28 April 2017

This Sporting Life

I think my father wanted a different son.

Not that he was unhappy with the son he received, but that when he envisioned himself as a father he envisioned himself throwing pitches in the front yard while his son learned how to keep his eye on the ball. Alas, he got me, who as a child was too distracted to keep his eye on anything for long. We used to play ghost baseball with bases made out of wood. (I helpfully wrote on them all in marker, so that no one would confuse first base with third.) I am pretty sure his ghost runners always outscored mine.

This stock photo batter has about my skill level.
As a child, my parents enrolled me in a couple different sports: tee-ball and soccer. Tee-ball, I seem to recall, never went particularly well. At a certain point, the tee went away and it just became softball, and then it went even worse. I have trophies, of course, because I grew up in the "participation trophy" era, but even these have bad memories associated with them, because of course my last name is spelled wrong on all of them.

Soccer I was moderately more successful at, playing up until the sixth grade, I think. In the first year I played soccer, our team was a juggernaut, going 10-0 in regular season play and also 5-0 in two different tournaments. (Somewhere my mother has a newspaper article trumpeting our 20-0 record.) For the first game of the post-season tournament, our coach rented a limousine, and it deposited us on the field to cheering from our families.

We lost that game, and were eliminated from the tournament.

Coach Cornelius was an interesting character. A local home builder, he had no boy on the team, though his daughter was in my class at school. He once argued with a ref so vigorously, the ref ejected him from the game. I guess what I'm saying is, he took winning very seriously. In this level of soccer you are obligated to take anyone who wants to play, and obligated to play them for a minimum of two quarters.

So does this stock photo goalie.
Coach Cornelius always played me for two quarters and no more, and he always kept me at fullback (occasionally goalie), a position where the skill of our team meant I could be safely assured of never having contact with the ball. It's hard to blame him, since I am pretty sure I didn't really pay much attention to the game when I was in it. There was simply too much else going on on and around the soccer field.

Later, I ended up on a team coached by one Coach Parkinson, and I will say this for him: he honest-to-God tried with me. He placed me in a number of different positions-- I remember doing a lot of halfback with him-- and even tried to get me in a position to score. Bless him. I did come very close at least one time, but the enemy goalie was sufficiently good to stop me.

Both of my younger siblings ended up much more successful in their athletic endeavors; I remember going to their soccer games, and my parents would reward them financially for each goal. (I don't think they even got to the point of making me such an offer.)

"You know," I'd say as though it were a significant accomplishment, "I almost scored a goal once."

27 April 2017

Review: Voices Prophesying War by I. F. Clarke

Hardcover, 268 pages
Published 1992 (first edition: 1966)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars, 1763-3749
by I. F. Clarke

Voices Prophesying War is the classic study of future-war fiction. It technically begins in 1763, but I. F. Clarke's study really kicks off with 1871 and The Battle of Dorking, and the book's real focus is the period from 1880 to 1914, where future war fiction was immensely popular. Clarke traces its interaction with science and with politics, and these three chapters are the real heart of the book. Clarke's reading is wide and deep, and if it wasn't for him, I don't think contemporary literary critics would look at this body of work as its own distinctive genre, with its own features and projects. I found the post-Great War sections of the book less interesting, but then I would.

26 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part VII: Manhunter: Unleashed

My review of Torchwood: Outbreak, the first Big Finish Torchwood story to reunite the main cast, is up at Unreality SF.

Comic trade paperback, 174 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2017
Manhunter: Unleashed

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Pencillers: Javier Pina, Fernando Blanco, Brad Walker, Diego Olmos, Cafu
Inkers: Robin Riggs, Fernando Blanco, Art Thibert
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Nick J. Napolitano, Ken Lopez

This volume puts the new set-up that debuted in volume 3 of Manhunter on hold: Kate successfully defends Doctor Psycho, creating the connection that she (and Director Bones) want with the Secret Society of Super Villains, but this doesn't actually go anywhere in this volume because Wonder Woman turns up, asking Kate to be her defense attorney when she's up before a grand jury for possible indictment for the murder of Maxwell Lord back in The OMAC Project. Even though it's neither Kate-as-Manhunter-kills-the-villains-the-law-can't-touch nor Kate-must-put-her-instincts-aside-and-defend-villains, I was on board at first: there's some fun legal wrangling, Wonder Woman's regalness is a great contrast to Kate's earthiness, and Ted "Blue Beetle" Kord even puts in an appearance despite being dead.

The pleasure Kate takes in both of her jobs is one of the defining/interesting aspects of her character.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #27 (art by Javier Pina & Fernando Blanco and Robin Riggs)

But by the end of the book, things didn't quite land. Kate avoids an indictment for Wonder Woman, but it mostly feels like Checkmate did the actual work. In the meantime, Kate's supporting cast have gone on some adventures (Cameron and Dylan face an old supervillain; Mark avoids more mystical summons) that don't really integrate well with the rest of the book.

I mean, it's a comic book, but his iron jaw is still pretty dumb, especially for the more "grounded" tone of this book.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #29 (art by Javier Pina, Brad Walker, & Fernando Blanco and Robin Riggs)

The human elements of Manhunter are always solid, but Andreyko struggles to integrate them with compelling superheroics. The villains Kate fights often feel like filler, and Unleashed continues that trend. Once again, great premise, middling execution.

Or there's the sort-of silly and overhyped Manhunter/Wonder Woman fight, which turns out (unsurprisingly) to be a training session, despite Andreyko trying to fool you into thinking it's about Kate's lethal methods or something.
from Manhunter vol. 3 #26 (art by Javier Pina & Robin Riggs)
Next Week: Forget the old Blue Beetle-- the new one goes on a Road Trip!

