29 July 2016

Truth and Nontruth in Star Trek: Not All of It's Real, But All the Good Bits I Can Remember Are

Periodically, threads turn up on the kind of websites I frequent that ask, "What Star Trek books / Doctor Who audio dramas / Star Wars comics do you consider part of your personal canon?" Or, worse, "head-canon," a word which is just ugly.

Head-cannon: D'harhan from Star Wars.

I don't usually participate in these discussions, because I don't think I think of canon that way. Now, I'm not saying I'm one of those holier-than-thou pedants who turns up to canon discussions to say, "Well, actually, the term 'personal canon' is an oxymoron because the word 'canon' implies an authority making the decision blah blah blah."* No, I just think that the question describes something more rigid than the way I actually think about these things. I don't go, "Well, Prime Directive, that's in the personal canon, but Enterprise: The First Adventure is right out. And because Prime Directive is referenced by Traitor Winds, then Traitor Winds must also be in, but Enterprise: The First Adventure is a semi-prequel to The Entropy Effect, and so by the transitive property of canon, that's disqualified. Destiny is in, but only scenes beginning on odd-numbered stardates. And so on."

No, I think that the way we decide what's "real" and what's not "real" in the context of a fictional universe is much more flexible than that.† Let's move from these weird hypotheticals I've been using and get specific.

Star Trek is the universe I've probably spent the most time in (though it's not quite my First Fandom). I don't know exactly when I read my first Star Trek book, but I think it must have been around the fifth grade or so. As a result there are a number of things I accept as "true" for the Star Trek universe because I read them as books when I was a kid, and thus they were absorbed into my conception of the universe itself. Never mind that the books aren't "canon," that didn't cross my mind, and it still doesn't most of the time.

Rather, there are just "facts" that I know to be true in the context of Star Trek. Take Greg Bear's 1984 novel Corona. I actually don't really remember much about it, but what I do remember is that-- in an aside-- it's mentioned that the Klingons, the Romulans, and an alien race original to the novel, the Kshatriyans, share a common ancestor. Well, given Romulans are an offshoot of the Vulcans, that means the Vulcans must be part of that equation too. For me, this is just a basic assumption of the Star Trek universe, it comes up without me consciously deciding, "Aha, Corona is designated 'HEAD CANON, PART OF'."

Jeri Taylor, executive producer of Voyager, wrote an excellent novel called Mosaic, about how Kathryn Janeway came up the ranks of Starfleet, from a young cadet to a tyro science officer to a commander. It would be impossible for me to think of the character of Captain Janeway and not imagine that book's events as her history. It always has been. Why pretend she has no history when she has this one?

Back in the day, Kate Mulgrew would read you the story herself-- on two whole cassettes!

Do you know there's a book (actually a whole series of 'em) co-written by William Shatner where the Borg and the Romulans team up to bring Captain Kirk back to life? Now, Captain Kirk is still dead in my head canon, but the first one, The Return, has some of the coolest stuff that has ever been written about the Borg. In my Star Trek, the Borg totally combine eight cubes to make one even bigger cube, assimilate dogs to turn them into guard drones, and pause to run a diagnostic if you ask, "Are you defective?"

This is kind of like the supercube described in The Return, except I don't think there's the clear delineation between constituent cubes. The Return posits that all Borg cubes are made up of smaller cubes, hence why they all have so many redundant systems. This image is from a videogame, I think.

Or, even before I got to Time's Enemy in my Deep Space Nine rewatch/reread, I had it in the back of my head that Jem'Hadar always spoke the languages of their enemies in front of their enemies so that no one could learn their codes. This is actually superseded by on-screen dialogue in a later episode, but I don't care, because the idea given in Time's Enemy is too good to discard.

For me, these stories aren't canon, and they aren't not canon, either. They're just part and parcel of the large, weird tapestry we call Star Trek, and they inform how I think it works on a fundamental level. Even if the canon goes on to contradict them (as it already has in some cases), I will likely always believe these facts to be true. Inasmuch as any aspect of Star Trek is true.

Which is to say completely true.

* Or, if you want to be even more obnoxious, you can point out that properly "canon" is a noun: books aren't canon, they're canonical.
† Unless you're hired by a rights-holder to write some fiction set in that universe, but as that hasn't happened to me in five years, I don't really worry about it.

28 July 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Wild Space by Karen Miller

Have I been forgetting to mention all my Unreality SF reviews here? If so, here are the last few, all Doctor Who tales: Tenth Doctor Adventures, Volume 1, The Early Adventures: The Black Hole, and Criss-Cross, Planet of the Rani, and Shield of the Jötunn.

Mass market paperback, 342 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2008)
Acquired August 2014
Read September 2014
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Wild Space
by Karen Miller

This is the second of the two Clone Wars books I read in parallel to watching the television series before my viewing of the series sputtered out. Flipping back through it, I find that I remember nothing of it, save that Obi-Wan seemed out of character, and that it felt like the book went on blasted forever with nothing happening. This is Star Wars, people, throw me some action.

