31 March 2017

Thoughts on LGBT Representation in Literature

This week in my Young Adult Literature course I'm teaching Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, a novel about, well, two boys kissing. Specifically, it's inspired by when two male college students broke the Guinness World Record for longest kiss. Levithan is an editor of YA fiction at Scholastic (he's edited M. T. Anderson, Suzanne Collins, and Ann M. Martin, among others), and his breakout novel was Boy Meets Boy, which I haven't read, is about a gay romance at a high school where sexual orientation is just uncommented upon. Levithan said of it, "I’m often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality, and the answer is right down the middle – it’s about where we’re going, and where we should be."

Levithan says he wrote Boy Meets Boy because it was the kind of book he wished would cross his desk as an editor: "a book about gay teens that doesn’t conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they’re still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common)." He seemed to have his desired effect, because one reviewer described it as "the first upbeat gay novel for teens."

My class was discussing the importance of books like this for young adults: Two Boys Kissing uses the kiss as its crystallizing event, but as there's not much a pair of kissing people can actually do, most of the book focuses on other gay boys, in a wide variety of situations and from a wide variety of backgrounds, each of whom is affected by the kiss in some small way. I would argue its project is to "normalize" same-sex male relationships by depicting them as normal, and thus by depicting a lot of them, so that none of them is the gay relationship. They're as diverse as any relationship is.

Some of my students contended for the necessity of doing this, of showing gay teens examples of people like themselves in relationships. And of the necessity of showing non-LGBT teens same-sex relationships, so as to normalize them.

Which got me thinking. Boy Meets Boy came out in 2003, the same year I graduated high school, so I certainly didn't read it as a teen myself. But did I read any young adult novels featuring queer characters? I've been wracking my brain for two days now, and I can't think of any.

As far as I can remember, in fact, the first work of fiction I read with a non-heterosexual character in it was in fact a Star Trek novel, a spin-off novel called The Best and the Brightest about a group of cadets at Starfleet Academy. Two of them are women, and they end up in a relationship. I remember rereading bits of the novel, certain that I had missed or misunderstood something, and that one of them was a man. But no. The book came out in February 1998, so if I read it around the time it came out, I would have been in seventh or maybe eighth grade. The book presents it as completely normal: like no one even comments on the same-sex thing, though I feel like there was some uncertainty because one of them is an alien. (The Best and the Brightest was the first unambiguous depiction of a same-sex relationship in Star Trek. I found a nice 1998 article about here when researching this piece. The novels have had many more since; televised Trek has been less progressive, though maybe there's hope with Star Trek: Discovery.)

I don't remember what I thought when I figured out that no, I was right, and they were both women. Like, given that I'd never read a work of fiction with non-hetero characters, and I didn't know anyone gay (that I knew of), and that "homo" was the insult du jour in Boy Scouts, it seems like I couldn't have been au fait with homosexuality, but I don't remember anything other than that mild perplexity.

Compare that to the year 2017, where non-hetero characters appear in family television programs like Doctor Who, and Sulu turned out to be gay married in last year's Star Trek film. It's a different and still-changing world we live in.

30 March 2017

Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Trade paperback, 482 pages
Published 1989

Acquired June 2006
Previously read July 2007
Reread November 2014
Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Is Hyperion a novel? These are the kind of questions I irritated my Modern Novel class with. There are two potential objections you can make, I think. The first is that it's actually a series of short stories. The second is that the story doesn't actually end: Hyperion is really only the first half of a novel that ends in The Fall of Hyperion. (These are, I guess, mutually exclusive objections.)

Yet, I would argue, Hyperion stands on its own. Fall is a vastly different book with a different focus; it picks up what was begun here, but the focus on character and genre that motivates Hyperion is gone. And Hyperion comes to a perfectly satisfying conclusion in its own way. But I'm getting ahead of myself there.

Like so many of the stories I like, Hyperion is a story about stories. Its format is self-consciously literary from the moment someone in the book actually points out that you're reading The Canterbury Tales in space (p. 25). This is brought to the forefront in chapter 3, the Poet's Tale: "Hyperion Cantos." Martin Silenus asks, "Haven’t you ever harbored the secret thought that somewhere Huck and Jim are—at this instant—poling their raft down some river just beyond our reach, so much more real are they than the shoe clerk who fitted us just a forgotten day ago?" (180-81). I suspect this is an Adam Bede reference; in that novel, the narrator complains that people identify too much with fictional characters: "It is more needful that I should have a fibre of sympathy connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar in a vilely assorted cravat and waistcoat, than with the handsomest rascal in red scarf and green feathers—more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me, or in the clergyman of my own parish [...], than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay." You'll note that for George Eliot, having more sympathy for fictional characters than for real salesmen is a negative, whereas Silenus seems to revel in it. But then, Silenus is an ass.

I doubt he would have been into Hyperion, but I think there's a sense in which Henry James agreed more with Dan Simmons than George Eliot when he wrote "The Art of the Novel." According to James, "It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a 'make believe' [...] shall be in some degree apologetic—shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to compete with life. This, of course, any sensible wide-awake story declines to do, for it quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it, disguised in the form of generosity. [...] The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life." Now, Hyperion does make that confession that James says fiction should not, but I think it does so in order to compete with life. James wanted literature to compete with history by pretending to be history: "if it [fiction] will not give itself away, [...] it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian." But for Simmons, literature wins by unabashedly being literature.

This Hyperion does. It has a profound sense of history, yet at the same time, it is conscious of its fiction. Hyperion is okay with competing with reality-- and possibly even beating reality-- because Simmons, like James, knows that we need stories to make sense of the universe: "history viewed from the inside is always a dark, digestive mess, far different from the easily recognizable cow viewed from afar by historians" (Hyperion 190). Without stories, we won't know we're in a cow, we'll only perceive a dark, digestive mess. But, on the other hand, perhaps the cow is lie, for Silenus says that words "are also pitfalls of deceit and misperception. Words bend our thinking to infinite paths of self-delusion, and the fact that we spend most of our mental lives in brain mansions built of words means that we lack the objectivity necessary to see the terrible distortion of reality which language brings" (191). This is what's happened to all the characters in Hyperion: they are all locked in the prisons of the stories they have told about themselves.

