30 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part IX: Batman: Venom

Comic trade paperback, 140 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1991)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2014
Batman: Venom

Story: Dennis O'Neil
Layouts: Trevor Von Eeden
Pencils: Russell Braun
Inkers: José García-López
Letters: Willie Schubert
Colors: Steve Oliff

Year Two, February
My memory of this one is already pretty foggy. Batman decides that fighting crime is too hard, Batman decides to take Venom to make it easier (in the future, this will be more famous as the drug that fuels Bane), things sort of spiral out of control from there thanks to a somewhat weird plot by the bad guys. Like in a lot of Dennis O'Neil stories, Batman wears some weird disguises, and Alfred engages in some over-the-top physical action. The story covers an awful long period of time, too; a timeline pedant would probably discover that there's just not enough time in the early years of Batman for this to have "actually happened." Anyway, my overall impression was of something decent but not great, and not terribly Batmanish.

Next Week: Batman meets Lex Luthor for the first time in Rules of Engagement!

29 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who: Dead Man's Hand by Tony Lee and Mike Collins with Mitch Gerads

Fans of devastating apocalypses should read my review of Series Two of Big Finish's audio series of Survivors over at Unreality SF. I've near seen the original show and never will (Blake's 7 is penance enough for all my sins), but the audios are great.

Comic PDF eBook, 98 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired May 2014
Read December 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 4: Dead Man's Hand

Written by Tony Lee
Art by Mike Collins, Mitch Gerads
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff, Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Shawn Lee

IDW's Doctor Who ongoing sputters to an end as it began: with a so-so tale by Tony Lee. Which I guess is appropriate, but so much for the superstars promised by this set. The always dependable Mike Collins of Doctor Who Magazine fame on art keeps this one visually enjoyable, at least. But it's typical Tony Lee plotting: what could have been an enjoyable standalone western tale needs to connect all the way back to Lee's first IDW work, resurrecting the not-interesting-to-begin-with villain of The Forgotten; it's like he's taunting me on the way out. Well, so long Tony Lee, and I remain grateful your Doctor Who/Deep Space Nine crossover never came to pass. (P.S. Your shorts, as always, are actually somewhat better than your big stories; "Escape into Alcatraz" is a charming piece of fun.)

Next Week: Time to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who in the first volume of Prisoners of Time!

28 September 2015

Review: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book One: 1985-1987 by Bill Watterson

Comic trade paperback, 359 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1985-87)

Acquired December 2014
Read August 2015
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book One: 1985-1987
by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes is one of those things I don't ever remember not knowing. The strip began syndication only five months after I was born, and I remember both reading it in the newspaper-- my parents always said it was the only thing on the comics page worth reading-- and having a number of collections lying around the house. I don't think we had a comprehensive collection, though, so I was curious to see if reading the first volume of the complete strips-- a gift from those same parents-- would reveal any I didn't remember. There were some, but not a lot.

Anyway, this was a total delight. Surely some of that is nostalgia, but most of that is that these really do hold up: Bill Watterson is consistently funny. There are a lot of other good things going for these comics, but more than anything else, the frequency with which I laughed out loud-- once per week of strips at least-- is the most noteworthy. It's amazing to think that they're almost thirty years old now because no newspaper comic strip I've read since comes even close to matching the regular humor of Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson treads a fine line with Calvin as a character, and it's impressive how he never descends into caricature. Calvin has an active imagination on one hand-- but on the other, he refuses to read in favor of the television. This is no overdone romantic idealization of childhood; in many ways, Calvin is really rather awful!

It's interesting to see the strip begin to take shape here: Calvin is a member of the Cub Scouts (which I think gets dropped later on), Calvin and Hobbes play actual sports, albeit creatively (there's no Calvinball yet), and the large, fanciful storylines I remember so well only really begin to emerge near the end of the book. Though the cardboard box makes some early appearances as a time machine, it's nowhere near as extended as what we'd see later; in fact, the biggest storyline here is (I believe) a miserable camping trip undertaken by Calvin and his family where it just rains nonstop-- this is one of the few occasions in the book where the Sunday strip is smoothly integrated into the storyline. (Nicely, the book places Sunday strips out of publication order occasionally to improve reading experience.)

It probably would surprise no one who knows me that on this reading I had a great appreciation for Calvin's long-suffering parents, especially his father, who reminds me of my own with all of his off-kilter explanations about how the world works and his claims that any form of suffering is justified because it builds character. I look forward to seeing the strip as it develops; even if I've read them all before, I know I've never read them all in the proper order, and it's a great journey to undertake again for the first time.

25 September 2015

Film Review: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris

I was introduced to Stanislaw Lem in high school, and I have been a fan ever since. We read "The First Sally (A), or Trurl's Electronic Bard" in my European literature class, and I loved it. What nerdy high school kid wouldn't love a story with an algebraic love poem? Not long after, the Steven Soderbergh film version of Lem's Solaris was released, and I saw it in theaters. To this day, it remains one of my favorite films (top ten? I guess?): a moving, estranging portrait of loss, love, and memory, with a great score by Cliff Martinez. At this distant juncture, I'm not sure if I saw it before or after borrowing the novel from the library, but I did read it around the same time.

A conversation with a friend this summer made me realize I'd never seen the previous 1972 film version of Solaris by Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky, so we made a point of watching it this fall. It's a difficult film to like, especially in the beginning, as we watch characters watch films of lectures where people watch films, and where characters we never see again spend significant chunks of time navigating traffic to no evident purpose. Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin seems to have one facial expression: I know he's depressed because his lover committed suicide some years ago, but geeze! Find another setting than "mopey."