25 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 5 by John Barber, Livio Ramondelli, Andrew Griffith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired March 2015
Read April 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 5

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli, Atilio Rojo, Dheeraj Verma, and Andrew Griffith
Colors by Livio Ramondelli, Priscilla Tramontano, and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long, Chris Mowry, and Shawn Lee

This volume is sort of a mixed bag-- there's clearly a lot of set-up going on here for the imminent Dark Cybetron crossover. While in More than Meets the Eye, that was seemingly all done in a bonus text story at the back (and one throwaway comment in the final issue), a lot of what's here are stories about the secret agenda that Shockwave's been running in the background for almost the entire duration of Robots in Disguise. We get a flashback tale that integrates some of the revelations about Shockwave from More than Meets the Eye with the backstory shown in Autocracy (appropriately drawn by Autocracy's artist, Livio Ramondelli), yet another tale of Orion Pax and company chasing Shockwave's mentor Jhiaxus but failing to accomplish anything, and a two-part story that parallels Shockwave and Soundwave fighting in the present with their relationship in the past.

This stuff is okay. Some of it feels belabored and stretched out: Shockwave and Soundwave's fight, for example, was never particularly interesting. I did really like the insight I got into Soundwave's relationship with his cassette servants; probably the best bit of the whole two issues is where we see their first meeting. Soundwave has the power to basically hear all things, which leaves him overwhelmed, but the Cybertronians who will become his cassettes reach out to him and teach him how to filter his perceptions to make them manageable. It adds a bit of pathos to a Decepticon character I hadn't really thought about before. (I still don't get why his cassettes are cassettes, though.) Other aspects of the flashbacks, though, were informative, but not entertaining, more like reading the Transformers wiki than a story-- as always, Barber seems to be sewing up a lot of continuity details for the faithful.

And then they all became evil.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #22 (art by Livio Ramondelli)

Orion Pax chasing but not getting Jhiaxus is becoming dull, but I suppose this formula will come to an end with Dark Cybetron. It was fun to see a Beast Wars character make a significant contribution to the story in the form of Waspinator. Those are the Transformers stories I'm nostalgic for!

24 April 2017

Review: The Surprising Effects of Sympathy by David Marshall

Hardcover, 286 pages
Published 1988
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley
by David Marshall

This is one of those academic books that has a very broad-sounding supertitle that seduces one, when one should pay more attention to the details of the subtitle. David Marshall is interested in the relationship between theatre, spectacle, and sympathy in the works of a number of French writers-- in very specific detail. So I, who have an interest in the relationship between sympathy and sight, found little of interest here because I don't really care about Marivaux, Diderot, and Rousseau. Some of his claims about the dangers these writers saw in sympathy are interesting ("The danger […] is finally not that we might not believe other people, but that we might not believe in them" [134]), but he restricts himself to close reading most of the time. And of course I have tons of interest in Frankentein, but his reading of Frankenstein in light of Shelley's interest in Rousseau seemed to close off the text rather than open it up-- I felt like it didn't offer much to someone who wasn't already interested in Rousseau. I want to read other people's takes on sympathy in Frankenstein, and this book did not provide me with what I was looking for.

21 April 2017

The Best Student Work and the Problem of Limited Resources

Right now, in the between-real-employments phase of my academic career, I'm working part-time (i.e., adjuncting) in the department where I received my Ph.D. In the fall, I taught two first-year writing courses; this spring I taught one writing course and one 3000-level literature class. (Undergraduate classes here go from 1000 to 4999, so this makes it junior-level in theory.)

That class is winding down now (only one more week of classes to go), which is causing me to think about the assessment I'm using. I do weekly-ish reading quizzes (there's a 50% chance of a quiz on any given day, so it averages out to one per week), a 3-page paper due during the semester, a 6-page paper due at the end, a midterm, and a final.

I'm not convinced these are very good or very appropriate levels of assessment. When it comes to encouraging reading on a regular basis, I think short responses are more appropriate to the kind of work I want my students to be doing than quizzes. When it comes to synthesizing their knowledge of the class, I think longer writing is better than multiple exams.

But I have forty students, and so pedagogy must compromise with efficiency. It is simply easier to grade 40 four-question quizzes per week than it is to read and respond to 40 1.5-page writings. It is simply easier to assign nine pages of writing than to assign more (8-12 is the range for a 3000-level ENGL class, so you can tell at least I'm doing more than the bare minimum). And exams are the best way I know to figure out if all forty of my students got something out of the class when usually there's not time or space for each one of them to say something substantive every day. I just don't have the time, space, and money to obtain the best student work.

Last fall, there was a minor brouhaha on the department listserv because out of 22 winners of our university's funded undergraduate research prize, only three were from non-STEM fields. Two of those three were indeed from English, however. Undergraduates apply for these awards as first-semester juniors, which means you have to be basically ready to have a research proposal by the end of sophomore year.

Well, how likely is that if even once you get to junior-level, you're one of forty students in your English class? I had some large English classes as an undergraduate... but I don't think I was ever in a class of forty in a 300-level course. As an instructor, I have absolutely no incentive to encourage research projects, as it just increases my workload in what is already a large course; my six-page paper requires no research beyond sources read in class.

Furthermore, as an adjunct I have even less incentive to mentor a student so that they can carry out research. I'm not going up for tenure here, ever; I have no possible motivation other than, well, collegiality. But collegiality is not rewarded when you're a part-timer.

So when all this was going back and forth on our department listserv, my thought was, If this department wants engaged undergraduates who carry out research projects, they need to not be  stuffing forty of them into junior-level classes taught by adjuncts. And I get that there are real financial exigencies that make this necessary, just as there are practical concerns for me that override my pedagogical ideals. But if this is what we put into our department, we should not be surprised at the students who come out of it. Our department is very reliant on adjunct teaching, moreso than other departments of similar sizes, so I have heard. Our tenure-track faculty do not teach 1000-level courses by and large.