But that's the reason Hyperion spans seven different genres: because each genre supplies a different truth about the world, building up our composite picture. When the Hyperion pilgrims tell each other their tales, they are set free because they are able to see all the other possible stories. They have gone from having a cow to having seven possible explanations for the dark, digestive mass that is life.

And this is why Hyperion actually is a novel. It may be made up of seven different stories, and it may continue into a second book, but it does have a conclusion and a resolution: having told their own stories, and having heard those of the others, the Hyperion pilgrims achieve a measure of self-acceptance, and walk off into the unknown, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." Reading it, I got the shivers. A group of broken people has achieved peace at last.

Hyperion lets us step outside of our stories and histories, remove ourselves from our prisons, by showing them to us in a new context: it lets us reevaluate faith by imagining we live in a world where faith can literally be proved, or lets us imagine what it means to be a parent sacrificing a child by imagining a world where God literally contacts someone to get him to do this, or lets us contemplate how we build God by showing us computers literally trying to build God, or lets us explore the relationship between sex and violence by giving us a being that is literally sex and violence.

At the same time, these people hear the disparate stories, and step outside their own prisons. No matter what happens in Fall, they've escaped their prisons and so have we, through the art of the novel.

29 March 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part III: Captain Atom: Armageddon

Forget Armageddon, it's DOOOOOM. The sixteen-part eighth Doctor epic Doom Coalition is finally over, and I've reviewed the final part.

Comic trade paperback, 223 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2005-06)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2016
Captain Atom: Armageddon

Written by Will Pfeifer
Penciled by Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inked by Sandra Hope (with Trevor Scott), (with Camuncoli)
Additional art: Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair
Color by Randy Mayor, Jonny Rench, Tony Aviña
Letters by Rob Leigh, Phil Balsman, Patrick Brosseau

Wildstorm was an independent comics publisher founded in 1993; in 1999, it was purchased by DC Comics, and in 2011's Flashpoint event, DC merged the two continuities into one. That means that from 1999 to 2011, DC was publishing stories set in two separate superhero universes, and they occasionally took advantage of that by having characters cross from one to the other. In this case, that character was Captain Atom; Armageddon reveals that though he was apparently killed in an explosion at the end of Superman Batman: Public Enemies, he actually crossed over in the Wildstorm universe. But his atomic structure is incompatible with this universe, and he's going to explode and destroy it if something can't be done to stop it.

I don't know what the Wildstorm universe was originally like, but by 2005 it was a dark place, thanks to books like The Authority, where a group of superheroes decide to use murder to remake Earth as a better place. Will Pfeifer does a good job of contrasting this with the main DC universe: while in DC, Captain Atom is a bit of an also-ran, in Wildstorm he's the most standup guy there is, surrounded by antiheroes like the Authority, the WildC.A.T.s (including freakin' Grifter), and Mister Majestic, none of whom exactly aspire to virtuous altruism. They'll do whatever it takes, but Captain Atom has lines he won't cross.

Some of these lines include fashion, thank God.
from Captain Atom: Armageddon #4 (art by Giuseppe Camuncoli & Sandra Hope)

In some ways, Armageddon is a tour of the Wildstorm universe, I suspect designed to hook DC readers who followed Captain Atom into the crossover, hence Atom's encounters with all the heavy hitters of this reality (minus, I suppose, Gen¹³). I don't know much a new-to-Wildstorm reader really gets out of it, though; I'd already read The Authority so I followed those bits fine, but part of the book seems to assume you know more about WildC.A.T.s than I did-- who or what is the Void? And who cares about Grifter anyway?

28 March 2017

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 4 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired March 2015
Read March 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 4

Written by James Roberts
Pencils by Alex Milne, Brendan Cahill, Guido Guidi, and Agustin Padilla
Inks by Atilio Rojo, Alex Milne, Brian Shearer, John Wycough, Juan Castro, Guido Guidi, Marc Deering, Phyllis Novin, and Jose Aviles
Colors by Josh Burcham with Joana Lafuente and Jose Aviles
Letters by Tom B. Long


I don't normally do this, but it seems warranted here: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. That said, I went into this volume knowing some of what I'm going to talk about, and if anything, I think it made the book more effective.


I don't often cry at works of fiction. It happens on occasion, though, perhaps more as I get older. The death of the Tachikomas at the end of season one of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Penelope Wilton chaining herself to the bus at the end of episode 4 of Bob & Rose. Moira taking her suicide pill in the last chapter of On the Beach. Evelyn Smythe's contemplative last moments in Doctor Who: A Death in the Family.

But I don't think I've ever cried at a comic book.

I cried three times reading this one.

The first time came in the first issue collected here. The Lost Light crew assaults a rogue Decepticon stronghold. James Roberts tells the story in two parallel tracks, switching back and forth between the attack and its aftermath. Rewind is injured, and his conjunx endura Chromedome is freaking out about it. Now, I was spoiled a while ago on the fact that Rewind would die, so as the book came to a climax, I started tearing up. Rewind doesn't die here, but the end is still fraught with emotion, as we learn how Rewind and Chromedome first met, and then the last thing we see is the moment of Rewind's near-fatal injury. It wasn't a Decepticon who injured him; rather, Whirl purposely locked him in a room with an exploding bomb because Cyclonus was also in that room. Plus, misanthropic Cyclonus actually threw himself on the bomb to save Rewind. Oh wow so many feelings as everything that's happened throughout the issue slots into place.

You don't mean that, Cyclonus!
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #12 (art by Brendan Cahill & Brian Shearer)

I didn't cry at the second issue here, but it was good fun: the Lost Light arrives at a pleasure planet, and everyone goes out drinking. Jokes are had, we get to see the crew's humanoid holomatter avatars, Ultra Magnus tries to lighten up (and fails), and Tailgate reveals his dark secret to Cyclonus. If you love when a tv show does the wacky side episode where the crew lets loose, you'll love this.

