Category Archives: Reading

A light work week

Because I’ve been up to visit friends in Virginia and today, barring some disaster, I’m at Mysticon (TYG holds down the fort and minds the puppies). Plus TYG was off Monday, so I took some of it off too.

The big accomplishment was that I finally got the kinks out of the Atlas Shagged cover. Surprisingly simple, I just had to find a cover design that matched the size of the image I wanted to use. So next month, it’ll be out!  Otherwise nothing much to mention. So let’s go to my perennial fallback, cover art:

The Silver Age Suicide Squad wasn’t much to read (which didn’t stop me buying a TPB recently), but I do think that’s a strong cover by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. They really capture the shock of being very small and very helpless.

Murphy Anderson provides the cover art for this one, which I posted a few years ago. What a hook for a young reader.

One of my favorite Mystery in Space covers, by Gil Kane.

And another Gil Kane cover. From the synopsis I’ve read of the story, the cover is the equivalent of clickbait, only tangentially related to the story.

Switching to Marvel, we have a Jack Kirby cover that deftly combines the two unrelated series in the book.

Here’s one of Marvel’s horror/monster covers, again by Kane.

That issue was actually a reprint. Here’s the original by Marie Severin from four years earlier.

And I’ll close with another Kirby cover because unleashing something called “Shagg” is inherently funny.

All rights to all images remain with current holder. #SFWApro


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The Platonic ideal of characters

Characters, as everyone reading this undoubtedly knows, exist not only on the page but in our heads. It’s one reason I sometimes read things I’m certain I won’t like.

My favorite characters exist to me as a kind of Platonic ideal, separate from how they actually manifest on the page. This is particularly true with comic books, which I’ve been reading since I was six, and with a few other characters such as Sherlock Holmes. My reaction to a bad story isn’t to dislike the character but to decide the story gets them wrong. My head canon of the character remains pure.

Case in point, Scott Snyder’s Batman: Endgame. If Batman can build a battlesuit powerful enough to take down Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, he’s capable of doing a lot better on the streets of Gotham. Even if he doesn’t use that battlesuit, he could obviously afford one that would work like Iron Man in stealth mode. So why doesn’t he?

More generally I simply don’t like Snyder’s Bat-work much, for all the praise it’s gotten. So maybe it’s unfair to pick up yet another TPB and give it another negative review.

But at the same time, I do like Batman. I like reading Batman stories. So I’ll pick up Snyder just to see what the Bat’s doing lately. I care about Batman even when they’re doing him wrong.

And the same for Flash, Green Lantern Spider-Man and so forth. I love the characters even if I can’t stand the current writers. Though these days I’m much more likely to save time and pass on a TPB if I don’t like the writer (I avoid Jonathan Hickman’s stuff like the plague). But that’s more about time to read than the writer’s being worse than they used to be (as I wrote on the Atomic Junkshop site, there’s so much available now that changes the equation). Rereading the Bronze Age Freedom Fighters reminded me how poor the book was, but I still like the platonic ideal of the team.

So perhaps I’m being unfair picking up books I know I’m going to hate, but I’m still going to do it sometimes.

#SFWApro. Art by Greg Capullo, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Wonder Woman: The First Decade

Unsurprisingly Ms. magazine’s staff were big fans of Wonder Woman. Hence this 1972 Wonder Woman anthology being identified on the inside as a “Ms. Book,” and opening with an essay from Gloria Steinem (one of the better known feminists of the Bronze Age) discussing her own love for the book and the presence of female role models other than The Girlfriend (not just WW but Queen Hippolyta and the other Amazons). There’s also a good essay by Phyllis Chesler on the history of the Amazon legend.

Just to put this in perspective, in the early Bronze Age there were few resources for reading Golden Age stories. No TPB archives. No digital collections. Either you found a comic shop that had Golden Age material for sale and ponied up, or you read whatever reprints DC occasionally offered (the same is true of Marvel, but as their glory days were the Silver Age, that was most of their reprints until the 21st century). So that made this collection that much more interesting.

After the first couple of stories introducing the Amazons and bringing Wonder Woman to America (which I already have reprints of), the book breaks down into several categories:

Sisterhood. Stories of the Amazing Amazon empowering women: defeating Dr. Psycho’s misogynist propaganda, helping his wife when she’s enmeshed in another bad guy’s schemes. And rebutting the claims of sexists that women have no place outside the home.

Politics. As John Trumbull recently pointed out at Atomic Junkshop, comics have always had a political element. The first story in this section, for instance, has an American town threatened by post-WW II homegrown fascists. The next two stories are much weaker and The Five Tasks of Thomas Tighe seems it would fit better under Sisterhood (to win needed funds for their college, Etta Candy and her sorority sisters have to accomplish a misogynist’s five impossible missions).

