Patriotic Americans just want to have fun! (#SFWApro)

Which is to say I’m goofing off this weekend, so no posting probably until Monday or Tuesday. Happy Fourth everyone. (Cover by Lou Fine, all rights to current holder)

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Time travel aside, my TV year in review (#SFWApro)

ONCE UPON A TIME didn’t quite live up to the previous season this year. The first half with Elsa of Disney’s Frozen wasn’t bad per se as she and Emma explore their strangely linked past, but I could have done without all the flashbacks to Arundel (I’m fairly sure most of that amounts to a trailer for Frozen 2). The second half picked up as Gould joins forces with Cruella deVil, Ursula and Maleficent to warp reality so that the bad guys can win a happy ending. However that does squeeze most of the supporting cast in Storybrooke out of the picture so we can focus on the guest stars. As for the ending …. I’ll see what they do with it next year.

VAMPIRE DIARIES opens with Damon and Bonnie trapped in a pocket universe after the outcome of the previous season. Here they might Kai, a homicidal occultist who can suck power out from others only to be trapped in the pocket world by his own coven. Can the good guys escape without him? And what’s happening back in Mystic Falls all this time? The ending was a bit weak—as they point out, Elena’s hardly going to stay dead long—but it looks like we’re heading into a weird alternate future next season (I’m guessing we end up with someone traveling back in time to wipe it all out, but we’ll see).

That shows spinoff, THE ORIGINALS, functions mostly as a “talking lamp” (in the words of my friend Ross) for me—I don’t have to pay that much attention to it to follow along. Endless power struggles both in New Orleans and within the Michaelson family shift who’s currently dominant but never seem to change much. However I must admit the ending was surprisingly upbeat, presumably because they worried they wouldn’t get renewed.

ARROW was a much stronger season, as we introduce Ray Palmer as the new hero (and romantic rivalry) in Starling City, Malcolm Merlyn manipulates Ollie into taking on the League of Assassins, Thea learns archery and Laurel tries stepping into her sister’s fishnets as the new Black Canary (Canary I will be showing up in some form in a new series this fall). Good fun, and several crossovers with Flash, though it says something the season climax is so standard even the characters joke about it (“Let me guess, the city’s going to be destroyed? Of course it is, it’s May!”).

I have some of the same problem with AGENTS OF SHIELD that I did with Once Upon a Time—the season seems very much a build-up to Disney’s attempt to make the Inhumans into the X-Men. As Sony shows no signs of letting the mutant franchise get away, Disney has established in the MCU that thousands of people have inherited genes from the reclusive Inhumans and begin to acquire super-powers from the mutagenic terragen crystals. And of course will be Hated and Feared by the World That DIstrusts Them … So the first half of the season is primarily Coulson’s team trying to operate in the fallout to SHIELD from Captain America: Winter Soldier while investigating an Inhuman artificat, then dealing with Skye (an Inhuman by birth) acquiring super-powers and meeting her hidden people (they also work the chaos from Avengers II into the mix). Entertaining, but definitely not their best work.

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When readers don’t know what you’re talking about: Phonogram (#SFWApro)

848837Several years back, I did a post about in-jokes. My point was that in-jokes not everyone will get are fine in fiction, but the more the more important the joke is to the story, the worse it is if people don’t get the joke.

I thought of that while reading PHONOGRAM: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie because the entire story is like an in-joke that’s vital to the story and completely incomprehensible. The book is about 1990s BritPop and as someone who knows zilch about that, I found the story didn’t work for me on any level.

It’s not automatically bad to give readers a world they don’t understand. Lots of authors write books make that alien world a plus — they open it up and explain it to readers. Or take Big Bang Theory: when Sheldon’s big research project crashes I don’t have to know the science because what’s important is how miserable he feels. Likewise I don’t need to know anything about music in High Fidelity because what’s important are the characters and how they feel about it.

In Phonogram, the music is the story, and the creators make no attempt to explain it. And not in the sense that it’s background for the main plot or character arc—we get long, detailed conversations about different bands and albums and songs, and whether they’re any good and what does it say about someone that they think that album was original, and apparently we’re supposed to take the discussion as an end it itself. I have the same reaction to the conversations that I do when TYG and some of her IT friends start talking esoteric tech stuff—I stopped listening.