Finally, a faculty member (former department head) pointed out something similar: "It seems to me that the faculty might have more impact on this process if we were more regularly willing to teach the sorts of courses that our sophomore majors are likely to take--for instance, the 2000-level and 3000-level literary surveys. It is my impression [...] that our beginning majors are hungry for serious mentoring from our tenured and tenure-track faculty. It is also my impression that faculty do not often volunteer for such courses"

The conversation continued, but no one ever addressed that component of it. If you want the best student work, you have to put in the best quality of teaching. Our current model, for a variety of reasons, doesn't make that happen.

20 April 2017

Review: Dubliners by James Joyce

Trade paperback, 317 pages
Published 1993 (originally 1914)

Previously read April 2005
Acquired June 2014

Reread November 2014
Dubliners by James Joyce

At the end of my course on British literature 1890-1950, I polled my students on the best and worst of the readings they had done. I lost those notes, unfortunately, but I did write down one of them for posterity: "Dubliners cut across all the necessary themes literature may demand. It helped me understand life better." She's not wrong.

I first read "The Dead" as a high school senior, and liked it so much that it inspired me to pick up all of Dubliners in college, and of course I had to reread it to teach it. On each iteration, I like it more, and I understand it more. The whole book is excellent, but "The Dead" is a masterpiece, and you could probably argue that Joyce singlehandedly changed the direction of the short story in English. So much that's meaningful comes together in "The Dead": it's all about connection, imagining the other, projecting desire, recognizing the self, and experiencing epiphany. It's sort of uplifting and sad at the same time. Joyce captures humanity as it is in a way few others do. I look forward to reading Dubliners again and again. Hopefully it will allow me too to understand life better.

19 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part VI: The All New Atom: My Life in Miniature

Comic trade paperback, 160 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2017
The All New Atom: My Life in Miniature

Writer: Gail Simone
Pencils: John Byrne, Eddy Barrows
Inks: Trevor Scott
Letters: Travis Lanham
Colors: Alex Bleyaert

At the end of Identity Crisis, Atom Ray Palmer vanished-- and given what had happened to him, it's hard to complain. The All New Atom follows the adventures of Ryan Choi, a young Ph.D. from Hong Kong who takes Palmer's place at Ivy University, Ivy Town, as a professor of nuclear physics. Choi was a correspondent of the Atom from a young age, and of course doesn't just take Palmer's place in the laboratory/classroom, but soon finds himself stepping into the role of the Atom.

The basic premise of this book is excellent. As an academic, I like that the book is not only set in a college town, but uses that-- Choi's best friend is another professor, and Choi is supported technologically by a group of professors who get together to play poker and complain about things. The Dean is a key character in the book. (That said, apparently the Dean of this university hires professors without campus visits!) I especially like the idea that years of wacky happenings have totally rewritten the laws of physics within Ivy Town:
It seems like someone should be doing more about the witch-burnings than they are.
from The All New Atom #4 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

Also there are some good academic jokes:
This is like when my union local asked me to sign a petition supporting more STEM funding. I was like, "Where I'm standing from it seems like STEM has more than enough funding. How about some Humanties love?" I didn't try to murder anyone over it, though. Also I don't think the composition of reality was at stake.
from The All New Atom #6 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

Plus John Byrne pencils most of the book, and you can almost never beat Byrne on a superhero book. Clear storytelling, good facial expressions, bold action:
Surely a car would be a faster way to travel?
Well, maybe not given the roads in some college towns.
from The All New Atom #2 (art by John Byrne & Trevor Scott)

I also liked Simone's device of placing quotations (mostly from scientists, real and fictional) juxtaposed with the dialogue, a nice comics-dependent device.

Unfortunately, the book's actually story remained too muddled for me to get into it. What exactly was at stake in the weird war between cancer and tiny people? What did the Dean and a serial killer have to do with it all? Why was there all of a sudden a threat to the President that was resolved just as quickly? Why would the Dean call in the father of a professor he's worried about-- and how on Earth could the father of a professor make him go home? I just never really got the relationships between a lot of what was going on throughout most of the book, making for a confusing and disappointing reading experience. Hopefully future volumes deliver on the strong premise of this series.

Next Week: Manhunter is back, and ready to be Unleashed!

18 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 5 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2013)
Acquired March 2015
Read March 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 5

Written by James Roberts
Pencils by Alex Milne and James Raiz
Inks by Brian Shearer, Alex Milne, and James Raiz
Colors by Josh Burcham

Color Assist by John-Paul Bove and Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

No actual tears this time, though I did feel my eyes misting up at one point.

I read a review that described volume 5 as the perfect jumping-off point for More than Meets the Eye, and though I haven't read what comes after yet (before we get to volume 6, there's a crossover with Robots in Disguise, Dark Cybertron), I can see why. Most of volume 5 is given over to "Remain in Light," a story about the Lost Light making it to Luna-1, the lost moon of Cybertron, and what they find there draws together a number of the ongoing character and plot threads of the series: Rodimus's often misguided brashness, Ultra Magnus's love of the rules, Ratchet's lack of confidence in his own abilities, Skids's inability to remember large chunks of his own past, the mysterious "legislator" robots from way back in volume 1, Tailgate learning about the importance of semicolons, the missing Circle of Light on Theophany, Fortress Maximus's postwar aimlessness, and so on. It's not quite as good as volume 4 (but it seems unlikely to me that anything could be), but it is a solid tying up on the main ideas of this series-- yet at the same time it sets up revelations for future issues.

Admit your love, Cyclonus!
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #17 (art by Alex Milne)

The emotional core of this volume was Tailgate. Tailgate has been a wannabe and and outsider this entire series. He woke up from a four-million year deactivation in volume 1, having missed not only the Great War, but even its political context, and volume 4 revealed that he wasn't the bomb disposal expert and potential Ark-1 crewmember he had claimed to be, but a waste disposal expert who was supposed to prepare the Ark but not crew it. Tailgate is obviously in love with Cyclonus, who's from the same time period as Tailgate, but lived through that four million years, much of it as (if I understand correctly) a resident of the Dead Universe and sort of a zombie(?). Tailgate is excited to be on the Lost Light because he finally belongs somewhere doing something, but Cyclonus would rather be nowhere at all. He hates everyone else, and he hates himself, and he hates Tailgate for trying to get him to open up. Yet sometimes they bond (in one of the previous volumes, they sang songs of ancient Cybertron together).