27 July 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXXII: DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family

Comic hardcover, 271 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1988-89)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family

Writers: Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman
Layouts and Co-Plotter: George Pérez
Pencillers: Jim Aparo, Tom Grummett
Inkers: Mike DeCarlo, Bob McLeod

Year Twelve, November - Year Thirteen, June
One of the results of the continuity-driven nature of superhero comics is that there are a number of comics known better for what happened in them than how it happened. A Death in the Family is one of those stories. Chronicling the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd (who's only been in the role for two years, poor fellow), A Death in the Family is just not a good story. It lurches along weirdly and depends on coincidence way too much, and even for a superhero comic, it's contrived: the idea that Iran would appoint the Joker its UN ambassador is untenable, a completely bizarre merging of comic goofiness with real-world politics that is tonally misjudged.

But let's start at the beginning with this one. A Death in the Family seems to have been originally designed as a six-issue story but released as a four-part one, as its first and second issues both consist of two 22-page chapters. The first has Jason acting particularly like a jerk, and Batman benching him as a result. Their relationship hasn't particularly been consistent in the Jason stories I've read: Jason is very bloodthirsty in the the beginning of Second Chances, pretty chummy with Batman later on in the same book (except for learning that Batman hid who killed his father from him), and they got along perfectly in Ten Nights of the Beast and The Cult. But now Jason is a jerk again, and Batman doesn't handle it well at all.

Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!; or, Don't you think kids who are little bit snotty deserve to be brutally murdered?
from Batman vol. 1 #426 (script by Jim Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

I really don't get why this approach was taken. A character's last story should show them at their best, to make you really regret it when they're gone; for all their flaws, later DC shock killings like Identity Crisis and Countdown to Infinite Crisis got this exactly right, sending Sue Dibny and Blue Beetle out on career highs. This story should show Jason Todd as his heroic best as Robin. But A Death in the Family, bizarrely, wants to make you glad he's dead.

Batman discovers that the Joker is trying to sell a cruise missile to terrorists in Lebanon at the exact same time Jason realizes that the woman he thought was his mother actually isn't, and that a woman who might be his birth mother is-- completely coincidentally-- also in Lebanon. So while Batman shuns his runaway sidekick to chase the Joker (apparently there's no one Batman can ask for help; if only he wasn't always such a jerk to Nightwing), the two end up in the same place anyway and team up.

26 July 2016

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XXXII: The Joiner King by Troy Denning

Mass market paperback, 526 pages
Published 2005

Acquired August 2005
Previously read October 2005
Reread October 2015
Star Wars: Dark Nest I: The Joiner King
by Troy Denning

Six Years after the Invasion
Having finished The New Jedi Order after an awful long time reading, I thought it would be nice to read the Dark Nest trilogy, a follow-up to its events five years on of which I had fond memories. The first book is decent: parts of it are fun, while parts of it meander a bit too much. Denning always does a good job with Han and Leia; the interactions and adventures of the two of them are always fun to read in his hands. I'd really like to see him tackle more books like Tatooine Ghost, that allow them to go on an adventure without all the baggage of telling some galactic threat story. The Killik nests and the joiners are also some pretty interesting concepts, a little more sci-fi than Star Wars usually gets, but Denning pulls it off here, I think. On the other hand, I don't think he really gets the version of the Force that was advanced in Traitor, and I really dislike what he begins to do with Jacen here (which will culminate in Jacen's fall to the Dark Side in the tremendously misjudged Legacy of the Force). On the whole, this volume is fun, but the seeds of what will make the later Dark Nest books not as fun are present, as well.

Next Week: One year later, the Killiks are back in The Unseen Queen!

25 July 2016

Revolutionary Reading: An Examination of the Legion of Super-Heroes Threeboot, Part IV: Adult Education

Comic trade paperback, 190 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2005-07) 

Acquired February 2016
Read May 2016
Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes: Adult Education

Writer: Mark Waid with Tony Bedard and Stuart Moore
Pencils/Layouts: Barry Kitson
Additional Pencils: Adam DeKraker, Ken Lashley, Pat Olliffe, Dale Eaglesham
Inks: Mick Gray, Rob Stull, Rodney Ramos, Greg Parkin, Livesay, Art Thibert
Letters: Nick J. Napolitano, Jared K. Fletcher, Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman
Colors: Nathan Eyring, Richard & Tanya Horie

This collection includes two stories that directly pick up on and work with the idea we've seen throughout the series, that this version of the Legion of Super-Heroes was inspired by the DC Comics publications of the 20th and 21st centuries. Here, the series creators model what we might call the "revolutionary" reading practices they want the readers of their comic to employ.

One is a set of stories within a story, about various versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes that are incompatible with the current one's history. If, like me, you are a little perplexed by how DC Comics characters can be reading DC Comics (including some that they themselves appear in; in Teenage Revolution, we saw the cover of Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 #0), an anonymous stranger delivers a helpful piece of advice:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #15 (script by Stuart Moore, art by Patrick Olliffe & Livesay)

Well, that's me told. Recall, after all, that even though the Legion members memorize what issues DC characters first appeared in, what they really care about are the ideals the superheroes stand for.

This is reiterated in the book's final story, which takes place in the aftermath of Terror Firma's destruction of Legion headquarters (as seen in Death of a Dream). Rescue operations for the Legion followers caught in the blast are underway, and the story features a series of juxtapositions between damaged comic books in the rubble and the rescue operations being carried out in the present. For example, here's the cover of an issue of Batman with Commissioner Gordon and Batman looking at a body paralleled with a Science Police officer and a Legion follower covering up a body:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #11 (script by Mark Waid, art by Dale Eaglesham & Art Thibert)

There are six or seven of these, providing a visual reminder of how the comics of the past serve as inspiration for the heroes of the future.

