30 September 2013

Reading Roundup Wrapup: September 2013

Pick of the month: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Ever the best of friends.

All books read:
1. Star Wars Omnibus: Tales of the Jedi, Volume 2 by Tom Veitch and Kevin J. Anderson
2. The Begum’s Millions by Jules Verne
3. The Walking Dead: Compendium Two by Robert Kirkman
4. New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox
5. This Body of Death by Elizabeth George
6. The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E. B. Hudspeth
7. Utopia Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England, 1870-1900 by Matthew Beaumont
8. In Darkest England, and The Way Out by General Booth
9. East Lynne by Ellen Wood
10. Showcase Presents The Witching Hour!, Volume One edited by Scott Nybakken
11. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West by Susan Buck-Morss
12. Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2012 edited by Clayton Hickman
13. James Ingleton: The History of a Social State, A.D. 2,000 by “Mr. Dick”
14. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
15. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions by Fredric Jameson
16. The Great War of 189—: A Forecast by Rear-Admiral P. Colomb, Colonel J. F. Maurice, Captain F. N. Maude, Archibald Forbes, Charles Lowe, D. Christie Murray and F. Scudamore
17. Showcase Presents The House of Mystery, Volume Two edited by Scott Nybakken

All books acquired:
1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood
2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
3. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
4. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
5. The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers
6. The Dark Clue by James Wilson
7. The Obverse Quarterly: Year Two, Book Three: The Casebook of the Manleigh Halt Irregulars edited by Philip Craggs
8. Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems edited by James Gibson
9. The Lights o' London and Other Victorian Plays edited by Michael R. Booth

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 507

Review: Star Wars Omnibus: Tales of the Jedi, Volume 1

Comic trade paperback, 395 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1993-2000)
Acquired November 2007
Read August 2013
Star Wars Omnibus: Tales of the Jedi, Volume 1

Scripts: Kevin J. Anderson and Tom Veitch
Art: Chris Gossett, Stan Woch, Mark G. Heike, Bill Black, David Jacob Beckett, Perry McNamee, Dario Carrasco Jr., Mike Barreiro, Janine Johnston, and David Roach
Colors: Pamela Rambo, Dave Nestelle, Perry McNamee, and Ray Murtaugh
Letters: Sean Konot and Willie Schubert

Tales of the Jedi is a series I've known and wondered about ever since I became a serious Star Wars fan, a mysterious and unknowable marker early on chronologies. Now, thanks to Dark Horse's exhaustive Omnibus program, I've gotten a chance to read it. This book collects four stories.

The first two, "The Golden Age of the Sith" and "The Fall of the Sith Empire," take place 5,000 years before the films. They're not great-- thin characters with flimsy motivations act out enormous events. Okay, so that's Star Wars in a nutshell, but these stories lack style and fun. I did like the Hutt with a hat (anyone who knows me could have seen this coming), and I'll admit the final battle was suitably epic. But the protagonists, who seem to be aiming at Luke Skywalker redux, are far more whiny and far less interesting than he ever was. I really liked the visual aesthetic of the stories, though; making the Old Republic look cod-Egyptian during this time might be a cheap trick, but it works.

Then we jump a thousand years with "Ulic Qel-Droma and the Beast Wars of Onderon," which is okay. I feel like I'm supposed to like Ulic more than I do. He's kind of a jerk. And so is his master, Arca Jeth, for sending him off on his own, untested. Seeing how he'll fare is a flimsy motivation when lives are at stake!

Finally, though, is "The Saga of Nomi Sunrider." Now this is more like it! It feels like an ancient legend come to life, something out of the Grail mythos. Nomi is the wife of a Jedi who sees her husband gunned down in front of her and must learn  to become a Jedi herself... except she doesn't want to ever pick up a lightsaber. It's an atmospheric tale by Tom Veitch, Janine Johnston, and David Roach, about grief, regret, and violence, with well-used bits of weirdness. Just a perfect little slice of storytelling.

One thing I do really like about both of the last two tales: that they're not about Jedi caught up in big, galactic events, but Jedi who serve as peacekeepers, reclusive mystics, and what have you. These are stories on a local scale, but no less important for it. When I imagine the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, this is what I like to imagine-- a more civilized age.