17 April 2017

Review: Top 10, Book 2 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon

Doctor Who is a strange old thing; Doctor Who spin-offs sometimes even moreso. Today, I attempt to decode the long-delayed second series of Charlotte Pollard with the help of a Lance Parkin quote I had to dig up off the Internet Archive over at Unreality SF.

And now, on to the main course:

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 2000-01) 

Acquired and read August 2016
Top 10: Collected Edition, Book 2

Writer: Alan Moore
Finishing Artist: Gene Ha
Layout Artist: Zander Cannon
Coloring: Alex Sinclair
Lettering: Todd Klein

This book wraps up the original twelve-issue Top 10 series by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon, and it's just as good as the first volume. My favorite part was probably what happened in the battle between the ultra-mice infecting Dust Devil's mother's apartment and the atom cats brought in by an exterminator: I laughed so hard when it was revealed their battles had triggered an multiversal crisis.

It's not all jokes, though. There's a surprisingly moving issue about a hyperspatial traffic accident that results in a collision between a tourist from Rigel and a piece in a gigantic galactic game. The two are fused together and slowly die while a couple cops can't do anything but watch.

Life is a game, but that doesn't mean it's not important: cosmic truth from a giant space chessman. Also swearing, though I'm not sure why it has to be bleeped out in a series that also deals with pedophilia and prostitution.
from Top 10 #8

The various plot threads from Book 1 are pulled together pretty comprehensively here, as we discover what links many seemingly disparate events together, and Top 10 shows their stuff in a couple devastating battles. I enjoyed the ongoing subplot about Shock-Headed Pete's racism against robots, though I guess it's easy to laugh about racism in this kind of context, where it's devoid of repercussions.

Totally dig whenever Alan Moore mocks the over-the-top nature of classic comics.
from Top 10 #12

I was a little on the fence for the first couple issues of Top 10, like I said, but once I reached the end of Book 2, I knew I wanted to keep up with the series through all its future incarnations: prequel The Forty-Niners, sequels Beyond the Farthest Precinct and Top 10: Season Two, and spin-off Smax. I like these characters and this concept, and I want to see what else can be done with them.

14 April 2017

My Radioactive Childhood

Something recently reminded me of the fact that I grew up a nine-minute drive (fewer than three miles as the crow flies) from a nuclear material processing facility.

On top of Mount Rumpke...
courtesy Brandon C on Flickr
I do delight in telling people that I grew up about five minutes away (also fewer than three miles) away from Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County-- and the sixth-highest garbage dump in the United States. When I was in the fifth grade, there was a landslide that exposed 15 acres of waste. The gas released into the atmosphere could be smelled from miles around. We had to have indoor recess for a week, because of how bad it was. Later that year, a lightning strike caused the dump to catch on fire. It burned for six days.

Anyway, three miles in the other direction (I grew up in a nice neighborhood I swear) lies the Feed Materials Production Center (Fernald site), a facility for converting uranium ore into metal, for use in nuclear weapons. Its various plants came on-line 1951-54; by 1989 it was essentially closed because demand for refined uranium had declined substantially with the winding down of the Cold War.

Though I think it was technically known the plant was there, it operated until the 1980s in relative secrecy. But in 1981, wells near Fernald were discovered to be contaminated, which was not disclosed to the public until 1984, local residents initiated a class-action lawsuit. In the interim, residents had drank from those wells. In 1986, two storage units vented when they oughtn't, and another cracked. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, "from 1952-1989, 470,000 kilograms of uranium dust and 160,000 curies of radon-222 were released into the atmosphere, while 90,000 kilograms of uranium were released into surface water." Energy Department officials told the plant to continue production without regard for environmental laws.

the Fernald employee newsletter
Public outcry was exacerbated by the way the plant covered up its activities. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported
In 1955, Angelo Gallina was severely burned by uranium-laced acid when he tried to clear a clogged chute with a sledgehammer. Rather than being hospitalized he was treated for two weeks at the plant's first aid station. During his recovery, he was escorted to the plant to shuffle paper so that the management would not have to report a lost work time accident.
Later, the paper discovered that researchers had a secret laboratory to conduct radiation experiments using the body parts of deceased employees and private citizens.

We didn't move to that house until 1990, and most of my memories of the controversy come from later, around 1994-96, when there was a lot of controversy surrounding FERMCO, the contractor hired to clean up the production site. (I think they were spending wastefully and also keeping things from the government.)

My mother use to make jokes about Fernald and its effects on us. In 2013, a University of Cincinnati study found a higher rate of cancer among former Fernald employees than the general population, but participants in the Fernald (Resident) Medical Monitoring Program (open to anyone who lived within five miles of the plant from 1952 to 1984, so not us) actually reported lower than average death and cancer rates than the general population.

It's a nature preserve now. I've never been.

13 April 2017

Review: The Twentieth Century by Albert Robida

Hardcover, 397 pages
Published 2004 (originally 1882)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
The Twentieth Century by Albert Robida

This is one of those futuristic novels that doesn't have a story per se, but is more an exploration/travelogue of a fantastic future. It's a mix of utopianism and satire and deadly warnings-- some things are awesome, other things less so (emancipated women are so un-feminine they even have harsh names!), and other things are just supposed to be funny (the president is an automaton, which I feel like is the nineteenth-century equivalent of Futurama's disembodied heads). There's sky pirates and telephonic courtship and attempts at a fun revolution, but Nihilist bombings destroyed Russia so utterly there's neither Nihilists nor Russians anymore, and Italy has become a theme park for American tourists. There are also air-wars, but they seem more exciting than frightening.