But one of the Legion followers fixates on the comic books, embodying what we might call "nostalgic" reading practices. He goes around scooping up and saving the remnants of the comic books. A group of Legion followers notices him and attack him, thinking he's a speculator looking to pick up some rare back issues. He explains his motives as being purer, however:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #11 (script by Mark Waid, art by Dale Eaglesham & Art Thibert)

The other Legion followers set him straight, however. If what makes the comics important was that they were the Legion's inspiration, then what matters isn't the comics as physical objects, but that members of the Legion carry out the ideals they represent. You don't need the actual, physical comics for them to be important. Chastised, the comic-collecting Legionnaire drops his comic books to the ground and joins in the rescue operations, giving us one last parallelism:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #11 (script by Mark Waid, art by Dale Eaglesham & Art Thibert)

In this story, Mark Waid models the reading practices that underpinned the "threeboot" as conceived of by him and Barry Kitson. Inspired by the comics of the past, but beholden to their spirit, not their literal details. Continuity and nostalgia doesn't matter, idealism and revolution do. As much as Waid and Kitsons take on the Legion was about a revolution, it was itself revolutionary-- taking an old idea and reworking it for a contemporary context.

Unfortunately, the lessons of this story would go unheard by the readers of DC Comics. But that's something I'll cover when I get to the final volume of Waid and Kitson's run.

22 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond: First Reactions

One of my favorite Star Trek novels is Prime Directive, by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. I haven't read it for ten years or more, but it opens with the five-year mission of the Enterprise cancelled under ignominious circumstances, and the crew divided up across the galaxy. But, across the course of the adventure, the crew reunites, showing that they are better off together than apart. I like it for its understanding of the characters, both as individuals and as a group. The Reeves-Stevenses give all the characters their moments to shine in their own separate adventures, before uniting them for a finale where they come together to solve the problem in true Star Trek fashion. I also like Prime Directive for its unbridled Star Trek optimism, showing that all people are better off together than apart: the reunification of the crew showing this in microcosm, I suppose.

Maybe Simon Pegg and Doug Jung read Prime Directive back in the day, but probably not. More likely, they worked out a good formula for a Star Trek story based on the strengths of the premise. I hope I haven't spoiled too much by establishing this parallel, but though Star Trek Beyond does not open with the five-year mission suspended, the crew does pretty quickly (almost too quickly; my biggest critique of this film would be that the first 30 minutes or so feel a bit rushed) disperse into smaller groups or individuals: Kirk and Chekov, Sulu and Uhura, Scotty, and (of course) Spock and McCoy. Each character faces their own challenges, and gets their own chance to shine. I have always thought that the reboot films were pretty well cast (my favorites are Karl Urban as McCoy, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and, alas, Anton Yelchin as Chekov (so all the funny ones)), but this approach lets them shine. Each character usually got a moment in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, but here they all get a chunk of the story, and the story is better for it. Some of the best Spock/McCoy scenes of the new film series thus far, I think.

Then they all come back together, and are suddenly working together as a group, accomplishing amazing things-- and in doing so, demonstrating the optimism that Star Trek is all about. They even reach out and add new people to the group. It's not a complex message, but it is an enjoyable one. There are hair-pin escapes and crazy plans, and I dare you not to have a smile on your face when the music starts blasting in the final act. Plus, there's a real nice audio signifier of their unity at the end of the film. I can't believe that's never been done, and it works really nicely.

Lots of jokes (the giant green hand!), and though it's as action-heavy as all these recent Star Trek films have been, the action is more fun and more beautiful than in the other two installments. Starbase Yorktown is an amazing environment, and director Justin Lin makes the Enterprise look the most beautiful she's looked in all three films-- the scenes of her at warp at the beginning, and her launching from Yorktown were my favorites, but there were a lot of great angles throughout. So yeah, I enjoyed it. I've enjoyed all these reboot films in their different ways, and I'm not sure if this one is the best one, but it is the most quintessentially Star Trekky in all the best ways.

Actually, there's a big flaw I didn't mention. The title of the movie is wrong. It shouldn't have been Star Trek Beyond, but, quite obviously I would have thought, Star Trek Beyond! Never pass up a chance to throw an exclamation point in there.

21 July 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars by Karen Traviss

Mass market paperback, 256 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2008)
Acquired and read August 2014
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
by Karen Traviss

A couple years ago, I decided to watch the Clone Wars cartoon from beginning to end, and read the tie-in novels and comics alongside it. I didn't get very far, but that wasn't really the show's fault. I did get far enough to read two of the novels, the first of which, simply titled The Clone Wars, novelizes the events of the film that kicked off the series. Quite frankly, Karen Traviss's talents are wasted on the pile of shit that was the film's script-- things like Jabba's gay cousin do not need any fleshing out, and like Diane Carey, she delights a little too much in having characters inwardly snark about how the events/dialogue of the story are implausible or bad. That doesn't rectify the problems, it just makes you think you should be reading a different book, given the book's own author doesn't even like it. Traviss's Star Wars books are distinguished for her depth of characterization, but there's nothing to pin that to here, and her dislike of significant components of the Star Wars concept becomes a little too obvious in places. Traviss writing clone characters is always appreciated, though.

