Category Archives: Reading

Titans, Time Travel, Tractors and More! (#SFWApro)

TEEN TITANS: The Culling and TEEN TITANS: The Trial of Kid Flash show author Scott Lobdell (with various artists) at his best and work on this strip (don’t get your hopes up, even his best isn’t that good). The former reminded me of all the reasons I stopped reading X-Men during the 1990s — bombastic villains, sadistic villains, umpty-zillion dark secrets. As I said of X-Men: The Shattering, it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Although I will give the editors points — there’s a crossover issue that isn’t included here, and they actually provide a synopsis, rather than leaving me going “Huh?”

The second TPB was Lobdell’s last with the team and he does a fair job wrapping things up on a mostly happy note; on the other hand, the political plotline (Kid Flash’s secret life as a future terrorist) gets very muddled.

SUPERMAN: War of the Supermen by James Robinson, Sterling Gates and various artists was the climax to a story arc involving the long-lost survivors of Krypton settling into the solar system under the leadership of General Zod and Superman having to figure out whether his loyalties lie with New Krypton or Earth. I found this story arc interminable and dull, but I must admit this final segment is pretty entertaining as it’s all action — Krypton invades, Earth retaliates, Superman battles Zod, etc. However Zod’s still a dull villain — as I’ve said before, nobody can think of anything to do with him other than vicious Kryptonian supremacist (but Superman II has embedded him too deeply in the mythos not to recycle endlessly, I guess).

I thought Eric Shanower had long ago given up on his Age of Bronze series adapting the Trojan War myths but BETRAYAL Part II turned up at the local library. This focuses primarily on the doomed love of Troilus and Cressida, which works well; however I don’t find Shanower’s normally excellent art works with the battle scenes, and there’s a lot of those. So a curate’s egg (partly good, partly not).

THE HISTORY OF LUCY’S LOVE LIFE IN TEN AND A HALF CHAPTERS by Deborah Wright is a paranormal chick-lit tale in which a woman getting cold feet with her boyfriend uses a time machine to try out the Great Lovers of History. Even if I hadn’t spent two years watching time-travel films, nothing in this is terribly new as Lucy keeps discovering life in the past isn’t as easy or smooth as she imagined. In fairness, I don’t read much chick-lit, but I’ve read some and liked it better.

1918FORDSON, FARMALL AND POPPIN’ JOHNNY: A History of the Farm Tractor and its Impact on America by Robert C. Williams (all rights to image of Fordson Tractor with current holder; source here) chronicles how tractors, like so much later tech, went from a high-priced tool few could afford to an indispensable part of farm life. Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor was a major player in the transition, thanks to assembly-line manufacturing cutting costs and prices. However the Fordson was still too big to work with row crops like cotton or corn, so it wasn’t until the smaller, more maneuverable Farmall that farmers could completely replace horses with machines. Whether that was ultimately good or bad, Williams finds hard to say, savings in labor and time being counterbalanced by farmers shifting from self-sufficiency to debt in order to afford the machinery (“Being a farmer is now as much about managing finance as managing crops.”). Specialized, obviously, but good if the topic interests you

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Book cover art for Friday morning (#SFWApro)

leodianedillonThis weird-looking one is by Leo and Diane Dilon.

dailyb-1Great Michael Whelan cover (aren’t they all) for a clunky Lovecraftian novel.

frazettaFrazetta draws Bradbury.

bob-brownAnd because I love impossible-doorway images, here’s a comics cover by Bob Brown.

All rights to each image reside with current holder

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Bizarro: Superman’s powers, none of his brains (#SFWApro)

Which is the topic of my first article on Screen Rant — 17 things you didn’t know about Bizarro. It was quite a challenge adapting to their style and process (not a criticism—it always is with a project like this) and I didn’t get it quite right; i.e., they had to do more editing than they should have. But I’ll use what I learned and do better on #2 (due in today).

