gets mugged, almost gets hit by a car, almost goes on a date, and almost gets mugged. The common theme between the two plots is men, who are "wolves" who devour women. I don't know that we needed to give Dinah a one-year marriage in college except to give this story some extra emotional investment, but her plot is not too great: it basically hits all the beats any TV show does when a cast member's former lover shows up "in trouble." (I think Babylon 5 did this plot every other week its first two seasons.)

The Barbara story is more interesting, though. I am pretty sure that this is the first time we've seen here outside of her headquarters (what is that place with the clock on it, anyway? no one in this book ever says? and does she live there?) in the Birds of Prey series, and she's a little angry-- but then she's having a bad day. She gets to go on a date, which is quite sweet, and gives us a facet of her we've been deprived of in the series thus far. Of course, it all goes south, and then we get to see Dinah fight off a group of robbers while in a wheelchair while in her home. It maybe pushes the bounds of credulity a little, but probably no more so than that Dinah could do all the things she does; anyone who used to be Batgirl has to be the best of the best, after all. I'm curious to see how often Birds of Prey will end up going to the wheelchair-bound-Barbara-in-danger well by the end of the series, but I liked it here; it's a big change from the stories in the first volume. Dick Giordano's art is usually good, but I've seen better from him: there's the occasional bad angle, and both male characters look creepy and plastic-faced.

"Batgirl" features Black Canary teamed up with... Batgirl!? Why does Barbara have longer hair when she's an physically-active crimefighter? How is that safe? Anyway, it's not real, as you might imagine, and the villain looks so ridiculous that you can't even blame her on the '90s; she's just terrible.

We then launch into the ongoing with a three-part story: "Long Time Gone"/"One of Those Days"/"Hounded." Like a lot of the stories in the first volume, this one feature hijinks in a Third-World country. Is that the Birds of Prey's thing? The plot (which confused me) ultimately isn't the point here, though: the extra space and assurance of future stories mean that Dixon starts working in a lot of nice little touches: Dinah's technophobia, Barbara's ex-fiancé, Robin hanging out with Oracle and helping, Barabara's Internet romance. It's things like this that keep me interested and invested; actually, I was surprised how much I liked the ex-fiancé.

(On the other hand, there's constant cutting to a subplot about the Air Force finding someone using their computer-- implied to be Oracle-- and a guy with a big head who I may have been supposed to recognize but no one ever explains who he was. Also someone has been spying on Dinah, and then you find out it was just Batman. Not cool, dude.)

"Return of the Ravens" sees Dinah randomly bump into a group of terrorists called the Ravens, who include Cheshire, who was at some point (not sure if that's before or after this) the mother of Green Arrow's ward Arsenal's child. It's faintly ridiculous-- there's a dinosaur involved-- but in the way that superhero comics can be ridiculous, and I liked the banter between the three villains. It does have the worst map of the United States that I've ever seen, though.

"Batgirl," the "Long Time Gone" trilogy, and "Return of the Ravens" are all drawn by Greg Land and Drew Geraci. This is my first experience reading a Greg Land comic, I think, though I'm well familiar with his work from his Internet infamy. This comparatively early stuff isn't as bad as what he does now, it seems. There are definitely times where the characters looked posed and cheesecakey, but there's worse out there, and it often results in very nice art.

The real shame about Old Friends, New Enemies is not the book itself, but the fact it collects issue #1-6 of the ongoing... and the next collection of Birds of Prey doesn't pick up until issue #56. That's fifty uncollected issues, and I bet something important happens in there. Boo on you, DC. Where's my Birds of Prey Omnibus?

21 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Birds of Prey, Part I: Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 1996-97)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress: Birds of Prey

Writers: Chuck Dixon, Jordan B. Gorfinkel
Pencillers: Gary Frank, Stefano Raffaele, Matt Haley, Jennifer Graves, Sal Buscema
Inkers: John Dell, Bob McLeod, Wade Von Grawbadger, John Lowe, Cam Smith, Stan Woch
Colorists: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh, Glora Vasquez, Dave Grafe
Letterers: Albert De Guzman, Phil Felix, Ken Bruzenak

One series ends, another begins. Having finished The Sandman and all its sundry spin-offs, I've decided to tackle another series, one I've heard about for many years, and heard a lot of good things about: Birds of Prey. This first volume, with the somewhat ungainly title Black Canary/Oracle/Huntress: Birds of Prey, collects a number of one-shots and miniseries that introduced the Birds of Prey. Despite the title, the Huntress isn't really a member yet, just being along for the ride in one of the stories. The focus here is squarely on Dinah Laurel Lance a.k.a. the Black Canary, and Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Oracle f.k.a. Batgirl.

