29 November 2019

Black Friday, Black November

For many years I ran a strictly disciplined daily schedule here at Science's Less Accurate Grandmother. A few months ago, I allowed myself to miss a Friday-- and as I should have predicted, that opened the floodgates. Once I allowed one exception to my self-imposed rules, then I was making exception upon exception. Today is the first Friday I've made a post on since 18 October, over a month ago!

Such, one supposes, is parenthood. I think the second year is proving to be easier in some ways, but more time-consuming in others. I feel like I can actually communicate with him now, so meeting his needs is easier--but now he seems to have so many more needs! Recently he learned the word "up!", so he is always telling me and Hayley what to do with him. "Up!" can mean "I want to be on the couch" or "Nurse me" or "Put me in a cardboard box" or "I need help with this step" or "I want to be carried" or "Get me out of this high chair."

I also think-- maybe Hayley would disagree-- that we are more equitable about splitting childcare duties. The older he gets, the more they can be split equitably. (Or maybe I'm kidding myself, and they always could have been split evenly, and now I actually do it more. Or maybe I still don't do it! There's certainly not much I can contribute to that late-night nursing.) He's less directly dependent on mom for reassurance and care, and more willing to play for long periods with daddy. (Though there are still times only momma will do.) But this means my me-time on the weekends has to be spent lesson planning and grading and preventing the house from sinking into total ruin, not stockpiling blog entries or reviewing audio dramas.

It's been a taxing couple months outside of work and parenting, too. Hayley got into a car crash; she was fine, the car is basically fine, but needs some work, and co-ordinating with the other guy's insurance (he was at fault) has dragged on and on. Our credit card was cloned, and someone ran up $800 at local restaurants before we realized, and that has dragged on and on too. Our hot water heater was full of dirt, and resisting my many attempts to clean it, sending little black specks into our tub. That one my father helped me finally lick, several months after the first occurrence. One day, I woke up and discovered our pool had gone down several inches overnight. That, at least, I was able to quickly diagnose and fix. (The pressure relief valve on the pump had cracked.) Our cat Oracle has turned out to have hyperthyroidism, so that's yet another thing, but at least we know why she's been vomiting so much, and hopefully that can be rectified now.

So I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving (spent in the usual rural retreat will the Mollmanns), and more I will hopefully be thankful for in future, if everything shakes out okay. Perhaps most of all, I will be thankful for the coming of winter break.

Because, you know, I will finally be able to get a lot of work done.

27 November 2019

Joe Casey Joe Kelly's Adventures of Superman #611: Lost Hearts

Lost Hearts: "Lost" / "Heartbroken" / "Giving In" / "Heart Song"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #611 (Feb. 2003)
DC Comics Presents: Superman vol. 2 #2 (Jan. 2011), reprinting Action Comics vol. 1 #798, Superman vol. 2 #189, Superman: The Man of Steel #133 (Feb. 2003) 

Writers: Geoff Johns and Joe Kelly
Pencils: Pascual Ferry, Dwayne Turner, and Tom Derenick
Inks: Keith Champagne, Pascual Ferry, Kevin Conrad, Norm Rapmund, Walden Wong, Bob Petrecca, Sandu Florea, and Cam Smith 

Colors: Tanya and Rich Horie, Guy Major, and Moose Baumann
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

#611 is the third and final fill-in during Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman. Unlike #591 and 607, where my philosophy was that I would read them if I could get them at no extra cost and skip them if I could not, I intended to get #611 from the beginning. It's the second installment of the Lost Hearts crossover, but in this four-part story, Joe Kelly (regular writer of Action Comics) takes over Adventures. But I was intrigued by what I knew of its more personal focus, by its evocative covers, by the fact someone had bothered to reprint it (in DC Comics Presents: Superman vol. 2), and by the fact that it introduced Traci Thirteen, a character I came to love during the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle run.

from Superman: The Man of Steel #133
(script by Geoff Johns, art by Tom Derenick and
Norm Rapmund, Walden Wong, Bob Petrecca, & Sandu Florea)
Lana Lang, Clark Kent's childhood sweetheart and the vice president's wife, runs away to Hell's Heart, the worst neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and Clark goes after her. There, amid the growing cold of late year, he discovers rampant drug addiction, homelessness, sexual exploitation, and (of course) strange alien parasites. Clark finds his values tested; this is a place and a situation where he can't be Superman... but is Clark strong enough?

It has its moments, but something about it didn't quite click. Maybe it's that I'm always kind of wary of Superman comics getting too close to "real social issues"; maybe it's that the emotional throughline for Clark felt a bit muddled. Maybe it's that I'm not convinced of the need for a subplot about an exploitative photo shoot of Lana. It feels like the story kind of meanders to a conclusion more than it has an actual plot.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #611
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Dwayne Turner & Kevin Conrad)
But I enjoyed a lot of it. Traci Thirteen is a fun character, you can see why she came back, even if she's not quite the same character as later. (She seems older and more detached than she was in Blue Beetle. I don't remember her having an iguana familiar in any other stories, and I don't think her dad can possibly be Doctor 13, as Architecture & Mortality would establish.) Some of the stuff about Superman coming to help Hell's Heart is, well, heart-warming, and fits in well with what Casey has been doing in Adventures.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #798
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Pascual Ferry and
Keith Champagne & Cam Smith)
It's nice to have a Superman titles crossover that's about, well, Superman-- not about big fights and Events.