Below, Curt Swan does a Bizarro cover. All rights reserved to current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes Again: The Sign of Four (#SFWApro)

the-sign-of-fourI know perfectly well Sherlock Holmes is a drug user. Nevertheless it’s still a shock to begin THE SIGN OF FOUR and see Holmes shooting up with cocaine. (cover is a photo of Basil Rathbone, once the Definitive Movie Holmes; all rights to image remain with current holder)

It was perfectly  legal back when the book came out, but Watson clearly sees this as a bad thing, warning Holmes that drug use could easily overload and unbalance that powerful mind of his. Holmes acknowledges the point, but tells Watson he needs the coke fix. He has no case to tackle, nothing to stimulate his mind and his mind must be stimulated! For this reason I think Watson’s snarking slightly when he asks Holmes if the syringe is morphine or cocaine: I can’t imagine Holmes using a drug that makes him relax (and there’s no other reference to him using morphine in the canon).

Fortunately it doesn’t take long for something to turn up, or rather someone. Mary Morstan, a young woman with little money and no family, shows up and tells Holmes and Watson how for the past six years, someone has sent her a valuable pearl in the mail. Now the same unknown person has asked to meet with her. Understandably, she’d like some backup. It reminds me of novelist Kit Whitfield’s description of Holmes as a big-brother-for-hire — in an age when a woman’s father or brother would be expected to handle matters like this, Holmes provided the same protection as a professional service. With Holmes and Watson at her side, Mary heads off to meet her mysterious benefactor. Ahead lies murder, a fabulous treasure, a bumbling Scotland Yard detective (of course), a pygmy armed with poison darts and a cryptic reference to “the sign of four.”

It’s a much stronger story than A Study in Scarlet and Doyle is definitely improving as a writer. There are a few striking moments, such as when Watson applies his eye to a keyhole and sees Bartholomew Sholto dead in his chair, illuminated only by a shaft of moonlight. Doyle also does a great job with Mary: Holmes compliments her intelligence in handling the evidence, and she’s brave and composed even in the face of death, mystery and danger. Small wonder Watson falls in love with her and at the end, pops the question. Of course from that point on, she has no presence in the series, other than obligingly telling Watson that of course he can go off on another adventure with his friend.

Holmes remains as memorable as ever, and Watson, in his quiet way makes a good foil. Early on Holmes grumbles that Watson’s A Study in Scarlet — in the Holmesverse, all the stories are written by Watson — got it completely wrong. His account of the Enoch Drebber case focuses on the drama when it should have focused on how Holmes’ analytical brain applied deduction to crack the case. Watson wisely suspects Holmes is really saying is “You didn’t write enough about meeeeee!” Holmes would continue to complain about Watson being a sensationalist writer, but he never stopped recommending this or that case as worthy of a story. He was probably more flattered by Watson’s work than he admitted.

Of course the story also shows Doyle’s amazing sloppiness with details. In Study, Watson gives a detailed account of the leg injury that got him discharged from the army; in Sign, he refers to it as a shoulder wound. Holmesians have devoted a lot of space to figuring this, and the many other inconsistencies out, but I don’t have the space to detail that here.

From Doyle’s perspective, both novels had been modestly successful. Fame and fortune wouldn’t come until he wrote the dozen stories that would later be collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Which I’ll get to next.

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Doc Savage, High and Low: The Flying Goblin and the Tunnel Terror (#SFWApro)

Both books this month are by William Bogart, not Lester Dent, and both covers are by Bob Larkin. All rights to covers reside with current holder.

2846284THE FLYING GOBLIN starts off in cracking style: two hoods summon a hurtling Something from the sky to smash into Doc’s crime college (which hasn’t appeared since The Annihilist) and bust out Birmingham Jones. Jones has undergone Doc’s memory-wiping surgery, but he hasn’t been broken of the desire to kill, so the bad guys recruit him. Meanwhile Ham and Monk, acting on their own, investigate a pretty young woman’s story of seeing a similar flying object near Sleepy Hollow (there are references to the Headless Horseman, but nothing really comes of that angle). The flying thing destroys their car, almost killing them. What is this mysterious super-weapon/being? And what are the bad guys’ goals?