At the time this story came out, both characters were at something of a loose end, as far as I know. Black Canary had been cut adrift from Green Arrow some time ago (and then the guy had died), and Oracle had never really had a starring role since taking on her new identity. In the first story, "One Man's Hell," written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Gary Frank and John Dell, Barbara recruits Dinah to be her field agent in investigating a series of terrorist attacks against some butthole's Third World development projects. The story moves a little abruptly at times (the destruction of a dam and flooding of an entire village gets like half a page), but it's a decent start, with action and sass. I've read a lot of Green Arrow comics, and Dinah plays differently placed in opposition to Barbara: she's a bit of a wild card and loose cannon. Which was probably always case, but basically everyone would look reserved standing next to Oliver Queen.

I like Frank and Dell's linework: it's thin and clear. The depiction of women is, of course, a key issue in a series that starred DC's first all-female superhero team, and I think they handle it nicely. Dinah and Barbara are drawn attractively, of course, but I don't think this crosses the line into the "male gaze" too much. I like Black Canary's new outfit. (I liked the old one too, in general, but not the way it always seemed to be drawn in the 1990s, including here.) I also really, really like Dinah's short blond hairdo; I wish that had stayed around by the time of Green Arrow and Black Canary.

The second story, "Revolution," kind of feels like the same as the first one over again: exploited people in the Third World under the thumb of a local dictator being saved by the timely and glamorous intervention of the Birds of Prey. The politics-- such as they are-- get a little confusing, and I'm a bit wary of any story that invokes the token of "white slavery." The breakup, such as it is, between Dinah and Barbara feels a little contrived, too. And the art by Stefano Raffaele and Bob McLeod is the weakest in the book: a few too many jutting butts and cocked hips, and a wonky sense of perspective in some panels.

"Birds of a Feather" is the book's only story not written by Chuck Dixon, instead penned by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and illustrated by Jennifer Graves and Stan Woch. Graves and Woch have a simpler style than some of the book's other artists, aided by more solid coloring, and I liked it a lot: clean and elegant. And Lois is even dressed like a real person in jeans and a t-shirt! Gorfinkel does a good job-- it's fun seeing Lois alongside other superheroes without Superman-- but it's the shortest story in the book, and both the explanations and the resolution shoot by too quickly.

"Manhunt" is the longest story in the book, a four-chapter miniseries illustrated by Matt Haley, Wade Von Grawbadger, John Lowe, Sal Buscema, and Cam Smith. It's also the best story in the book: it's fast-paced, but unlike "One Man's Hell" or "Revolution," never moves so fast as to lose you. It's also fun, in the way that a story that teams Black Canary up with the Huntress and Catwoman just ought to be. There's a lot of mutual suspicion and differing motives in the group that keep the whole thing engaging on a level of character interaction, and it distracts from the repetitive "Stop being so reckless!"/"I'm the one on the ground!" interactions of Barbara and Dinah. There's even a Batman and Robin cameo, definitely worth it for how the Huntress and Catwoman react to seeing him speed by.

There's also good jokes, especially the one about the villain's butt. (I wish that being spurned lovers wasn't part of our heroes' motive here, even if it does seem to be a small one. I cannot imagine a Superman/Batman team-up where they teemed up to take down a woman who never called them after one-night stands. Nor even a Blue Beetle/Booster Gold one.) The art is good, too, even if there's a tendency to sexual posing (especially by Catwoman) starting to creep in here. The story sets up the idea of a team fairly nicely, so it's a little disappointing that in the next volume it goes back to being just Black Canary and Oracle once more...

18 January 2013

Review: Tales from Super-Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg

Trade paperback, 393 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1955-59) 

Acquired April 2012
Read January 2013
Tales from Super-Science Fiction
edited by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg fixates a lot on the idea of "fun" in his introduction to this anthology, but I sense that he perhaps had more fun writing for Super-Science Fiction when it was published 1955-59 than I am having reading what got written. After all, who wouldn't like being able to sell three stories a month to a magazine that paid the best in the business?  Not Silverberg (and not Harlan EllisonTM, none of whose stories are in this volume, unfortunately).