26 November 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Brinkmanship

Mass market paperback, 334 pages
Published 2012

Acquired November 2012
Read July 2019
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship
by Una McCormack

November 2383
Brinkmanship rounds out the eight-book Typhon Pact saga, though the Pact itself will obviously continue to cast a shadow over galactic events. It could feel like an odd coda after Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn pulled all the previous threads together (I suspect it reads weirdly in the context of The Khitomer Accords Saga omnibus), but it's the best of all these books, and so a good stopping point.

There is no better writer of Star Trek tie-ins than Una McCormack. One of the things that makes her so good is her careful consideration of point-of-view; this book is told from three perspectives, those of Ezri Dax, Beverly Crusher, and Neta Efheny (a Cardassian spy on Ab-Tzenketh). The choice of viewpoint characters isn't incidental, or just done for reasons of plot, as it often is in tie-in fiction, but suffuses the entire book. In both Ezri and Crusher, we get principled women whose principles keep getting broken on the rocks of realpolitik. Both are healers (kind of), and have an earnest belief in what the Federation does; both have made hard choices in their day but refuse to believe that values have to be abandoned in order to be saved.

I liked this depiction of Ezri. I often struggle to connect the character the Destiny-era novels call "Ezri" with the one from television; Brinkmanship threads that needle by showing how Ezri's occasionally foolish compassion informs her command style. The Aventine doesn't get much action here, but we get to watch Ezri do her level best to prevent a war in the usual Star Trek tradition. She's tested by her discovery of what one of her friends from the Academy has become in this dark new era, and that works as a stand-in for what Starfleet and the Federation as a whole have been through. I liked the Aventine's solution to the stand-off, which manages to be humanitarian and manipulative at the same time.

Crusher was an unexpected choice for viewpoint character of the Enterprise-E thread; she's often an observer, not a mover. But this is what makes her work as a main character. As Picard points out, he already knows how to play this game, but Crusher still has her ideals. I liked her interactions with various participants in the negotiations, especially Madame Ilka, the Ferengi ambassador (I hope we get to see her again). Crusher ends up playing essentially no plot-relevant role, but that's not a bug, it's a feature. Like Ezri, she learns what it's like to balance ideals with realpolitik. This book, incidentally, is probably the first to make me feel like Crusher and Picard are actually married, with nice little details of their relationship (such as how they work a room at a reception), though to be honest, I think it would have worked just as well with them as friends.

The remaining third was the best one, about an undercover Cardassian on Ab-Tzenketh. It's got great touches, such as how she recognizes that one of her associates is also a spy, but for the Federation, and how that spy works out that she's a Cardassian. Efenhy is a patriot, but adrift in the less regimented post-Dominion Cardassian society, she finds solace in the strictly regimented Tzenkethi society. This was an excellent spy thriller, as Efenhy makes a number of awful but entirely comprehensible choices-- but one potentially really empowering one.

I also really appreciated the insight we got into Tzenkethi society; this is the one Typhon Pact book to really deliver on the series premise and explore an alien society, doing the kind of thing that I think Zero Sum Game aimed for but missed by using infiltration, as well as by using a pair of Tzenkethi cops.

I'm not sure this series really accomplished its aims on the whole, but this novel did, demonstrating (like Struggle Within) the worth of the concept was there, even if the execution was often lacking.

Continuity Notes:
  • Glinn Dygan, a minor protagonist here, originally appeared in Plagues of Night; I kind of suspect he was created by McCormack for Brinkmanship and seeded back into the earlier novels.
  • There's weirdly little direct references to the earlier Typhon Pact books; the whole time the Federation is trying to defend their skepticism toward the Tzenkethi to the Venette, I kept expecting someone to mention the time the Typhon Pact powers conspired to, I dunno, blow up Deep Space 9!? That might make a little caution justified on the part of the Federation.
Other Notes:
  • This is really the only book other than The Struggle Within to take the idea (from A Singular Destiny) of an expanded Khitomer Accord seriously; we get to see what it's like for the Federation, Cardassians, and Ferengi to all work together in common cause, something unimaginable a decade prior. (And still pretty difficult to pull off!)
  • Picard might not be a viewpoint character, but McCormack writes him some good Patrick Stewart speeches anyway.
  • The excerpts from the output of the Venette syndics are touching, and effective in making you fear for this never-before-mentioned race.
  • I think one chapter of this book gave Sam Bowers more personality than all previous Aventine-focused novels put together.

25 November 2019

Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Acquired July 2012
Read August 2019
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I was a little worried about this book going in. I didn't have good memories of the film, where I felt the first half was rushed and the second half repeated the first film over again. Plus, I've recently read a lot of contemporary YA that had the same style the Hunger Games books do (first-person present-tense narration) and really bounced off most of them.

Well, I needn't have worried. The movie's first half is actually the novel's first two-thirds, as Katniss tries to navigate her new post-game life, balancing her personal needs with the needs of everyone around her. In the films, it's hard to care about the character I could only ever remember as not-Peeta, but in the books you see her struggle over Gale much more clearly because you're always in her thoughts, so even though Gale isn't actually there very much, you see her thinking about him. There are a lot of nice bits that didn't make it into the films, like Katniss and Peeta watching footage of Haymitch's games. The other tributes in the Quarter Quell feel more like real people, too.