20 July 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXXI: Batman: The Cult

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 1991 (contents: 1988)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
Batman: The Cult

Writer: Jim Starlin
Illustrator: Bernie Wrightson
Color Artist: Bill Wray
Letterer: John Costanza

Year Twelve, September
This is my last Jason Todd story prior to his death. The Cult concerns the rise of a charismatic speaker in Gotham City, who organizes the underclass and seals the city off from the outside world; large parts of this plot were adapted for the film The Dark Knight Rises, though instead of Batman being gone while this happens, Batman is being broken. Not physically, but emotionally. The book opens with Batman already captured by Deacon Blackfire and his cult, and the brainwashing well underway.

The comics equivalent of rapid crosscutting here is a really interesting technique, and one I don't think I've seen before. It's confusing when you first transition (the Batman on the left is from a dream he's having where he's committed murder; the one on the right is the actual Batman, hanging in Deacon Blackfire's lair), but that's the point.
from Batman: The Cult #1

What makes this book works so well is Bernie Wrightson. I primarily know Wrightson from his contributions to DC horror comics like The House of Mystery, The House of Secrets, and The Witching Hour!, and The Cult puts him to good use depicting the existential horror that is Batman's mental breakdown, as well as the collapse of all Gotham society. His Batman is a devastated man, and despite the fact that a cowl covers half his face, his Batman communicates the anguish he is experiencing quite well. Panel transitions are used quite well, too, to show how Batman is flickering back and forth between different mental states: we'll jump between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-Batman-sees-it quite rapidly, showing his struggle. Wrightson's art (especially aided by colorist Bill Wray) is grotesque when it needs to be. I hate to complain about someone with the skills of Jim Aparo, but Wrightson is clearly a much better match for Jim Starlin's Batman sensibilities, and it's a shame there's not much more Batman work from him.

19 July 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Lights Out by Holly Black

Mass market paperback, 62 pages
Published 2014

Acquired December 2014
Read December 2015
Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor: Lights Out
by Holly Black

When 12 Doctors, 12 Stories was released electronically, it was 11 Doctors, 11 Stories because that was all the Doctors there were: this final volume was added in 2014, taking place between the episodes "Deep Breath" and "Into the Dalek," during the Doctor's mission to get coffee for Clara. Like most of the books in this series, it's a solid, enjoyable tale. It's told in the first person from the perspective of an alien the Doctor meets, which is always a nice way to do a Doctor Who story, and Black does a good job capturing the voice of Peter Capaldi (who is my favorite Doctor since Christopher Eccleston).

Next Week: A quick swing back into Star Wars territory for a coda to The New Jedi Order, with Dark Nest!

18 July 2016

Revolutionary Reading: An Examination of the Legion of Super-Heroes Threeboot, Part III: Strange Visitor From Another Century

Comic trade paperback, 137 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06) 

Acquired February 2016
Read May 2016
Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes: Strange Visitor From Another Century

Writer: Mark Waid
Pencillers: Barry Kitson, Adam DeKraker, Ken Lashley, Art Thibert, Amanda Conner
Inkers: Mick Gray, Drew Geraci, Barry Kitson, Rodney Ramos
Colorist: Nathan Eyring
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Travis Lanham

One of the clearest explanations of the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson Legion of Super-Heroes is found in the back of this book, where the Legionnaires answer mail from readers of the comic in character. This approach to the old tradition of the lettercol is a delight, and it allows the characters to sort of step outside themselves and describe the premise of the book directly to the reader:
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 5 #6 (art by Barry Kitson)

The Legion stands for color, against sterility, as embodied in the virtues of the heroes of the past.

Their virtues are put to the test in this volume, though, which depicts one of the few direct conflicts between the Legion and the society they seek to change. When a group of Legionnaires takes down a terrorist disguised as a Science Police officer outside the home of a guy called Klar who embodies the society they're trying to reform. Klar's wife considers him not "fully clothed" when he's wearing shirt and pants but not hood and goggles, and Klar communicates with his neighbors via screen. He complains the Legionnaires lack "decorum" and "traipse out of doors like savages"!

Here we see something of the dark side of the Legion, as they bully him, stealing his goggles, and mocking his age. This riles up Klar, who comes back with his neighbors to argue with the Legion, who only mock him further:
from Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #16 (art by Barry Kitson & Mick Gray)

There's some irony here, of course: the Legion has inspired Klar and other social conservatives to interact face-to-face for apparently the first time ever, and Klar's declaration that there is strength in numbers is exactly how the Legion took down Terror Firma in the previous volume. Their revolution has inspired another social movement, yet Klar doesn't recognize that he's abandoning his principles to ostensibly fight for them. Is he becoming a superhero himself? (That's what Matthew from Legion Abstract posits in this nice reading of the scene.)

This is probably the most direct conflict we see between the Legion and society, and on one level, it's pretty harmless-- the Legion shouts out some ageist insults and goes on its way. No real violence is required for them to change society.

That said, it's important to know there's been a major status quo change by this point. The events of the previous volume have shown the United Planets 1) that the Legion of Super-Heroes isn't going anywhere and 2) that the Legion has been successful whereas they have not. So the U.P. changes tactics, and gives the Legion official standing. What happens when they revolutionaries become the establishment? Well, this conflict shows that it actually makes them bullies to a certain extent. The Legionnaires flaunt their newfound authority to intimidate Klar (like I said, they steal his goggles).

It's one thing to punch up, but it's another to punch down, and the Legion is only starting to come to grips with what it means to go from underdogs to establishment, and how you much reorient your attitude appropriately. They're not exactly living up to the virtues of their role models in this sequence, even if they are making the world more colorful, and I'm glad that Kitson and Waid explore that here.