27 March 2017

Review: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Trade paperback, 312 pages
Published 2010 (originally 1957)

Previously read 2002/03(?) and October 2006
Acquired June 2016
Reread July 2016
On the Beach by Nevil Shute

In his book Rumors of War and Infernal Machines, Charles Gannon argues that "the discourse of nuclear literature has traditionally relied upon images because a personally meaningful quantitative assessment of the bomb’s annihilatory powers is impossible. Its size dwarfs and makes mute any discursive attempt to establish a connection between individual experience and the overwhelming total reality of a nuclear explosion." I definitely think this is true when it comes to On the Beach. It's the images that stuck with me between when I read this in high school (for class), reread it in college (for myself), and rereread it to teach it: the cloud of radioactive particles drifting south, the empty cities of North America, the seaman going out for one last fishing trip, the roads taken back over by horses. Shute's perspective on nuclear annihilation is oddly beautiful: even while nuclear war comes from the worst parts of our nature, he uses it to shine a light on our best parts. Everyone in this book does their duty up to the end, even those who didn't have any kind of duty to begin with. I started to cry when I read the last chapter, and that's the first time I've cried at a book in a long while. We no longer fear nuclear war the way we did in 1957, but the book is still a testament to how we all ought to confront death.

24 March 2017

There must be some kind of term for un-jumping the shark, but I'm afraid to check TV Tropes.

If you read my commentary (I hesitate to call it a "review") on the third series of Primeval, you'll know I wasn't exactly enthused. But we already owned series 4 and 5 on DVD, so onward we plunged-- hey, at least they'd killed off the villain who rapidly decayed from interesting and enigmatic to maniacal and annoying.

At the end of the first episode of series 4, I turned to my wife and was like, "Actually, that was pretty good." Then at the end of the second episode, I did it again. And then again in the third! I don't know what exactly happened-- production moved to Ireland to save costs, but as far as I can tell, the head writer stayed the same, as did most of the freelance writers and directors. Yet with series 4 came a higher level of seriousness and more of a focus on character that had been lacking from the show, as well as a feeling of reality. It's hard to explain, but the show became suddenly, noticeably better. And not just better than it was in the bizarre series 3, but better than it had ever been. (I know some people out there aren't big series 4/5 fans, but I find that perspective unfathomable.)

On the other hand, the webisodes have this
whole thing about how they aren't going to
wear black uniforms in the field anymore...
and they still do.
The increase of quality was evident even before we began watching series 4 proper-- to bridge the gap between series 3 and 4 (which was eighteen months), there was a series of five "webisodes," each about five minutes long, covering a lot of the changes, as two of series 3's main cast didn't return, and two more team members were got rid of. In my commentary on series 3, I complained that Captain Becker, the Sexy Man of Action character, was so devoid of personality that the writers couldn't even land a joke about how devoid of personality he was... and then in one thirty-second scene in a single webisode he displayed more personality than in all ten episodes of series 3 put together!

The main cast is definitely one of the most prominent areas of improvement, and given that the plots on Primeval were never exactly things of genius, this is a pretty essential area. The two worst characters from series 3 don't come back-- team leader Danny Quinn and historian Sarah Page. Danny was lost in time at the end of series 3, and series 4 keeps him out of the way by reiterating that, but series 4 actually kills Sarah off with a quick line about a mission gone wrong! I didn't particularly love her character, but whoa, harsh!

Cutest moment of series 4: how worried Lester is for these
Connor and Abby were stranded in time at the end of series 3, but series 4 begins with them making it back to the present day and they rejoin the team in short order. I was a little skeptical about them being in a romance at first (during the will-they-won't-they stuff of earlier seasons, I kind of felt like I liked them better as goofy friends), but series 4 and 5 do a good job with the romance, portraying them as both good friends and real lovers, but still finding room for genuine character conflict. Mind you, Connor's ascent into nerd-genius-dom is completed: an undergraduate biology major in series 1, whose main skill was having a really nice historical database, he's now a physics supergenius whose skills are sought by the head of a major tech corporation. There is a really good episode about one of Connor's undergrad buddies from series 1, who's descending into being a conspiracy theory nut in his absence-- it was one of the surprisingly good ones.

Lester annoyed me in the first series, but each series has found a way to make him a little bit better than in the previous-- 4 and 5 get the mix of humour, affection, and pompousness just right for Britain's best bureaucrat.

There's a really good moment in one episode that shows how the writing of series 4 is much more character-based: with one team member stranded in the past, there's a debate about whether to go through the anomaly to rescue him or to lock the anomaly to reduce the danger. Becker thinks a rescue can't be risked-- thinking about the death of Sarah on a similar mission. Abby, fresh from a year-long exile to the past, thinks every chance has to be given for a rescue. Each has their own, perfectly reasonable perspective. It's not a big thing, but it's more sophisticated than previous seasons gave us.

That said, the new characters are great. A new team function is added with Jess, who stays back at the base and co-ordinates while everyone else is out in the field. As a result, she (usually) doesn't play a big role in missions, but she was a fun character. (Weirdly, there's a subplot set up about her, Abby, and Connor all living in the same apartment which never comes up again. As this would be the third Connor-rooms-with-another-team-member subplot in four seasons, maybe this would be for the best.)

First team leader on this show I'd actually trust with my life.
The new team leader is Matt Anderson, who I am relieved to say is not a cop who doesn't play by the rules. He's a refugee from an apocalyptic future who came back in time undercover to prevent that future, but even though that plotline is pretty well done, what impresses about Matt is that he's just a really good leader, much moreso than Cutter or Danny ever were. There's one episode where the team accidentally takes a submarine into prehistory(!), and Matt doesn't really do anything flashy, he just calmly works with the other characters to organize them, keep them on task, and give them the confidence and space to do their jobs. That nice, subtle writing did a lot to warm me up to Matt. Plus, Ciarán McMenamin is just very likeable. He doesn't seem to have done a lot post-Primeval, which is a shame.

(Danny does make a one-episode return. This didn't exactly fill me with cheer, but it does tie off an old dropped plot, and the writers purposefully/deliberately foreground his ridiculousness, as he immediately begins fighting prehistoric creatures with a giant stick named "Molly"! Jenny also returns for one episode, which was a lot more welcome.)