Maybe halfway through, though, it all clicked, and it became terribly gripping, with some fabulous dialogue, macabre humor, and great imagery-- especially the zero-gravity sequence, and Hari's final resurrection. Soderbergh's version definitely takes some cues from Tarkovsky's, including the increased focus on the human relationships. But Soderbergh's is, in some sense, all about those relationships, the planet Solaris just being a backdrop. Tarkovsky's version foregrounds the planet some more. This dialogue is striking:
We have no interest in conquering any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We're in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.
Lem's book is in some ways about the foolishness of trying to find the human everywhere we look, of expecting everything we encounter to tell us something about the human condition. In some ways, this seems like a weird fit for the novel's own premise, given that it is about humans encountering a planet that is literally a mirror for their desires and experiences. Soderbergh's embraces that aspect. The end of his version has Kris Kelvin rejecting his mundane life on Earth to stay on Solaris so that he can recreate the life he once had with his dead lover, and hopefully make it work out properly this time.

Tarkovsky's, on the hand, maintains Lem's emphasis on the mysteries of the planet, even as it deepens the emotional story. At one point, Kris Kelvin is reprimanded:
Don't turn a scientific problem into a common love story.

A cynic might argue that this is exactly what Soderbergh did (I would say he turned it into an uncommon love story), but Tarkovsky keeps both. At one point, Kris seems to have totally given up on the problem of Solaris, losing himself in his personal problems, almost wallowing in the darkness of his own past.
What does it matter when you're worth more to me than any science could ever be?

But after Hari kills herself for the last time, Kris passes into a memory of his past, one where I think he rewrites what he did that day on Earth where Hari originally killed herself, meeting his mother and acquiring emotional closure. But unlike Soderbergh's Kris, who elects to return to his lover ("Rheya," in that version), Tarkovsky's Kris presses on.
Man was created by nature so he could learn her ways. In his endless search for the truth, man is condemned to knowledge.

His emotional demons satisfied, Kris can resume "his endless search for truth"; the love story ended, Kris can turn his attentions back to the scientific problem. Tarkovsky's Solaris is both a scientific problem and a love story, about both a man's emotional catharsis about his past and his confronting of the vast, forbidden frontier of the unknown. The end makes you think he's gone home at first; Soderbergh's pulls a similar trick. But while Soderbergh reveals that Kris actually stayed on the station to be with Rheya, Tarkovsky reveals that what seems to be Kris's father's house is actually a newly formed island on Solaris.

Though, even on Solaris, man finds a mirror.

Also, my new favorite burn:

24 September 2015

Review: Star Trek: Captain's Log by J. K. Woodward et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)

Acquired May 2012
Read May 2015
Star Trek: Captain's Log

Written by Stuart Moore, Scott and David Tipton, Marc Guggenheim, Keith R.A. DeCandido
Art by J. K. Woodward, Federica Manfredi, Andrew Currie
Colors by J. K. Woodward, Andrea Priorini, Moose Bauman
Color Assists by Chiara Cinabro
Lettering by Robbie Robbins, Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry

This collection consist of four tales of Starfleet captains from the edges of the Star Trek universe: Christopher Pike of the original Enterprise from "The Cage" and "The Menagerie," Hikaru Sulu of the Excelsior from The Undiscovered Country, John Harriman of the Enterprise-B from Generations, and Edward Jellico of the Cairo from "Chain of Command." It's an okay set of okay stories, on the whole-- nothing great, nothing terrible, all pretty disposable.

The stories vary in quality and interest. The Pike tale, by Stuart Moore and J. K. Woodward, could be decent, but feels compelled to show up Pike's last mission on board that training vessel for the umpteenth time, and in a way that doesn't even really seem consistent with what "The Menagerie" establishes about it. Because it crams both that and an unseen "Cage"-era mission into 20 pages, there's not really time to do much of interest, though I appreciated seeing Yeoman Colt, long a favorite of mine from "The Cage" itself and the old Early Voyages comics. But thinking of Early Voyages just makes me regret that they didn't get Dan Abnett and Ian Edginton to do this one!

The Sulu story by the Tipton brothers and Federica Manfredi is decent, a showdown with the Tholians that lets old Hikaru show some backbone and gumption. Decent stuff, let down by Manfredi's inability to use the right starships in the artwork; the other Federation starship is Oberth class but suddenly becomes a Constitution in one panel, and one panel of the Excelsior streaking into warp is blatantly the original Enterprise, lifted from The Motion Picture.

The Harriman tale by Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Currie could be good, but it's let down by too much focus on a visiting Doctor McCoy and rehashing of old events, especially The Search for Spock and Generations. There are a lot of Harriman tales where he "proves" himself by overcoming someone's expectations; I'd rather Harriman tales just get on with him being awesome, as any captain of the Enterprise must be.

Finally, there's Keith R.A. DeCandido and J. K. Woodward's take on Jellico. Jellico defenders like to point out that he's just following protocol... while that might be true, good leaders don't act like assholes to their subordinates in the pursuit of protocol, either. I'm not convinced this is the redemptive take on Jellico it wants to be.

23 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part VIII: Batman: The Ring, the Arrow and the Bat

Comic trade paperback, 182 pages
Published 2003 (contents: 1998-2000)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2014
Batman: The Ring, the Arrow and the Bat

Writer: Dennis O'Neil
Pencillers: Greg Land, Sergio Cariello
Inkers: Dick Giordano, Matt Ryan
Colorists: Greg Wright, Rick Taylor
Letterers: Clem Robins, Willie Schubert

Year One, August - Year Two, February
I wish I'd known about this book when I did my big readthrough of Green Arrow tales, because it's much more Green Arrow and Green Lantern's tale than it is Batman's. This collects two stories: the first, "Peacemakers," is about the first meeting between Green Arrow and Green Lantern, while the second, "The Arrow and the Bat," unites the two with Batman.

That said, it's not very good. I feel like the later you are in Denny O'Neil's career, the worse his writing is, and this book is no exception. It's jumpy, characters don't (re)act realistically, the conspiracies are too complicated to make sense, it's bloodier than a mainstream DC superhero story ought to be, and it doesn't even get basic points of continuity right. Oliver seems to have lost his fortune already, but he hasn't even joined the Justice League yet because there is no Justice League yet. And it was O'Neil who wrote the story where Oliver lost his fortune, set well into his tenure on the League! What's the point of writing a tale to tick off a continuity box if you get the continuity wrong? None, as far as I can tell, because this is a disappointing and uninteresting book.