But with fourteen stories, this book has enough room to be good and be bad, and thankfully the good makes the bad worth it.  James Gunn turns in an almost prescient critique of a consumer economy gone mad (and how fortunate that I read this book at Christmastime, even if the story was set in the summer) in "Every Day is Christmas," with a suitably dark ending. I also enjoyed "Song of the Axe" by Don Berry: I didn't always get what had happened or why, but the details were intriguing enough that I didn't care; it's definitely the best fleshing out of an alien culture in this collection (where aliens are often just foils for Our Brave White Spacemen).

Robert Moore Williams's "I Want to Go Home" was maybe my favorite story in the collection: short and creepy, but seemingly universal. A great idea I wouldn't want to spoil one jot by explaining it.  Alan E. Nourse's "The Gift of Numbers," about a criminal who transfers his mathematical abilities to someone else, was also a delightful and clever idea. And big kudos to Tom Godwin for writing "A Place Beyond the Stars" and Silverberg for including the story: a very cool idea from a guy who deserves to be remembered for something other than "The Cold Equations."

Jack Vance's "World of Origin" was one of the worst ideas for a murder mystery I ever read-- it basically tromps all over Asimov's rules for sf mysteries, and not to good effect. A guy tries to solve a crime based on what planets the suspects come from, applying what he knows of the planets' cultures (a Space Father Brown, maybe?), but it turns out that this is very easy because in the future, every planet will have one easily-defined characteristic that tells you exactly how its citizens murder people. (On Planet Sprocket, you can only murder a man when riding a bicycle. On Planet Academia, you can only murder someone if you publish a monograph on it. On Planet Cricket, you can only murder someone with a cricket bat used to win the Ashes. These aren't real examples... but they could be.)

"The Tool of Creation" by J. F. Bone is boring because it sets up a nonsensical sf problem (why are all the planets formed like this?) and then answers it via coincidence. I don't care about the problem or the solution. And can we call for a retroactive moratorium on all sf stories that involve "twist" endings? Except for the good ones, of course.

I found Silverberg's own two contribution ("Catch 'Em All Alive" and "The Loathsome Beasts") dull and flat, typical sf tropes played out uninterestingly, but his introduction is great, and he even provides individual introductions to each story/writer, an anthology practice that I always enjoy, and am disappointed we don't see more often. This is a well-planned packaging of some forgotten sf, and while the stories might not be a fun to read as they were to write, they're fun enough to pick up and look through at the least.

16 January 2013

Review: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J. R. R. Tolkien

Mass market paperback, 287 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1937)
Borrowed from Hayley
Read December 2012
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (Revised Edition)
by J. R. R. Tolkien

I first read The Hobbit in fifth grade, when my mother bought me the box set of it and The Lord of the Rings. I liked it. I had a good friend we used to call "Bilbo" because he looked like Bilbo as rendered on the cover of my edition. I then tried to get into The Fellowship of the Ring. I don't think I even made it out of the Shire. The dense prose was something I didn't even know how to deal with.

So, one year later, I decided to try again. I reread The Hobbit first. I liked it. I then started into The Fellowship of the Rings. I think I made it about a third of the way through before I gave up. When I was a kid, I never gave up on books once I started them. (I still don't.)

Two years later, I gave The Lord of the Rings one last shot. I reread The Hobbit first. I liked it. And then, miracle of miracles, I made it through all of The Fellowship of the Ring. Once you've done that, you've committed: I crawled my way through The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I think it took me weeks to read the whole thing, in an era where I never spent more than a couple days on one book. Having finally conquered them, I resolved never to read them again.

When the Peter Jackson movies came out when I was in high school, I enjoyed them a lot (especially The Two Towers), but I advised all my friends whose interest was piqued by the films to give the books a wide berth. I'll stick with the achievable versions, thank you very much.

Ten years later, though, and I started to reconsider. In the interim, I'd read The Silmarillion and thought it okay. More importantly, I now read Victorian novels on what you might call a professional basis. Surely anyone who could read and love George Eliot couldn't be taken down by J. R. R. Tolkien? My decision solidified when I acquired the "Millennium Edition" box set of The Lord of the Rings for merely the price of shipping. Six chunks instead of three? It was beginning to sound achievable. I decided to reread it, pacing the books out, and slotted it onto my reading list, and waited-- and of course, The Hobbit floated to the top at the time the first film adaptation was in theaters, so now everything will think I'm just cashing in.