The actual Hunger Game doesn't feel repetitive, either, mostly because Katniss's mindset is completely different. In the first book, it was mostly about keeping herself alive. Here, it's about keeping Peeta alive, and working with a team. Back when I read The Hunger Games, I argued that the point of the novel was to reveal that cooperation is our natural way of being, but oppressors disrupt that: "'Survival of the fittest' isn't a natural ethos, it's imposed on human beings by a small subset. The natural inclination of human beings, we are shown multiple times throughout the novel, is actually to cooperate with one another. It's only when a powerful force compels them that they fight with one another." The thing is, I'm not sure that Katniss really learned that lesson. She wants to look out for Peeta, but is bad at doing it; she is really bad at imagining that other people could possibly be looking out for her, and why. Catching Fire is about how far she has to go to learn about cooperation, because the Capitol has done such a good job of forcing its subjects to prioritize survival of the self above all other considerations. During the Games, she is constantly learning that other people want to help her, and underestimating them anyway. I look forward to seeing how Collins develops this in the final book; I saw the third film but not the fourth, so I don't know how it all ends.

Also: I kind of feel like Peeta is a wet blanket in the movies. In the books, his steadfastness quickly made him into my favorite character. I'm Team Peeta all the way. Not in the sense that I want Katniss to be with him romantically (she should pick whoever she wants), but in the sense that he is clearly a stand-up guy that deserves happiness.

20 November 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #610: "Small Perceptions"

"Small Perceptions"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #610 (Jan. 2003)

Writer: Joe Casey
Art: Derec Aucoin

Colors: Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Here we are in the last-ever one-issue gap between Super titles crossovers of Joe Casey's run, because we're almost to the last Super titles crossover of his run. Between Ending Battle and Lost Hearts, we get "Small Perceptions," a story about what Superman means to the common man, foregrounding a theme that's run throughout Casey's run.

Lex Luthor has created a "Cosmic Defense Initiative," an alliance with other nations against space (to prevent something like another Imperiex War from happening); Clark has been laid off from the Daily Planet, I guess because of something that happened in one of the other Super titles; Perry has hired him anyway to go undercover in a mine to find proof that there's illegal mining going, mining that can be linked back to Luthor.

The story focuses on the day-to-day of Clark's time undercover at the mine. Superman comes up though; one of Clark's co-workers says of Luthor's CDI, "at least he's lookin' out for regular Americans... [...] ...you know a guy like Superman ain't here to look after guys like us. He's too busy fightin' giant robots and other freaks in dumb outfits to come around dives like this... guess he thinks he's got his priorities." There are obvious parallels between Luthor and President Trump; one of the less obvious and more prescient ones is how Luthor is seen as being more in touch with the needs of ordinary Americans than the "coastal elites" despite that Luthor himself is one of those elites! The man goes on to complain that Superman's violence probably hurts as many ordinary people as it protects. It's not explicitly referenced, but in the wake of Ending Battle, this critique stings. Superman didn't prevent anything in that story; all that violence wouldn't have happened without him. It causes some clearly genuine soul-searching on Clark/Superman's part.

The cover means that you won't be surprised when there's a cave-in. Clark saves his co-worker, the same one from before-- but that co-worker saves most of the miners himself. This then inspires Superman to look at some of his outstanding mail; he flies to Guatemala to comfort a kid who wrote him about his mother dying, and who has just died when he arrives: "<Did you know... I'm an orphan, too? But I'm not alone... I was never alone... the entire human planet took me in as her own. The human race became my family.>" He comforts the kid, but as Superman flies away, it's the superhero who thanks the orphan.

Derec Aucoin pencils and inks; I think as his collaboration with Casey has gone on (he first worked on #590, and became the title's regular artist with #608), the styles of the writing and the art have increasingly converged. In #599, I felt Aucoin was a little too dark, but I didn't feel that here, I think because Aucoin has lightened and Casey's standalone issues have gotten weightier. Aucoin works on all but three remaining issues of Adventures.

It's a quiet issue; the espionage stuff is beside the point and never resolved. If Clark busts open a conspiracy, we don't see it here. Instead, we can see that something is changing inside him. In issue #616, we'll learn he's made a big decision; I think in retrospect, this is the moment where he actually makes it. I enjoyed it when I originally read it, but felt like it kind of fizzled out; on rereading it to write out this review, having finished out Casey's run, I can see better how it plays its role in the whole trajectory of Superman's changing ethos, and it's much more enjoyable as a result.


19 November 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Raise the Dawn

Mass market paperback, 394 pages
Published 2012

Acquired September 2012
Read June 2019
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn
by David R. George III

August 2383–September 2384
Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn are definitely one of those duologies that's a single novel in two parts. In my review of Plagues of Night, I wrote, "Plagues of Night [is] very much a novel of set-up, especially for the traditional protagonist characters [...]. We get glimpses of Sisko captaining the Robinson, the Enterprise battling Tzenkethi privateers, and updates for a number of long-unseen characters on Deep Space 9 (plus introductions to new ones). These characters don't really drive any kind of plot, except on a personal level. The plot drivers all happen at the galactic political level, with characters like Praetor Gell Kamemor and President Nan Bacco making the choices that shape the story." I also said I felt like I couldn't really judge it until I read part two.

I don't think Raise the Dawn lived up to the set-up of Plagues of Night. Plagues of Night felt like watching David R. George play a game of cosmic chess, moving characters into position for some kind of exciting end game. Unfortunately, no exciting end game ever emerges. Instead, it feels as though the book is a series of conversations between people about how much they do not know about things. President Bacco talks to Esperanza Piñiero, Praetor Gell Kamemor talks to her nephew, Sisko talks to Odo, Kamemor talks to Bacco, around and around this novel goes with long conversations about how much no one knows about what's going on, with no new information being uncovered. It's especially frustrating because the reader does know what's going on. It's not until around 300 pages into this novel of almost 400 that I felt like people really began to figure anything out worth knowing. The end does have a pretty dramatic climax, but by that point I was too checked out to enjoy it very much, although Odo becoming a space creature and flying into the Bajoran Wormhole is pretty badass.

