Category Archives: Comics

A library, a castle, a comet: books read (#SFWApro)

THE VANISHED LIBRARY: A Wonder of the Ancient World by Luciano Canfora is an interesting but unsatisfying book on the legendary Library of Alexandria. While it provides lots of details — the library’s efforts to collect manuscripts, the political winds that surrounded the library, the trade in fake works — each chapter is a standalone anecdote and Canfora never melds them together into a single history. And half the book is devoted to detailing his reference sources, thereby to justify some of his more controversial conclusions.

CASTLE HANGNAIL by Ursula Vernon (cover by Vernon, all rights remain with current holder)  is a fun juvenile fantasy in which the minions of the eponymous evil lair are somewhat thrown when the new Wicked Witch in residence turns out to be a twelve-year-old girl (“I’m an evil twin!”). Molly, it turns out, is much less wicked than she appears and a lot less skilled at magic which makes completing the tests for ownership (smite someone, defend the castle, etc.) a challenge. Can she do it befor the supervisors’ board shuts the castle down and throws the minions out into the street? Charming, very reminiscent of Diana Wynn Jomes.

The seventh volume of Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ SAGA involves the forces of evil closing in on the comet where Hazel and her family have been hiding while the Will tries to get back in the game and we catch up on several other bit players. This was surprisingly disappointing, mostly because of the ending issue — what happens didn’t shell-shock me anywhere near as much as it was supposed to, and leaving the last half-dozen pages black (because it’s That Dark And Tragic) felt lazy more than anything.

 

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Thoughts from Jack Kirby (#SFWApro)

So I recently started reading Jack Kirby’s Fourth World stuff for DC (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, Mr. Miracle) in the order of publication (worth doing as Kirby doles out portions of the Big Picture gradually). In Jimmy Olsen he introduces the Hairies, genetically engineered supergeniuses who’ve withdrawn from human society to do their own thing. They’re quite obviously an analogy for the hippies/counterculture (as were the Forever People) and in his third issue, Kirby muses on what they (and by extension the counterculture) means for us. While he was optimistic about the impact on society, I do find his vision surprisingly inspiring. So here it is. All rights to content and to the printed page remain with their current holders.

 

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The Mafia, Astro City and several less interesting books (#SFWApro)

AN OFFER WE CAN’T REFUSE: The Mafia in the Mind of America by George de Stefano looks at the history of Italian-Americans and bias against them, particularly the stereotype that they’re all mobbed up (as opposed to a reality in which lots of ethnicities have been involved in organized crime). That in turn leads to a look at The Godfather and The Sopranos, which was ongoing at the time the book came out. While de Stefano dislikes the stereotype, he actually loves the Godfather films for how awash they are in Italian culture, and The Sopranos for updating the stereotypes (suburban gangsters who are conscious they’re not playing at the Corleone level). While sympathetic to the antidefamation groups that condemn Mafia fiction, de Stefano dismisses the arguments that Italian Americans get it worse than anyone else (“We’re not pulled over for driving while Italian.”) and accuses some of the critics of rejecting their roots (i.e., they’re upscale enough to be embarrassed at the Corleone’s Old World ways). Interesting; all rights to image remain with current holder.

ASTRO CITY: Reflections by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson is definitely not the book to start with as it is, as the title says, a reflection on the series history — a shout back to Samaritan’s first story, the return of the reformed supervillain Steeljack and an update on the First Family. Well done, and reflecting (ROFL) Busiek’s sense that as Astro City ages in real time, we’re now seeing the rise of a second generation as more of the old guard hang up their hats (as in an earlier volume Lovers’ Quarrel). As always, Astro City is a great place to visit.

FLASH: Rogues Reloaded by Joshua Williamson and Carmine di Giandomenico is a decent “Rebirth” collection (though once again, nothing seems terribly reborn about this) in which the Rogues attempt to pull off one big score, then quit. If stock, this was well executed (except for adding Heat Wave a tragic backstory ripped off HELLBOY’s Liz Sherman) but the last couple of issues involving Reverse-Flash were quite pointless.

OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS by Jessica Verday is a disappointing Y/A horror novel in which 19th century expat Annabel Lee reunites with her family in Philadelphia, falls for handsome poet Allan Poe but oh dear, his creepy brother Edgar keeps showing up … This generally fell flat (a shame — Annabel herself is a good character) but a big part of the problem is that borrowing from other 19th century horror instead of milking Poe’s own works more bugs me aesthetically.

BEHIND THE MOON by Madison Smartt Bell is a literary novel in which a teen skipping school winds up in a coma while ducking a gang rape and finds herself in a Pretentious Surreal Astral Sequence, only to have her mother find her in the same plane. Even allowing for my general lack of interest in literary fiction, I wasn’t impressed.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: Timeless by Bryan Hitch (who writes and co-draws) improves on Hitch’s first two Rebirth volumes, but it’s still not a winner: we have silly things like the JLA taking an issue to share their feelings in the middle of an imminent alien attack, then a better story arc involving a plot by an alien intelligence to erase Earth’s superhumans from history (because of them, after all, the entire reality of the universe has been rebooted several times). This is definitely not the JLA’s finest hour.

 

 

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RIP Len Wein (#SFWApro)

Last weekend Len Wein, one of my favorite Bronze Age comics writers, died. For a list of his accomplishments, this Atomic Junk Shop post is pretty good. I’ll take a few paragraphs to talk about my personal reaction to his work.

While I don’t think it was the first story by Wein I read, the Nick Cardy-illustrated cover above marks when I became a fan. When I started reading comics again after moving to the US, my old favorite Justice League of America was one of the first I bought (curiously I picked up Teen Titans, which I didn’t like anywhere near as much, several months earlier). At the time Mike Friedrich was the writer and while I enjoyed them, I think there was something missing. I didn’t really sense what until I read JLA #100 as Mr. Wein took over.

Len Wein’s superhero work never pushed the envelope as much as Steve Englehart’s (another writer of roughly the same period). It was simply good, well-told, entertaining stories.  Pacing, humor, character bits, action scenes, they all came together and worked.

The three part #100-2 arc involved the Justice League and Justice Society joining forces to save the JSA’s Earth-2 from apocalypse. To do that, they had to find the Seven Soldiers of Victory, who’d been scattered through time battling a creature called the Nebula Man. Seven teams set out across time for seven adventures. Throwing in a Golden Age team I’d never heard of was icing on the cake for me (this was long before even the most obscure heroes could be found on the Internet somewhere).

Among the pleasures of Wein’s two-year run were guest appearances by the Phantom Stranger and the supervillain Eclipso; the introduction of the Freedom Fighters; establishing Green Arrow and Hawkman as frenemies; and the lonely android Red Tornado exploring humanity (not a new concept, but well done).

I can’t say Len Wein made me a comics fan. I already was. But his stories were among the ones I most looked forward to, and that’s pretty cool.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Wein.

Below, one of Jose Garcia-Lopez’ covers for Wein’s Untold Legend of the Batman.
Rights to both covers remain with the current holder.

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China, Italy, the Old West, art theft and Paper Girls: books read (#SFWApro)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT has the villains of the previous book descend on Kai Lung’s village, kidnap his wife and raze his home to the ground; with no allies and no money, can he cross China, track the bad guys down and outwit them with nothing but his storytelling skills? Well, obviously, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. However as with the first one this is a 1920s Orientalist fantasy of China, so if that’s not to your taste, avoid. Cover by Ian Millar, all rights remain with current holder.

TWENTY DAYS OF TURIN by Giorgio de Maria is a creepy Italian work from the 1970s, newly translated, in which a reporter investigating the eponymous reign of terror (individuals randomly attacked and battered against walls until death) discovers it was not only weirder than he imagined but that Sinister People would just as soon he not investigate it. The translator’s intro says this was probably intended as a veiled metaphor for the continuing presence of fascist and neo-fascist groups in Italy in the era it was written, but it works just as well as a magical realist Lovecraftian take. Also curiously prescient about social media in its portrayal of a library where people swap their diaries and intimate confessions.