27 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #6: Project Crisis!, Part XV: Crisis on Infinite Earths [novelization]

Hardcover, 310 pages
Published 2005

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
Crisis on Infinite Earths
by Marv Wolfman

Thirty years after he wrote the original comic, Marv Wolfman revisits Crisis on Infinite Earths by retelling the story in prose. It's less a retelling, though, and more an alternate perspective or side story. The book is narrated in the first person by the Flash, Barry Allen (with the occasional third-person limited interlude from other characters, mostly to give a sense of scale), after his death. When the Flash runs so fast he freakin' disintegrates, he essentially becomes unstuck in time, bouncing back and forth through the events of the Crisis, mostly unseen but always seeing. The novel is his attempt to put together the big events that lead up to his death, at the same time trying to make contact with his wife, Iris.

The novel gives a lot of glimpses into parts of the Crisis we didn't see in the comics-- there's a lot more material on Lyla/Harbingers (one of my favorite characters!), for one-- while glossing over much of the other action. I don't know how well it would stand alone, but as a companion piece that doesn't retread the original, it actually works very well. Barry is a great viewpoint character, a reasonably ordinary fellow, just a police investigator doing the best he can in progressively more impossible circumstances. I found myself getting a little misty-eyed at the novel's conclusion. What an ending! I know Barry comes back to life during the Final Crisis; I find it hard to believe that it'll be worth undoing what a great death he received.

It's interesting to note that Wolfman has revisited the events of the Crisis three times-- in Legends of the DC Universe: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (1999), in this novel (2005), and in "New Day, Final Destiny," his tale for the 1980s DC Retroactive: Superman issue (2011). In all three cases there's an association between the Crisis and the increased grimness of comics after 1985. In the Legends of the DCU issue, Earth-D, already a more joyous and optimistic world than Earth-One, is destroyed,* and in DC Retroactive, the pre-Crisis Superman receives a vision from Destiny of the Endless (actually Harbinger in disguise) of all the terrible things to come after the Crisis, like The Death of Superman, Knightfall, Identity Crisis, and Blackest Night.

In this novel, Superman at one point realizes that in order to combat the threat to the multiverse, the heroes are going to have to become more like the villains, and learn how to kill. The implication being, to me at least, that this determination became a defining aspect of the post-Crisis single universe. One wonders if Wolfman blames the grimness of superhero comic books-- which began around the time of the Crisis with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Longbow Hunters, et al.-- on himself in some way. One can kinda see it: a lot of that unnecessary grimness is born out of the requirements of "event"-based storytelling, and that model of storytelling was ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and hasn't really gone away since. I guess what I'm asking is, does Marv Wolfman blame himself for Trinity War?

That's it for Crises for now-- before I tackle the onslaught that is Infinite Crisis, I'll be taking a break from superheroes by journeying into... the Houses of Mystery and Secrets!

* The events of which are kinda alluded to in this novel-- the Flash mentions seeing Earth-D destroyed and describes its superheroes. He doesn't mention helping save its civilians, but the recounting is vague and brief enough that the stories could fit together.

25 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XIV: Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 1994
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Writer: Dan Jurgens
Artists: Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Frank Fosco, Ken Branch
Letterers: Gaspar Saladino, Richard Starkings 
Colorists: Gregory Wright, Stuart Chaifetz

This comic is a blatant attempt to replicate the winning formula of Crisis on Infinite Earths, without any understanding of what made that work. I mean, really: the last Crisis gave us a wall of white light destroying alternative dimension after alternative dimensions, slowly approaching our heroes' dimensions. This Crisis gives us a wall of white light destroying future time after future time, slowly approaching our heroes' time. Dan Jurgens isn't even trying here.

But it's a rip-off to no effect, which is the worst kind of rip-off.  CoIE worked because these were places with real history, real meaning being wiped out. Even if you'd never read a story of the multiverse before (as was true for me when I first read CoIE) you can tell that Earth-Two, Earth-Three, Earth-Prime, and all the rest have deep backgrounds-- which is what makes their destructions effective. Heck, CoIE even tricks you into thinking that places like Earth-Four and Earth-Six have been around for a while. In Zero Hour, though, the times are just numbers. It's utterly meaningless-- what's the 64th century to me, or me to the 64th century? Why should I care? I don't.

Which is more the shame because there's a built-in hook here. This story, famously, sees Hal Jordan embrace the role of Parallax and attempt to remake the universe into a better place. He'd had a bum deal in comics over the past several years, including the destruction of his home, Coast City, and Kyle Rayner had already replaced him as the Green Lantern of Earth. Unfortunately, the story isn't actually about this potentially interesting idea, as not just the identity, but even the existence of Parallax, is kept a secret for most of the book. Instead we have to watch Monarch a lot, Monarch being the ill-conceived villain behind the ill-conceived Armageddon 2001 crossover. Seriously, couldn't we just forget that ever happened? Waverider's here too, which isn't helping on that score.