But anyway. What about The Hobbit? Having just seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was most struck by the difference between Bilbo's character arc in the two versions. The novel Bilbo very much wants to just sit at home and not be bothered: unlike in the film, where he decides to rush after the departed dwarves, he is practically pushed out the door by Gandalf! He does get a big moment of heroism, as in the film, but it comes a bit later-- instead of foolishly rushing out to save Thorin, he calculatedly uses his ring and Sting against the spiders of Mirkwood. My favorite part for Bilbo (aside from "Riddles in the Dark," of course) was when Bilbo orchestrated the escape from the Mirkwood elves. Smart thinking! I also really liked the way Bilbo handled himself once they got to the Lonely Mountain, both with Smaug and with Thorin. He's a canny chap, our Bilbo, and it's good development without being overwrought. I did quite sympathize with poor Bilbo the whole way through. Guy just wants to stay at home and eat lots of breakfast, and who can take exception with that?

I was surprised at the way that Thorin turns out; it's been over ten years, after all, and I forgot what happened to him in the end. It's a rather sad fate for the old chap, and I wonder how Peter Jackson will adapt it for the third film, as it doesn't really seem to play into the character arc that he's setting up for Thorin. I was also surprised at how little there is for most of the dwarf characters; I'm not sure why Tolkien would write in so many, if he barely uses any of them or gives them notable (or even unnotable) characteristics.

The world of The Hobbit is a bit more whimsical than I remember the world of The Lord of the Rings turning out: there are ton of talking animals (Beorn is awesome), for example, and more references to the modern world. (One of my favorite jokes is the one about the invention of golf, and I was completely surprised but quite happy that that made it into the film.) Overall, it's quite a fun book, and I can see why (beyond completism, of course) every time I read The Lord of the Rings as a child, I always reread The Hobbit first. I've rarely met a fantasy travel narrative that I didn't like, and this is no expection.

It certainly has the most musical numbers of any book I've ever read.

14 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #4: Superman: Last Son of Krypton

Mass market paperback, 238 pages
Published 1978
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Superman: Last Son of Krpyton
by Elliot S. Maggin

It was this novel's good reputation that prompted me to begin my entire sub-undertaking of journeying through prose fiction based on superhero comics. Well, I'm happy to report that it's as every bit as good as everyone says, and definitely up there with the best Superman stories in any medium. Elliot Maggin just gets Superman and everything about him.

I was a bit skeptical about the book's opening, which begins with the destruction of Krypton and prophecies of doom from Jor-El-- we've seen all that a million times by now, not the least in the only previous Superman novel. Thankfully, this is only a small part of the novel, and it turns out to be necessary, because then we get three chapters of Clark's life in Smallville being set up by a very unlikely person. I thought it was goofy when I first figured it out, but I soon came to love the idea. And that person's influence turns out to be key to the plot of the second half of the novel.

The plot actually takes its time showing up, but that's okay, because I was having such a good time in the interim. Superman is portrayed how I love him best: a really good guy trying to do his best because he believe the best of everyone, bothered but not overly so by his inability to do everything for everybody. Clark is a bit of a wimp, but not overly so, and the interactions with Steve Lombard show how to carry that kind of thing out perfectly: you'd like Clark even if you didn't sympathize with him because Steve Lombard is such a jock.

Though everyone, down to Jimmy Olsen (as goofy as ever) and Lois Lane, gets their moment, Lex Luthor is the other standout character here. There is a lot of interspersed backstory here about Clark and Lex growing up together in Smallville, which is something I normally dislike because it turns Superman into someone whose presence is harmful and Lex into someone too obsessed with a single vendetta to be interesting. But Maggin does a great job with here, all because his character-work is very fine: the presence of Superboy is just one of many incidents working on Lex's mind, and though Lex might not have become a supervillain without Superboy, he didn't become one only because of Superboy, either.

