Category Archives: Comics

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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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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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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Wonder Woman: All This and World War II (#SFWApro)

wonderwoman230So as I mentioned in my last Wonder Woman post, getting the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman show on the air convinced DC the comic should look just like it. In a two-part story, Diana goes back to Earth-2 in WW II and hands over her comics to that world’s Wonder Woman. Except instead of the real Golden Age continuity, it was changed so as not to distress anyone coming to the comic from the show: instead of General Darnell, Wonder Woman and Steve work for General Blankenship. Steve’s a brunette. Etta Candy a college student, is now in the military. Diana Prince is a Yeoman instead of a lieutenant.

This annoyed the heck out of me at the time: why should they muck up continuity just to make the TV viewers happy? For example, Wonder Woman’s run-in with the Cheetah (cover by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, all rights to current holder) ignored the character’s existing history in various ways. Reading now, after multiple Amazonian reboots, I find I appreciate this period a lot more. The Cheetah story (by Martin Pasko) may have been discontinuous, but Pasko captured the character well — an insecure woman whose repressed anger at people who make her feel inadequate manifests as a savage split personality (the current cat-woman Cheetah resembles her in name only). And it obviously did work for the bottom line, as Diana got a backup series in World’s Finest along with her regular book.

Martin Pasko started the run but Gerry Conway did the bulk of it. Conway’s Bronze Age work could be hit or miss, but he really seemed to click here. A running element is that even though Wonder Woman is in America to help win the war, she’s really uncomfortable with the American military machine, and prone to lash out at it. In one story, for instance, she tries to shut down the Manhattan Project out of fear of what atomic weapons can do. Later, after the villainous Duke of Deception (one of Mars’ agents) tricks her into apparently going berserk, she winds up on trial for treason (she beats the rap). We have guest appearances by the Justice Society and Sgt. Rock, old foes (Dr. Psycho, one of my favorites), and several new ones including Baron Blitzkrieg, a Nazi superhuman who became a running foe in the later retcon series All-Star Squadron.

And as often happens in comics, we got loose ends. Conway had introduced the masked Nazi spymaster Armageddon, whom I presume would have unmasked as someone in the cast (I’m guessing one particularly officious military intelligence guy). He also gave Etta a boyfriend whose thought balloons show he was up to no good — but we never learn what. The last couple of issues of this era (by Jack C. Harris) jump ahead to the end of the war, Etta’s single, the sinister beau forgotten.

After the war ends, the Earth-1 villain Angle Man winds up jumping from Earth-1 present to Earth-2 in 1945, thereby bringing both Wonder Women together and providing a smooth transition back to the present. The TV show had moved back to the present day, and the comic followed. However they stuck with the continuity from the previous period rather than turning Diana Prince into an agent for IADC (Inter Agency Defense Command, I think) as she was on the second season of the show.

I’ll be reviewing her next phase as soon as I read through it.

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Victorian cynicism, story tellers, privacy and the JLA: books and graphic novels (#SFWApro)

THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS And Other Tales by Richard Garnett is a late 19th century collection of shorts reminiscent in its cynicism of James Branch Cabell, though never quite as cold: a freed Prometheus passes himself off as a martyred saint (“Why yes, the eagle that came to attend to me was sent from heaven,”), a prophet interprets the holy books (“A woman is worth one ninth of a man, so clearly ‘take one wife’ requires taking nine women!”) and a group of rebellious cardinals back off when they learn the Pope has a cloven hoof (“If we’d realized who you were—well, of course, we have much more respect for you now.”). Delightful

THE MABINOGION is a collection of Welsh legends gathered by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century (though I read a later translation of the tales, by Jeffrey Gantz. The 11 stories include the four branches adapted by Evangeline Walton; How Culhwch Won Olwen an Arthurian tale that seems to embody a completely different set of traditions than the rest of the mythos; some Arthurian tales possibly adapted from Chretien de Troyes; and the satirical Dream of Rhonabwy. If you’re into Celtic stuff, this is definitely worth reading (I’ve read it a couple of times before), and it gave me some good ideas for Southern Discomfort to boot.