The time mechanics of the story don't make any sense, either. At one point, Monarch-- now "Extant" for some reason-- tells Waverider he's stolen the other's power. "But that's impossible!" he gasps, since he still has his power. But then a past version of Extant shows up and steals Waverider's power. Oh, that's kinda clever if not terribly so. But then the past-Extant merges with present-Extant. So where did present-Extant come from? Argh.

Also: at the end of the prologue, Waverider intones to Rip Hunter (the most '90s "Time Master" of them all, presumably), "we stand on the verge-- of a true crisis!" Oh, the melodrama! But then later Rip Hunter tells Waverider, "A crisis! Check the chronoscopes-- a crisis-- aieee!" Now Waverider has to go look up what a "crisis" is!  Geeze!

So, a lot of people run back and forth, there's some shouting, and like CoIE, Zero Hour struggles to give its heroes something plot-relevant to do, though it's even less successful on that score than CoIE. Why what Hal Jordan is doing is evil is never really clear, either, as it seems like mostly he wants to make our universe the same, but without Barbara Gordon getting shot and Coast City being nuked. Which sounds okay to me. I do like the role of Green Arrow in the climax... but then I would.

Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway do a good job on art, at least. I especially liked how they drew the pre-injury Barbara Gordon Batgirl. It's a shame Jurgens also feels the need to overstuff the book with word balloons and captions; everything is told to the reader at least twice, if not three times. Maybe Jurgens was just on autopilot after the prologue, though, where the captions are always telling you things you can't see, things as basic as that the characters are jumping between time periods. One wonders if Frank Fosco and Ken Branch weren't drawing what they were supposed to, or what.

K. C. Carlson's afterword celebrates that now, anything can happen. "This is just the beginning!" Wasn't that true just nine years ago? Do we really need to do this over again, not as good?

23 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XIII: Millennium

Comic trade paperback, 191 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 1988)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013

Writer: Steve Englehart
Layouts: Joe Staton
Finishes: Ian Gibson
Letterer: Bob Lappan
Colorist: Carl Gafford

Millennium is the last DC crossover I'll read prior to Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!-- like Legends, it has some light connections to Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this case, that's the presence of Harbinger, having finished writing History of the DC Universe, and that the plot spins out of when the Guardians of the Universe departed the universe, which happened in the Crisis.

The plot of Millennium is that a Guardian and a Zamaron have decided to jump-start evolution on Earth so that humans can take the place of the Guardians, which they will do by picking ten (or eight, or seven, or some other number) of special humans. But the robotic Manhunter cult is opposed to this, and so they activate their hidden agents to destroy the special humans as well as superheroes in general. This means that anyone could be a Manhunter-- only in practice, the only significant Manhunter is Lana Lang (I don't know how this was resolved, because she's still around in later comics, and I assume not an evil android by that point). Most of the Manhunters are "revealed" as characters I've never heard of, and whose significance to the superheroes isn't really explained. There's also a hilarious scene where Booster Gold discovers a Manhunter by overhearing telling another Manhunter that he hopes he isn't discovered-- with security like that, no wonder they end up soundly whomped on.

The frustrating part of Millennium is that though it has a much more complicated plot than, say, Legends, we never get to see many of the important moments of this plot. One issue ends with heroes going off to attack the Manhunter home planet; the next begins with the planet having been destroyed, in an issue of some other comic book from 1988 that I'll never read. This means mostly you read about the heroes talking about what they have just done, or what they are going to be doing... but you never get to see them do it.

Meanwhile, the Guardian and the Zamaron tutor the chosen "New Guardians" in a lot of cod-mysticism that makes The Empire Strikes Back and Death Comes to Time look deep and complex. Then they "evolve"; as you might have guessed, "evolution" in this context means "assume the identity of a superhero that could have only been thought of in 1988." One of them becomes the superhero RAM-- Random Access Memory. His power is, of course, "computers".

Poor Harbinger doesn't fare well here-- her history is used by the Manhunters to discover the secret identities of the superheroes, and she gets tortured by the Manhunters. She's not quite the powerful, mystical being she was during the Crisis; she comes across as a pretty "ordinary" superhero, alas.

Famously, this is the book where it was established that in the DC universe, Britain is a fog-shrouded fascist dictatorship, which I find hilarious. I wonder if Paul Cornell dealt with this in Knight and Squire? Also Ronald Reagan makes a return appearance after Legends. Is it noteworthy that this is the third big DC story in a row (after Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends) where Firestorm gets a decent amount of focus? Were they trying to push his solo book or what?

The art of Joe Staton and Ian Gibson is more stylized than is normal for a mainstream DC book, but I really liked it for that reason-- it gave this book a little more oomph than it might otherwise have had. But overall, Millennium is an exercise in eight issues of frustration.