It’s a lively story until it falls apart at the end. There’s no good reason for the guys to have attacked the college (which is, after all, guaranteed to draw Doc’s attention, a thing to be avoided) as Birmingham Jones isn’t really any tougher or nastier than umpty-zillion other thugs in the series. And how did they know his mental state, given there’s no hint they have a spy inside the college?

Then there’s the climax in Paris. Once again, WW II infringes on the series, but only in the sense that there are two unidentified countries fighting somewhere else in Europe (apparently only two), and both sides think the other is using the flying weapon (a super-fast radio-controlled missile) against them. France? Apparently in the Savage-verse it hasn’t been fighting in the war since the previous year. Oh, unlike The Evil Gnome, the bad guy’s real goal isn’t to sell his weapon, it’s to terrify the world into making peace (in another WTF moment, the two warring countries do indeed stop fighting. It’s as incompatible with the real world as Fu Manchu assassinating Hitler).

In a minor note, Bogart forgets that Renny looks saddest when he’s happy and vice versa.

THE TUNNEL TERROR is flawed, but a lot better. It starts, like a lot of recent Dent stories, with an unemployed drifter; this time it’s veteran tunnel digger (“mucker”) Hardrock Hennessy. Hitchhiking out West to get a job with one of the big dam projects, he encounters a mysterious fog that burns when it touches and fatally desiccates anyone caught inside it. He narrowly escapes, but the fog is soon threatening other people in the digging tunnels around the big dam. There are also remnants of a lost civilization of giants — is it possible they’re still down there, alive? As with The Awful Egg, it’s not a possibility we can rule out.

It turns out, though that the gas and the supposed giants — the artifacts are real, but the makers are long gone — are part of a scheme to stop the dam project and relocate it to land someone else owns (land grabs are a familiar series plot). Today, of course, they might be able to stop the project based on the archeological significance alone. It’s a solid story, but the lost race probably needed to be played up or somehow tied in with the gas — as is, it’s like the bad guys were just throwing plots at the wall to see what sticks (which admittedly would be plausible). We do get one of the series’ competent women, Chick Lancaster, a tough-minded but (of course) gorgeous engineer working on the dam.

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One of those weeks where most of my reading is “Meh” (#SFWApro)

Of course that’s partly because I already reviewed the most interesting stuff.

22351151The pick of the week was THE ACCIDENTAL ALCHEMIST by Gigi Pandian, the start of a very off-the-wall paranormal cozy. Protagonist Zoe Faust is a 300-year-old alchemist, settling down in Portland. Unfortunately the settling is complicated by a murder on her front doorstep, and by a magically animated gargoyle asking Zoe to help preserve his existence (or he turns back to stone, but with living consciousness). I liked this quite a bit, but not as much as Whispers Beyond the Veil; the weakness for me is that it’s one of those food-centric cozies (yes, that’s a thing) and there’s far too much time spent discussing the details of how Dorian the gargoyle adapts French cooking to Zoe’s vegan ways. Possibly if I liked foodie cozies, I wouldn’t have minded. Cover by Hugh D’Andrade, all rights reside with current holder.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING by Tanya Egan Gibson hooked me with the premise — worried helicopter parents hire an author to convince their daughter to love reading for fear she won’t get into a good college — and some nice language (like an ice sculpture dripping water from its ice penis as if it were syphilitic). But this is the kind of Serious Literature where every second of everyone’s inner life gets detailed and micro-analyzed, and that killed it for me. In fairness, I’m not much for serious mainstream stuff anyway, so possibly if you are you’d be fine with it.

Much as life Gene Wolfe’s New Earth stuff, his magical realist stuff like Peace or There Are Doors leaves me cold. And so it was with THE LAND ACROSS, in which a travel writer visiting a small European nation finds himself trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare  (“I can’t show you my passport because your border guards confiscated it.”) which leads in turn to his involvement with both a revolutionary cult and the secret police. The Kafka stuff held my attention but it fades as the book goes along and Wolfe offered nothing else to replace it, even when the supernatural appears. It didn’t help that the American narrator sounds almost like he learned English as a second language — I’m sure Wolfe had a reason for the voice he chose, but it didn’t work even a little for me.