THE 100 NIGHTS OF HERO by Isabel Greenberg is an Arabian Nights variation in which a woman and her lesbian lover stave off a lecher’s attention by spinning stories so intriguing he just has to postpone getting physical until the tale finishes. Familiar tales but adjusted enough (and with a running feminist theme) that they worked for me. I gather this is part of a series (which probably explains the early stuff with gods that doesn’t actually play into the main story) but it worked fine as a standalone. Cover by Greenberg, all rights to current holder.

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THE PRIVATE EYE by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin is set in a world where a massive Internet hack has exposed everyone’s every digital secret; years later the Internet is shut down, privacy is near sacred (people wear masks to minimize the fallout from any embarrassing stuff they do) and everyone relies  on old-fashioned means of entertainment such as TV and books. An investigator whose client turned up dead discovers a scheme to resurrect the Internet and finds himself dodging both the “Fourth Estate” security police and the criminals responsible. Interesting in premise, less in execution (and heavy-handed when it gets to the Get Off The Internet And Go Outside theme).

JUSTICE LEAGUE: Injustice League by Geoff Johns and various artists has a)Luthor, having saved the world in a previous TPB, pushing his way onto the League; b)the JLA agreeing on the principle of keeping your enemies close; c)the evil alt.Green Lantern Power Ring’s ring falling into the hands of a reluctant wielder; and d)a virus Luthor created brings death to metahumans and empowers (then kills) ordinary people. This has some good character bits, but I really dislike Morrison’s handling of the Doom Patrol and the second adventure is only adequate (it reads like a reworking of the gene bomb plot from the old Invasion crossover event). So a mixed bag.

SWEET TOOTH: Animal Armies by Jeff Lemire is part of a series about a human/stag hybrid with a soft spot for candy. In this one, he’s captive in a sinister research center while the guy who dumped him there struggles to fix that mistake. I gather this has some devoted fans, but all I see are familiar tropes recycled to very little effect.

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Mediocre comics of my youth: The Freedom Fighters (#SFWApro)

freedomfighters1In reviewing recent comic books, I’ve mentioned more than once that even when they’re not to my taste, that doesn’t mean they’re any worse than stuff I bought as a teen. There have always been mediocre books out there, and the original Freedom Fighters series is a case in point (cover by Ernie Chan, all rights remain with current holder).

When the Golden Age publisher Quality Comics went belly-up, DC bought up its characters. The Blackhawks would stay in print through the end of the Silver Age, Plastic Man got an unsuccessful 1960s revival, but the rest of the roster stayed inactive until 1973. In Justice League of America 107, Len Wein introduced us to Earth-X, the world the Quality characters inhabited. Except most of them were dead, WW II having dragged on for years, followed by a Nazi victory via mind-control technology. The Freedom Fighters were the last heroes (on the cover l-r it’s Phantom Lady, Uncle Sam, Human Bomb and the Ray with Doll Man in front and Black Condor overhead), but when a handful of JLA and Justice Society members accidentally arrived on Earth-X, they were able to smash the Nazi mind-control system. Earth was free!

And according to Freedom Fighters #1 (by Gerry Conway and Martin Pasko) that was pretty boring after thirty years of warfare. The FF packed up and made the jump to Earth-One where they hoped things were less peaceful. No sooner did they arrive than they ran into the Silver Ghost, a criminal out to take over Manhattan (he claimed his family were the ones who bought it from the Dutch) with strategic genius and a Midas touch (but to silver, not gold). After three of the team were silverized, the others had to serve the Ghost; he lost in the end, but not before the Freedom Fighters were labeled as super-villains —Hunted by the Law! Hated by the Underworld in the words of later covers.

The text page explained the team were a golden opportunity to introduce a fresh team and escape the long history most DC heroes had by this time. And certainly for DC having a super-hero hunted by the cops was unusual (common at Marvel, of course). Unfortunately, that was about it. The writers could have tackled the stress of years at war, their attitude toward the law after years as a resistance group (or free speech—would they support Nazis marching?), how Earth 1 and Earth X were different, the team’s self-acknowledged need for more action, but they didn’t. We got stock character set-ups instead: half the team’s in love with Phantom Lady, everyone argues a lot (not terribly novel by 1973) and Doll Man meets his wife’s exact double.