20 September 2013

Review: Christmas Around the World edited by Xanna Eve Chown

Hardcover, 293 pages
Published 2008

Acquired May 2009
Read  December 2012
Doctor Who: Short Trips #27: Christmas Around the World
edited by Xanna Eve Chown

My memories of this one are vague, now-- but that speaks to something in and of itself; I still remember bits and bobs from Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury and The Ghosts of Christmas. The linking theme here is too specific but too thin, i.e., it locks the stories into a range too limited to consistently yield something interesting. I don't really recall any duffers, but many of them just aren't long enough to even be bad. The memorable strong stories were Gareth Wigmore's "Mirth, and Walking Spirits" (a lost Antarctic expedition celebrates Christmas), Eddie Robson's "Interesting Times" (the third Doctor and Sarah Jane in the Vietnam War), and Andrew Cartmel's "Christmas in Toronto" (surely the only worthwhile thing Cartmel has ever written for Big Finish).

19 September 2013

Review: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware

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

Acquired January 2012
Previously read February 2012
Reread August 2013
The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured by Chris Ware

What struck me about Jimmy Corrigan on this reread (I am teaching the book to freshmen) was how difficult the beginning of it is, which quickly becomes smoothed out as the novel progresses. The early sections are replete with strange fantasies (Jimmy is a robot, Jimmy must kill a horse, Jimmy is an English gentlemen who drinks G&Ts on yachts), but these trickle away until we're left with just the parallel tracks of Jimmy and his Victorian ancestor. Part of the way through, though, Ware actually stops the story to spell out which bits are real; prior to that, I don't think there's any clue that Victorian Jimmy is actually real. By the end, though, the book is positively easy to comprehend. Is this just because Ware was making it up as he went along (it is "an improvisatory romance," after all), or is some other reason at work?

18 September 2013

Review: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Trade paperback, 496 pages
Published 1994 (originally 1858) 

Acquired April 2010
Read November 2012
Dr Thorne
by Anthony Trollope

This was my first Trollope, and perhaps not a very good one to start with, because I did not think it a very good book. It is about dull people doing dull things in very long-winded fashion-- all the worst attributes of Victorian fiction distilled and then diluted, like reading Dickens but without any good jokes, or Eliot without the psychological insight, or Gaskell without the class awareness. I did like some of the stuff about local politics, and the young protagonist's attempt to marry a notorious seductress.

17 September 2013

Review: England in the Twentieth Century by David Thomson

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published 1976 (originally 1965)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
The Pelican History of England: 9. England in the Twentieth Century (1914-63)
by David Thomson

This is a nice little history of fifty years in the early twentieth century. I was previously familiar with the broad strokes of this, especially the two World Wars, of course, but much of England's domestic affairs in the period between the wars was largely unknown to me. Thomson supposes some more familiarity with the covered politicians than I had, but I suppose that wasn't unreasonable in 1965. The big strikes and the formation of the Commonwealth of Nations were probably the part most interesting to me, as well as the details on the handling of the buildup to the Second World War, especially the the pacifistic sentiments of many in the 1920s and '30s. Not as essential as Thomson's nineteenth-century history, but he writes engagingly and informatively.

16 September 2013

Review: Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord

Hardcover, 624 pages
Published 2000
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
by James A. Secord

This monograph is an exhaustively thorough example of "book history": as its subtitle indicates, it charts not just the content, but the circumstances of publication and especially the reading of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), arguably the most significant pre-Darwin evolutionary publication. Secord adeptly uses the Vestiges as a way of looking at the state of science in Victorian Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of the Vestiges is-- and arguably was even at the time-- bad science, a muddle of popular ideas. I enjoyed the contemporary comment that the book was "peeping at nature through a skewer-hole that fills your honest heads with such monstrous one-sided ideas, and leads to speculations without end" (qtd. on 215). Partially the book was picked up and used because of its implications for political ideas, as it had a lot to say about "progress". Its (anonymous) author, Robert Chambers, had hoped that men of science would embrace it, but when it became clear that they would not, he argued that they were too into dull particulars to embrace a grand sweeping vision such as his-- though the public wanted such sweeping visions (384). With 532 pages of content, including illustrations (and another 92 of backmatter), there's a lot more to dig into here, more than I'll ever be able to I'm sure, but these were some of the particulars that stuck out at me.