Oh my, Julian!
The other new main cast member is Alexander Siddig of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame as Philip Burton. Honestly, he feels a little wasted-- it could have been an interesting role, but the character is written pretty flatly, and his agenda is a bit too obvious. Still, I think Siddig's salt-and-pepper look here is probably peak sexiness for him. Ruth Bradley, who played the eighth Doctor's companion Molly O'Sullivan in the Dark Eyes audio dramas also has a recurring role as Lady Emily, a Victorian adventuress, though I felt like they never quite delivered on her potential. (And there's one subplot with her that's just left forgotten.)

If you'd asked me at the end of series 3, I might've suggested on giving up on it all-- or only watching it to delight in the bad television of it all. But I persevered, and series 4 and 5 turned out to be a pretty solid team-based adventure show. If only they'd kept this set-up going! But other than a short-lived Canadian spin-off, that was it for Primeval.

(Series 5 needed more Rex, though.)

23 March 2017

Review: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

Trade paperback, 362 pages
Published 1984 (originally 1924)

Acquired June 2014
Read September 2014
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

I had actually never read any E. M. Forster before teaching this novel. There's a lot going on in it: it amazes me to think that anyone could have ever wondered if it was pro-British or pro-Indian, but maybe that's my modern anti-colonialist biases at work. (Though maybe as a feminist, I should believe the accusation.) The crux of the whole book is arguably the incident in the caves, but the alleged sexual assault is just one part of that. There's a weird break in the narration at that moment-- if there is a sexual assault, it occurs between pages, and that feels like a cheat designed to up the ambiguity, given how closely Forster renders point-of-view throughout the rest of the novel.

But is it a cheat? If there was a sexual assault, it's a very modernist move to indicate it through a break in narration: the trauma of the event would render it unthinkable and therefore unnarratable. (It's kind of like, but very different to, how Hardy handles the rape of Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I taught in the same class.)

However, then the cheat becomes: if there wasn't a sexual assault, why is there a break in the narration? The answer to that, I would argue, lies earlier in the novel, where we are told, "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence" (146). Like all moments where fiction tells you about what fiction does, you have to read this as indicative of what this work of fiction is or is not doing. According to A Passage to India, there are long passages of time where nothing happens, where the brain is lying if it indicates emotion was actually felt: "a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent" (146). So if nothing happened in the caves, of course there's a break in the narration, because if nothing is happening, the book must be silent since this book is a "perfectly adjusted organism," not an exaggerator like all those earlier works of fiction.

What is easy to overlook if you focus on the sexual assault, I think, is that there's another act of violence in the cave: Mrs. Moore's crisis of faith. Mrs. Moore struggles with what she thought were fundamentals of existence when she finally travels to a place where they are not true. India is older than anything in world (135), upsetting her beliefs in Britain and in Christianity, and the darkness of the cave shows how a whisper can be echoed to seem all-consuming (166). She thinks the cave is evil, but it turns out to just be that the cave amplifies what is brought into it; I never thought I'd make this comparison, but it's basically the cave from The Empire Strikes Back. In the end, she cannot write down what happened (165)-- it really was too traumatic for her. Later we are told that there is no sorrow like Mrs. Moore's sorrow, the experience of an utterly unprofound vision. When East meets West, Mrs. Moore accesses the modern condition and realizes how meaningless life is. Poor woman.

22 March 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part II: Manhunter: Trial by Fire

Comic trade paperback, 222 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2005)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2016
Manhunter: Trial by Fire

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Pencillers: Javier Pina, Jesus Saiz, Brad Walker, Diego Olmos
Inkers: Fernando Blanco, Jimmy Palmiotti, Bob Petrecca
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Rob Leigh, Pat Brosseau, Nick J. Napolitano, Travis Lanham

This book is good but not great. Which is fine; lots of comic books out there aren't even good. But Manhunter seems like it should be great. All the pieces are there, and there are lots of things to like here. I like showing what happens when a supervillain gets arrested and goes on trial (Kate calls Hawkman and Superman as witnesses in the trial of Shadow Thief for the murder of Firestorm). I like that Superman takes the time to sign a photo for Kate's son. I like that Andreyko delves into the history of DC's various Manhunters, showing her as the latest in a lineage (DC's sense of history and tradition was the highlight of the post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint universe). I like that Kate isn't always nice, struggles with smoking, and has an ex-henchman she goes to for technical support.

When I told my wife (who is reading Manhunter along with me) that I liked it when Superman testified, she said, "Of course you did." I guess I am predictable.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #7 (art by Jesus Saiz & Fernando Blanco)

But the book never clicks as much as I want it to. The trial of Shadow Thief is interrupted by various supervillains trying to kill him so he can't testify against them, a mistrial is declared... and that's it, the storyline is over while they wait for a new trial to come along. The Manhunter stuff just gets confusing because there's so many Manhunters, and I've even read the issue of Secret Origins that organized all their histories into one coherent narrative. And bringing it all in for a five-issue story doesn't quite work because it pulls this series away from its core purpose a little too much: how does Kate carry out the kind of justice the legal system won't let her?

I mean, yeah, of course.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #13 (art by Brad Walker & Jimmy Palmiotti)

That said, the stories are decent. I like the sense of Kate as someone who struggles in combat, who is improvising and doing her best, and sometimes failing. She gets beat up, she suffers, but she plunges back into it all. She has tenacity and luck on her side-- she survives a fight with Cheshire, which might seem improable, but is mostly because she cares more than Cheshire. Cheshire is a hired gun and has a reason to just give up, while Kate has a dozen reasons to just keep going regardless.

The fakeout about who was killing Manhunters might have worked better if I could keep track of who they all were.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #13 (art by Brad Walker & Jimmy Palmiotti)

Anyway, I like it, and I'll obviously keep reading. But I'm still hoping that Manhunter delivers on its potential.

Next Week: Captain Atom crosses universes and experiences Armageddon!