The really weird thing about the book is that when I got to the end, I realized Gell Kamemor is the protagonist. Its her decisions that tend to move things forward; the antagonists (Tomalak and Sela) are primarily operating against her. This is okay, though I wish Kamemor was more interesting; mostly she seems to just give long speeches about how she's a nice Romulan. I guess, based on some comments characters make, she was in The Lost Era: Serpents Among the Ruins? I don't remember her at all.

But if Gell Kamemor is the protagonist... what are all these other characters doing in the book? That Deep Space 9 should be destroyed in a book very much not a Deep Space Nine book reeks of the worst aspects of comic book crossovers, where some mid- or lower-tier character is cynically killed or maimed in a high-tier book to prove the situation is serious without actually hurting any high-tier characters (e.g., Infinite Crisis, Infinite Crisis Companion, World War III). It just seems weird that something as titanic as destroying DS9 would not really result in a story about DS9, but just raise the stakes in a story about Gell Kamemor. We get a lot of the DS9 crew on Bajor post-destruction, but it's not really a story, more snapshots of exposition so that we know where the new DS9 comes from when it finally materializes (it's halfway done by the time of the book's epilogue), so I assume I will be seeing it in future novels. O'Brien and Nog come back, Quark is doing a thing, Ro is in charge. It's all kind of pointless within the context of story actually being told here, and it's all very low-key given how weighty the actual destruction is. One would hope that the destruction of DS9 would feel important to the characters and stories of DS9, but it's just kind of a thing that happened.

Finally, Sisko. Sisko finally goes back to his family in this book, but I found the explanation of the Prophets' prophecy tortured and ultimately unsatisfying. Sisko couldn't be with Kasidy because it would lead to sorrow, but the sorrow actually came from not being with Kasidy because he ran away from her because of the prophecy, so he can be with Kasidy because... you can't step in the same river twice? What was the point of this whole storyline, because it just makes Sisko look like a giant asshole. It's hard for me to believe Kasidy would even want him back after all this, because who wants a spouse whose reaction to crisis is to run off with no discussion? He's clearly not committed to her or their child or their relationship in any meaningful way, even if he did technically come home in the end.

Continuity Notes:
  • No one mentions that this is actually the second time Odo plunged into the Bajoran Wormhole like a badass. (Time's Enemy is technically in continuity thanks to S.C.E. and DTI.)
  • Like me, David R. George seems to have found Nog's motivations for joining the Challenger crew in Indistinguishable from Magic confusing, so when Ro asks why Nog did it, Nog himself can't provide an answer-- and then provides four different ones, none of which convince. I feel like I would have glossed over this instead of spending two ultimately unsatisfactory pages on it.
  • Lots of discussion of the status of Andorians in Starfleet; no mention of how Starfleet recalled Andorians from sensitive posts in Fallen Gods. And hey, I'm assuming those transporter duplicates will become important any book now.
Other Notes:
  • This book could be a hundred pages shorter without all the exposition. I feel like the dialogue is always contorting to have the characters communicate things that 1) could be more smoothly communicated in narration, 2) the reader actually already knows, because they saw the tv show (or, in some cases, read this very book), and/or 3) don't actually matter. Like, there are multiple discussions of the so-called planet in the wormhole from "Emissary." But never upon watching "Emissary" did I think there really was a planet, and it ultimately doesn't even matter, so why does it need to be crowbarred into dialogue multiple times?
  • The narration itself does this too. For example, at one point Picard thinks to himself about who Kira is, how he knows who Kira is, and how the Enterprise rescued Kira earlier in the book. I don't need the specifics of Picard's knowledge of Kira spelled out (I'm happy to know they know each other), and why do I need to be told the Enterprise rescued her? I remember it because it happened in the book I am reading!
  • I found the motivation of the DS9 bomber profoundly unsatisfying and improbable.

18 November 2019

Review: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 826 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 1981-2019)

Acquired July 2019
Read August 2019
Always Coming Home: Author's Expanded Edition
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Always Coming Home is a critical utopia by Le Guin from 1985, here collected in a beautiful Library of America edition with many supplemental materials (I own all four LoA Le Guins, but this is the first I've read). The book is odd and tough to get into at first: Pandora, an anthropologist from our time, is doing a study of the Kesh, a civilization in the postapocalyptic Napa Valley. What we get are a mixture of texts: notes by Pandora on Kesh culture and language, Kesh poetry and song and myth, Kesh biography and memoir, short interviews with particular Kesh, and a partial Kesh novel. At first I admired it more than I liked it, but as I went on, I got into it more and more.

I particularly liked how it was structured: most of the biographies are short, but there's one long one, "Stone Telling," that's distributed in three chunks across the whole book. The first part is tough going, because you're thrown into this alien culture with pretty much no explanation. But as you read further into the book, moving back and forth between different kinds of texts, they start to reinforce one another. The specificity of "Stone Telling" brings some of the anthropological details to life, keeps them from being abstractions, but also by the time you get to the final chunk of "Stone Telling," you understand it a lot better because of all the other material about the Kesh you've read. It help that "Stone Telling" is about a Kesh who goes outside the valley; Le Guin correctly grasps that contrast is a strong way to reveal how something is constructed. We figure out the Kesh by seeing what they are not.