13 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XII: History of the DC Universe

Trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 1986)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2013
History of the DC Universe

Writer: Marv Wolfman
Penciller: George Pérez
Inker: Karl Kesel
Colorist: Tom Ziuko

History of the DC Universe spins out of Crisis on Infinite Earths; the book here is meant to be written by Harbinger following the death of the Monitor. Even though it was published before Legends concluded, it clearly takes place between Legends and Millennium; indeed, in an early part of Millennium we see Harbinger load this history into a pod to launch it into space, her work complete. It's not exactly a comic book, more a picture book.

A lot of this history was superseded by changes DC made after Crisis on Infinite Earths, in Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, and the like, and obviously after Flashpoint it's all completely "wrong". Still, it holds up for the same reason it's not very interesting: there are so few pages that everything is covered in the most cursory detail. It was probably illuminating immediately after the Crisis, but there's not enough information to make it interesting now, or even in 2002 when this collected edition was published.

What does work-- and will always work-- is the glorious George Pérez artwork. You get to see the man draw every hero in the DC universe (again) here, unfettered by panels, and it is fantastic. There's barely a page in here I wouldn't want as a poster or print. The two-page spread representing the Crisis on Infinite Earths is in particular amazing. I wish it had actually happened in the Crisis!

11 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XI: Legends: The Collection

Comic trade paperback, 145 pages
Published 1993 (contents: 1986-87)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
Legends: The Collection

Plot: John Ostrander
Script: Len Wein
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Karl Kesel
Letters: Steve Haynie
Colors: Tom Ziuko, Carl Gafford

I don't intend to read every post-Crisis crossover DC Comics did-- that would keep me here all night-- but I thought I might dip into a few that had ties to the Crisis in some ways. Legends was the first crossover after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it did much to establish the new setup: among other things, Legends introduces the new Captain Marvel, disbands the Justice League Detroit, and sets the stage for the Justice League International.

The story was edited by Mike Gold-- who also edited the Mike Grell Green Arrow, Action Comics Weekly, and other great DC productions of the late 1980s-- and he provides a very thorough introduction about where he and the other creators were coming from with the story, which I wish collected editions did more of these days. (Legends seems to be a very early trade paperback-- you can tell because they feel compelled to give it a "The Collection" subtitle!) Gold opines that "Stories need to be about something... The issue of how superheroes would be treated in our society was one that intrigued both of us [Gold and Ostrander]--Paul Levitz handled it brilliantly in his 'Last Days of The Justice Society' story eight years earlier. How had our culture changed from the McCarthyesque setting of Paul's story? In the middle of the Reagan Administration, we felt not, and we wanted to experiment with this issue in Legends."

Hence, Legends sees Darkseid deciding that those pesky superheroes from Earth have stymied the goals of Apokolips too much, and that he will destroy them by destroying their place in human society. This is an interesting, even great idea, but its execution in Legends leaves much to be desired. Darkseid does a few things:
  1. sends his minion Glorious Godfrey to Earth as a pundit called G. Gordon Godfrey. Godfrey makes a number of public appearances on Earth, using his gold tongue to turn the American people against superheoes-- though it's not really clear what his argument is.
  2. sends a monster after Captain Marvel, and makes it look like Captain Marvel killed it. This makes Billy Batson quit being Captain Marvel, but no one else ever even mentions it, and I have a hard time imagining the American public being mad about it anyway.
  3. sends another monster which destroys the Justice League Detroit.
  4. sends another monster which kills a member of the Suicide Squad-- a bunch of villains!
  5. turns people into robotic hellhounds or something... I didn't really understand this part of the plan.
It's not quite clear how this is meant to work, but all of a sudden public sentiment has reached the point where President Reagan has ordered all superheroes to stand down. If Darkseid had actually tricked the heroes into doing something seemingly malevolent, I could get this, but he doesn't. In fact, he mostly attacks the Earth as the heroes come to the planet's defense. There's perhaps something to be said about how the superhero myth destroys the agency of individual human beings, or about how it's a short step from superheroism to tyranny (as we see in The Superman Chronicles, Volume One, Watchmen, Superman: Red Son, and many other stories), but those arguments aren't made here.

The problem is that that makes the resolution lackluster. If one of those arguments had been made more clearly, then the ending could have see the heroes stepping up and revealing them to be untrue-- with the superheroes' examples empowering ordinary humans, for example. Instead, it just becomes a superhuman blowout, with the heroes beating up Darkseid's forces, and Glorious Godfrey defeating himself when he foolishly attempts to wear the helmet of Doctor Fate. Oh, everyone likes heroes after all suddenly! The end.