21 March 2017

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 3 by John Barber, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired March 2015
Read February 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 3

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli, Brendan Cahill, Guido Guidi
Additional Inks by John Wycough
Colors by Joana Lafuente, Guido Guidi, Priscilla Tramontano
Letters by Shawn Lee, Chris Mowry

In comparison to More than Meets the Eye, any comic book is going to come up inferior, but even trying to step outside of that, I don't think Robots in Disguise lands as well as it ought to. It hovers somewhere between mediocre and good, with occasional flashes of brilliance. At least part of the problem is the feeling that there's some filler here, that not enough of the book is dealing with the problem of postwar Cybertron, which is ostensibly its whole reason for existing. The first story here is another adventure of Orion Pax, the second and third are set on Cybertron, but the second is about 50% flashbacks to the early days of Cybertron, long before Optimus Prime and Megatron.

The flashbacks are actually pretty entertaining; I love how John Barber and Gudio Guidi emulate the style of Marvel's early Transformers comics:
In the distant past, apparently Cybertronians spoke Exposition.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise Annual 2012 (art by Guido Guidi)
...but what do they have to do with anything, beyond providing some backstory? Amusing and interesting, but seemingly distracting.

That said, when these comics hit, they hit well. The moment where the Metrotitan reactivates and speaks to Starscream about his destiny genuinely gave me shivers:
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise Annual 2012 (art by Brendan Cahill)

And the last-page revelation has lots of promise, too. I also like the power struggle within the Decepticon ranks, as we start to realize that Shockwave is up to more than we thought. (And recent revelations about Shockwave in More than Meets the Eye have me more interested in him than I was before.)

On the other hand, isn't Starscream a little too nakedly mercenary for the supposed smooth political operator he's supposed to be? Like he's openly disdainful of Autobot lives when talking to Metalhawk, who is his greatest political ally. Or, if Prowl thinks the Decepticons are a threat and he's so ruthless, how come he waits until Starscream tells him something to wipe them out, since he's apparently capable of it all along? It's things like this that stop this comic from being as good as it should be. Like the previous volume of Robots in Disguise, I enjoyed this because it felt like set-up for something good, but I hope the something good turns up soon.

C'mon, Metalhawk, dude is trying on crowns and the election hasn't even been called yet. And c'mon, Starscream, maybe you should notice that he notices!
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #11 (art by Guido Guidi)
Next Week: Meanwhile, in space... it's time for Transformers tragedy in More than Meets the Eye!

20 March 2017

Review: Rumors of War and Infernal Machines by Charles E. Gannon

Vaguely related (in that apocalypses come up): my review of series five of Terry Nation's Survivors is available for your consumption.

Hardcover, 311 pages
Published 2005 (originally 2003)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Rumors of War and Infernal Machines: Technomilitary Agenda-setting in American and British Speculative Fiction
by Charles E. Gannon

When you read as many academic monographs as I do, it's easy to hate them for their long sentences, long paragraphs, and unclear thinking. (All things, I should point out, that my own academic writing is prone to as much as anyone's.) Often one yearns for a book that has interesting ideas and writing that is merely acceptable. So I was very pleased when Gannon's book turned out to more more than acceptable, but good-- Gannon constructs a compelling narrative chock-full of interesting details.

The focus of his study is on near-future military science fiction: stories about the "next" war where the technology deployed does not yet exist (or has not yet been used), but plausibly could exist. He's interested in how these stories exploit contemporary anxieties, but also in how they affect them: science fiction about future wars can have a real effect on politics and policy. So mostly the book consists of a series of illustrations of how a future-war narrative drew on contemporary concerns, and then how it affected them. The book has two primary parts: chapters 1 through 4 cover British narratives of invasion published during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods (1871 to 1914) and chapters 5 through 10 are about American stories drawing on the Cold War and after (1950 to the present).

Obviously the first half was of more interest to me personally than the second. Gannon covers a number of familiar texts, giving probably the most thorough account of the highly influential The Battle of Dorking (1871) that I've read, a mere pamphlet which changed the shape of British politics-- its author was even elected to Parliament! Probably the best part was the chapter covering the work of William Le Queux, who drove around Britain in his motorcar to figure out the perfect invasion route for his newspaper serial The Invasion of 1910 (1906), but was forced by his publisher to plot a less plausible one that intersected more major population centers where newspapers could be sold. The Invasion of 1910 drew on a contemporary spy scare, but magnified it all out of proportion.

There's other famous stuff here too: The Great War of 189— (1893) by Admiral Philip Colomb, and much H. G. Wells, especially his "The Land Ironclads" (1903). It was fascinating to learn that the inventor of the tank, Ernest Swinton, was friends and collaborators with a writer of future-war fiction who wrote about tanks, Captain R. E. Vickers, who wrote the story "The Trenches" (1907). Gannon traces their relationship in detail from scant archival evidence to show a compelling connection between science fiction and the deployment of actual science fiction weaponry. The one real weakness of the first half is how much he glosses over everyone who wrote about the airplane before H. G. Wells, like George Griffith.

The second half of the book ought to have been less interesting to me because it's not "my" time period, but I still found much to enjoy, such as a persuasive discussion of Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) and its film adaptation mere weeks before I ended up teaching the book. Gannon argues that nuclear war fiction is important because the atom bomb has a destructive power beyond our ability to grasp in numbers: "the discourse of nuclear literature had traditionally relied upon images because a personally meaningful quantitative assessment of the bomb’s annihilatory powers is impossible" (129). As in the earlier section, Gannon delivers compelling connections between fiction and reality: the Eisenhower administration tried to suppress the film because they thought it would make the American people lose their nerve in the Cold War, President Truman carried a copy of Tennyon's future-war poem "Locksley Hall" (1835) with him and cribbed one of his speeches from a 1907 future-war magazine serial! Once the book moved past the atomic bomb, though, it sort of lost my interest.

Overall, a good book covering an interesting topic in a compelling fashion, and well written. I liked his breaking down of genres into subtypes, each with different purposes-- it's a good example of how to do genre-based criticism. The only bugbear of academic writing Gannon falls victim to is overuse of hyphens and parentheses in titles. "An Imperfect Future Tense(d): Anticipations of Atomic Annihilation in Post-War American Science Fiction" makes me wince a little, but "Cultural Casualties as Collateral Damage: The Fragment-ing/-ation Effects of Future-War Fantasies vs. Fictions" is unforgivable.