It doesn’t help that the protagonist, David Kohl, is a prick, or in his words a “phallocrat.” A smug womanizer and phonomancer, which is some kind of sorcery using pop music, an interesting idea that’s never clearly explained. And apparently someone’s trying to resurrect the demigoddess who ruled BritPop, which aside from the metaphorical aspects (trying to resurrect music for nostalgia: bad!) will have nasty effects on David.

The trouble is, outside of being a prick, David has no personality other than his deep passion for BritPop. But I don’t share the passion, and Gillen does nothing to make me connect with him. Nor does the story universalize it — make it something anyone who has an attachment to some era of music could identify with. It’s just BritPop (much as Polarity struck me as about Brooklyn hipsters rather than artistic poseurs in general)

In fairness, it may be that BritPop has enough of a following that I’m just the odd man out for not getting it. And even if it is a specialty taste, it’s cool we live in a market that can cater to such a specialty. But that said, I still didn’t like it.

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He Could Stop the World With His Magic Island: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

1808372HE COULD STOP THE WORLD was either the first or second Doc Savage novel I ever read. It was Laurence Donovan’s final work on the series, and he pulls out all the stops … unfortunately he didn’t remove all the flaws (cover by James Bama, all rights with current holder)

No questions, it’s pretty epic. It opens in the “one of Doc’s men gets in trouble” vein as Johnny, taking a high-altitude research flight in an experimental ship, discovers the guy in charge has a sinister agenda. Which, of course, Johnny doesn’t get to do anything about.

The whole world soon learns what’s going on, though. The villain can shut off all radio transmissions (a very big deal in the 1930s) and also broadcast his agenda (benevolent dictatorship for the good of the human race) on all channels, a trick countless comic-book villains would pull in later years. He can control minds and apparently disintegrate his enemies anywhere. When the good guys reach his base on Mt. Shasta, the mad scientist has created giant warriors, the mountain’s snowy peak is bright red and hot … and Donovan even works in an elephant stampede (it makes sense, trust me).

Unfortunately reading this in sequence I can’t avoid noticing that it’s largely a remake of Donovan’s Haunted Ocean, in which the villain can shut down all electrical power and again plans a benevolent world takeover. Plus elements from multiple other books, most notably the mind control of Donovan’s Men Who Smiled No More.

On top of that, there are the errors. Pat Savage is now golden-haired. Johnny, an archeologist/geologist has no particular reason to go on a high-altitude research trip. And the mountain folk living around Mt. Shasta seem more like Appalachian hillbillies, right down to the accents.

A final flaw: There are so few suspects for the real villain behind it all, it’s easy to identify him.

1274695Lester Dent wrote the next book, Ost, published as THE MAGIC ISLAND, which Doc-expert Robert Cotter says was to avoid sounding like “Oz” (I don’t know the cover artist; all rights to current holder) The opening is one Dent used several times, devoting several paragraphs to describing a character whose actions kick off the story. In this case, sailor Ben Brasken: “He was meek, absurd and did not have many manly qualities of the hairy-chested kind. He was short. He was thing. He had never won a fight, although he had had several. He was as poor as a church mouse and somewhat resembled one … Ben Brasken had one quality. It was this one thing that got him into all his trouble. And got some other people into theirs. Which also caused a few heads to turn grey and a few people to die.”

Technically this is Telling Not Showing, but I find it works.

The ship Brasken is working on has already seen what the crew assume is a mirage, the floating city of Ost above the ocean. One day, Brasken jumps into the ocean and swims to Ost, then swims back carrying two heavy pieces of iron, the Keys to Ost. Doc’s aides catch a mention of this in the papers and highlight it as possibly something to look into. The gangster Lupp and wealthy thrill-seeker Kit Merrimore also take an interest in finding the mystery city of Ost and its rumored treasure. Merrimore, like Velma Crale in The South Pole Terror, is presented as a spoiled brat (Doc declares she needs a good spanking) rather than a competent adventurer like Midnat in Mystery on the Snow or Retta Kenn in The Roar Devil.