The place this does work is with a little girl that Billy befriends, who never stops believing in Captain Marvel, and shows up to confront Godfrey at the climax. That was nice, but I think it could've been exploited to show the themes of the story a bit more strongly. As it is, most of Legends is a bunch of fight scenes that don't really matter to the story, intercut with an interminable conversation between Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger, where Darkseid says, "Heroes suck" and the Phantom Stranger says, "No they don't" ad nauseam, like a poorly-done latter-day God and Satan in the Book of Job.

Thumbs up, though, to John Byrne and Karl Kesel on art. Byrne's bright, bold linework is really suited to a story about unabashed heroism-- lots of square jaws and grim determination. He obviously draws a good Superman, but I particularly loved his Captain Marvel. On the other hand, his Darkseid always seems to be squeezed into the corners of panels-- he should be dominating them!

09 September 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part X: Crisis on Multiple Earths, Volume 6

Comic trade paperback, 207 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1981-82)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
Crisis on Multiple Earths, Volume 6

Writers: Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas
Artists: George Pérez, Romeo Tanghal, John Beatty, Keith Pollard, Don Heck, Sal Trapani, Adrian Gonzales, Jerry Ordway
Letterers: Ben Oda, Phil Felix, John Costanza
Colorists: Carl Gafford, Gene D'Angelo

By rights, I should have read this between Crisis on Multiple Earths, Volume 5 and Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Absolute Edition, but the Interlibrary Loan Office had some trouble in sourcing it, and rather than delay reading what came after, I plowed on ahead. But I'm glad I was able to come back to this: Gerry Conway turns out to probably be my favorite writer of these volumes, able to mix solid character work with great plots that actually have time and space to unfold.

The first story here isn't the greatest, but it's not the worst either: "Targets of Two Worlds"/"Countdown to Crisis!"/"Crisis in Limbo!" features the Ultra-Humanite (now in a gorilla body, apparently long after I last saw him in The Superman Chronicles, Volume One) putting together a new Secret Society of Super-Villains in order to take on ten superheros on Earths-One and -Two, the removal of which will apparently set off an historical chain reaction that will remove all superheroes from one of the two Earths. Why? Science, apparently. This results in one of those formulaic stories where (like in some of the Gardner Fox ones) we see villains take on heroes in turn. It's okay, but where it gets kinda fun is when the Ultra-Humanite cheats half of the villains out on their due and they turn on each other. I don't know why he does it-- it seems like a whole planet ought to be enough to split between ten villains-- but I liked the change of perspective, and the final throwdown in a delight. There's some George Pérez art here, but he's not well-served by John Beatty on inks, who obscures Pérez's trademark detail work.

The real fun of this volume is the five-part "Crisis on Earth-Prime!", which weaves between Justice League of America (set on 1980s Earth-One) and All-Star Squadron (set on 1940s Earth-Two), and also manages to work in Earth-Prime in the 1960s and 1980s and the villains of Earth-Three! It's a blast, and I read the whole thing nearly straight through because I was enjoying it so much. Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas give us a twisting, turning time travel tale, with three different groups of heroes bouncing backwards and forwards through time and dimensions to stop Per Degaton from destroying one Earth (our Earth, actually, the one of the readers!) and conquering another. For once, the time travel logic actually holds up for the most part, and with five issues, the story has time to breathe and not feel like a blob of incident.

There are five heroes apiece from the Justice League, Justice Society, and All-Star Squadron present, and Conway and Thomas prevent them from becoming indistinct; each gets character-appropriate dialogue and actions. (This seems like faint praise, but in the Gardner Fox era, you could have often switched the heroes' word balloon tails around, and I doubt anyone would have noticed.) The Crime Syndicate of Earth-Three even felt more like actual characters than they have in the past. Firestorm's attempts to make it with Power Girl were amusing, and I even felt sorry for Per Degaton at the story's end.

There's even some brief philosophizing here-- Per Degaton (seriously, he's supposed to be an ordinary guy from 1947, how did he get such a weird name?) uses nuclear warheads from the Cuban Missile Crisis in his plan, and the characters of both the 1980s and the 1940s comment on the amazing destructive power this presents-- including President Roosevelt himself. Small moments, perhaps, but nice ones that stop the story from being just another slugfest. This is the last Crisis on Multiple Earths volume (for now, hopefully; one more will collect all the existent Earth-One and -Two crossover stories), and it's nice to see the series end on a high note.

05 September 2013

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Book 15

Mass market paperback, 725 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2008)
Acquired March 2013
Read April 2013
Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

I was initially excited by this Lynley novel, because the dead body is actually discovered in the prologue-- and even discovered by our detective, so unlike many of the latter novels, we don't have to wait hundreds of pages for the detective to get to the detecting. George, however, proves she can slow down a plot regardless of how quickly it starts; a couple hundred pages later, and it just feels like we're watching unpleasant people talk to other unpleasant people, and not unraveling a mystery. Eventually someone solves the crime, I guess. Havers is in this one a little, which is always nice.