17 March 2017

"My Childhood—Only an Abstraction to Me Now"

Recently, I came across and took a survey for a project on the effects of family composition.

One of the questions was, "What is your happiest childhood memory, relating to one or more of the adults in your household?" This isn't a question I can remember ever being asked before, certainly not in this format, and I was surprised how difficult it was to come up with an answer. Not because I had an unhappy childhood, but for two reasons. The first is that I had a pretty happy childhood as far as I am concerned (certainly I think so now, and maybe I even thought so at the time), and so the whole thing is sort of a blob of nice things happening. The second is related to the first: happiest is a pretty high bar, and it's hard to grab any particular childhood memory and say, "That's it, that's my happiest childhood memory relating to one or more adults in my household."

Definitely there was good stuff: I will always look back with fondness on my family's road trips to various national parks, and my father trained me to build sandcastles on the beach with the best of them, and of course Thanksgivings in my family are a thing of legend.

But what I ended up typing into the survey was going on car rides with my mother. I don't mean long, epic trips, I just mean driving from place to place. My mom was stay-at-home for the first fourteen or fifteen years of my childhood, so she drove all of us lots of places. There's one in particular that sticks with me: telling me, shortly before my twelfth birthday, that I actually was not my father's son, but that she had been impregnated by an alien (via ray beam), and since that alien came from a planet six light-years from Earth, he'd be returning for me on my twelfth birthday.

It's not just that one conversation, though: it stands in for a larger set of conversations with my mother, where she took me seriously. I am sure I must have asked a lot of questions and said a lot of strange things as a child, and in retrospect I had some pretty poor emotional intelligence at times, so I'm sure car rides with me at any point where I was capable of talking could be pretty vexing. But as far I can remember, my mother always engaged with me fully and thoughtfully.

"Fully and thoughtfully," as the space alien story shows, though, did not rule out whimsically. My family had a variety of talking dolls and animals and whatevers with various personalities-- everything talked, and this was mostly because of my mother. Imaginative play was taken as seriously as anything else we did.

The next question on the survey was, "What, if any, effect did event that have on your development or who you are today?" I find this hard to answer because the effect seems immeasurable. Taking my curiosity and my imagination seriously: well, look where I am now.

Thanks for all the car rides, mom.

16 March 2017

Review: Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly

Hardcover, 275 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1890)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2013
Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century
by Ignatius Donnelly

Nicholas Ruddick's introduction to my Wesleyan edition of Caesar's Column argues for its place in the lineage of science fiction: Donnelly was the first to use Jules Verne's motifs in American literature, and George Griffith borrowed from Caesar's Column when he wrote his own proto-sf. And indeed, there are a lot of things I recognize from later sf: a secret revolutionary Brotherhood, fleets of air-ships, a corrupt world that needs to be obliterated so it can be rebuilt, flagrant racism that is distasteful to the modern reader. Donnelly is a little more sophisticated than Griffith is, I think; his analysis of the fact that public schools made the "trampled" working classes intelligent enough to want to rebel made me think of a similar point H. G. Wells makes about colonialism in The War in the Air.

The end of the novel is more realistic that Griffith's, too, or maybe I just mean it's bleaker. Unlike all those apocalyptic novels where destruction leads to utopia, Donnelly sounds a pessimistic note near the end: "The rude and begrimed insurgents are raised by their terrible purposes to a certain dignity. They are the avengers of time--the God-sent--the righters of the world's wrongs--the punishers of the ineffably wicked. They do not mean to destroy the world; they will reform it--redeem it. They will make it a world where there shall be neither toil nor oppression. But, poor fellows! their arms are more potent for evil than their brains for good. They are omnipotent to destroy; they are powerless to create" (200). But the book is just as condemnatory of those who permitted/caused the conditions that the mob rose up against. The end of the novel is bleak all around.

15 March 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part I: Manhunter: Street Justice

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05)
Borrowed from the library
Read November 2016
Manhunter: Street Justice

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Penciller: Jesus Saiz
Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Jared K. Fletcher, Pat Brosseau

These days Marvel gets a lot of praise, and rightly so, for its "All-New All-Different" titles, series like Ms. Marvel and Thor and so on that update classic heroes with new diverse characters-- and also diverse storytelling and artistic styles. DC had a similar, if unnamed, initiative in the mid-2000s, where they revived old characters with new twists in ongoing series: a divorced female Manhunter, a Mexican-American Blue Beetle, a Chinese-American Atom, a lesbian Latina Question, and a lesbian Batwoman. Many of these series didn't last too long (there are only two The Question collections, for example), but I've long been curious about them, so I'm going to be reading them all intermixed in publication order. One of the things I like about the (pre-Flashpoint) DC universe is the sense of legacy and history, which is part of what makes me curious about these characters. They were, after all, the sixth Manhunter, the third Blue Beetle, the fourth Atom, the second Question, and the second Batwoman. Some of the books I'll be reading won't quite fit into the rubric of revivals of old characters with new, diverse premises, but were related books coming out around the same time with that interest in the history of the DCU, like Captain Atom: Armageddon, Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality, and Booster Gold.

from Manhunter vol. 3 #1

So the first up is Manhunter, in a series that began shortly before Identity Crisis. Kate Spencer is a divorced district attorney in Los Angeles, who becomes tired of the fact that that supervillains always break out of jail and kill again after she's put them away. So she decides to take the law into her own hands and track down escaped villains... and kill them. She steals superpowered equipment from the evidence locker and bullies a former henchman in witness protection into providing her with technical support. In the meantime, she has to balance her superheroics with being a mother.