15 July 2016

Bob the Galactic Bum (Yes, That's a Thing)

When I reviewed Darkstars, I called it a "forgotten" comic book. Well, I didn't know how good I had it then. I would never have known Bob the Galactic Bum even existed if an ad for it in an issue of R.E.B.E.L.S. hadn't caught my eye. It had Lobo in it, but since in the 1990s every DC Comics house ad has Lobo in it, my eye would have glazed right over it if the ad hadn't also highlighted the presence of Stealth (one of the main characters of L.E.G.I.O.N. and R.E.B.E.L.S.) and the Khunds (recurring DC outer space bad guys). So I googled, and discovered the existence of this four-issue miniseries from 1995.

Frankly, it's weird that the only place this is mentioned in R.E.B.E.L.S. is one ad, as it features three characters from the series (in addition to Stealth and Lobo, R.E.B.E.L.S. leader Vril Dox turns up) and it takes place between its issues. Plus, one of its co-writers, Alan Grant, wrote or co-wrote the first 39 issues of L.E.G.I.O.N. Surely DC would have wanted to make sure fans of the one found the other, but there wasn't even a mention in the lettercol.

Oh well, I learned about it in sufficient time to add it to my list of "uncollected DC comics set in space not about Green Lanterns," so how was it? Bob the Galactic Bum is written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, the latter being the luminary of British comics responsible for co-creating Judge Dredd, though I know him best for his work on the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. The artist is Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd's other co-creator.

This story is no Judge Dredd adventure, however. It's a light comedy about a "galactic bum" named Bob, who seems to be a stereotypical British bum, complete with ratty top hat. Bob travels the universe with his companion Buck Fifty, who can only say "What?" and the story opens with him being picked up by an interstellar cruise liner carrying a prince. Bob is offended by the prince, who he calls a "piker" (i.e., a tightwad), but when Khunds attack the cruise liner, Bob, Buck, and the piker are the only ones left alive. Bob sees the opportunity to finally make his fortune, but that means getting Prince Gazza of Chazza back to his homeworld in time for the coronation while avoiding Khunds and Lobo.

There's not a laugh on every page, but there are enough of them to make good fun. The Khunds are well done-- they're such anarchist brutes that their captain needs to reestablish his authority every single time he gives an order, and his crew is faintly embarrassed every time he compliments them-- and I enjoyed Bob's alleged duel with a guru on a higher plane. Plus the coronation traditions of Chazza (the previous monarch is executed by blind guards, which means many extra people die in the process) were amusing. Like I said, Lobo was everywhere during this era, but Alan Grant is one of the better writers of Lobo, so he wasn't too annoying. Grant, Wagner, and Ezquerra are a solid comic team, and this is four issues of fun in the world of DC space.

(Interestingly, though, the creators maintained the copyright to the story, enabling it to be reprinted in the Judge Dredd Megazine in 2008, sans any characters belonging to DC. Among other transformations, Lobo apparently became a woman named Asbo!)

14 July 2016

Review: Fact and Feeling by Jonathan Smith

Hardcover, 277 pages
Published 1994
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination
by Jonathan Smith

Smith's monograph traces the use of Baconian induction in Victorian literature. Smith begins by tracing out a model of what Baconian science means, summarizing it as 1) collection of facts, 2) gradual movement toward truth, and 3) rejection of hypotheses. He argues that the Victorians were finding cracks in Baconianism: for example, fact-collecting cannot really be indiscriminate (you need some kind of hypothesis to drive your data collection). But Bacon was still valorized by some, though not necessarily for the things he actually said or did.

The most interesting of the later chapters (to me, of course) were the ones on John Ruskin and Sherlock Holmes. In the Ruskin chapter, Smith is able to carefully delineate Ruskin's point of view on science. Ruskin wasn't opposed to science in general, but what he saw as foolish science: science that subordinated vision to inductive reason, prioritizing what could not be seen over what could be seen. This feels kind of reasonable on the face of it, until you remember that Ruskin rejected the idea of glaciers moving because he couldn't see them moving. Ruskin prioritized sight, and felt that scientists like Tyndall were too rapid and superficial in their observations.

His chapter on Holmes admirably and thoroughly lays out what it means for Holmes to think "scientifically": Holmes claims to be a naive Baconian that doesn't let theories affect his sight, that jars with the very strong personality Holmes portrays throughout the stories. Smith shows how Holmes both decries the dangers of the imagination and utterly relies upon the imagination to make the leaps of logic that the police (who Holmes derides as naive Baconians) cannot. It's a compelling discussion of why we shouldn't take Holmes (or Doyle) at his word when describing his detective method, but should instead look at what he actually does and how it interacts with the philosophy of science of the day (or, rather, the past, since naive Baconianism was mostly out by the 1890s).