Next Week: Batman enrolls in D.A.R.E. in Venom!

22 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who: Sky Jacks! by Andy Diggle & Eddie Robson, Andy Kuhn, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 108 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired May 2014
Read November 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 3: Sky Jacks!

Written by Andy Diggle & Eddie Robson and Len Wein
Art by Andy Kuhn and Matthew Dow Smith
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff and Adrian Salmon
Lettering by Shawn Lee

For the first three chapters, this is classic Doctor Who: the Doctor and Clara (yay!) end up in an infinite sky, where they fall in with the crew of a British bomber from World War II. It's a very cool, sprawling world, and it's very fun-- thanks especially to the art of Andy Kuhn, who eschews dull tie-in realism for a more cartoony style to good effect. His Clara Oswald may not look like Jenna-Louise Coleman, but she does look like Clara. There are a lot of cool visuals and neat ideas here, plus dogfights, and what's more exciting than that?

It all crashes down in chapter four, though, when it's revealed who's behind it all-- tying back in to Andy Diggle's first story in The Hypothetical Gentleman. (The book credits Andy Diggle and Eddie Robson with writing; I'd guess Eddie Robson scripted it from a plot by Diggle, whose presence on the book has been inconsistent at best.) Unfortunately, it's a maniacally evil Matrix, having escaped the destruction of Gallifrey. There's potential here-- the Doctor vs. the dead memories of his race-- but it comes across as an excuse for continuity (there are tie-ins to The Deadly Assassin, The End of Time, and "The Day of the Doctor") and really it could be the Doctor fighting any evil robot spider. I really like Eddie Robson as a writer, but this final chapter does not play to his strengths.

Finally, there's a short tale by Len Wein and Matthew Dow Smith: "In-Fez-Station!" The Doctor, Amy, and Rory fight the Slitheen while wearing fezes at the Fez Music Festival in Fez, Morocco. It's fun.

Next Week: Tony Lee returns (and so does Clara) as the TARDIS visits the Old West in Dead Man's Hand!

21 September 2015

Review: Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid

Comic trade paperback, 236 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1940-48)
Acquired December 2013
Read June 2015
Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics
compiled and annotated by Mike Madrid

I would never had guessed that the Golden Age of comics possessed such a wide range of female hero characters-- most of what's remained in the popular consciousness are fairly straightforward superheroes, like Wonder Woman, the Phantom Lady, or, uh, Firebrand*?

There are definitely superheroes here, but they are probably some of the less interesting heroines on offer. If you've ever read collections of any of the lesser Golden Age superheroes, like Sandman, you'll know what to expect: quick criminal plots wrapped up by personality-less characters. There are still some standouts, though, such as Mother Hubbard, an ugly witch who uses her powers to aid America in the war effort in a story by Bill Madden. Though her magic makes her so powerful there doesn't seem to be much that can stop her! I found most of the war comics similarly generic, though it was neat seeing all the different roles the women held, from super-spies to super-nurses.

There are also a number of tales here of fantasy and science fiction heroines: epic adventurers across time and space. For many of these, the individual tales here aren't so interesting as Mike Madrid's synopses of their publication history-- I want to know about the storied histories of Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, who is at various points a goddess, a jungle queen, and an Egyptian ruler; Queen Camilla of the Lost Empire, who goes from being a warrior queen to a lost jungle girl; Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron, who fly through space battle pirates; and the Magician from Mars, exiled from her home planet by the evil Hood. They sound fascinating!

No, the real good stuff here comes in the tales of "everyday" women fighting the good fight against evil. Barbara Hall's "Introducing the Blonde Bomber" does exactly what the title implies, introducing Honey Blake, a newsreel camerawoman who is also a chemist, and uses her reporting and scientific powers to fight crime. Apparently she appeared regularly in a number of comics for about five years; I'd like to seek more of them out. There's also Jill Trent, Science Sleuth who battle crime with her friend/possible lesbian lover, here in the tale "The Freezer Ray!" by Ken Battefield and Frank Frazetta. I like these stories of women are captivating not (only) through their beauty, but through their intellectual superiority to every man around them!

Probably the best story in the book is by Bill Draut, who went on to have a successful career for DC in the Silver Age, especially in horror comics. The Calamity Jane tale "The Man Who Met Himself" has (like, apparently most Calamity Jane tales) an entertaining frame where Jane seeks out Draut to get her to illustrate her most recent adventure. Jane is very much a typical hardboiled detective... only she's a woman, and her condescending attitude to everyone she meets is terrific fun. This is another character I'd definitely seek out more adventures of... if I ever clear out my current backlog of digital comics to read! Since these stories are in the public domain now, most can be read for free online, and I suspect I would enjoy getting to explore this forgotten corner of comics history.

* Not an actual Golden Age heroine, apparently, much like the "original" Fury.

18 September 2015

Reading Roundup Year in Review, 2014/15

My reading year is over! I never got around to doing a big wrapup last year (September was during my Big Blog Drought), but I'm back with charts and data. First off, how does it stack up to years past?

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
2013/14 148
2014/15 146
SUM 1832
MEAN 152.7

A little bit below average for me, but not by a lot. This is fair, as my teaching and writing responsibilities were definitely higher than they've been in the past.