The plots were adequate to keep me reading as a teen, but even then I wouldn’t put them up against the original Swamp Thing or Steve Englehart’s Avengers run. And sometimes they were a mess. #11 has a trio of Native Americans suddenly get super-powers and go on a rampage; it turns out it’s the work of one of the team’s running adversaries, but it still feels very forced (and the villains are the Native American equivalent of the shiftless black bucks who sit around waiting for their welfare checks). #3 is even worse (cover by Dick Giordano, all rights to current holder)

freedomfighters3The story (Pasko again) relies way too much coincidence (though I’ve seen worse). An unstable businessman suddenly snaps and kills his wife (whom Pasko implies always wanted him to do this), then walks into the middle of a Freedom Fighters/bank robbers fight. Then watching Qwaardians (evil beings from another universe) try to help the villains by giving them a weapon, which turns the businessman into Skragg, a ray-blasting killer who exists only to ray-blast things and kill, and kill, and kill again! Even by the low standards of my teenage years, this fell short.

But I’m not getting rid of my issues. They’re part of an era when comics meant so much to me, so even a mediocre one gets a certain amount of affection — way more than something current that was this forgettable.

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Super-heroes and black ops: books read (#SFWApro)

BATMAN: Graveyard Shift (by various writers and artists) dis unusual these days in that it offers a series of one-shots rather than a big arc: Clayface tries to discredit Bruce Wayne, we met the first inmate ever committed to Arkham, Catwoman becomes queen of the Gotham underworld and Bruce mourns the death of his son Damien (don’t worry, he got better. They always get better). Individually these were fun, but they still carry enough continuity to be distracting; in one story Gordon has been jailed for something but we get zero explanation (on the one hand, Supporting Character Framed is common enough I don’t need one; on the other it isdistracting). And as others have said, the New 52 Batman having so many sidekicks in a six year career is ridiculous (it also reduces Dick to just one in a series of rotating Robins).

RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS: The Big Picture shows the writers are upgrading the power levels: Jason now wields mystic light-sabers and Roy is apparently a super-tech genius. Here again there’s no arc, just a series of stories as Arsenal defeats a criminal army with a screwdriver (more brutal than I like my heroes, though), Arsenal battles Lobo, Red Hood and Starfire take on Frankenstein (the highpoint of the book for me) and the Outlaws’ vacation turns into trouble (“They must be here undercover.”). Fun, but not the A-list — it doesn’t help that R’as al Ghul in the cover image looks like Wolverine.

John Le Carré’s THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is a black comedy inspired by Our Man in Havana (there’s also the in-joke of having the operation labelled “Buchan” for the earlier spy thriller writer) wherein the author’s typical characters have all been replaced by Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd (though admittedly that kind of conman character is hardly new to Le Carré’s works). Pendel is an ex-con who’s reinvented himself as an expat from the upper crust of British tailors; when a spy demands intel on Pendel’s politician-clients as the price for keeping his past secret, the tailor simply makes up whatever bullshit sounds exciting enough. Unfortunately when MI5 and a British press baron learn that Panama’s on the brink of civil war (heroic radicals pitted against a Japanese-backed cabal plotting to exploit the Panama Canal), they can’t sit idly by — and the story becomes more Black than Comedy. With Le Carré’s scathing satire of gullible spymasters, conniving press barons and the supposed “special relationship” between the UK and US, this could easily be a takeoff on the 2003 Iraq War, except it’s seven years too early. Unusual for Le Carré’s work in that Pendel’s marriage is relatively happy; one weakness in the book is that the tailor’s American wife speaks so strangely, I kept thinking she was a non-native English speaker. Overall though, excellent.

2153702SECTION G: United Planets by Mack Reynolds (all rights to cover reside with current holder) collects three short stories set in a future where space flight has enabled every race, culture and  political movement to settle it’s own planet if it so wishes. In a rather Star Trek set up, the United Planets never intervenes in member worlds’ affairs officially, but with an alien invasion looming, Section G specializes in covertly overthrowing governments that won’t get with the program (whether or not Reynolds meant it that way, it’s very reminiscent of the US attitude to governments that weren’t anti-communist enough). Reynolds was well known back in his day for looking at socioeconomic themes rather than just tech; while he does that here, he doesn’t do it as well as I remembered — way too many points made through As You Know exposition, for instance. And while I don’t hold it against the book it’s funny now that writing in the 1960s he assumed Spain’s then-current dictatorship (fascist General Franco) would continue into the future long enough to reach the stars. A touch disappointing.

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