There are lots of neat little details. I like the train, and the Kesh lodges and houses, and the attention to how language structures thought, and the discussion of Kesh adolescence, and the Kesh term for "pets," and how some Kesh became warriors because of outside influence. I like how at first the society seems non-technological, but as you go you realize that this seemingly "primitive" people have solar panels on every roof and a computer access terminal in every village! I liked the City of Mind (a vast computer network) and the City of Man (the way the Kesh understand our civilization). As someone who reads a lot of nineteenth-century utopian literature, I liked when Pandora gets metatextual with one of her cicerones: "This is the kind of conversation they always have in utopia. I set you up and then you give interesting, eloquent, and almost entirely convincing replies. Surely we can do better than that!" (370) I laughed out loud at that (and then struggled to explain why it was funny to my wife). H. G. Wells made a similar joke in The Time Machine, but Le Guin takes it in a much more optimistic direction.

I don't think you have to read every word to enjoy this (I skimmed some of the poetry, sorry Ursula, and occasionally some of the narratives got a little too weird to be interesting), but by the end I was really enjoying it, and I feel like I learned something about my own society, which is what any good utopia should do. I don't think I would like being Kesh, to be honest, but thank you to Pandora and Le Guin for letting me visit them.

The book also contains three other sections: "Pandora Revisits the Kesh and Come Back with New Texts," "Other Writing Related to Always Coming Home," and "Essays." The first is some extra material Le Guin finalized just before he death, published here for the first time. The most noteworthy part is that Always Coming Home features a one-chapter excerpt from the Kesh novel Dangerous People, but here we get three chapters, and extra footnotes from Pandora; when I got to where Dangerous People was incorporated in the original ACH, I jumped ahead and read the version here, before going back. There's also some more poems.

The second section is Kesh-related material published elsewhere; the standout part of it is "May's Lion," a great little short story about a dying mountain lion, in both our world and the Kesh's.

The final section is a number of essays and lectures by Le Guin that illuminate Always Coming Home in some way. They did indeed deepen my appreciation for the book, and allow me to see more of the levels on which it was operating. But also Le Guin was an accomplished essayist, so these make for thoughtful, interesting reading on their own, especially "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" (about how to imagine utopias better), "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (fiction that moves away from conflict), and "Indian Uncles" (Le Guin's relationships with three Native men who were friends of her father, himself an anthropologist).
"Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural invention must have been a container to hold the gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier." So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women's Creation. But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a spaceship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don't know. I don't even care. I'm not telling that story. (726-7)

13 November 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #608-09: Ending Battle

Ending Battle: "Morning Twilight" / "Dawn's Early Light" / "In the Dark of the Noon Day Sun" / "The Thirteenth Hour" / "After School Special" / "Rush Hour" / "Nightfall" / "The Last Supervillain"

Action Comics vol. 1 #795-96, The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #608-09, Superman vol. 2 #186-87, Superman: The Man of Steel #130-31 (Nov.-Dec. 2002)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Joe Casey, Mark Schultz, and Joe Kelly

Pencils: Pascual Ferry, Derec Aucoin, Brandon Badeaux, and Duncan Rouleau
Inks: Cam Smith, Derec Aucoin, Mark Morales, Marlo Alquiza, and Mark Farmer
Colors: Tanya & Rich Horie, Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, and Moose Baumann
Letters: Richard Starkings and Ken Lopez 
Associate Editor: Tom Palmer jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Ending Battle is the second-last of the Joe Casey-era Super titles crossovers, and arguably one of the more successful. Unlike the two Return to Krypton stories, it bounces through each of the four Super titles twice; unlike Our Worlds at War, it doesn't sprawl too much, but stays contained. There's still a lot of action, arguably too much, but the story also has a decent focus on character, and has clearly been designed so that the overwhelming amount of action is, in many ways, the point of it all.

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #608
(script by Joe Casey, art by Derec Aucoin)
The story is a sequel to "What's So Funny about Truth, Justice, & the American Way?" (Action Comics #775), a satire on The Authority that thankfully I read many years ago. Manchester Black, after his role in Prelude to War! and All-Out War!, is back for revenge on Superman, but what he wants is nothing so mundane as Superman's death. Rather, Black wants to demonstrate that Superman is as prone to violent solutions as he is, and to push Superman to his limit. So, Black uses his mind control powers to make Superman's life-- or rather Clark Kent's-- hell. The first couple issues are just an onslaught of supervillains attacking key people in Clark's life, which keeps Superman busy to the point of exhaustion, and also lets him know that someone knows his secret identity. (That Black is behind it all isn't made clear until about halfway through the story.)

So Superman must protect Pete and Lana at the White House, then his parents (who have un-died at some point since Casualties of War!), then his high-school football coach, his dentist, his journalism professor, his local librarian, his optometrist, Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet office, and John Henry and Natasha Irons. Some of this works better than others. A lot of the supervillains are, quite frankly, C- and D-grade material. I guess that's kind of by design (I doubt Manchester Black could control an A-grade villain, and the A-grades he does control are saved for the climax of the conflict), but I'm not terribly into reading a whole issue where Superman fights a guy whose power is, apparently, "chains." Joe Casey handles it best in part 2 (Adventures #608), and Mark Schultz does a decent job of it in part 3 (Man of Steel #130). As one comes after another after another, we get a bunch of vignettes that amuse (the ridiculous of the villains in part 2 especially) but also raise the tension and demonstrate why Superman is Superman (he really does think everyone matters).

from Superman: The Man of Steel #130
(script by Mark Schultz, art by Brandon Badeaux & Mark Morales)
Each of those two writers also layers in details that make their issues sing a little bit more, make sure that they do more than play their part in the ongoing storyline. Casey parallels the action with a politician on the morning talk show circuit complaining that superheroes do more harm than good; I don't always like this kind of thing, but here it's thematically appropriate. Has Superman's insistence on facing Manchester Black his way just caused more problems in the long run? Schultz has the nice detail of Lois and Clark having a contingency plan for Clark's secret identity being compromised; like in his installment of Prelude to War!, Lois shines with her human determination in face of superhuman threat.