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 26.5 2.2 18.2%
Star Wars 11 0.9 7.5%
Star Trek 6.5 0.5 4.5%
Media Tie-In Subtotal 44 3.7 30.1%

George Griffith 3 0.3 2.1%
A. Conan Doyle1 2 0.2 1.4%
Stanislaw Lem2 2 0.3 1.4%
Other SF&F 21 1.8 14.4%
General SF&F Subtotal 28 2.3 19.2%

Crisis Crossovers3 15.5 1.3 10.6%
Batman 14.3 1.2 9.8%
Legion of Super-Heroes 2.5
0.2 1.7%
Other DC Comics3 6.7 0.6 4.6%
Avatar: The Last Airbender 3 0.3 2.1%
Other Comics4 5 0.4 3.4%
Comics Subtotal 47 3.9 32.2%

James Bond by Ian Fleming 2 0.2 1.4%
Victorian Literature 2 0.2 1.4%
Other Literature 16 1.3 11.0%
General Literature Subtotal 20 1.7 13.7%

Other Nonfiction5 7 0.6 4.8%

1. This also includes the novel Dinosaur Summer, by Greg Bear, a sequel to a Doyle work (The Lost World).
2. This also includes Summa Technologiae, a nonfiction book by Lem.
3. These also include novels about these comics-originated characters/premises.

4. Comics based on a particular series (e.g., Doctor Who or Star Wars) are included with that series's count.
5. Nonfiction connected to a particular series (e.g., Star Trek or Avatar: The Last Airbender) is included in that series's count.

Tie-ins had a big upsurge for me this year, based on a couple things: my working through the Doctor Who Humble Bundle, and my reading of one novella per month from the 50th anniversary collection. I've also been rereading old Star Trek and Star Wars books a lot this year, something I don't often do. I read lots of Victorian literature this year, but most of it was proto-science fiction, so it gets lumped into the sci-fi category, making me look like a poor Victorianist! Most other categories stayed pretty flat, except for nonfiction, which dropped down to its usual levels when I'm not reading for exams.

As usual, I picked a book every month as the "Pick of the Month"; here's the full list in alphabetical order by author:
It's usually impossible to select a "Pick of the Year," but this year it is obviously Possession, if only because Dubliners was a reread. The full list of "Picks" going back six years is here.

And finally, the customary graph of reading share over time:
click to enlarge
I sure do read a lot of DC comics, huh?

You can compare this to previous years if you're interested: 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12, 2012/13. (I didn't do ones for 2010/11 and 2013/14.)

17 September 2015

Review: William Wells and Maconaquah, White Rose of the Miamis by Julia Gilman

Trade paperback, 317 pages
Published 1985

Acquired December 2012
Read May 2015
William Wells and Maconaquah, White Rose of the Miamis
by Julia Gilman

I'm on a project to read fiction set in my hometown of Cincinnati, tired by years of American fiction that seems to equate "New York" or "Massachusetts" with the entirety of the United States. First up is William Wells and Maconaquah, a fictionalized version of the lives of two white settlers who were taken by the Indians as children and raised among them. It's very uneven: Gilman has a very distanced narrative perspective, so it's impossible to get emotionally invested in this book, as one never really cares what happens to either character. At one point, William Wells essentially decides to sell his people out to the whites, but apparently he experiences no emotions over this, despite having an Indian wife and children-- later he commits bigamy with as little introspection. Meanwhile, Maconaquah drops out of the book for hundreds of pages at a time, so I'm not sure why she rates being in the title. The title characters barely even meet, to boot! Worsening all this is that Gilman is just not a very good writer, with lots of awkward dialogue exchanges especially, and lots of characterization told but not shown.

The book is good at delineating exactly how and why the Indians were screwed over by the white invaders, but I could have read a good history book if that's what I was after. In the end, very little of the book was set in Cincinnati, anyway. Its setting ranges from eastern Pennsylvania (the Wilkes-Barre area) to Kentucky to Fort Wayne, Indiana, with just a couple chapters set at Fort Washington, in what would later be called Cincinnati.

16 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part VII: Batman: Shaman

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 1993 (contents: 1989-90)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2014
Batman: Shaman

Writer: Dennis O'Neil
Penciller: Edward Hannigan
Inker: John Beatty
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorists: Richmond Lewis

Year One, December
Except for some flashbacks, we finally move out of the timespan of Miller's Batman: Year One, into new territory; Shaman covers some of Batman's first winter in Gotham, as artifacts from an Indian tribe where he trained to become the Batman reappear in Gotham. This is the first of a couple Dennis O'Neil "Year One" tales, and probably the best of them; O'Neil and Edward Hannigan are consummate comics storytellers, and know how to write a gripping tale. It's not an amazing tale-- there are definitely some odd leaps-- but it is a well-told one. I also liked the reinsertion of some details from Batman's Golden Age origin into Batman: Year One, and the joke at their expense. It's actually a kind of brazen poke at a giant in a way.

Next Week: Green Arrow meets Green Lantern for the first time in The Ring, the Arrow and the Bat! Oh, and I guess Batman is there, too.

15 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who: The Eye of Ashaya by Andy Diggle, Josh Adams, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Horacio Domingues, Ruben Gonzalez, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 110 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired May 2014
Read November 2014
Doctor Who, Volume 2: The Eye of Ashaya

Written by Andy Diggle, Joshua Hale Fialkov, and Richard Dinnick
Pencils by Josh Adams and Horacio Domingues with Andres Ponce
Inks by Marc Deering, Josh Adams, and Ruben Gonzalez
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff and Adrian Salmon
Lettering by Shawn Lee and Tom B. Long

Lady Christina is one of Doctor Who's better "one-off companions," which maybe says more about Michelle Ryan's appearance and performance than anything else. The Eye of Ashaya reunites her with the Eleventh Doctor, along with an Amy and Rory who clearly hail from during Series 7A, when he was always picking them up and dropping them off-- this story actually begins with them in an airport! The way Christina is involved in a space heist is a bit contrived, and Andy Diggle's decent script is let down by Josh Adams plasticky, posed artwork, which fails to make any of the characters look remotely attractive.

The second tale here, "Space Oddity," pits the Doctor and a lone cosmonaut against the Vashta Nerada on an orbital station. It's not scary-- I don't think Richard Dinnick or the artists really exploit the way the comics medium can be used for horror-- but it is fun. The last story is "Time Fraud," which really undersells the potential return of the Time Lords, and features a weird tie-in to Torchwood: Children of Earth for some reason.