SIXTH GUN: Sons of the Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt was surprisingly disappointing — this story of General Hume’s band of killers tries to make them more than generic thugs, but it didn’t hold my interest at all. Partly that’s because without Becky and Sinclair as the focus, this is just a lot of horrible, eerie things happening to people I don’t ccare about at all.

MUSEUM OF THE MISSING: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt looks at the history of the topic including outright robbery, conquest (while I’m familiar with Nazi art thefts, I hadn’t realized Napoleon likewise sucked up art from his conquered provinces), cultural appropriation from the Third World and some of the more horrifying incidents (the mother of one art thief tried to hide the evidence by throwing it in a canal). Houpt concludes that in some ways, things are getting worse (paintings are now used as bargaining chips in underworld deals, which makes them much more profitable to swipe) and the laws for recovering them are surprisingly weak (in much of Europe, even a stolen painting can be kept if you bought it in good faith). On the other hand, the Internet makes tracking and identifying stolen goods a lot easier, and the methods for planting GPS trackers on art are surprisingly cheap. A good read.

PAPER GIRLS 3 by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang was less fun than Vol 2 because time travelers in prehistoric times is such a stock set-up, certainly more so than 1980s tweens winding up in the present (in the previous collection). Still, the characters kept my interest so I’ll be looking for Vol. 4

 

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New Screen Rant out— (#SFWApro)

This should be my book review post for the week, but my schedule got messy, so that’ll be out Tuesday. For today, my new Screen Rant featuring nine superheroes who are secretly jerks. Eight who are secretly sweethearts.

For one of the sweethearts we have Herb Trimpe’s Hulk from the Bronze Age, when Hulk was just a lonely kid who desperately wanted friends.

For a jerk, here’s Otto Octavius (from his time as Spider-Man) deciding not to get Mary Jane into bed (she thinks he’s Peter) because he can voyeuristically experience Peter’s sex with MJ in the past. There is much debate online whether the creators really appreciated what a dick Otto was in this story. Art by Ryan Stegman.

All rights to images remain with the current holders.

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Comic book collections: Nightwing, Squirrel Girl, Rasl and Elder Care (#SFWApro)

NIGHTWING: Better Than Batman and Back to Bludhaven by Tim Seeley and artists Yanick Paquette and Marcus To are TPBs in DC’s ongoing Rebirth phase. Like Green Arrow the books don’t retcon Dick as much as reboot him to pre-New 52, when he was fighting crime in Bludhaven; the first volume wraps up various existing plotlines involving Spyral and the Court of Owls, the second brings Dick to Bludhaven for an encounter with a therapy group of reformed criminals. The second worked well, though I retract that if the closing cliffhanger means what it appears to; the first tries too hard to convince us that the mysterious Raptor is effortlessly superior to Nightwing. Cover by To, all rights remain with current holder.

THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL: Squirrel Power collects the first issues of the perky hero’s series, plus the Ditko story that introduced her as a joke (and a pretty funny one) only to discover people liked her, they really liked her! For myself, the adventures of the girl with the proportionate speed and strength of a squirrel are hit-or-miss, but there are enough hits that I’m glad I read this.

The third of volume of Jeff Smith’s RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light isn’t as heavy-handed on the Tesla worship as Vol. 2, though it still has too much (Smith says Tesla was a major influence on the series). Still it gets interesting and weird as a little girl depicts the multiverse, Rasl meets the president and the apocalypse draws night. Good overall.

Roz Chast’s CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? is more painful than pleasant to read as Chast recounts her experiences becoming caregiver for her parents: coping with their many quirks (some of which she notes predated any problems), with dad’s increasing dementia and mom’s health issues, and their stubborn refusal to believe they need any help. Dreadfully true-to-life if you’ve had any experience with these issues.

HOUSE OF PENANCE by Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram has a great concept — sinister goings on at the Winchester House (a real-life place built by Sara Winchester as a strange atonement for the people killed by her family’s guns) — but it ended up a near mess. A big part of the problem is the art: lots of the panels show tentacles of blood coiling around people, but I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be delusional, a demonic manifestation or an arty dramatization of their psychological state.

 

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