UN-MEN: Get Your Freak On by John Whalen and Mike Hawthorne takes the synthetic grotesques introduced in the Bronze Age Swamp Thing and places them in Aberration, a small town founded as a home for freaks. But not everyone’s down with having the Uns in charge, people are turning up dead, and now the government’s coming to check things out … This is readable, but the political struggles in Aberration aren’t well-handled or clear enough to engage me. And I don’t see why people keep talking about fake freaks when it appears everyone in town really is one.

ACTION COMICS: Bulletproof by Grant Morrison is another frustrating example of DC’s inability to make a coherent TPB collection. For example, while the story about the black alt.Earth Superman who’s also president (yes, it’s an Obama tribute) probably worked as a backup in a single issue, stuck in here I found it confusing, wondering why it didn’t play off. And while I like Morrison’s Superman better than most of the New 52 Man of Steel, the stories weren’t A-list. Captain Comet, for example, shows up talking like an ubermensch from some fifties SF film about super-evolved mutants — possibly that was the point, but his dialogue just sounded clunky.

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Research for Southern Discomfort (#SFWApro)

My research this past week or so was pretty grim. A reminder that America has always been haunted by the shadow of racism, and the resistance of whites to doing anything to change their privileged status.

According to HOW THE IRISH BECAME WHITE by Noel Ignatiev, the early Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low, little better than blacks, and considered by Protestant America the ones most likely to “amalgamate” with blacks. The Irish had been treated as a lower race in their own country since the English occupation, and many of them — such as Daniel O’Connell, who was active in Ireland fighting to repeal the union of Ireland and England — were abolitionist. Others were not, seeing abolition as alienating potential American support for repeal. Many embraced the white labor axiom that the life of a slave, with guaranteed shelter and food, was easy compared to that of the real slaves, the white working men (Frederick Douglass pointed out that if they really believed that, his running away had left a slave position vacant). Beyond that, racism against free blacks became common, both before and after the Civil War. Free blacks doing the same job as whites was seen as lowering white workers to their level. The Irish, like most whites, wanted to establish they were well above that level, which meant as much segregation as possible.

Ignatiev’s focus is primarily the north, which limits its usefulness for Southern Discomfort. It does make me conscious that I’m not going to be able to sum up all of Irish/black race relations in one novel (yeah, I know, obvious). However it does give me ideas for a couple of background details.

345070(Cover image from the Calvin Fred Craig papers at Emory University. All rights reside with current holder)

WHITE FLIGHT: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse looks at how Atlanta, known as “the city too busy to hate” for its moderate desegregation efforts (in contrast to other parts of the South that believed the color line had to be defended at all costs), actually did quite a bit of hating from the post-war years through the 1970s. While the civic and business leaders were willing to work with black Atlanta — allowing blacks to buy homes in white neighborhoods, desegregating some public parks, minimally desegregating schools — the working-class saw this as a sell-out by rich people whose private schools and private parks wouldn’t be affected. For some the solution was neo-Nazi groups or the KKK, but over time they adopted more euphemistic approaches, such as their right to “freedom of association” — which in their eyes meant a)they should be free not to associate with blacks; b)therefore segregation so blacks were kept away from them, even in public spaces; c)if segregation fell, then whites simply abandoned facilities to Those People and over time fled to segregated suburbs. Kruse argues that the roots of modern conservative attitudes were born here: a conviction white taxes went to support black moochers, enthusiasm for privatizing public facilities (in the hopes they could then deny blacks the right to use them), opposition to spending on public projects or infrastructure (when Those People would use it) and so on. While Kruse didn’t tell me anything about racism I didn’t already know, it’s gut-wrenching to read 250 pages about so much hate.

This book definitely got me thinking about how I handle racism in Pharisee, and how desegregation came to the town. And also about the makeup of the white newcomers from Atlanta; obviously if they’re moving to a town that isn’t all-white, they probably aren’t the die-hard segregationists. Not necessarily liberal on racial issues, but more moderate than I’d be thinking. It also gives me some insight into the generational divide for Pharisee’s blacks (the older go-slow generation and younger more aggressive activists).

In its own right, a very good book but horribly depressing.

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