Next Week: Clara Oswald joins the IDW comics in Sky Jacks!

14 September 2015

Review: Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid

Comic trade paperback, 248 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1940-50)
Acquired July 2014
Read September 2015
Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics
compiled and annotated by Mike Madrid

Mike Madrid's follow-up to Divas, Dames & Daredevils, which I've read but not yet reviewed, focuses on female villains of the Golden Age of Comics. Its array of characters feels a lot less diverse than the female heroes of the previous book-- I suppose there's only so many criminal plots in the Golden Age model one can come up with-- but it's still pretty enjoyable at times.

Some of these comics are terrible, of course, but some are genuinely good: it's obvious why Will Eisner (Espionage starring Black X: "Night of the Living Bombs") and Jack Cole (Plastic Man: "The Figure") are the artists we still know today, because they stand out head and shoulders above the other ones collected here. Even in 1940, Eisner is already starting to do cool stuff with panel borders and the conventions of the medium, and Cole's figure work is just fun. I don't remember DDD having any contributions by latterly-famous artists, so it's a nice touch on Madrid's part. Shame about the actual story of the Black X installment, though!

Once you get beyond the stereotypical superhero tales (especially the World War II-influenced ones), there's some good stuff here. "Crimebuster meets He She" (by Charles Biro) has a half-man, half-woman as a villain, though their means of operation is completely implausible: at one point, they swindle a woman of her fortune by marrying her, which requires He She to make sure the woman never sees their left side! There are a lot of smart and active women here-- you have to be both to be a villain, after all-- which as Madrid points out, defy some of our expectations of Golden Age comics women, mostly formed (I suspect) by the girlfriends in superhero comics. Some just seem evil, some are jealous, and many turn to crime when society leaves them little choice.

The section on race features a diverse range of villains-- Nepalese, African, Indian, Japanese-- though of course some of them are pretty distasteful, such as Merlin the Magician's adventure "Temple of the Man-Eating Spider" by Fred Gaurdineer, where Merlin (evidently a modern British adventurer who knows magic, not the Actual Merlin) semi-randomly decides to steal a Nepalese diamond so he can give it to Churchill to fun the war effort; for the offense of trying to stop him from stealing from them, he blows up their temple. Rulah the (white) Jungle Goddess versus Maya the (black) Nazi sympathizer in "Bloodstained Fangs!" (by Matt Baker) primarily seems to be an excuse for some woman-on-woman bath-wrestling action.

The best stories here are definitely the "true crime" ones, all collected from a 1948-51 series called, delightfully, Crimes by Women. These are the most lurid, are the most fun, and feature the most interesting villains. "Belle Guness: The Monster of Laporte," by the mysterious one-named Carter, is about a woman who kills her abusive husband in a moment of frustration... and then realizes how much money one can make by killing husbands over and over. "Madame Muscle: Maid of Steel" (move over, Supergirl!) is about a circus strongwoman who's manipulated into going bad, but then turns the table on her manipulators with a series of increasingly audacious heists; she's so ridiculous, you have to love her, I think. At one point she wrenches the door off the car she's in and throws it at a pursuing police car!

Best of all is "Mable Reine: Queen of the Jungle" (unlike with Rulah, it's a metaphor), about a girl raised by train-jumpers... until one of the train-jumpers is killed by the police, and she decides to start a societal revolution and raises an army. She loses, of course, but atta girl! You can see why these true crime stories were so popular, and these small doses of them definitely hold up today. If the rest of Crimes by Women is this fun, I'd definitely read a whole collection of just that!

Fans of the DC universe should note that this volume actually contains four stories that I think would have been (or could have been) in continuity during the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths/pre-Flashpoint era, when many of the Golden Age comics later acquired by DC were considered to have actually happened when they were published. The first of the many Manhunters, Dan Richards, faces "Red-Haired Kate" in a 1943 story by Al Bryant. The original Doll Man takes on "Beauty and Her Beasts" (her plan is to kill or disfigure all women more attractive than her) in a 1946 story also by Al Bryant. A postwar Blackhawk Squadron is beset by "Madame Butterfly," a Japanese spymaster out for revenge for the death of her lover during the war in a 1949 story by Bill Woolfolk, Reed Crandall, and Chuck Cuidera. And Plastic Man faces "The Figure," a woman with a great figure who's great with figures in a 1950 tale by Jack Cole. There's no reason these Golden Age tales couldn't fit into the pre-reboot DCU as far as I can see!

11 September 2015

(Cheese) Coney (Islands)

the cheese coney in its natural habitat
A couple months ago, I used the phrase "cheese coney" to the consternation of those around me. This surprised me; as a Cincinnati native, I know that my people's distinct form of chili is not known everywhere, but where in the world does the chili dog not exist? What I did not realize is that even though the chili dog is ubiquitous across America, the term "cheese coney"-- or, more properly, "Coney Island hot dog"-- is not. From my involved research on the subject (i.e., reading some Wikipedia articles), it is unclear to me if the terms "chili dog" and "Coney Island hot dog" are synonymous, or if the cheese coney represents some kind of subset of chili dog (and if so, what distinguishes it). Obviously, in Cincinnati your cheese coney will have Cincinnati chili on it, but you can have a cheese coney other places with other kinds of chili on it, right?

I sort of forget about all this until I recently came across the following infographic (from The Food Republic):

click to enlarge

The coney is about one-third of the way down, ensconced between the Montreal, the Italian, and the Kansas City. (Is that right? Should their names be preceded by definite articles?) Only upon seeing the coney surrounded by geographically named hot dog variants did it occur to me to ask, after 30 years of eating cheese coneys, What on Earth does a cheese coney have to do with the place of Coney Island? This quickly led to a second question I'd never thought to investigate before, either: Why is there a place in Cincinnati called "Coney Island" which is not on an island, and does it have anything to do with delicious food?