04 September 2013

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Book 14

Mass market paperback, 722 pages
Published 2007 (originally 2006)
Acquired September 2012
Read November 2012
What Came Before He Shot Her
by Elizabeth George

Like many of the latter "Inspector Lynley Mysteries," What Came Before He Shot Her demonstrates George's desire to expand the series beyond being a series of mysteries solved by an English peer and his lower-class sidekick. In this case, the novel fills in the life of the young kid who killed Lynley's wife at the climax of With No One As Witness. It's okay. Like a lot of the latter Lynley novels, it's about 200 pages too long; I get that you're supposed to think this kid has no options in life, but there comes a point where the repeated horribleness of his life becomes monotonous to the reader. It also seems a bit contrived; one would hope that the world isn't as horrible as George paints it here, and the ways in which people fail to help our protagonist go a little too far at some points.

Also of note: there's lot of characters in this book who have failed to reach their potential and become criminals or dropouts... and they're all men. We're told all these seemingly thuggish men read philosophy or are great poets or whatever. They have potential they've failed to realize, and we're meant to feel sorry as a result. The criminal/thuggish women, though... they're just that way, sexual creatures apparently without even unrealized intellectual potential. It's very weird.

02 September 2013

Review: Tancred; or, The New Crusade by the Earl of Beaconsfield

Hardcover, 487 pages
Published unknown (originally 1847)
Acquired May 2012
Read October 2012
Tancred; or, The New Crusade
by the Earl of Beaconsfield

Sybil; or, The Two Nations isn't the greatest work of nineteenth-century literature, or even a middling one, but it has its moments. Benjamin Disraeli's Tancred; or, The New Crusade has a moment. Exactly one: when there's a two-page joke at the expense of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. What does it say about me that I actually laughed at a joke about pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory? Unfortunately, literally nothing else interesting happens in this novel. I skimmed hundreds of pages looking for something good, but it never came. I was interested to note that some characters from Sybil reappear in this book: I had known that Coningsby; or, The New GenerationSybil, and Tancred constituted the "Young England" trilogy, but until I read Tancred I'd thought the links were just thematic. (That Tancred is the only "Young England" novel to lack a contemporary reprint should have been a clue. Whatever source led me to think that science actually had something to do with this book beyond the two-page Vestiges joke I need to hunt down and get my revenge on.)

01 September 2013

Reading Roundup Year in Review, 2012/13

The reading year is over! It runs September - August for historical reasons, but that also nicely corresponds to the school year, which is one of the things that has a big influence on my reading habits... especially this year. How did I do this year?

Year Books Read
2003/04  151
2004/05  129
2005/06  141
2006/07  129
2007/08  152
2008/09  161
2009/10  157
2010/11  139
2011/12  184
2012/13 195
SUM 1538

This is the second year in a row where I've set a new record for how many books I've read in the year-- quite obviously, this can and will be blamed on all the books I had to read for my exams.

Here's what I've been reading this year: (I broke out series/authors only if I read more than one book of that series/author)

Doctor Who 12 1.0 6.2%
Star Wars 2 0.2 1.0%
Star Trek 1.51 0.1 0.8%
Other Tie-Ins 2 0.2 1.0%
Media Tie-In Subtotal 17.5 1.5 9.0%

J. R. R. Tolkien2 10 0.8 5.1%
Ursula K. Le Guin 7 0.6 3.6%
H. G. Wells3 3 0.3 1.5%
M. T. Anderson 2 0.2 1.0%
Robert Shearman 2 0.2 1.0%
Other SF&F 18 1.5 9.2%
General SF&F Subtotal 42 3.5 21.5%

Crisis Crossovers4 12 1.0 6.2%
The Sandman4 6 0.5 3.1%
Legion of Super-Heroes 1.51 0.1 0.8%
Other DC Comics4 30 2.5 15.4%
Other Comics5 8 0.7 4.1%
Comics Subtotal 57.5 4.8 29.5%

George Eliot 2 0.2 1.0%
Thomas Hardy 2 0.2 1.0%
Wilkie Collins 1.51 0.1 0.8%
Charles Dickens 1.51 0.1 0.8%
Other Victorian Literature6 22 1.8 11.3%
Inspector Lynley Mysteries 2 0.2 1.0%
Other Literature 4 0.3 2.1%
General Literature Subtotal 35 2.9 17.9%

Other Nonfiction7 43 3.6 22.1%

1. Books that cross over two series (i.e., Star Trek / Legion of Super-Heroes) or were written by two authors in collaboration (i.e., Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep) are counted as half a book for each category.
2. This also includes books related to Tolkien (e.g., The Last Ringbearer).
3. This also includes Steven McLean's The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science, a book about Wells.
4. These also include novels and nonfiction about these comics-originated characters/premises.