I also enjoyed the confrontation with Lex Luthor in Joe Kelly's part 4 (Action #795). Most of the villains don't know why they're attacking these people, they just are, but Luthor does know... and so therefore refuses to make use of the knowledge: "I was given the information -- [...] Your identity was given to me. On a platter. A mysterious file. A naive employee. No witnesses -- [...] I didn't look a gift horse in the mouth... but I have not done this. I refuse to be a pawn." As has been consistent throughout this era of Superman, putting Lex into a position of power has allowed for an exploration of some of the interesting aspects of his character.

from Action Comics vol. 1 #795
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Duncan Rouleau & Marlo Alquiza)
After a promising first seven-sixteenths, though, I found the storyline went downhill. Superman fighting the Elite again wasn't very interesting (I don't think the Elite are very interesting in and of themselves, only as tools of Manchester Black, and he's only interesting as an embodiment of the anti-Superman philosophy of The Authority), and then Metropolis has been taken over by Mongul, Bizarro, et al. I think it's only the third time since Joe Casey came on board that Metropolis has been hit by a massive disaster... but three massive disasters in less than two years of comics makes for an overused trope. Casey does manage to do something interesting with it all in part 6 (Adventures #609), but it feels like it's in spite of the actual storyline. There's some focus on the politician guy again, which I liked, and once again Casey delves into Superman's thoughts about the massive violence he's able to deploy whenever he wants to. But the actual plot is just another big throwdown.

The whole thing comes down to a battle between Superman and Manchester Black, where Superman thinks Lois Lane is dead, and Black mentally abuses Lois, either revealing or creating-- I wasn't sure-- memories of her abuse at the hands of her father. This seemed unnecessarily dark to me, and the whole conclusion (Action #796) doesn't quite come off. What Ending Battle wanted to be was Superman pushed to his limit, and he still doesn't snap... but you never feel like Superman actually would snap. All of these terrible things have happened to him in one awful day, but he just kind of shrugs it all off and does the right thing. Which, fair do, Superman should always do the right thing... but in life doing the right thing is rarely easy. Here's it's almost flippant how Superman is like, "You murdered my wife but I will take the moral high ground."

from Action Comics vol. 1 #796
(script by Joe Kelly, art by Duncan Rouleau & Marlo Alquiza)
I'm not sure how I would do it differently. I don't want to read a "dark Superman" story. But if you do all of this to Superman and can't make it seem like he could snap but doesn't, then really, I don't think you should have done the story in the first place. I liked Manchester Black and the Elite in "What's So Funny about Truth, Justice, & the American Way?", but they seem like a set of characters molded for one story and one purpose, and not flexible enough to keep reusing. The more they turn up, the less they seem like whatever they were originally supposed to do.

All that said, the story is one of the better of the Super title crossovers, which I guess is damning with faint praise. It has length enough to fit its scope, but doesn't sprawl; the emotional throughline is more thought out and thought through than in Return to Krypton, Our Worlds at War, or Return to Krypton II. Only Lost Hearts (still to come) was better, but on the whole, I feel like it was a format the writers and editors of this era never really worked out to its best.


12 November 2019

Review: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume One by Paul Levitz, Mike Grell, James Sherman, et al.

Every six months, I read a volume of The Legion of Super-Heroes. This time around, it's...

Comic hardcover, 304 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 1977-78)
Acquired June 2017
Read August 2019
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume One

Plotters: Jack C. Harris, Gerry Conway, Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg, and Jim Starlin
Writers: Jack C. Harris, Gerry Conway, Paul Levitz, and Paul Kupperberg
Pencillers/Layout Artists: Juan Ortiz, Ric Estrada, Mike Grell, George Tuska, James Sherman, Mike Nasser, Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin, and Howard Chaykin
Inkers/Finishers: Bob Smith, Jack Abel, Vince Colletta, Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Rick Bryant, and Bob Wiacek
Colorists: Liz Berube, Jerry Serpe, Anthony Tollin, Mike Nasser, Adrienne Roy, and Cory Adams
Letterers: Ben Oda, Milt Snapinn, Gaspar Saladino, and Shelly Leferman

The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives series stalled out at volume 13 in 2012, collecting up through Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #233. The Great Darkness Saga: The Deluxe Edition picks up with issue #284, leaving a fifty-some-issue gap. Thankfully, in 2017 DC published this volume to begin to plug the gap, collecting #234-40, plus assorted other appearances from the late 1970s.

Very ominous! Yet they all do get on pretty well.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #236 (script by Paul Levitz & Paul Kupperberg, art by James Sherman & Bob McLeod)

Thankfully also, it's good. The Legion Archives were wildly inconsistent. Superboy and the Legion is still somewhat inconsistent, especially since the book has no regular team, but Paul Levitz's developing writing style are beginning to make this the Legion I like best, one with character and history. Levitz is good at bringing out the characters' diverse personalities, aided by James Sherman, whose art is more interested in using different "character angles" and uses close-ups on faces to good effect. Nothing here is as serialized or as dramatic as what Levitz would later do in Great Darkness Saga, but I found it a consistently enjoyable volume, with a lot of neat standalone, character-driven adventures.