14 March 2017

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 3 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Acquired March 2015
Read February 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 3

Written by James Roberts
Art by Jimbo Salgado, Emil Cabaltierra, and Alex Milne
Flashback Art by Guido Guidi
Additional Inks by Juan Castro and John Wycough
Colors by Juan Fernandez and Josh Burcham with Joana Lafuente
Letters by Chris Mowry and Shawn Lee

I knew from, like, page three of this volume that it was gonna be a good one. The book opens with Hot Rod and a number of the other Lost Light Autobots on some kind of vaguely defined mission:
Sometimes I worry this is me.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye Annual 2012 (art by Jimbo Salgado & Emil Cabaltierra)

There's some running around, some banter (I laughed), and then you discover that the characters have been miniaturized and are running around inside the mouth of Ultra Magnus, Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord, fighting off an infestation of nanobots. Ultra Magnus is so grim that the pistons he needs to smile haven't been used in centuries:

13 March 2017

Review: When It Changed: Science into Fiction edited by Geoff Ryman

Trade paperback, 276 pages
Published 2009

Acquired August 2012
Read August 2016
When It Changed: Science into Fiction
edited by Geoff Ryman

Geoff Ryman edits an anthology that pairs science fiction writers with scientists: the sf writers provide stories based on real scientific concepts (sometimes loosely interpreted) and the scientists then provide a 2-3 page commentary on the story. Like any original anthology, it's a little uneven, and I found myself a bit disappointed that there weren't any particularly standout stories here. But still, there were some of note:

"Global Collider Generation: an Idyll" by Paul Cornell is a bit weird, a tale of a scientist trying to build a particle collider with the circumference of the Earth, and a mercenary trying to stop her, all in the midst of Cold War II. I don't know what to make of its assertion that direct conflict is needed for real progress. I'd hope not, but I suspect Paul Cornell actually hopes not too!

"Moss Witch" by Sara Maitland is kind of not a story, but more an examination of a hominid life-form with the traits of mosses. It made me wish I paid more attention to my botanist wife when she talks about plant reproduction, but when I wasn't lost in the details of plantdom, I enjoyed its conceit.

"You" by Geoff Ryman had a really neat idea, an idea so neat it seems like Ryman missed it. People in the future can lifeblog, go into the recorded lives of others. But you can go ever further than that: this story is about you lifeblogging someone who researched the life of someone by lifeblogging. Whoa! I'd've liked to have seen more of this, as this sort of layering was the best part of a tale of someone uncovering evidence there may have been life on Mars.

"In The Event Of" by Michael Arditti might cover some old ground as far as clone stories go, but I found it to be well-told and enjoyable regardless. What would it be like to be the clone of your parents' first child, who never lived up to her potential? Sibling-based imposter syndrome to the max!

"Zoology" by Simon Ings barely even used its scientific innovation, which I think is sort of implicitly acknowledged by Dr Matthew Cobb in "Exceptions," the story's afterword, but I mostly enjoyed it for its satire of the big and small issues of academia, from campus master plans to how rooms get renumbered in old buildings!

There weren't any bad stories here, either, but I wanted to love this book more than I did. I don't know if the premise of the book prevented the imagination from being as opened up as much as you might hope, or what, but these stories don't seem to quite live up to Ryman's hope in the introduction, that good science in fiction can create new and better ways of thinking. It's an overly ambitious goal, and perhaps the failure to realize that goal (he disparages the science and thus the imagination of the  Battlestar Galactica reboot, but I'd say that Battlestar is as good as most of what's here, if not better) is what prevented this book from really succeeding for me.

10 March 2017

Review: Nemesis: The Impostors by Ivan Brandon and Cliff Richards

When I read the various Final Crisis Aftermath titles a couple years ago, my favorite was Escape, which had the character of Tom "Nemesis" Tresser trying to escape Brother Eye and the Electric City, home of the new Checkmate Global Peace Agency. I said that it was the only one FCA story "that doesn't feel like the writer is trying to make something out of Grant Morrison's leftovers, that feels like its writer actually has his own story to tell" and though I found it confusing (it has conspiracies and duplicates and time travel), "just enough explanations were provided to make me feel like there was a logic to this, and to intrigue me to read on. There was a purpose to everything that happened, one that stems from the events of Final Crisis and has repercussions for the future."

Even though one of Grant Morrison's purposes in Final Crisis was setting up new concepts for other writers to play with them, and DC's purpose in the FCA tales was apparently to do that playing, none of them really took off. There were no more Human Flame stories after Run!, no Super Young Team stories after Dance, and almost no more Tattooed Man stories after Ink. Escape did, however, receive a follow-up, in the form of a four-issue Nemesis miniseries called The Impostors. Having escaped from the Electric City, Tom Tresser tries to take down the Council (apparently his recurring nemesis from his original 1980s appearances in The Brave and the Bold), but has to tackle with Batman and possibly the Joker in the process. It was never collected, so I couldn't get it from the library, but I liked Escape enough to buy the single issues off eBay.

As I quoted myself above, I enjoyed Escape and liked the future it implied. Only now, eighteen months after I wrote that, I have no idea what I was talking about. The Impostors did nothing to remind me what I was talking about back then. I was so confused reading this book, and not in a good way. Why exactly did Tom suddenly want to take down his old enemies? Why did he keep seeing Brother Eye and the Electric City? What did the stuff I did dimly remember from Escape actually have to do with anything? And what the heck was up with the ending?

Frustratingly, the story ends in such a way that indicates more is to come-- and that more needs to come, because The Impostors makes so little sense on its own. However, The Impostors was Tom Tresser's last appearance, and then the universe was rebooted. I bounced off this story completely, which is a shame because of how much I liked Escape. I would read more in the vain hope that something might make sense again, but I don't even have that option.

One thing I did like: Tom is pretty paranoid in this story, and justifiably so, and his paranoia is amped up because he doesn't believe the guy claiming to be Batman is actually Batman because his body language is wrong. This is because The Impostors takes place after Final Crisis-- so Bruce Wayne is unstuck in time, and Dick Grayson is the new Batman. It's a nice little touch.

Nemesis: The Impostors was originally published in four issues (May-Aug. 2010). The story was written by Ivan Brandon; illustrated by Cliff Richards; colored by Matthew Wilson; lettered by Steve Wands (#1), Sal Cipriano (#2-3), and Travis Lanham (#4); and edited by Ian Sattler (#1-4) and Rex Ogle (#2-4).