Things I Learned about Cheese Coneys:
Like all foods, no one agrees on who invented the cheese coney or where. Wikipedia claims (I know, but I'm writing this blog entry in 30 minutes, and you're getting what you're paying for):
In 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce in New York had banned the use of the term "hot dog" on restaurant signs on Coney Island, an action prompted by concerns about visitors taking the term literally and assuming there was dog meat in the sausage. Because of this action by the Chamber of Commerce, immigrants passing through the area didn't know the sausage in a bun by the American moniker "hot dog." Instead, the handheld food would have been known to immigrants as a "coney island." 
But it also says the Coney Island hot dog may have been first served in Fort Wayne, Indiana, or Jackson, Michigan. Not sure why Coney Island itself is not a contender!

the two Coney Islands
courtesy Google Street View
There are also restaurants called Coney Islands, which I did not know. They're primarily in Michigan, I guess. In this case we do know the original: two Greek-American brothers created a restaurant called "Coney Island" in Detroit in 1914, and because they didn't trademark the name, they had many emulators. The best part is that their many emulators included themselves; in 1917, a business dispute led them to split into two separate, adjacent establishments on Lafayette Street: American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. They're still both there!

Things I Learned about Coney Island, the Place in Cincinnati, Not New York:
I don't know when I learned Coney Island was not originally a place in Cincinnati-- for me that's still the primary association. We used to go every summer when I was in Boy Scouts, for the Dan Beard Council Family Jamboree. I don't think I've ever ridden on one of the park's amusement park rides, but I have spent the night many times, and handed out samples of freshly cooked Dutch oven cobbler! (Our specialties in Troop 641 were peach, apple spice, and, best of all, chocolate cherry.) I still remember watching The Incredible Mr. Limpet, and when its cartoon fish protagonist declared he was going to swim to Coney Island, thinking he had an awful long and circuitous route to follow given he was starting in the Atlantic Ocean!*

Coney Island in 1965
The answer to the mystery is relatively pedestrian. An 1870s apple farmer on the Ohio River used to rent out his farm for events, and soon realized he made more money from that than apple farming. He built a bowling alley, a dining hall, and a dancing hall as his popularity grew, and eventually sold it; the new owners dubbed it "Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West" in 1886. By 1887 they officially changed the name to just "Coney Island"! A brazen piggybacking on a more popular brand, I guess, but it apparently worked. It was apparently known as "Cincinnati's moral resort," which is totally the kind of thing Cincinnatians would be really into.

I have no clever ending to tie all this information together, but man, I could totally scarf down three Skyline cheese coneys (onions, no mustard) right now.

* I hadn't thought about this film for decades until composing this blog entry. Reading the Wikipedia entry, it sounds absolutely awful.

10 September 2015

Review: Star Wars Adventures: Boba Fett and the Ship of Fear by Jeremy Barlow and Daxiong

Comic digest, 76 pages
Published 2011

Acquired May 2012
Read December 2014
Star Wars Adventures: Boba Fett and the Ship of Fear

Script: Jeremy Barlow
Art: Daxiong
Lettering: Michael Heisler

Boba Fett vs. idiots, Boba Fett wins. Another slick and enjoyable installment in the vastly underrated and too-short Star Wars Adventures series. This is what I want from my tie-in comics!

09 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part VI: Batman: Four of a Kind

Comic trade paperback, 207 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1995)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2015
Batman: Four of a Kind

Writers: Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench
Artists: Brian Apthorp & Stan Woch, Kieron Dwyer, Bret Blevins & Mike Manley, Quique Alcatena
Colorists: Linda Medley, Richmond Lewis, Stu Chaifetz
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Albert DeGuzman, Willie Schubert

Year One, November - December
This book collects four "Year One" annuals from 1995, each chronicling Batman's first encounter with one of his famous foes: Poison Ivy, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, Man-Bat. I wasn't expecting much from these, actually, my suspicions being they were cheap cash-ins on the "Year One" brand in a year of cheap cash-ins on the "Year One" brand (I think every DC annual in 1995 was a "Year One" story). So imagine my surprise when all four stories turned out to be very enjoyable!

from Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual #3
First up is "Poison Ivy: Year One" by Alan Grant and Brian Apthorp & Stan Woch. Though Grant's story is fine-- it's one of those typical Batman stories where a villain interrupts a rich person's gala to get some quick cash-- what really makes it shine is the artwork by Brian Apthorp and Stan Woch. (Honestly, for a view of what makes Poison Ivy tick, you'd be better off with Neil Gaiman's Secret Origins tale.) Woch I've heard of, but I was amazed that I hadn't Brian Apthorp. His work is incredible! Good storytelling, good capturing of the "Year One" aesthetic established by David Mazzucchelli without being derivative, and most importantly, an attractive and seductive Poison Ivy. She is one of these characters where it's important to get that right, as part of her whole schtick is being attractive. Apthorp nails that, but not via the typical comic book approach of butts and boobs, but through facial expressions: her face is just inviting. It's really well done, and I'm surprised the world hasn't seen more from him, though I did note he went on to do a 1997 Batman: Poison Ivy one-shot. I'll have to pick that one up!

Next is "The Riddler: Year One: Questions Multiply the Mystery" by Chuck Dixon and Kieron Dwyer, which takes the form of the Riddler narrating his early days while in a cell in Arkham Asylum. Like Apthorp, Dwyer captures the "Year One" aesthetic well without being derivative, and again, I'm surprised I haven't heard of him before. The Riddler is honestly a villain I hadn't thought about very much before-- he usually seems to turn up as a tangential figure in Batman stories I read, like when he weighs in on who the Holiday Killer is in The Long Halloween-- but he was very entertaining here, a man tormented by how easy things can get when you cheat, leading to his increasingly convoluted schemes to put some excitement back in his life. An enjoyable tale.