That's one big ship. It feels a bit Star Wars-y to me, and judging by its cover date, the issue would have been drawn right around the time it came out.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #236 (script by Paul Levitz, art by Mike Nasser and Joe Rubinstein & Rick Bryant)

Highlights included Mon-El singlehandledly saving a science platform from a Khund assault; I particularly liked how Mike Nasser drew the space stuff in the more gritty style of DC's Time Warp, instead of the usual Legion style of cheesy early sf. I liked the exploration of Wildfire as team leader. Vhe story where Ultra Boy is a murder suspect was a little contrived, but gave some great moments as Ultra Boy and Chameleon Boy face off against each other. It was nice to discover a little more about Dawnstar.

I like that Cham is somehow both optimistically chipper (as per above) and deeply suspicious. I guess it makes sense as a personality for a friendly shapeshifter.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #239 (plot by Jim Starlin & Paul Levitz, dialogue by Paul Levitz, art by Jim Starlin & Josef Rubinstein)

That's not to say it's not without its doofy low points. The Composite Legionnaire story was dumb, and the story about how Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad got married packed too much into its length: the idea of how the Time Trapper changed time seemed like it could have had more exploration.

You can overdramatically explain timeline changes to me any day, Princess Projectra.
from All-New Collectors' Edition #C-55 (script by Paul Levitz, art by Mike Grell & Vince Colletta)

I thought it was interesting that Levitz explained how the series could have been running so long but everyone is still a "Lad" or "Lass": the 30th century has life extension knowledge, so people in their twenties are still kids. But Superboy's mind is always wiped of that information, so that he won't be tempted to take it back to the 20th century and save the Kents! (Back in the 1970s, the Kents died before Clark became Superman.) I'm not sure it really needed attention called to it, but the idea that the future represents a temptation to Superboy is an interesting one.

I didn't know Dawnstar was in Legion Academy. I also didn't know she was such a jerk!
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #240 (plot by Paul Levitz, script by Paul Kupperberg, art by James Sherman & Bob McLeod)
Next Week: Back to Star Trek-- on Deep Space 9, it's time to Raise the Dawn!

11 November 2019

Review: Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2007)
Acquired December 2017
Read March 2019
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil

Written and drawn by Jeff Smith
Colored by Steve Hamaker

I liked this, but I wanted to love it; I got interested in reading more modern takes on Captain Marvel after enjoying the character's appearances in The Multiversity and Convergence: Infinite Earths. I don't think The Monster Society of Evil quite hits the notes of joy or childlike wonder that those stories do; Smith's take on Captain Marvel is a little too... bogged down. It's nowhere near grim and gritty, but it feels bound in a way that those other stories don't. Still: Smith's artwork is delightful and the story does a great job playing with a lot of classic Captain Marvel concepts but updating them for the 2000s. I can always go for a talking tiger.

08 November 2019

Reading Roundup Wrapup: October 2019

Pick of the month: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. This was a good book, but in a month of four, it does rather win by default. I've gotten mired in a book I absolutely do not care for. Gotta power through!

All books read:
1. Doctor Who by Gary Russell
2. Star Trek: First Contact by John Vornholt
3. Night Watch: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett
4. Paper Girls 6 by Brian K. Vaughan

All books acquired:
1. Paper Girls 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
2. The Walking Dead: Compendium Four by Robert Kirkman
3. Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology edited by Pever Ahlstrom
4. You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

Books remaining on "to be read" list: 651 (down 1)
Books remaining on "to review" list: 9 (up 1)

06 November 2019

Joe Casey Jay Faerber's Adventures of Superman #607: "Alienation"


The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #607 (Oct. 2002)

Guest Writer: Jay Faerber
Guest Penciller: Brandon Badeaux
Guest Inker: Mark Morales

Colorists: Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Assistant Editor: Tom Palmer, Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

Here we come to this marathon's first installment with no actual Joe Casey content. This issue, in the gap between Super title crossovers Return to Krypton II and Ending Battle, is a fill-in by Jay Faerber. Faerber had just come off a three-year run on The Titans when this was released, and indeed, the issue focuses on a Titan I'd never heard of, Argent, coming to Superman for advice.

I was expecting it to be terrible. A fill-in by a writer I'd never heard of featuring a character I'd never heard of-- and with an awful-looking cover, with a gross looking Alienesque creature. The tagline "Inner Demon!" implied someone battling an anger within, one of my least favorite comic book tropes.

Surprisingly and thankfully, it wasn't. It's not a complex story, but it is a decent one. Argent (whose superpower seems to be how her costume doesn't reveal all at any moment) was recently outed as half-alien, and she feels like people view her differently now. More distantly, more as an object. So she's come to Superman for advice on how to be an alien among humanity.

They have their conversation while Superman is only patrol around Metropolis, and it's the touches that Faerber weaves into this that makes the story come to life. I always like it when Superman is the upstanding moral exemplar, and this story gives us that in spades: he just goes about his business, but keeps reassuring Argent the entire time. At one point he swoops in to save people from a car crash, but tells Argent to keep talking, listening to her with his super-hearing while he casually saves lives.

That's basically it. They talk while they save lives together; of course, she resolves her issues pretty patly when they encounter a situation that mirrors it. It's a simple story, and it's not a great story, but it is an enjoyable little slice of life in the day-to-day of Superman. Faerber gets the character, and tonally it fits with Casey's approach on his own standalone issues, being more about character and the impact of Superman's ideals than fights or action, like #599 and 600 especially.

Brandon Badeaux's artwork is occasionally a little awkward (too many lines), but fundamentally solid, and Mark Morales is one of those consistent inkers of the 2000s I'm always happy to see more of.