What really makes it work, though, is all the stuff Luthor gets up to in the present. He's still in his Silver Age "mad scientist" phase here, but he's verging into being the corporate mogul: he has quite the criminal empire here. Maggin's Luthor is usually the smartest man in the room, but he also always knows what to do when he's not. My favorite passage is definitely this one, about when Luthor is in prison, allowed only a ballpoint pen and pad of legal paper:
One night, in a loose moment, Luthor figured out how to melt the plastic cap of the pen, let a certain amount drip into the ink refill, extract a substance from the glue that bound the legal pad, wrap it all in half a sheet of yellow paper and make an explosive powerful enough to blast out a wall of his cell. Luthor would never do that, of course. If he did, the next time he was in jail the warden wouldn't give him his pen and pad. (138-39)
Hilarious and genius. Perfect Lex.

It's not all about Luthor, though, as Superman just manages to keep his counterpart from stealing the show. There are some fantastic depictions of Superman's powers in action; sometimes you might think he's got too many of them, but as in All-Star Superman, who cares? What keeps Superman grounded isn't his powers (or lack thereof), it's his ethos. (The epilogue is particularly good in this regard.) My favorite moment is a late one in the book, so I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that while Superman is trusting and always willing to give a second chance, he's nobody's chump... and he knows how to scheme with the best of them.

I can't wait to read Maggin's other Superman novel, Miracle Monday; this was a book of sheer joy.

11 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXX: The Sandman Companion

Trade paperback, 274 pages
Published 1999
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
The Sandman Companion
by Hy Bender

This is it: the last Sandman spin-off out there, until Sandman: Year Zero finally comes out. Hy Bender's book looks back at Neil Gaiman's series, breaking it down by story arc, and providing plot summaries and analysis, with box outs on art. I don't get the reason for the summaries: if you didn't read these stories already, you wouldn't care; if you have, you'd get bored. It was over two years ago that I read The Sandman, and I still remembered enough to find these boring. There are occasional nuggets of insight in them, but that makes it all the worse, because you know you're missing out!

Aside from that, this was a pretty good book. The analysis is definitely driven by Bender's extensive interviews of Gaiman himself, and Gaiman remembers a surprising number of small details. Lots of great bits about what Gaiman was thinking, and Bender asks some good questions. (Though a couple of them feel like obvious setups.) If you're that into The Sandman, or you're just a completist like I am, it's worth picking up.

It did make me think that there's not really a lot of comics guidebooks out there, like there are for TV shows. (I have ones about Blake's 7, The Prisoner, Sapphire & Steel, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Torchwood, not to mention tons and tons of Doctor Who ones.) I wonder why that is? Would no one buy a guide to all (for example) Green Arrow comics?

09 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXIX: Delirium's Party: A Little Endless Storybook

Hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2011
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2012
Delirium's Party: A Little Endless Storybook
by Jill Thompson

I liked this than I liked the original The Little Endless Storybook, I think because it had more interactions between all the different Endless. Or maybe it's because Barnabas is the greatest, and the last book was about him being lost, while in this one he's here all the time. Or maybe it's because I read this one like I should have done the first one: aloud, to someone else. In this case my wife, who enjoyed it, despite being largely sans any knowledge of Sandman. It would be hard to be not charmed by Delirium, I think.

07 January 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXVIII: Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?: The Deluxe Edition, With other tales of the Dark Knight

Comic hardcover, n.pag
Published 2009 (contents: 1989-2009)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2012
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?: The Deluxe Edition, With other tales of the Dark Knight

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Andy Kubert, Scott Williams, Simon Bisley, Mark Buckingham, Mike Hoffman, Kevin Nowlan, Bernie Mireault, Matt Wagner
Colors: Alex Sinclair, Nansi Hoolahan, Tom McCraw, Joe Matt
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher, John Costanza, Agustin Mas, Todd Klein

This is close to the end of my Sandman spin-off runthrough. It's also stretching the definition of "Sandman spin-off," though no moreso than when I included Gaiman's early DC work like Black Orchid and Legend of the Green Flame. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? actually teases you with an appearance of someone who might be Death... but turns out not to be. (Or so I think, anyway. Some evidently disagree!) The story takes place after Batman's death in Grant Morrison's Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, with all of his old allies and enemies gathering in Gotham to pay homage to him. Only... everyone thinks they did it. So we get a succession of stories told, by Catwoman, Alfred, the Mad Hatter, Joker, Robin, Clayface, Superman, each telling completely contradictory stories about something they did (or did not do) that lead to the death of Batman.

The stories range from a few pages to a panel or two to just dialogue, but each of them manages to be completely and utterly Batman. It's the greatest hits of Batman deaths, if he was allowed to have more than one. There are a lot of nice details-- my favorite part is the guy outside the club where the funeral is being held who watched the villains' cars-- in both the (beautiful) art (by Andy Kubert) and the writing. It's the perfect tribute to the Batman, the man who never gave up, no matter how crazy he seemed.