Sometimes long-winded (seriously, very long), but the real highlight is that Robida illustrated it himself, so you get to see his fun futurism brought to life in a lively fashion on page after page. The text translated here is from the first French edition, but editor Arthur B. Evans selected illustrations from every edition in order to get the best set possible. More fun to look at than to read, but then, Robida was more illustrator than novelist.

12 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part V: Blue Beetle: Shellshocked

Comic trade paperback, 140 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2017
Blue Beetle: Shellshocked

Writers: Keith Giffen & John Rogers
Pencillers: Cully Hamner, Cynthia Martin, Duncan Rouleau, Kevin West
Inkers: Cully Hamner, Phil Moy, Duncan Rouleau, Jack Purcell
Colorists: David Self, Guy Major
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Pat Brosseau

Many people were mad and/or sad when the Ted Kord Blue Beetle was killed off in "Countdown to Infinite Crisis." But if you ask me, it was all worth it because it gave us the new Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes. Jaime is an ordinary Latino high schooler who discovers the Blue Beetle scarab sometime after the death of Ted Kord (as seen in Infinite Crisis itself). The first couple chapters of this volume alternate between Jaime's life leading up to his involvement in the fight against Brother Eye in Infinite Crisis, and his return to Earth a year later, apparently during the timeframe of 52. Giffen, Rogers, and Hamner do great work here. The opening fight between Jaime and Guy Gardner (Guy is drawn to fight the Blue Beetle, but doesn't know why) is dark and intense, while Jaime's interactions with his friends (Paco, who learned six languages just to insult people in on-line FPSs, and Brenda, whose Dad hits her and wants to go to law school) are fun. Jaime wants to make extra money working at his dad's garage, but his dad wants a better life for him.

Really, I could have scanned almost any page of Jaime/Brenda/Paco dialogue.
from Blue Beetle vol. 8 #1 (art by Cully Hamner)

Much like Ms. Marvel a decade later, this is the perfect archetypal teen superhero comic: humor, good characters, fun dialogue, a little bit of angst but not too much. Jaime feels like a real person with real friends; take this exchange between a villain and Jaime's friends while Jaime fights a tree monster:
Gotta love an over-educated villain.
from Blue Beetle vol. 8 #4 (art by Cully Hamner)

I laughed a lot throughout this book, which is the mark of (one of) the kind of superhero comic I look for. Giffen & Rogers recreate the classic formulas while also providing new variations: I like that Jaime's armor speaks to him in an alien language, and that there are aspects of it he doesn't entirely understand. I like the sense of a superheroic universe this story builds up, instead of being an ordinary universe with superheroes grafted on: La Dama, the local crimelord, doesn't just kidnap people, but specifically magic users, and the gang Jaime's friend Paco falls into is entirely made up of people with powers-- but they need the powerless Paco because sometimes they need someone who won't attract attention. There's a real sense of a world that's a lot like our own (I like that the story takes place in El Paso and not a fake city, and that almost all the characters are Latino), but not like ours in some logical ways. There's also some good twists on the usual formula-- Paco's gang has some redeeming value, the Blue Beetle comes to an understanding with La Dama, and I especially like that Jaime's family and friends know what he is right from the off. There's no lying to your loved ones stuff here.

That didn't take long for them to figure out.
from Blue Beetle vol. 8 #3 (art by Cynthia Martin & Phil Moy)

This is a winning mixture for a superhero comic, and I hope to see it continue from strength to strength.

Next Week: Another new old hero-- the All New Atom debuts in My Life in Miniature!

11 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 4 by John Barber, Andrew Griffith, et al.

Up now at Unreality SF: my take on the most recent UNIT audio set from Big Finish, the return of the Silence in Silenced!

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired March 2015
Read March 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 4

Written by John Barber
Pencils by Andrew Griffith
Inks by Andew Griffith and Brian Shearer
Ink Assist by Rick Ketcham
Colors by Josh Perez
Letters by Shawn Lee and Chris Mowry


It's maybe not quite like that, but John Barber totally upends the situation on Cybertron by returning Megatron to Iacon, disrupting the carefully calibrated peace between Autobots, Decepticons, and neutrals, as Megatron not only mobilizes the Decepticon remnants, but reveals that much of what had been happening since the beginning of the series was actually his own doing, down to the fact that he had a key Autobot under mind control as far back as volume 1! Iacon suddenly goes from a city under Autobot rule to one besieged, as the Decepticons move across the city in the night, the Autobot forces are scattered and leaderless, and Starscream insists that he could have won through democracy but Megatron messed it all up.

Don't ask, Bumblebee.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #14 (art by Andrew Griffith & Brian Shearer)

It's the most compelling Robots in Disguise has been thus far, building on hints Barber has been dropping all along, large and small-- thank Primus for the Transformers wiki and its careful unearthing of minute details. Some of the book is still a little underwhelming: I think this is because Barber's twists and reveals are often less character-based than James Roberts's over in More than Meets the Eye, relying heavily on technology. For example, Megatron tells us that the space bridge technology in his old body allowed him to manipulate the energies of the reborn primordial Cybertron, causing the madness outside Iacon. Well, um, okay, sure, why not? As an answer to an ongoing mystery, it's not exactly satisfying. The mind-control reveal is also a bit meh, I think, as it doesn't actually tell us anything about the character in question. (Well, I guess it does tell us he's not as bad as he seemed.) And there's a key moment that really relies on you knowing about the attitudes of multiple characters toward Spike Witwicky from the previous ongoing... which I only read the first volume of...

These guys mostly just put in small, periodic appearances-- I hope we see more of them because they're awesome.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #12 (art by Andrew Griffith)

That said, there's good stuff here. I like the growing group of former Autobots and Decepticons who feel they have more in common with the neutrals. I like how Wheeljack manages to save the day retroactively with a nice callback to an earlier issue.

Two issues of Megatron not talking turns out to be Megatron at his most unsettling.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #13 (art by Andrew Griffith)

And best of all is the developing friendship between Metalhawk, leader of the neutrals, and Starscream, the Decepticon Who Would Be King. At one point I gasped aloud. Very enjoyable stuff-- I spent volumes 1-3 feeling like Barber was continuously setting up, and here he finally pays off, and it's definitely worth the wait. I look forward to seeing where Robots in Disguise goes more than ever.