13 July 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXX: Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast

Comic trade paperback, 96 pages
Published 1994 (contents: 1988)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast

Writer: Jim Starlin
Penciller: Jim Aparo
Inker: Mike DeCarlo
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Letterers: John Costanza, Agustin Mas

Year Twelve, June
I'm sort of pushing the definition of Batman's "early years" at this point, but I wanted to maximize my Jason Todd stories before seeing him get killed off in A Death in the Family. He actually doesn't play a very big role in Ten Nights of the Beast, which pits Batman against the KGBeast, the trained Soviet assassin. I'd first encountered him in the uncollected miniseries Robin III: Cry of the Huntress, but this was his first appearance. Here he goes rogue and travels to Gotham City to disrupt the Star Wars missile defense program, and Batman must team up with the Gotham PD, the FBI, the CIA, and the KGB to stop him. The KGBeast has a list of ten key Star Wars personnel (conveniently, they're all residents of Gotham or will visit it during the same week) that he's working his way through, but despite acquiring his list early in the book, the KGBeast is so strong and powerful there's not a whole lot Batman can do to stop him: Batman gets pushed to his limit as the KGBeast kills person after person on the list, plus anyone who gets in his way. (Or gets his Iranian Shi'ite terrorist friend to do it for him.)

One of my favorite things in comics is people who have to wear hats to disguise the masks they're wearing as a disguise.
from Batman vol. 1 #419

The problem is that the KGBeast is so good that the story becomes implausible. There is an early effort to move one of the people on the list out of town, but other than that, Batman and company take little preventative action. The last person on the list is President Reagan,* who for some reason still comes to Gotham for a fundraising dinner! It really pushes my credulity that in a circumstance where the KGBeast has caused deaths in the triple digits in pursuit of his goal that anyone would think it appropriate to bring the President of the United States into the city where's he operating. Also, given Batman only saves the lives of about three of the people on the KGBeast's list, I don't see how the Star Wars program isn't permanently crippled. It's a very small victory, I guess.

Greatest double-take in the history of comics?
from Batman vol. 1 #420

Jim Starlin seems to really like stories where Batman is pushed to his limit-- it's something we'll see again in The Cult and A Death in the Family-- but this one doesn't really work for me; you don't feel the desperation to the extent the story needs you to. I'll expand on this in my writeups of both those collections, but I think the problem is Jim Aparo. Or rather, the Starlin/Aparo collaboration. Aparo is a great artist and supposedly a great Batman artist, but I think he's more remembered for his ten-year run on The Brave and the Bold than his late 1980s Batman stint, where I don't think he's a good tonal match for Starlin's dark and brutal scripts. But like I said, more on that next week.

* Previous appearances of Ronald Regan include Legends, Millennium, and the Deadman storyline in Action Comics Weekly. There's probably more I'm forgetting. Invasion!, maybe? DC Comics really loved this guy, I guess.

Next Week: Batman faces a Dark Knight of the Soul when he comes up against The Cult!

12 July 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Nothing O'Clock by Neil Gaiman

Mass market paperback, 67 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read November 2015
Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor: Nothing O'Clock
by Neil Gaiman

This book is a delight, definitely in the top tier of the 12 Doctors, 12 Stories novellas. Neil Gaiman's televised Doctor Who stories have been mixed at best ("The Doctor's Wife" was pretty good; "Nightmare in Silver" probably set back the potential of the Cybermen and didn't make much sense to boot), but this is nearly perfect. The eleventh Doctor and Amy discover that someone has bought up every residence on Earth (legitimately), leaving no room for its people, who all die off, leaving the Earth free for some aliens to take over. Gaiman does a good line in creepiness (the aliens all wear animal masks, and go under names like "Mr Rabbit"), Gaiman captures the performances of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan extremely well, there are lots of great Doctorish lines (the Doctor suggests a lack of gazpacho in 1984 would be cause for alarm), and there are some nice references to things the show established after Series Five (like Mels and the War Doctor). A perfect little novella, and probably the best work Neil Gaiman has done on Doctor Who.

Next Week: We reach the end of this literary Doctor Who adventure with a twelfth Doctor adventure, in Lights Out!

11 July 2016

Revolutionary Reading: An Examination of the Legion of Super-Heroes Threeboot, Part II: Death of a Dream

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06) 

Acquired February 2016
Read May 2016
Legion of Super-Heroes: Death of a Dream

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Barry Kitson
Interlude Written by Stuart Moore
Additional Pencils: Kevin Sharpe, Georges Jeanty, Ken Lashley
Inkers: Art Thibert, Mick Gray, Drew Geraci, Prentis Rollins, Paul Neary
Letterers: Nick J. Napolitano, Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Jared K. Fletcher

Created to change the United Planets, the Legion of Super-Heroes now finds itself in the position of having to save it. As a result, this volume of the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson Legion of Super-Heroes is much less about revolution the first one, drifting away somewhat from the series's unique selling point. Of course, Waid and Kitson are still masters of their craft, and there's lots to enjoy here, good twists and pay-offs and genuine character drama. Loved what happened to "Atom Girl," loved that Brainiac 5 used the slingshot of the original Robin, loved the role of Dream Girl in the proceedings. And much more.

There are points where revolution is discussed, though. Sun Boy, the only Legionnaire whose parents don't disapprove of his being a member, starts to realize that it's not really about the cause they're fighting for, but rather that he's "just an opportunity for them to relive their days as young radicals. Which sucks."