5. Comics based on a particular series (e.g., Star Trek or Star Wars) are included with that series's count.
6. This also includes nonfiction written by Victorians (e.g., Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection), but not nonfiction about Victorians (e.g., James A. Secord's Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation).
7. Nonfiction connected to a particular series is included in that series's count.

Surprisingly, it wasn't in Victorian literature that I had a huge surge over last year (though there was one, from 19 to 29), but in "other nonfiction," where I went from 14 to 43. Tie-ins continue to no longer play a huge role in my reading (though I've got a heaping pile of unread ones).

As always, I selected a "Pick of the Month" each month; here are this year's in alphabetical order by author:
Ostensibly, I usually select a "Pick of the Year" between all of these, but I'm not even sure that's possible in this bunch. Probably Objectivity, Middlemarch, or Arrowsmith, but in the right mood Where on Earth or The Treason of Isengard or Superman. The full list of "Picks" going back four years is here.

The trends in my reading can be expressed in this handy chart:

2003/04  2004/05  2005/06  2006/07  2007/08  2008/09  2009/10  2010/11  2011/12  2012/13 ALL
Star Trek 41.1% 38.0% 25.5% 14.7% 21.1% 13.7% 8.9% 4.3% 0.5% 0.8% 15.8%
Doctor Who 16.6% 15.5% 18.4% 11.6% 13.2% 6.2% 10.2% 3.6% 14.7% 6.2% 11.4%
Star Wars 10.6% 11.6% 11.3% 15.5% 12.5% 11.2% 2.5% 6.5% 7.1% 1.0% 8.6%
Other Tie-In 0.7% 6.2% 3.5% 3.1% 1.3% -- 1.3% 0.7% 0.5% 1.0% 1.7%
SF&F 9.9% 6.2% 21.3% 15.5% 21.7% 22.4% 21.0% 25.9% 10.3% 21.5% 17.7%
DC Comics -- 4.7% 0.7% 2.3% 7.2% 9.3% 19.7% 25.9% 13.6% 25.4% 11.5%
Other Comics -- -- -- 3.1% 4.6% 2.5% 1.3% 7.9% 23.9% 4.1% 5.2%
Victorian Lit -- -- 1.4% 7.0% 0.7% 7.5% 7.6% 1.4% 10.9% 14.9% 5.7%
Other Literature 14.6% 10.9% 14.9% 24.0% 14.5% 21.1% 20.4% 14.4% 10.9% 3.1% 14.4%
Nonfiction 6.6% 7.0% 2.8% 3.1% 3.3% 6.2% 7.0% 9.4% 7.6% 22.1% 8.0%

Or graphically (click to enlarge):

Goodbye Star Trek, hello DC Comics! Some would say I've traded down.

You can compare this to previous years if you're interested: 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12. (I didn't do one for 2010/11.)

Reading Roundup Wrapup: August 2013

Pick of the month: Not gonna lie, M. T. Anderson's kid adventurers taking on the undead is better than China Miéville or Chris Ware, anyday. The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who really was brilliant, though.

All books read:
1. Appendices: Being the Final Book of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
2. Legends: The Collection by John Ostrander and Len Wein
3. Millennium by Steve Englehart
4. Zombie Mommy: A Pals in Peril Tale by M. T. Anderson
5. The Pelican History of England: 9. England in the Twentieth Century (1914-63) by David Thomson
6. Crisis on Multiple Earths, Volume 6 by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas
7. The Twentieth Century by Albert Robida
8. The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured by Chris Ware
9. Kraken: An Anatomy by China Miéville
10. Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2011 edited by Clayton Hickman
11. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time by Dan Jurgens
12. Star Wars Omnibus: Tales of the Jedi, Volume 1 by Kevin J. Anderson and Tom Veitch
13. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 11 by Cary Bates and Jim Shooter with Mike Grell and E. Nelson Bridwell
14. The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin de Siècle by Matthew Beaumont
15. Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman

All books acquired:
1.  The Walking Dead: Compendium Two by Robert Kirkman
2. To Be or Not To Be: a chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeate, and YOU
3. Zombie Mommy: A Pals in Peril Tale by M. T. Anderson
4. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
5. This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 508