Next Week: Meanwhile, in space... the Lost Light finally gets somewhere on its quest in More than Meets the Eye! Well, kinda.

10 April 2017

Review: Top 10, Book 1 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 1999-2000) 

Acquired December 2011
Read August 2016
Top 10: Collected Edition, Book 1

Writer: Alan Moore
Finishing Artist: Gene Ha
Layout Artist: Zander Cannon
Lettering: Todd Klein

It took me a little bit to warm up to this book. I don't know if it was me or the book. Set in a city called Neopolis where everyone has a secret identity and a superpower, this book follows the cops that patrol the city. Though there is a new-to-the-precinct viewpoint character, there are still a lot of characters to acclimate to in a pretty short span of time. There are also a lot of ongoing subplots: drug dealers, someone killing prostitutes, suspects committing suicide. But when I hit Chapter Four (there are eight issues collected here), it started to click into place.

I've just realized I should have got a scan of the Top 10 HQ, which is based on DC's Hall of Justice, which is of course based on Cincinnati's own Union Terminal.
from Top 10 #3

Probably because this is the issue where the dad of a lizard Top 10 has in custody turns up demanding the release of his son. The son is basically human sized, but his dad is a Godzilla-esque giant lizard-- except his better days are long behind him, and he's more of a careening drunk now. In Chapter Four, the precinct captain, Jetman (who was "Jetlad" during World War II) must keep Gograh under control via conversation while his subordinates try to find a way to neutralize him. It's a fun riff on some familiar tropes, and that's basically what the whole of Top 10 is, mostly on the tropes of the superhero and cop genres. You have a police sergeant who's a dog with prostheses, a phantom pervert, a telekinetic Santa Claus in October, an investigation into the death of a Norse god that leads to Odin threatening to just end the universe if the crime isn't solved, and a cop's mother whose apartment is being terrorized by ultra-mice-- the only solution to which is atom cats. The book was constantly making me smile, and often laugh.

It only escalates from here.
from Top 10 #6

But it's not all jokes: the book is funny, but it also takes its duties as a cop procedural seriously. It's just that the things these cops investigate are incredibly far-fetched. But there are still killings and murders and prostitution to investigate, and it becomes clear that a longer story is unfolding as you read these issues, one that will continue into Book 2. I quickly become interested in many of the characters, especially Jetman; Duane "Dust Devil" Bodine the techno-cowboy; viewpoint character Robyn "Toybox" Slinger, who has some kind of dad problems; her partner Jeff Smax of gruff and mysterious past; and more. Like a lot of ensemble stories, what's most fun is seeing the way these various people and personalities all bounce off each other. Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon do a great job bringing them all to life, and making Top 10 greater than the sum of its parts, filling the stories with little details, amusing and great.

Even super-cops have to take public transit home at night.
from Top 10 #1

Alan Moore is arguably a master of genre more than anything else: in Watchmen and Miracleman, he used that power to blow the superhero genre apart. But here he shows that power can be used for good as well as for evil. By fusing several different pop culture genres, he creates something hugely fun and enjoyable that presents familiar ideas in unfamiliar lights.

07 April 2017

Collegiality, Serendipity, and Altruism in Graduate School

Names removed to protect the innocent.
(amazing Photoshoppery by a grad in our program)
This past Monday, I participated in a roundtable on collegiality (or, as the organizer liked to say, "colleaguing") organized by the Professional Development Committee of my old graduate program. There were four of us: two current graduate students and two former graduate students (me still physically at the department, the other now junior tenure-track faculty and appearing via videolink).

I spoke on the necessity of developing your teaching, and specifically, developing your writing. My Ph.D. is in Victorian literature, but like many graduate students, much of my teaching was in writing. There's definitely a strain of literature graduate student who dismisses writing as not really counting, but now that I've spent three years on the academic job market, I see even more clearly how short-sighted that approach is. If you're a graduate student at an R1 university, all the faculty you see are only teaching literature courses, but that's not the reality at smaller teaching-focuses schools, which are the kinds of schools where graduates from mid-ranked public school programs like mine get jobs. Most of my friends with tenure-track literature jobs are still teaching at least one writing course per semester.

When you interview for that kind of job, they want you to speak thoughtfully and intelligently about the teaching of writing. They don't expect you (in my experience) to be all up on the latest composition scholarship, they just want you to have a real investment and commitment to the teaching of writing. You can get that, I think, by taking on administrative roles as a graduate student (I was Assistant Director of Freshman English for over two years as a graduate student), but you don't have to go that far: you can work for orientations or what have you.

Time to redeploy this old clip art again.
It's also good to broaden your teaching within writing. When I was on the market last year, I was up for a job that involved teaching a "basic writing" course (here at my school we call it "Introduction to Academic Writing," but it's basically a preparatory course for students with low SAT verbal or TOEFL scores, that's a prereq for the main academic writing requirement). They asked me how I would teach such a course, they evinced skepticism as to my approach, and because I had never actually taught the course, only talked to my program director about how to do it, I didn't have a convincing defense.

So when I didn't get that (or any) job and ended up adjuncting here, I asked to teach Introduction to Academic Writing so I could answer that question better. I'd avoided it, I guess honestly because it has a sort of stigma, but I actually liked it better than our usual academic writing course in some regards. And when I had a campus interview this year and the dean asked me about teaching that course, he pointed out how enthusiastic I sounded about teaching it.

This didn't come up in my remarks on Monday, but talking to a graduate student about some of these issues earlier that day, she complained that a lot of people's success in academia seemed to be based on "serendipity": happening to have worked at a part-time job with some connection to a skill valued by a proseminar, happening to have organized something a potential employer is seeking someone to organize, happening to have graduated from a program with a philosophy of writing that aligns with another university's.