The book also explores the appropriate way to create social change, with both external and internal conflict. Brainiac 5 begins to chafe at Cosmic Boy's leadership of the Legion, believing that Cos is too accommodating of diverse perspectives. Cos would rather create a coalition of diverse interests united around common goals, while Brainiac favors a smaller group dedicated to his leadership of the Legion. Cos's beliefs are shown to have both pluses and minuses: the Legion is awe-inspiring in its size, but its open-door policy proves to be dangerous when it allows suicide bombers to enter into the Legion plaza without interference. I think Cos wins in the end, with his argument that "The Legion’s not twenty guys with corny names and costumes! It is everyone across the galaxy who has made any kind of sacrifice to take back the future! It is everyone who has ever worn this [the Legion symbol] knowing that it makes a difference!" The Legion followers end up fighting alongside the core group in battle, helping save the day. But Brainiac is right that diversity and acceptance comes with its own challenges, challenges that Cosmic Boy struggles to overcome in this book. (In fact, Cosmic Boy needs to be compelled into not leaving the Legion through subterfuge by Invisible Kid.)

Cos does make compromises. In the 31st century, all underagers are monitored on the communications network known as the Public Service; Cos has the opportunity to shut it down, but he ends up needing it communicate during the war against Terror Firma, when it turns out to be the only functioning communications system in the U.P. The revolution is forced to sacrifice some of its principles in order to survive, for better or for ill.

Finally, Terror Firma turns out to be a revolutionary movement itself, albeit a terrorist one (I guess the name is a clue). Made up of the descendants of U.P. citizens exiled to a now-forgotten prison planet, they want to change the corrupt society they were exiled from. But their methods and justifications, especially those of their leader, Praetor Lemnos, remind me of Ozymandias from Watchmen: Lemnos is the man who can shrug off the deaths of innocents to achieve utopia, due to his belief that rebuilding has to take place starting from a blank slate. The conflict between the Legion and Terror Firma thus reenacts an age-old philosophical dispute between revolutionaries: gradual reform vs. catastrophic restart. Perhaps even without thinking about it, the Legion throws their lot in with gradual reform. The implications of that choice will be explored in the series going forward.

08 July 2016

Wars of Futures Past

I've been reading about future wars and actual wars this week, in two different books: Charles E. Gannon's Rumors of War and Infernal Machines and Cecil D. Eby's The Road to Armageddon. Both cover that period between 1871 and 1914, from when the Franco-Prussian War caused the British to start to hate Germans up to when they actually got to fight some. Eby reports that during that time, there were over 60 stories of future invasion published in Britain-- and that's just counting ones that appeared in book or pamphlet form, as the periodical press had its fair share of short stories.

Christopher Robin
and J. V. Milne
(and Pooh)
Many were published at the behest of Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. Harmsworth was a newspaper magnate of unprecedented (and, arguably, unexceeded, proportions), owning the Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, the Observer, and many local papers. Harmsworth actually went to a school where A. A. Milne's father, J. V., was headmaster and (after Harmsworth's time) H. G. Wells was a science teacher. It was at that school that Harmsworth made his first newspaper. Later, Wells had some early publications in one of Harmsworth's papers, Answers, but Wells said of Harmsworth and his brother that they worked "with an entire disregard of good taste, good value, educational influence, social consequences or political responsibility. They were as blind as young kittens to all those aspects of life. [...] In pristine innocence, naked of any sense of responsibility, with immense native energy, they set about pouring millions of printed sheets of any sort of trash that sold, into the awakening mind of the British masses" (Experiment in Autobiography 270).

I think Wells gives Harmsworth a little too much credit here, bizarrely enough. When you read about what he got up to, it's clear he knew what kind of social consequences he might have; he just didn't care if it sold papers. In 1906, he published in the Daily Mail William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910, a novel that purposefully fanned the flames of Teutophobia, leading to discussions in Parliament as to whether or not there were German spies everywhere in the country. (Le Queux was quite adaptive; his previous invasion novel had been about evil Frenchmen, but in the interim, France and the United Kingdom had signed a new treaty, meaning Le Queux had to pivot to a different enemy nation. He kept publishing novels about evil Germans right through the war, and then after the war, novels about resurgent German terrorists.)

That Harmsworth saw a political purpose in his journalistic enterprises comes across most clearly in my favorite anecdote from this week's research. Back in 1895, he decided he would stand as a candidate for the House of Commons in Portsmouth. To bolster his run, he purchased the Portsmouth Evening Mail and ordered its editor, a former naval correspondent, to cowrite a serial about the invasion of Portsmouth by France and Russia. Harmsworth was a candidate for the Conservatives, and the story was to place all the blame for poor defenses in Portsmouth on the Liberals. One of the paper's reporters even went around town getting names of prominent citizens so that they could be written into the story dying horrible deaths, in order to galvanize the citizens of Portsmouth to vote Harmsworth into office to save them from this dire fate.

I wish I could read this. I bet it's terrible, but it might be deliciously terrible. Apparently it sold well, but failed to get Harmsworth elected. He decided it would be easier to get into Parliament by obtaining a peerage; in the House of Lords you never have to stand for election.

It wasn't just Harmsworth; everyone was just really excited about wars at the time. Though the Boer War turned out to be a little disappointing, it did yield this amazing advertisement for British Pluck cigarettes, my other favorite discovery for the week:
Smoke cigarettes and kill Boers!

Harmsworth got his war in the end, when Britain took on evil Germans in the Great War, which turned out not to be as quick and easy as all those future-war stories had imagined.

07 July 2016

Review: Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen

Borrowed from a friend
Read March 2015
Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen

This is a beautiful comic book with deft characterization and excellent coloring with lots of neat moments, but I'll be damned if I could tell you what was actually happening 50% of the time. Lots of neat stuff, but I wish it had been a little more obvious. I don't mind working hard, but I couldn't even tell you where to begin with this one! It seems like it would be worth the effort, though.