Needless to say, both the good guys and the bad guys eventually find the lost city of Ost in New Guinea. It’s distinctive features are that it’s built out of lodestone so buildings can cling to the iron cliffs above it, and that some of the strange inhabitants have psionic ability. They don’t like outsiders much, either, so Doc has to deal with them as well as the bad guys.

Overall, it’s a fun read, one of those where Doc and the crew come across much more like ordinary pulp adventurers than super-heroes. But that’s not a bad thing.

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End of June political links

Digby looks at right-wing extremism and finds (this is not news) that it’s a lot more lethal than the Islamic kind. Here she looks at some of the attacks that have fallen under the radar.

•A woman argues that yes, princess stories are feminist.

•Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife is a conservative activist. Does that give him a conflict of interest in some cases?

•The FCC chair says he doesn’t want the agency micro-managing broadband, just regulating it.

•Donald Trump says Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists. But he adds it’s outrageous to imply there’s any racism in that remark.

•Even if housing discrimination isn’t intentional, people can sue over programs that have a discriminatory effect.

•After the violence of the 1960s and ’70s I was always amazed that years later pundits would pontificate about “What if terrorism ever comes to America?” Here’s an example of the terrorism that was already here.

•Some businesses have claimed that even filling out a “no our insurance does not cover birth control” form violates their faith as it will pave the way for employees to eventually get birth control. An appellate judge says baloney. He makes good sense, though if this hits the Supremes, I’m not betting on them agreeing. Speaking of which, Scott Lemieux of LGM argues that one of the primary reasons gay rights are doing better than reproductive rights is that Justice Arthur Kennedy supports one and not the other. Much good discussion at the link.

•Someone keeps pooping on the warehouse floor. The warehouse owner demands DNA samples to try and identify the source of the fecal matter. A court rules that violates laws on gathering and using genetic information.

•”I have no respect for your ancestors. As far as your ancestors are concerned, I shouldn’t be a law professor at Georgetown. I should be a slave. That’s why they fought that war. I don’t understand what it means to be proud of a legacy of terrorism and violence.”—Paul Butler, Georgetown Law.

•”What should a man do if he is regularly denied sex by his wife? Should he masturbate, visit brothels or should be commit adultery?”—Men’s rights blogger Amartya Talukdar on why it’s wrong to criminalize marital rape (as noted at the link yes, masturbating is actually a better solution than rape). The same writer is also a Holocaust denier.

•In a general rant about people who criticize the police, the head of the Kentucky police union explains it’s the critics who cause problems like Ferguson and they must pay!

•App-based companies such as Uber fight against having their contractors listed as employees. The app-based Instacart shopping services has officially declared its shoppers are company employees.

•Verizon once promised a city-wide FIOS network in New York by 2014. A city audit found it failed massively. Verizon disagrees.

•A VR designer compares his new system to IMAX in an interview. IMAX demands the website take down the interview.

•I’m quite cool with Rush Limbaugh losing audience. At this point, however, there are enough people following in his wake I’m not sure it will affect the political landscape at all.

•A medical-bill collector that allegedly violated federal law in its methods will have to cough up $5.4 million to consumers.

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Comics reviews: Okay,I’m not completely a cranky old man (#SFWApro)

I do wonder about that when I find myself generally dissatisfied with the latest crop of comics TPBs. On the other hand, it’s not as if I’m grumbling about how much better everything was Back Then—lord knows I’ve read plenty of mediocre comics in any era (though the nature of the mediocrity varies). And I still like some new ones — such as CAPTAIN MARVEL: Down.

captainmarvel9The work of Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christopher Sebela and Dexter Soy (cover by Jamie McKelvie, all rights with current holder), this has Carol teaming up with Monica Rambeau, who had the Captain Marvel name in the 1980s, then discovering a brain lesion makes it fatal for her to fly (which for the born-to-fly Danvers is a fate worse than death). And wouldn’t you know, her old winged enemy Deathbird just happens to show up? Very good, except for the ending reveal—it turns out the person behind this is strictly a C-lister.