Doug Moench and Bret Blevins & Mike Manley provide "Scarecrow: Year One: Masters of Fear" (not to be confused with the Year One: Batman/Scarecrow miniseries from a few years later that was collected in Batman: Two-Face and Scarecrow: Year One, which we'll get to in a few weeks). Though Doug Moench seems to have no idea how academia works (I think Scarecrow goes from undergraduate to professor in the space of a year, and an open tenure-track position has a mere seven applicants!), this story does a good job of utilizing both the scarecrow and Sleepy Hollow parts of Jonathan Crane's conceit, and building a compelling backstory for someone who's almost an anti-Batman in the way he approaches fear. Again, Scarecrow is a character who often features as a sideshow in other villain's tales (including Moench's own Prey), but this brought him to life for me. The art of Bret Blevins and Mike Manley make the Scarecrow's spindliness a source of fear as well.

Finally, there's "Man-Bat: Year One: Wings" by Chuck Dixon and Quique Alcatena. Man-Bat has always struck me as one of Batman's lesser villains, seemingly devised by someone going, "What if Bat-Man fought... a Man-Bat!? Genius!" As far as I know, Spider-Man has never fought a Man-Spider, nor Animal Man a Man-Animal, so we've been spared the dubious continuations of this line of thought. But Man-Bat turns out to be pretty cool in this story (which also details the creation of Batman's Bat-Glider), not a villain but a man who took a crazy chance and had it backfire on him horribly, more a tragic overreacher in the Frankenstein mold than anything else. The only other Man-Bat comics story I can remember was one by Marco Palmieri where he meets Oracle, and that had a similar tragic tone. So count me won over, and I hope I encounter the character again.

Next Week: We revisit Batman's earliest days in Shaman... Merry Christmas, Batman!

08 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who: The Hypothetical Gentleman by Andy Diggle, Mark Buckingham, Brandon Seifert, and Philip Bond

Comic PDF eBook, 100 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired May 2014
Read October 2014
Doctor Who, Volume I: The Hypothetical Gentleman

Written by Andy Diggle and Brandon Seifert
Art by Mark Buckingham and Philip Bond with Ilias Kyriazis
Colors by Charlie Kirchoff
Lettering by Shawn Lee and Tom B. Long

Despite continuing with the same Doctor and same companions as the last, this volume restarts the numbering, I guess because of the arrival of superstar writer/artist team Andy Diggle and Mark Buckingham. Well, like too many superstar teams on IDW comics, they don't last long-- all of two issues! And to be honest, it's neither's best work. Diggle's writing is not flooded with continuity references like previous Who scripter Tony Lee, but it shares Lee's lack of depth. And Mark Buckingham can do great work, but I find his tie-in work distractingly over-referenced at times.

It's the second story here, "The Doctor and the Nurse," by Brandon Seifert and Philip Bond, that's delightful. Amy forces the Doctor and Rory to undertake some male bonding, but they hate the idea so much they jump into the future to finish early-- only the TARDIS misses its destination. Meanwhile, Amy gets embroiled in the hijinks of the previously-unknown-to-me-but-delightfully-real-except-that-some-people-actually-died-in-it Great London Beer Flood. Seifert's writing nails the characters and humor, and I loved Bond's Dan McDaid-esque art, cartoony but very reflective of the characters' personalities. It's a shame these two didn't take over the title. (I feel like I say that a lot. I guess a lot of the "guest" contributions on IDW's Doctor Who stuff are often better than the "actual" ones!)

Next Week: The return of Lady Christina in The Eye of Ashaya!

07 September 2015

Review: Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

As per usual, I have a review up at Unreality SF this weekend, though it's something of an oddity this time: Double Zero, the last release in the Judge Dredd Crime Chronicles, the first two of which I reviewed many years ago. Maybe someday I'll grab hold of the third one and complete the set!

Hardcover, 618 pages
Published 2004 (originally 1839)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2015
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

Like Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago and Eliot's Middlemarch, this is a tale of an English country doctor carrying out sanitary reform written by a Victorian author responding to Positivism. There's a chapter of my dissertation about Two Years Ago and Middlemarch, so maybe, I thought, I ought to read this book too.

Well, I shouldn't have. Martineau comes across as a sub-Eliot, or perhaps less anachronistically, a sub-Austen. I'm not even a book Austen fan and I can tell that this book lacks her wit and insight. Take a look at this sentence: "It is a fact which few but the despisers of their race like to acknowledge, and which those despisers of their race are therefore apt to interpret wrongly, and are enabled to make too much of—that it is perfectly natural,—so natural as to appear necessary,—that when young people first meet, the possibility of their falling in love should occur to all the minds present." C'mon, narrator, whatever insight that obviously-imitative sentence might have had has been buried in a blizzard of completely unnecessary clauses.

Martineau is one of those writers who can stretch a small village tiff out into hundreds of pages for the maximum effect of boringness; I could not have cared less about who did what after slogging through the first 200 pages of it, but it kept on going on and on and not even a plague piqued my interest.

04 September 2015

Serialized Storytelling in 1990s SF Television (that just means I've been watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently)

My wife and I have been watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for what I think is a year now-- I believe we started at the beginning of academic year 2014-15, and we're now a week into 2015-16. For me, this is kind of a third watch of the show. Though I had seen scattered episodes earlier, when it was originally airing, I came on board sometime during Season 5 (with "In Purgatory's Shadow," I think) and watched it through to the end-- I remember coming home my eighth grade graduation dance and watching the recording I'd made of the series finale. Later, my parents bought me the series on DVD, and I watched each set as I received it. This is my wife's first time seeing any of it (bar "Trials and Tribble-ations"), and indeed, her first time watching any Star Trek show systematically. Garak is her favorite.

Attention, Bajoran workers!
We've just hit the end of Season 5/the beginning of Season 6 (on Wednesday night we watched episode 6x02, "Rocks and Shoals"). I have to say, I'd forgotten how much I like this show. Of all the Star Trek series, I think this one has the best ensemble cast-- there's not a main character I don't like. You don't groan like you do when you're watching The Next Generation and realize you're about to hit a Crusher episode. And that's before you even get to the extended cast of recurring characters: Dukat, Rom, Nog, Weyoun, Kai Winn, Morn, they're all great.