And she's kind of right. The way many people get hired seems very lucky. To a degree, it even makes sense: most everyone who graduates with a Ph.D. is very qualified, so the things that set people apart are going to be random characteristics. But for me, the serendipity of these alignments only heightens the need to get involved in something when you're in graduate school. If you don't do anything other than the things everyone does, you don't have anything that can spark one of those serendipitous connections. So on the one hand, it's very often a fluke what makes you stand out from the pack, but on the other hand, you can increase the odds of a fluke.

Rude grad students go on to be rude professors.
Something else that I didn't say, but only occurred to me afterwards: as I have been seriously job-searching for two years now, my comments were kind of mercenary, focusing on the practical outcomes of the work for your future career prospects. But even though I really do believe it can help you out on the job market, that shouldn't be the whole of your reasoning. This kind of outside academic work is best approached with enthusiasm, caring, thoughtfulness, engagement, and genuine collegiality. I have served on committees (I have ran committees) where it became clear that people I thought were good colleagues were only out for number one, and only signed up because they thought it was an easy paycheck or a nice line on the good old c.v. And now I never want to work with those people ever again.

This stuff can help you professionally, but if you want to be collegial, it can never be your primary reason for doing something-- then you're just a selfish ass.

06 April 2017

Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

In a story probably as about as different from the below as you could get, here's my review of Jago & Litefoot, Investigators of Infernal Incidents: Series Twelve.

Trade paperback, 216 pages
Published 1994 (originally 1970)

Acquired August 2004
Previously read October 2004

Reread September 2014
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

If you have the kind of facebook friends I have (literature academics), you may remember a few years ago when a bunch of articles trended with titles like "Reading Novels Makes You More Empathetic" and "Reading Novels Makes You a Better Person" and so on. (Here's an example from Scientific American.) This was the scientific study-backed version of something previous posited by the literary critic Elaine Scarry in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence in 1998, in an essay called "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons."

Scarry argues that human beings are actually really quite terrible at imagining what it's like to be a different human being, and that this has dangerous, real world consequences: "The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our ability to imagine other people is very small. […] But there is a place—namely, the place of great literature—where the ability to imagine others is very strong" (45-6). Literature, she argues is all about imagining oneself as another person: "literature at least holds out to use the constant invitation to read about others, not only other ethnic groups within one’s own country but the great Russian or German or Chinese writings; and universities are, in their departmental organizations, still structured to encourage this cross-country imagining" (47). We might be able to easily think of novels that have created empathy in notable ways, such as how Uncle Tom's Cabin created empathy with the plight of slaves.

But Scarry isn't as optimistic as she might initially seem, because she goes on to argue that
we must recognize severe limits on what the imagination can accomplish. One key limit is the number of characters. […] Presented with the huge number of characters one finds in Dickens or in Tolstoi, one must constantly strain to keep them sorted out; and of course their numbers are tiny when compared with the number of persons to whom we are responsible in political life. […] For this, literature prepares us inadequately, since even secondary characters (let alone second hundredth or second thousandth characters) lack the density of personhood that is attributed to the central character. […] Literature—even when it enlists us into the greatest imaginative acts and the most expansive compassion—always confesses the limits on the imagination by the structural necessity of major and minor persons, center stage and lateral figures. (47)
You might access the plight of the urban poor better if you read Oliver Twist, but though you now better empathize with Oliver himself, you empathize no better with the vast majority of the characters in the novel, some of whom can remain quite one-dimensional.

Therefore, the best literature (according to Scarry) turns this bug into a feature. "Literature […] is most helpful not insofar as it takes away the problem of the Other—for only with greatest rarity can it do this—but when it instead takes as its own subject the problem of Imagining Others. The British novelist Thomas Hardy is a brilliant explicator of this problem. […] Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others" (48). According to Scarry, we inhabit Tess's world for most of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but then we jump to someone else's perspective and see how they look at Tess so shallowly, missing most of what constitutes her: that is "painful subtraction." Suddenly Tess becomes a secondary character in someone else's story, and we discover how easy it is to not empathize with someone eminently deserving of empathy.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that I would argue that The Bluest Eye belongs to the same category of novels as Scarry claims for Tess. It is not just designed to make us empathize with other persons, but takes as "its own subject the problem of Imagining Others." The book is all about Pecola Breedlove, but for most of the novel, we never get a scene written from her perspective. All of our empathizing with Pecola must be done without the benefit of interiority. When we finally do go inside Pecola, it's to find out she's fallen apart: there are two Pecolas, and she/they utterly believe they finally have the blue eyes that will make them attractive.

If anything, the structure of The Bluest Eye emphasizes what we might call "painful addition." We switch back and forth between Claudia's narration about her relationship with Pecola Breedlove and flashbacks seemingly told by an omniscient narrator that tell us more about Pecola and her family. Even though Claudia is the best friend Pecola has, each flashback makes it clear that there's so much about Pecola that no one knows, not even her. We learn about how the terrible home life of the Breedloves made Pecola the way she was, then about how Pecola's mother became the way she was, then about how Pecola's father became the way he was. When we finally see the rape of Pecola by her own father, it's from the perspective of her father. We are made to understand why he does what he does. Yet, as the novel makes clear, no one other than the reader (and, to a lesser extent, Claudia) will ever have this level of understanding of these characters. Pecola, as Morrison says in her afterword, is the hole at the center of the novel.

In a sense, we know nothing about Pecola. But in creating painful addition, Morrison makes us see how horrific it is that we know nothing about Pecola.

05 April 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part IV: Manhunter: Origins

Comic trade paperback, 222 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2005-06)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2017
Manhunter: Origins

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Pencillers: Javier Pina, Diego Olmos, Stephen Sadowski, Sean Phillips, Shawn Martinbrough, Rags Morales
Inkers: Fernando Blanco, Andrew Pepoy, Sean Phillips, Shawn Martinbrough, Bob Petrecca
Colorists: Steve Buccellato, Jason Wright
Letterers: Travis Lanham, Pat Brosseau, Phil Balsman

I feel about this volume a lot like I did about the previous one: the pieces are there for greatness, but the book isn't achieving it.