06 July 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXIX: Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 1988-96)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition

Writers: Alan Moore, Brian Bolland
Art and Colors: Brian Bolland
Letterers: Richard Starkings, Ellie DeVille

Year Twelve, March
One of the last lines, but it would have worked perfectly as the first.
from Batman: The Killing Joke (script by Alan Moore, art by Brian Bolland)
This is probably the most widely-read Batman comic that's not by Frank Miller. So of course it's by Alan Moore. Moore is an exquisite craftsman: the way this builds up tension is perfect. Of course, a large part of that's in the art, too, and Bolland and Moore make a helluva team here. It's great to look at and great to read.

But: really, this is it? Why is this one of the most read Batman stories? It's nasty, brutish, and short, and it all seems to be in service of those last two to three pages, which are brilliant, I think. I love the idea that Batman believes he or the Joker must kill the other,* but all that really happens is they share a joke. And kind of a dumb one at that. (Though I am familiar with the theory that someone is dying on that last page, I'm reading this as part of a sequence of stories, so it definitely can't happen in this context!) But I'm not convinced this story says enough to justify its existence. I dunno, maybe I'm overthinking it, but I admired this story intellectually much more than emotionally. Well crafted, but sort of empty, and cruel.

It seems pretty clear to me in reading The Killing Joke that Barbara was raped, but a lot of people (including Alan Moore, allegedly) insist that she was not. Again, this is something that I think changes if you view the story as in- or out-of-continuity. If it's out, then yes she was because there are some insinuations that don't make any sense if you don't think that's what they're adding up to. But if it's in, then pretty clearly not, because none of the subsequent 23 years of Barbara Gordon stories ever indicated something like that had happened. That said, the mental trauma this must have caused isn't really dwelt on at all by later stories, which mostly just focus on the physical act of crippling caused by Joker's bullet.
from Batman: The Killing Joke (script by Alan Moore, art by Brian Bolland)

I did like "An Innocent Guy," an eight-page story written, drawn, and colored by Brian Bolland that is also collected here. It felt like "Harvey Pekar Does Batman," actually. Is that weird?

from Batman: Black and White #4 (script and art by Brian Bolland)
Yeah, I know it's in color.

* I must say, this sticks out as odd in the context of my readthrough, in which the Joker has a been a major villain in exactly two stories (The Man Who Laughs, Batman: Batgirl) and a minor one in a few others (The Long Halloween, Strange Apparitions, The Cat and the Bat). If the previous 28 stories were all I knew about Batman, I'd be hard-pressed to identify the Joker as his greatest nemesis! He's been curiously absent from these tales. I feel like Two-Face probably pops up the most consistently. Or maybe, strangely enough, Hugo Strange. I should make a chart and find out.

Next Week: In Soviet Russia, Star Wars watches you! Batman tangles with the KGB in Ten Nights of the Beast!

05 July 2016

Review: Doctor Who: The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage by Derek Landy

Mass market paperback, 85 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read October 2015
Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor: The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage
by Derek Landy
     'So this whole entire world we're standing on right now is...what? A story? Not a planet at all but a story? How can we stand on a story? How can a story have gravity, or light, or air for us to breathe?'
     The Doctor shrugged. 'Every good story has atmosphere.'
I'd never heard of Derek Landy before reading this book, but his take on the tenth Doctor and Martha turns out to be delightful. He captures Tennant's kookiness well, Martha is very well-characterized, the banter between them is natural and easy (there are a lot of good laughs), and the central concept of the story, where the TARDIS lands on a planet based on some books Martha read as a kid about child sleuths, isn't exactly original (even within Doctor Who) but is well-executed and entertaining. Another hit for this solid series of releases.

Next Week: The eleventh Doctor and Amy investigate a real estate scam in Nothing O'Clock!

01 July 2016

Reading Roundup Wrapup: June 2016

Pick of the month: Experiment in Autobiography by H. G. Wells. This book consumed my life for the first couple weeks of the month. How could I have ever picked something else? The definitive account of his life, from teaching student to draper's assistant to dabbler in scientific romances to writer of literary fiction to proponent of the World State. Endlessly fascinating. I'll be holding back my review of it until September, though, for Wells's 150th birthday.

All books read:
1. Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866) by H. G. Wells
2. Team 7, Volume 1: Fight Fire with Fire by Justin Jordan with Tony Bedard
3. Birds of Prey, Volume 3: A Clash of Daggers by Duane Swierczynski with Gail Simone
4. The Transformers: Autocracy by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille
5. The Transformers Spotlight by Simon Furman
6. H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography edited by G. P. Wells
7. H. G. Wells & Rebecca West by Gordon N. Ray
8. Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited by J. Hillis Miller
9. The New Doctor Who Adventures: Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel

All books acquired:
1. Dashing Diamond Dick and Other Classic Dime Novels edited by J. Randolph Cox
2. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
3. Y: The Last Man: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan
4. Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler
5. The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two edited by George Mann
6. Romeo and/or Juliet: a chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North and William Shakespeare and You
7. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 1: Dawn by Yoshiki Tanaka
8. The History of Mr Polly by H. G. Wells
9. The Beth Book by Sarah Grand

Books on "To be read" list: 629 (down 2)
Books on "To review" list: 83 (down 13)