Most of all, though, I like its approach to serialized storytelling. I like how it mixes standalone episodes with "arc" ones, and that the arcs get heavier and heavier the further you get into the series, but every episode still feels like it has a distinct middle and end. We've also been watching Downton Abbey off-and-on the past couple years (usually more "off" than "on"), and one thing that drives me nuts about that show is how little ever seems to happen in any one episode. Series 1 was mostly  standalones, but once the Great War kicks in, it feels like Julian Fellowes just has three story ideas per series and stretches them out artificially across a run of thirteen episodes.

Deep Space Nine gives you a lot of standalones, and I like that: you get to know these people and the place they live in. There is a status quo, so when it gets upset, it actually means something. Some shows never have a status quo, and I think that makes it difficult to get invested-- everything is always changing, seemingly arbitrarily. But in Deep Space Nine, you know the way their world works, so when everything changes you feel it as much as the characters do. The last couple episodes of Season 5 and first couple of Season 6 really drive this home.

cellular entertainment:
the key to immortality
"In the Cards" (the second-last of S5) is a light Jake-and-Nog story, but the arc gives it weight and undercurrents: while Jake tries to track down a baseball card, Sisko and Kai Winn spar with Weyoun. You know something big's about to happen while Jake and Nog try to elude the soulless minions of orthodoxy. Then, in "Call to Arms," everything really does fall apart-- when the Starfleet characters abandon the station and everyone splits to the nine winds, you really feel the import of it.

This means the beginning of Season 6 feels like a completely different show... in a good way. Sisko and company are in a war show, and in a different one than we saw during the Federation's brief S4-5 war with the Klingons. They're being forced to approach things a completely different way: one of the things I really liked about "Rocks and Shoals" was that those normal Starfleet methods of problem-solving don't apply anymore in wartime. In a previous season they might have found a way out of the situation they were in with little violence; now that war has broken out, they have no choice but to kill the enemy.

a different kind of Mirror Kira
Even better is the arc of Kira, Odo, Jake, Rom, and all the other left behind on the station. Deep Space Nine has been about occupation and colonization and resistance, and that's one of my favorite parts of it, but often in really distant ways: the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor and subsequent decolonization all happened before the series began, and the Maquis question was always pretty abstract, since we're never really invested as viewers in any of the various Maquis characters. But now instead of hearing Kira talk about the Occupation, we're seeing her live through one. Kira's journey from freedom fighter to member of the system is one of the big arcs of the series, and it's interesting for this season to suddenly place such a negative spin on it. Kira has become a member of the establishment, and that is wrong. "Rocks and Shoals" is one of the best episodes of the series, because of the way it builds on what's gone before but also upsets what we think we know about these characters by putting them into new situations.

Rewatching with my wife at my side has been instructive: so much of S1-5 were known to me before I saw them, that it's great to get a feel for what the twists and turns were like to someone who, for example, didn't realize Eddington would turn out to be a traitor. (It's pretty fascinating, actually; Season 3 is always making you suspicious of Eddington, but then Season 4 backs off from that by making him just be there in lots of episodes, and then all of a sudden BAM! My wife declared that "For the Cause" was the first time she hadn't been suspicious of him.)

Additionally, two websites have provided me with some interesting critical perspectives. Tor's Deep Space Nine Rewatch by Keith R.A. DeCandido has pointed out a lot of trivia, and the comments are usually pretty entertaining. Even better, however, has been Zack Handlen's commentary at the A.V. Club. Zack is an excellent, thoughtful reviewer, able to bring out nuances that make me realize why I like what I like the way a good reviewer out to be able to. The comments there have much less content than the ones at Tor, but they do have Rapping Jake Sisko's own recaps of his dad's adventures as well as lots of jokes about Gowron's bug eyes, so there's that.

03 September 2015

Review: Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan

Trade paperback, 419 pages
Published 2008

Acquired February 2015
Read May 2015
Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan

I read this as part of my ongoing investigation into Indian speculative fiction; Padmanabhan is one of a few Indian authors currently writing sf in English. Escape is set in a sort of Handmaid's Taleesque dystopic future India-- except where an evil General has carried out a near-complete femicide. One of the book's two protagonists is one of the last (maybe the last) woman left alive, but she's been kept on drugs and in ignorance, so she doesn't know she's different from the uncles who shelter her. Only the older she gets, the more rumors creep out, and the uncles realize they need to get her out of India, so the youngest of them accompanies her on a desperate trip.

What follows is a very bleak travelogue of sorts. Padmanabhan's future India is horrifying, but also fascinating. Without women, clones are used for reproduction-- but also clones with limited mental acuity ("drones") are created for the purposes of labor. And society has to adapt and to change to deal with the lack of women; there are some very twisted men as a result, men who cannot indulge the desires they have. The book is interspersed with maxims from the General's books, with titles like A Manual for Bold Soldiers, The Vermin Tribe: An Analysis (the "vermin tribe" is what they call women), and The Generals: A Plural Life. As that last title indicates, the General is actual more than one person; he too has cloned himself again and again, his intelligence almost functioning like a program in the cloud. Like future India, the General is both horrifying and fascinating, and I really enjoyed the interjections into the narrative of an interview with home done by an outside newscaster.

At the same time, our poor young protagonist has to adapt to a horrifying world in which she is literally the only one of her kind. Meiji's journey gets pretty intense at times, but is there's any complaint to lob at this book, it's that she occasionally disappears from it; much more of it is about Youngest protecting Meiji than it is about Meiji herself. What kind of sacrifices-- both physical and moral-- will Youngest make to protect his niece? There's a lot of commentary embedded in here, about how society treats women, how society treats other social classes, about the disposability of human life, and like the best sf it's as much a mirror of today as a potential future. Some of humanity's worst desires get brought to the surface, and the book has a very bleak take on sex throughout, perhaps unsurprisingly. It's an engrossing read, and I hope the sequel that the ending indicates ought to happen really does come to pass, though seven years later, I have my doubts.