Part of this is that it isn't capitalizing on its own premise. The idea of the book is that Manhunter kills the supercriminals the justice system can't take down, but in this volume, she doesn't fight anyone like that: just her own father (and goons hired by him) and a new villain (I think) named Sweeney Todd who's a superpowered serial killer. This kind of stuff could happen in any superhero book-- but I always want to see each book be itself as much as it can. There are hints that we're going somewhere, though, as Kate is now a defense attorney, and there's clearly something up with her most recent client, Doctor Psycho.

Yes you are!
from Manhunter vol. 3 #21 (art by Javier Pina & Fernando Blanco)

The other part is that the book vanishes up its own backside sometimes. I like my superhero stories to be outwardly focused: it they're not out there saving people from problems that would exist without them, it's kind of like, what's the point? (For example, when Superman only saves people from invasions by General Zod that wouldn't have happened without Superman's presence, that would seem to indicate the world is better off without Superman.) Unfortunately, this is a very inwardly focused book in all three of its stories.

04 April 2017

Review: The Transformers: Dark Prelude by James Roberts, John Barber, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013 (contents: 2012-13)
Acquired and read March 2017
The Transformers: Dark Prelude

Written by James Roberts, John Barber, Nick Roche
Art by Steve Kurth & Juan Castro, Chee, Nick Roche, David Daza, Matt Frank, Agustin Padilla
Colors by J. Aburtov, Ronda Pattison, Len O'Grady, Zac Atkinson, Thomas Deer, Joana Lafuente
Letters by Shawn Lee

Dark Prelude collects the last six issues of IDW's The Transformers Spotlight series, which apparently tie into the upcoming Dark Cybertron event. I read it here, between volume 4 of More than Meets the Eye and volume 4 of Robots in Disguise, which turned out to be a pretty good spot to read it, as some of its revelations are brought up in Robots in Disguise, Volume 4.

I previously struggled with collections of Transformers Spotlight issues, finding it difficult to invest in fragmentary stories of robots I knew nothing about. I had a much better time reading Dark Prelude, which we can probably attribute to a few things:
  1. I know a lot more about Transformers, especially the IDW G1 versions, than I did even a few months ago, so I have more context for these characters.
  2. James Roberts, John Barber, and Nick Roche are better writers than Simon Furman and Shane McCarthy.
  3. Most of these stories plug into areas of Transformers history I actually know something about: the Orion Pax story, for example, takes place after the flashbacks in More than Meets the Eye, Volume 3, before Autocracy. Two of the stories take place during More than Meets the Eye itself, which is nice.
  4. Though each of these is a standalone, done-in-one tale, there's an ongoing narrative about the Titans that you can follow. In the first story, the Decepticons learn about the existence of the Titans. The second is about a group of Decepticon Titan Hunters, following information from the first story. The third reveals that the Titan Hunters succeeded, and stolen Titan technology was used to rebuild Megatron. The fourth features Bumblebee dealing with the ramifications of that. The fifth has the same group of Titan Hunters from the second boarding the Lost Light. The sixth takes place simultaneously with the fifth, and also reveals a new perspective on an event from the first. A perfect loop! And all the stuff about the Titans of course ties into recent events in both More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise, where a Titan appeared on Theophany and then Cybertron in turn.
It's also just a set of good stories: nothing here is bad, and the stories range from decent to highly enjoyable.

I guess somewhat predictably, two of the highlights were the ones by James Roberts set during More than Meets the Eye (specifically, during volume 2), both with his trademark combination of character work and humor-- though "The Reluctant Specialist" is perhaps more outright farcical than anything Roberts has actually done during More than Meets the Eye itself, given things like the Rodimus Star, which Rodimus gives out to reward people as brave as himself:
You might ask, "Is Rodimus descending into self-parody here?" and I would reply, "If it's this funny, who cares?"
from The Transformers Spotlight: Trailcutter (script by James Roberts, art by Matt Frank)

"The Waiting Game" has a nice comedy moment where Hoist makes fun of Roberts's own writing foibles:
Keep being quietly competent, Hoist-- it's the best thing you can do!
from The Transformers Spotlight: Hoist (script by James Roberts, art by Agustin Padilla)

But, of course, in the end, Hoist does turn out to have a "crippling psychological disorder," one that in a nice turn of events, allows him to save the day on a landing party gone wrong.

Other than those, I particularly enjoyed Nick Roche's contribution to the volume (which he writes and draws, he's a talented man), where Megatron wakes up after one of his many resurrections (it apparently takes place between two issues of the IDW ongoing only known as The Transformers) and has it out with Starscream over what a terrible job Starscream did running the Decepticons during his absence, picking up from aspects of their relationship discussed in volumes 2 and 4 of All Hail Megatron, and leading into Robots in Disguise, Volume 4, when a resurrected Megatron will once again complain about Starscream's leadership. Roche's characterization of both Starscream and Megatron here is fascinating: Starscream is filled with self-loathing over his failure, to the extent that he needs Megatron to punish him, while Megatron wants Starscream to live up to his ideals, and so bullies Starscream in a way intended to make him "better"-- but actually likes Starscream more than he lets on.

Apparently you become leader of the Decepticons by delivering sick burns.
from The Transformers Spotlight: Megatron (script & art by Nick Roche)

It's great stuff, deftly executed by Roche, and I can already see how it affects their strange relationship after the war in Robots in Disguise.

Overall, this is a nice set of stories, revealing new characters to me (I hope we see more of Trailcutter and Hoist in More than Meets the Eye), and adding extra shades to old characters (like Bumblebee, Megatron/Starscream, and Thundercracker). I look forward to discovering how this sets up Dark Cybertron going forward.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Prowl's machinations come to a head (lol) in Robots in Disguise!