09 March 2017

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trade paperback, 192 pages
Published 1997 (originally 1985)

Acquired January 2007
Previously read February 2007

Reread September 2014
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Look, why oranges anyway? When one of my students asked that in class, we came up with a tremendous list of resonances and symbolisms that the oranges have in this novel-- the cover of my edition, at least, makes a sort of "forbidden fruit" interpretation obvious. One of the meanings of the oranges comes from fairy tale narratives embedded in the text of the novel, like the tale of Sir Perceval or the tale of Winnet. These are the stories that young Jeanette needed to hear but never did, the kind of stories that could have helped her operate in the world, but she never received; she only had one source of stories, her mother's (often warped) Bible tales. She had a steady diet of oranges, so to speak.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with embedded narratives like the fairy tales. This novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin would say all novels are, is heteroglossic, different-tongued. Bakhtin reminds us that you can't separate the form from the content; the fairy tales aren't a sideshow or a diversion, they're part of the meaning of the text as much as the plot is. Everything in a novel refracts the intentions of the author. So why the fairy tales? We should remember that, as Jeanette/Winterson tells us, stories are "a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained" (93). Every story explains something and fails to explain something else; we all forget the aspects of the past that make us uncomfortable. So what can we do about this? As we're told (95), the world is a sandwich made up of other peoples stories, so you need to add your own mustard! Or, go even further, and make your own sandwiches.

Jeanette's mother never gets it. She only has one story. She reflects near the end of the novel, "After all… oranges are not the only fruit" (172), but this is in the context of her feeding a group of houseguests only pineapple! She's just substituted one universal story for another. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit argues that the world is heteroglossic, that everyone needs a different story, and the worst thing that you can do is fail to recognize that. Jeanette grows up and loses the simplicity of her old world, the one where oranges were the only fruit, but she gains a new world with new stories-- and yet the old stories remain there too. She can go back and see her mother, and Jeanette is different but the same, and her mother is different but the same.

We're always finding new stories and discarding old ones when they don’t work. Jeanette’s mother’s stories work for her, but Jeanette needs a different set of stories, and yet the old stories remain inside her. Our sandwiches need mustard. We need oranges and pineapples and many other fruits. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with different stories because we all need to be filled with different stories if we're going to survive.

08 March 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #12: Spider-Man: The Venom Factor

Trade paperback, 348 pages
Published 1994

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2016
Spider-Man: The Venom Factor
by Diane Duane
illustrations by Ron Lim

Diane Duane is one of my favorite Star Trek novelists, which was my reason for including this book in my list of interesting prose novels based on comic book properties. It displays one of Duane's writing tics to a T: exhaustive research. We all know that Peter Parker is a photographer, but Duane makes us believe it, devoting time in the novel his purchasing of film and other equipment, his developing of film, and his going through the whole process of submitting photos to the Daily Planet and obtaining reimbursement for expenses. It's the kind of detail you probably wouldn't or shouldn't give in a superhero comic book, but deepens the realistic feeling of the world in a novel, which was part of my whole reason for this project. Peter's also a graduate student in physics during this time period, and Duane captures some of the nuances of that, too, though not as well. (I find it hard to believe anyone has the time to be a graduate student and a freelance news photographer and a superhero.)

Other than that, this is a decent if unimpressive novel. Duane captures the characters of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Mary Jane, and Venom well, based on my limited experience of them all. (This is set during the period where Peter and Mary Jane were married, and apparently also Venom was kind of a good guy? He seems like he's going to be the book's villain, but it turns out to be misdirection.) It's the first part of a trilogy, so I guess the full story will be forthcoming.

Next Week: A new project begins-- my exploration of DC's "new heroes" in the Infinite Crisis era, beginning with Manhunter: Street Justice!

07 March 2017

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 2 by John Barber, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, 98 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 2012)
Acquired August 2014
Read February 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 2

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli, Brendan Cahill, and Andrew Griffith
Colors by Joana Lafeunte, Josh Perez, and Livio Ramondelli
Letters by Shawn Lee

Physically, all IDW trade paperbacks are thin. IDW as a company just doesn't like collecting more than four issues at once, and this is as true of The Transformers as it is for Star Trek, Doctor Who, or My Little Pony. And besides, I'm reading these Transformers volumes electronically. But despite that, this one collects four issues and still manages to feel thinner than most. Probably at least partially because the first issue collected here is not about the Autobots forging a new future on Cybertron, but Orion Pax nee Optimus Prime following up on clues from crazed Decepticon scientist Jhiaxus about Monstructor. Though I'm sure it'll play into events on Cybertron in the long run, it feels like filler: Orion is not a main character in this series, and I barely know who the other robots on this mission-- on either side-- even are. Livio Ramondelli's art doesn't help; his painterly style is attractive, but the storytelling is often difficult to follow.

Give him an amazing discovery in an ancient ice cavern, though, and he'll draw the hell out of it.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #6 (art by Livio Ramondelli)

The remaining three issues here advance some of the plotlines of post-peace Cybertron: Wheeljack investigates a mysterious Decepticon recently arrived on Cybertron, while Ironhide and the Dinobots brave the wilderness of post-reformatting Cyberton and Bumblebee tries to balance his desire to be inclusive with his fear of giving Decepticons a bigger role in the global government. The stories are decent if not great, enlivened by the stuff Barber and his artistic collaborators do with voice and structure. One issue, for example, parallels happenings in Autobot HQ depicted in conventional comics formats with Wheeljack's explorations in a sixteen-panel grid filled with narration:
Forget the nine-panel grid, Alan Moore. John Barber is here!
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #7 (art by Brendan Cahill)

Also, the little touches make it sing, like the former Decepticon who produces terrible poetry at open mic night, or just how goddamned smug Starscream is all the time:
I also dig every little crack he makes about the elections.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #7 (art by Brendan Cahill)

I've never really paid much attention to Bumblebee before, but I like him here-- a nice guy harried by every person, trying to live up to an impossible ideal in a difficult decision, always too hopeful that there will be an easy way out, and completely lacking confidence in himself. There's a lot simmering in this book, and it's an enjoyable simmer, but I look forward to seeing it boil over. Too often I feel like something interesting is about to happen, not actually happening.

Next Week: Meanwhile, in space... as always the Lost Light crew encounters something that's More than Meets the Eye!