05 November 2019

Review: Star Trek: First Contact by John Vornholt, Terry Pallot, et al.

Perfect-bound comic, 48 pages
Published 1996
Acquired June 2019
Read October 2019
Star Trek: First Contact

Adapted by John Vornholt
Art by Terry Pallot (pages 1-36 & 40-48)
Layouts by Rod Whigham
Pencils by Rod Whigham (pages 37-39)
Inks by Philip Moy
Color Design by Shannon Blanchard
Lettered by Edd Fear

In my review of the Generations adaptation, I said the First Contact adaptation from Marvel (the last-ever adaptation of a Prime Universe Star Trek film) hadn't been collected. I tracked it down to read it and discovered that even though it's a one-shot comic... it has an ISBN for some reason. Which under my personal rules means I can count it as a book. I don't know why, but I'll take it.

If you haven't seen the film or Voyager, it's not even clear this guy is a hologram! What's an "EMH"? (art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, & Philip Moy)

John Vornholt scripts; I didn't know he did any comics work, actually, as I primarily know him as a prolific Star Trek novelist in the 1990s, including the YA novels of all four Next Generation films, meaning this is one of two adaptations of First Contact that he wrote. It's an okay script. The first half captures the film well, but something is off with the pacing, and the second half gets very choppy, with a lot of the movie's great scenes cut down so much they lose their impact. The argument between Picard and Lily where he breaks his ships becomes a calm conversation; the great bit about Moby-Dick literally becomes: "You're like Captain Ahab." "Have you read Moby Dick?" "Actually, no." Zefram Cochrane is a particular victim of the condensation; the values conflict between him and the Enterprise crew doesn't come off at all.

The thing about Cochrane's music also doesn't come off in a medium that can only represent "Ooby Dooby" and "Magic Carpet Ride" with "TWANG-DA-DA-TWANG!" (art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, & Philip Moy)

The art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, and Philip Moy looks nice; it has that nice 1990s pre-computers style that I like, reminding me of people like Mike Collins or Matt Haley. (Which I guess makes sense, because Mike Collins worked on Marvel's 1990s Star Trek comics.) The action is often confusing, though, especially the shipboard fights against the Borg. I'm not sure a reader could follow the Dixon Hill scene if they didn't see the film. But then, who is reading this who didn't see the film? Like most film-to-comics adaptations, I'm discovering, it's serviceable, but adds little to your experience.

Next Week: From the 24th century to the 30th: I revisit Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes!

04 November 2019

Review: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Three edited Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor

Hardcover, 623 pages
Published 1982 (contents: 1965-69)

Acquired January 2009
Read August 2019
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Three: Nebula Winners, 1965-1969
edited Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor

My reading of the first two volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (which actually occupied three books) predates this blog, but I enjoyed volumes one and two B, and found volume two A lacking. In the stronger volumes, it felt like every story was a great, just one after another after another. Which, one supposes, is what you want out of a series called "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame." Volume three is somewhere in the middle; while I remember mostly bouncing off volume two A, volume three contains some great work, some important work I'm glad to have read, and some stuff that while not terrible, did little for me.

Highlights included the two stories by Harlan Ellison: "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "A Boy and His Dog." The latter, about a boy and his telepathic dog in a postapocalyptic wasteland, is kind of a predictable Twilight Zoneesque affair, but with more sex and violence, elevated by a strong sense of voice. The former was excellent sf-as-satire, and feels even more pressing in the 2010s than it did in the 1960s, I suspect. After reading Ellison's biography last year, I realized I'd read little of the man's actual work, so it was nice to have some fall into my lap.

There are a couple Roger Zelazny stories as well; while I found "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" kind of meh, I really enjoyed "He Who Shapes." More intelligent dogs, this time used to aid blind people. Interestingly, Zelazny can imagine self-driving cars... but not text-to-speech or speech-to-text technology! But it's a cool concept, well-executed, and the self-driving cars are kind of an incidental detail of the story, but one whose implications he pursues in interesting ways nonetheless.

Of course I was fond of Brian Aldiss's H. G. Wells pastiche, "The Saliva Tree," which does a good job of doing the Wellsian thing of reimagining humanity's place in the universe through biological analogy. The bit where he stuffs in all the story titles was a bit much, but overall this gets both the flavor and the mission of the early scientific romances.

Samuel Delany is someone else I'm always meaning to read more of. "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" was strong on atmosphere, but a little impenetrable; however, I was very impressed by "Aye, and Gomorrah . . .", which imagines not only a group of sexless spacers (the radiation of space damages the sexual organs), but a group of people who would be attracted to them.

I was also pleased to read some more of Robert Silverberg's short sf, another person I feel like I haven't read enough of; "Passengers" is grim and well put together. And I've read Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonrider" before (it's a novella that became the middle third of her novel Dragonflight, which I read as part of The Dragonriders of Pern omnibus), but it mostly works on its own, too, and I enjoyed it all over again; it reminded me that I have a few more Pern novels I have never read.

Other good stories, though not as strong as the above, included Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" and Richard Wilson's "Mother to the World." And then there are several more besides. It's a big book, with sixteen stories ranging from about ten pages to ninety. There were only two stories I bounced off completely: Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place" and Kate Willhelm's "The Planners." I don't think either was bad; they just never grabbed me. It's a good hit rate for an anthology.

Unlike volumes ones and two, volume three of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is no longer in print, but if you come across it in a used bookstore (as I did), it's worth your time and money. I look forward to reading volume four and beyond in time.