Romance. Here it’s two out of three. The first story involves a crime ring giving Steve superpowers in the belief he’ll overawe Wonder Woman, marry her and turn her into an ordinary housewife. Diana, however, decides she can’t accept a man who’s stronger than she is, so Steve gives up his new powers on the spot. The next story is a more conventional romantic rivalry and the last one (by Robert Kanigher) is just sexist (Diana falls for a disguised bad guy, Steve ends up saving her). Of course, as Marston biographer Jill Lepore has pointed out, a lot of the non-Marston stories were more sexist, so it’s a fair representation of the era.

Overall, though, it’s a good collection, worth reading if you like this era of the Amazing Amazon — though now you can find most of these stories in several more recent collections from DC.

WW image by Harry G. Peters, all rights to cover remain with current holder. #SFWApro


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Iron, Blood and Backstory

Unless we’re writing about the birth of time, our worlds always have a backstory. There are several different ways to deal with it.

The backstory is reality. For example in Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, a planet-sized space shape crosses hyperspace and emerges in orbit around Earth. The moon is ripped apart, tidal waves and earthquakes ravage the world and the characters struggle to survive. Plus, of course, there are aliens.

Up until the starship appeared, the world was normal. We don’t need to know what it was like before the start of the story because we were living in it (we do get some backstory later on the spaceship and its inhabitants). The backstory is irrelevant.

I come close to this with Atoms For Peace: even though the world is slightly off-kilter (recovering from a Martian invasion) it still seems like that was one crazy fluke. Then Gwen Montgomery discovers a mutated lizard man dead in her street …

The protagonist is a newbie. This is one specfic uses a lot: the POV character is thrust into a new situation knowing nothing about the backstory. This excuses them asking constant questions and sitting through infodumps in response. This is painful to read if the info dump isn’t interesting (it usually isn’t). One of the things I hated about Charles Stross’s The Family Trade was the constant stream of infodumping directed at the protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a problem, though, if it’s done well: Mur Lafferty introduced a newbie to the supernatural world in The Shambling Guide to New York City without leaving me feeling dumped on.

In media res. This is the one I tend toward in my own writing — the protagonists aren’t newbies and whatever’s going on has been going on a while.

I’m not so much talking about starting in the middle of the action (which I do sometimes) as much as establishing that the weirdness pre-existed the events of the book. In No One Can Slay Her, for instance, magic’s a part of every day life in the 1950s. Jennifer Armstrong has been dealing with supernatural threats since her teen years (her wyrd guarantees it); her Beatnik wife Kate has the gift of wild magic. When I wrote Brain From Outer Space (the as yet uncompleted novel that inspired the Atoms for Peace stories), alien invasions, pod people, mutants and mad science were just “Tuesday” for my cast.

It’s common in urban fantasy, which Gail Z. Martin writes, so it’s not surprising she and her husband went that route in their steampunk fantasy Iron & Blood (cover by Michael Kormarck, all rights remain with current holder). Jake and his partner Rick have been relic-hunting for a while (mostly stealing antiques from people whose ownership claim is dubious). Steampunk tech is taken as normal, magic is middling (not everyone believes). And the events that trigger the plot — Jake’s father acquired a rare item that someone wants enough to kill him (and they did) — have been accomplished before Page One. We get some exposition about the characters along the way, but not much about the setting.

I enjoy that approach. Like I said, it’s one I use a lot myself. Although I found having the two federal agents “Sturm and Drang” already hunting a Jack the Ripper type as the book starts made it a little overfull (perhaps it’s because the Martins are going to spin them off into their own adventures). I still really enjoyed the book (and that is my honest opinion, even though Gail’s a friend of mine).


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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Reading, Southern Discomfort

Sharks and fantasies, Frankenstein and Odysseus: books read

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SHARKS by Jeff Parker is a good basic guide to sharks, obviously not intended for hardcore shark buffs (but I’m not one, so that’s cool). This does an excellent job covering the basics, such as the variety of shark species, digestion, reproduction, food, environmental threats (if global warming opens up the polar regions to more sharks, their predation could wreck the current food chain) and so forth. Despite a couple of typos (the whale shark is the largest shark species but that’s not what the weight/height by its photo says) but it’s still worth the reading.

THE HOLLOW EARTH by Carole and John Barrowman is the kickoff of a juvenile fantasy series about Animares, sorcerers who can bring their artwork to life. The protagonists are tween Animares whose precocious abilities draw attention from both the council overseeing mages to the eponymous cult that believes the kids will offer a way to open a Hellmouth. This was enjoyable, but not so enjoyable that I’ll be rushing for Part Two.

SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo is a fantasy caper film set in alt.Holland (roughly seventeenth century) as a team of ragtag but dangerous outcasts (mechanic, marksman, mastermind, cat burglar, psi and witch hunter) attempt to rescue a scientist from an alt.Russian prison for fear one nation or another will use his psi-enhancing drug to create unstoppable psi-armies [Bardugo refers to it as magic, but that’s not how the Grishka powers seem to work]. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and Bardugo does a good job shifting between multiple POV characters. However the ending disappointed me — I would have preferred a temporary stopping place rather than a cliffhanger. And her word use often feels off — “fink” is an Americanism that feels out of place in this setting, for instance.

FRANKENSTEIN: How a Monster Became an Icon by Sidney Perkowitz is a bicentennial tribute to Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel, tackling such topics as what the themes of the book really are, why Universal’s design became “the” face of Frankenstein, how “franken” has become a prefix (frankenfood for instance) and various tributes and versions including a Eureka arc in the last season and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (though much as I love that film, I’m annoyed the contributors brush off Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein instead of seeing it as a comparable comic triumph).

ODY-C: Off to Far Ithicaa by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward is a graphic novel that didn’t work for me at all. The premise is that Zeus has wiped out men to prevent any child usurping her throne as she did Cronos, but some biological superscience has provided a substitute third sex. Odyssia, having helped defeat the planetary fortress of Illia, now heads home to the planet Ithicaa, but the gods, of course, have other plans … The faux Homer writing style got annoying fast and the story never recovered.

#SFWApro. Cover by Rich Deas, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Dark rebooting: HERO: Powers and abilities

DC’s 2003-5 series H-E-R-O is an interesting example of doing a darker, grittier, grimmer reboot that actually works.

The series was based on Dial H for HERO, a Silver Age series about “Robby Reed — the Boy Who Can Change Into a Thousand Superheroes!” Created by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney, this has teenage science whiz Robbie Reed discover an alien dial. Translating the instructions, he learns that by dialing the equivalent of the letters H-E-R-O, he transforms into a superhero. To return to normal, he transforms back (other letters allow someone to dial VILLAIN).

I loved this series as a kid. In the first place, it was the only series besides Spider-Man that had a non-sidekick fteen protagonist. And where Spider-Man had powers, Robby was ordinary. If I’d found the dial, hey, I could be just as super! Plus the appeal of a series that offered more superheroes even than the Justice League of Avengers books was irresistible.

Rereading recently, I can see the flaws in it. The stories and villains are bland, and got sloppy near the end of the run (Wood forgets his own ground rules, like Robby having to dial back to normal before becoming another hero). Robby lives with his grandfather, but we never learn why, or where his parents went. Being a science whiz is his only personality trait.

When Joe Orlando took over as House of Mystery editor at the end of the Silver Age, he saw that the superhero strips sold poorly compared to the supernatural anthology approach of times past. He switched House of Mystery and House of Secrets to anthology books hosted by Cain and Abel, a format which made them steady sellers on into the 1980s. I was baffled and disappointed to discover Robby Reed and backup the Martian Manhunter had suddenly disappeared, and I never became a fan of the anthology approach (with rare exceptions such as the first Swamp Thing story, they were mostly mediocre).

Robby popped up occasionally after that, including a 1980s Dial H series with different protagonists (it was a lot less fun). Most of these stories followed the premise of the original faithfully but H-E-R-O (by Will  Pfeifer and Jose Angel Cano Lopez) took it in a different direction.

While Robby eventually shows up, the hook is that the H-Dial passes from hand to hand in the course of the series. A guy who feels like a nothing becomes a superhero — now he’s a somebody, right? A stressed-out businessman uses the dial to give himself some fun. A little girl makes herself cool at school by offering to share the H-Dial. A group of slackers film themselves using their powers, then stream it to YouTube. Trouble is, the dial eventually falls into the hands of a psycho who hits the jackpot — Superman-class powers. Robby saw this future back in one of his super-identities and now that it’s arrived, he’s taking steps to prevent it …

This was definitely on the grim-and-gritty side of comics. Suicide, death, heroes dealing out gratuitous violence, extremely flawed protagonists and then more death. I think the reason it worked for me is because it’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of the original series — what if someone less heroic found the H-Dial? It’s not violating the original canon at all. That’s a vast improvement over the many, many reboots that go with Everything You Know Is Wrong! DC’s 1980sreboot of Silver Age space adventurer Adam Strange, for instance, assumes that Rann (the planet he adventures on) despises him and his presence there is just to provide breeding stock (Rannian men are sterile). It was grim and gritty at its worst, undercutting everything fun in the original series (when I read the classic Adam, I just ignore the reboot exists).

Pfeifer and Lopez, by contrast, got it right.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and John van Fleet, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (from Men Who Smiled No More‘s cover) and Bob Larkin. All rights remain with current holder.

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