The whole funeral is overlaid by two people talking in caption boxes, who turn out to be Batman and not Death ("I don't think death is a person, Bruce."), and Batman passes from the funeral, from life, into something greater and beyond reality. Here, Bruce gets a chance to reflect on who he was and why he did everything he did. There are a lot of great lines, my favorite being, "Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman." And then he's done... or as done as Batman can ever be, because he's apparently got to pass on somewhere else. I know that when Darkseid kills Batman in Final Crisis, Batman actually goes tumbling into the past, so I assume this is all tied into that, but it works on its own as a story about the endurance and struggle of Batman, too.

The still-thin book is padded out by everything else Gaiman wrote related to Batman, which amounts to a weird set of stories. "A Black and White World" is about what Batman and the Joker do "off-panel" in their comics, but Simon Bisley's art is just a little too "gritty 1990s" to work for me. Check out those ears on the Batman! And those R. Crumb-style women. "Pavane" is about a Suicide Squad agent trying to recruit Poison Ivy, giving her origin story-- pretty good stuff. "Original Sins" and "When is a Door" are two linked stories about a news team visiting Gotham to do a feature on supervillains.

I like the frame a lot, being filled with big and small character moments, and jokes at the Penguin's expense, but "When is a Door," the teams encounter with the Riddler, ended up being a long metafictional rant about the death of fun in superhero comics. Well, Neil Gaiman, go write some fun superhero comics then. This is your world; as I was just reminded, Batman and the Riddler just live in it.

01 January 2013

Reading Roundup Wrapup: December 2012

Pick of the month: Middlemarch by George Eliot. It couldn't have been anything else, obviously, which was quite unfair to everything else.

As far as I know, I've never read this many books in one month in my life! Exam reading will do that to you, I suppose. It will also make sure that you do not have the time to write any of them up, however. (My previous record was 24 in March, but I read considerably fewer comics this time around.)

All books read:
1. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction by George Levine
2. Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest by Adrian Desmond
3. Under the Management of Mr. Charles Dickens: his production of “The Frozen Deep” by Wilkie Collins, edited by Robert Louis Brannan
4. The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender
5. Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science by Srdjan Smajić
6. The New Adventures: Walking to Babylon by Kate Orman
7. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction by Gillian Beer
8. Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Jonathan Smith
9. Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S. Maggin
10. The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics by Thomas Albrecht
11. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre by Darko Suvin
12. Doctor Who: Short Trips #27: Christmas Around the World edited by Xanna Eve Chown
13. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
14. ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science by Barri J. Gold
15. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture by Susan Bordo
16. Caustic Comedies: Plays For The Stage by Robert Shearman
17. Middlemarch by George Eliot
18. Scientific London by Bernard H. Becker
19. Deucalion: Collected Studies of the Lapse of Waves, and Life of Stones by John Ruskin
20. The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel
21. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (Revised Edition) by J. R. R. Tolkien
22. The New Republic, or Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in an English Country House by W. H. Mallock
23. Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative by Lisa Zunshine
24. Science and Culture and Other Essays by Thomas Henry Huxley
25. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
26. Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Laura Otis
27. The Creed of Science: Religious, Moral, and Social by William Graham
28. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine by Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez

All books acquired:
1. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction by Gillian Beer
2. 52 Omnibus by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen
3. Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Laura Otis
4. The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope
5. Young Avengers Presents by Ed Brubaker, Brian Reed, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Paul Cornell, Kevin Grevioux, and Matt Fraction
6. 52 Aftermath: The Four Horsemen by Keith Giffen
7. Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future edited by Anton Kawasaki
8. Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes by Geoff Johns
9. Captain Britain Omnibus by Alan Moore and Jamie Delano with Dave Thorpe, Paul Neary, Steve Craddock, Mike Collins, Alan Davis, Chris Claremont, and Mike Carlin
10. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
11. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold
12. BBC VFX: The Story of the BBC Visual Effects Department, 1954-2003 by Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker
13. William Wells and Maconaquah, White Rose of the Miamis by Julia Gilman

A seemingly small yield, perhaps, but I have a number of books on order that have probably reached my house by now... only I'm not there. We'll see soon enough.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 476