BLESSED THISTLE by Steve Morris proves indie books can disappoint me as much as super-hero comics. This has two plotlines, one about a sociopathic little girl which feels like a remake of The Bad Seed (which goes back to the 1940s) and one about her troubled brother seeking solace with a priest, who turns out to have his own agenda (the kind of Life Is Meaningless and Brutal twist that never works for me). More cliched than clever.
THE RETURN OF THE DAPPER MEN by Jim McCann and Janet K. Lee is the story of a magical land where time has stopped, machines engage in useless work and children never grow up until a rain of bowler-hatted men falls out of the sky. This is the kind of fairy-tale-with-meaning that really shouldn’t work, but I think the creators pulled it off, primarily with the charming art. Very reminiscent of some of James Thurber’s fantasy work at times.

While biographical graphic novels aren’t that unusual, Annie Goetzinger’s THE GIRL IN DIOR doesn’t work for me as a look at Christian Dior’s brief but memorable career in fashion (he died 10 years after his first show) because it’s so insanely detailed about the shows (“Will Marly wear gloves? Which ones? Or not? Embellished with strings of pearls or rhinestone jewelry?”) that it’s hard to imagine even a fashionista caring. Was this some kind of Dior promotion?
TEEN TITANS; On the Clock by Sean McKeever and multiple artists is the kind of book that makes me wonder if I have, in fact, just read too many comics (although of course that’s crazy). This just feels like same-old same-old in the frustrated relationships, the sturm and angst, and the new team of Terror Titans. On the other hand, I think a lot of this really is pretty mediocre—and I really hate that pre-New 52 they brought the Dark Side Club from Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory into mainstream continuity (it works okay as an alt.version of the New Gods, but not as the real one), let alone just using it for gladiatorial combat between super-heroes. And as I’ve mentioned before, Ravager just isn’t as interesting as the writers from this era seem to think (she fills the badass slot on the team, and that’s a crappy slot).

CONCRETE PARK: You Send Me by Tony Puryear feels like a stock story of inner-city crime, gangstas and thugs, even if it is technically set in a dystopian near future and at least partly on another planet. This one may be a matter of personal taste—crime comics rarely do it for me—rather than quality per se.

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And some books (#SFWApro)

HONOR IN THE DUST: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Phillipines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream by Gregg Jones chronicles is one of those The More Things Change histories, as the America’s desire to rush in and free the oppressed Filipinos from Spain’s tyranny almost immediately mutated into a decision to run the islands until the natives “proved” their ability at self-government. When the Filipinos unsurprisingly decided this was sub-optimal, the American response became increasingly hardline and brutal in a depressingly familiar pattern—Jones sees this as foreshadowing the Iraq occupation but it could apply to Vietnam just as easily. A solid job of history

THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE by Peter Novick looks at the treatment of the Holocaust throughout the 20th century and tries to figure out why unlike most events it’s a bigger deal now than it was in the 1940s. Novick shows that for a variety of reasons the genocide was downplayed for a couple of decades after WW II: American Jews, for instance, didn’t like being seen as tragic victims and Cold War propaganda made the camps more a symbol of general totalitarianism (and thereby indicting the Soviets) than specifically anti-semitic. Novick argues things really began to change with the 1970s Holocaust miniseries widely popularizing the Jewish side, and that the change took hold because for some nonreligious Jews it was something that connected them to their people. Novick also discusses whether the Holocaust is truly unique and whether that matters (would it be less horrible if it wasn’t?). Interesting.

5384031Terror, Inc.: NIGHTSHADE BOOK ONE by Tappan King and Beth Meacham (cover by Ralph Reese, all rights to current holder) was the Weird Heroes neo-pulp line’s second novel (following Quest of the Gypsy), a Shadow variation in which super-star stage magician Doctor Black is also the shadowy avenger Nightshade, here targeting a SPECTRE-style terrorist start-up. This is good (though a bit heavy on Haitian stereotypes) but the original title of Doctor Black would have made more sense, as the protagonist spends most of her time in that identity (unfortunately Weird Heroes already had a Doc Phoenix so the editors didn’t want another Md.—titled character). Too bad that like most of the Weird Heroes, Nightshade didn’t return after this debut tale.

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