Wednesday, November 08, 2006

01/06 discussions of books, pulps, comics, etc.


My reading has been a little all over the place of late. There’s A MURDER IN CLICHY, a decent little mystery taking place in Paris. The book basically deals with a young woman whose father died under mysterious circumstances in an earlier book. She is head of a small security firm along with her assistant a very capable dwarf (somehow I missed or forgot that fact and it came as a surprise when I had picked the book back up) and due to some eye injuries is really trying not to lead too strenuous a life. However, as a favor to a Viet-Cong woman where she goes meditates, she goes to purchase some jade figurines from a shady character. He gets gunned down in front of her and suddenly it seems everyone is after those figurines: the French government, some aging ex-soldiers, art dealers. And someone has kidnapped her assistant
to force her to retrieve them for them. It’s a very myriad and complex tale.

I feel like I really didn’t give it a fair shake as I would put it down to read something else that caught my fancy and then would go back to it. So, I’d have trouble remembering some of the names (not just French but also Viet-Cong) and their various relationships. Compounded by the
fact that at some points people would be anonymous yet it became apparent that a few different people were actually the same person thus confusing things. It’s where the narrator frankly cheats the reader, taking advantage of a limitation of the printed form that she could not do if this was a play or movie (a character has a face to face conversation with her father who isn’t named, but about 2/3 of the way through the book you realize you have seen him elsewhere in the book under his name, thus 2 characters actually become one).

Despite the shortcomings, the characters are fairly likable and flawed and human. In some ways, the two main characters aren’t too dissimilar to the relationship between Puck and Heather in John Byrne’s ALPHA FLIGHT.

Finished one of Terry Brooks’ trilogies. Don’t ask me which one. I don’t have the books in front of me to refer to. The Voyage of the Jerle Shanara or somesuch.

Not a bad series. If I was just starting out reading fantasy, this could be a fun series. He develops his characters fairly well, isn’t adverse to killing some of them off, each book ends at logical climaxes. His writing style is fairly breezy and keeps action moving at a good clip. And he has a way of describing his magic and such to make it seem both powerful and limiting and a way to somewhat grasp it in your mind, picturing the actions of the characters. However, the writing is also very plain. There’s not really going to be a well-turned phrase here or there that makes you take notice, no description or scene so powerful to really put you there

It’s lacking in other ways as well. Maybe it’s because I am reading a trilogy that takes place in his larger world that he has already developed. As such, the various races aren’t really all that well developed. We don’t get too much of a feeling of the different cultures apart from a group of mercenaries. His elves and one dwarf character really don’t seem any different from any human characters introduced to the point one wonders, why make them elves or a dwarf. Meanwhile some of the various human cultures that he introduces are interesting and the shape-changer character quickly became my favorite.

Tamara Silver Jones’ A THREAD OF MALICE is her second book and continues the characters introduced in GHOSTS IN THE SNOW. What you have is the elderly Dubric who with the help of his squires (one a middle-aged father, a mid- to late teen noble, and a young boy) investigate various crimes in the kingdom. The rub is Dubric is cursed so that when someone is murdered, their ghosts appear to him along with painful headaches.

A THREAD OF MALICE is more graphic and mature themed than GHOSTS as someone is kidnapping young boys and then ritually abusing and killing them in some villages a bout a day’s hard rid from the castle. And in one of the surrounding villages is also his elder squire’s family visiting the wife’s parents. As Dubric investigates, it seems these killings may have something to do with the war against wizards decades past.

It’s a great book, hard to believe this is her second novel. Jones writes very human characters, but characters you like. You hope for romance to blossom between characters and you dread their fates as the evil threatens to engulf them all. I sat down on a Sunday and read the latter 2/3 of the book in one day. Although I did come close to putting it down for a little bit to absorb and grieve over one particularly tragic event.

It’s a fantasy novel that dares to be a bit different as it combines fantasy with forensic science. It’s CSI with a bit of magic and ghosts.However, the fantasy is still fairly realistic. The fantastical elements are mostly kept to a minimum.


I actually liked it better than the first one. The problem I had with the first one was that the vampires didn't seem all that different from human beings what with their using technology and guns to fight the werewolves. Could have been just a bunch of goths and vampire wannabes that were good with guns. The humans caught between was pretty much completely undeveloped. HELLBOY did a better job at showing humans trying to keep up in battles between various supernatural baddies.

Instead of a bunch of might as well be human vampires, we get a great big nasty one and a sexy butt-kicking one and more wolf-like werewolves. I did think there were one or two things left undeveloped and/or unanswered. And apparently all it takes to kill werewolves and vampires is just doing enough damage or draining enough blood.Bullets won't necessarily do enough damage but nasty throat wounds and general mauling will (a problem i had with the original as well).


TOP TEN COMICS (in no particular order)
1) The Thing
2) Thunderbolts
3) Spidergirl
4) She-Hulk
5) Birds of Prey
6) Action (By Gail Simone & John Byrne)
7) The Demon
8) Iron Ghost
9) JSA Classified (The most recent arc focusing on the Injustice Society has been a blast).
10) THE SPIDER: KING OF THE CROOKS (A hardback reprint of an old British strip about a super-criminal called the Spider. Takes place in America oddly).

Oddly, two of my 3, focus on super-villains though in two of them, the villains are almost leaning towards heroism. Then, you have the Demon, who’s just that. It’s not Byrne at his best, but it’s him being good. And, Iron Ghost, we’re not sure what he is all about as he is hunting down various Nazis in the last days of the war and killing them. But, not necessarily because they are Germans or Nazis. We don’t know what ties these killings together yet as two German detectives try to piece it all together and the body count gets higher.

There isn’t much going on since the last time I talked here comics wise that’s any different. The comics that I thought were disappointing last time are still disappointing. The ones I thought were good, are still good. Dan Slott is not only turning an interesting She-Hulk comic but is now writing THE THING. Which is just as good. It’s not quite as cutesy with the in-jokes and commentary, but it’s good old fashioned fun. And, it has Nighthawk, one of my favorite second stringers and treated as a serious and competent hero.

I would also recommend going out and getting the trade of Slott’s GREAT LAKES AVENGERS. It is a bit schizophrenic in the type of book it wants to be so it’s all over the place. On one hand it’s a parody of the grim and gritty aspects of current comics and actually asking the question why can’t comics just be fun? However, this book swings back and forth between does it want to be the type of book it champions or does it want to be more satirical than actual parody of the books it decries. Because all of the elements are in there. It is almost like a dark version of Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League books. Although it does have some of the funniest outtings of superheroes as being gay I’ve come across: when scouting for new members after the death of one of their comrades, they almost have ex-Avenger Living Lightning to join up. Until he finds out that GLA stands for Great Lakes Avengers and is not a homosexual superhero support group (I know in Chapel Hill, CGLA stood for Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association. Don’t know if that acronym was largely universal, but I can at least see where Lightning misunderstood). Then another after Mr. Immortal finds out that he’s supposedly the ultimate in human evolution, hence why he cannot die that went sorta like:

: "I’m a homosexual."
Mr. Immortal: "I’m homo-supreme."
: "You just have to one up me don’t you?”

At the end of the trade, the heroes discover they are all mutants, thus following the trend set up by someone, that they constantly change their name in looking for legitimacy, the are now the Great Lakes X-Men! Which leads to their special GREAT LAKES X-MAS.

The latter is also good, continuing with some of the same themes and ongoing jokes such as how Squirrel Girl is actually a super-competent superhero. Which is a bit of Dan Slott’s trademark that I’m seeing, he takes different aspects of comics and fandom and comments on them, showing them as being both silly and yet positive. Squirrel Girl is long derided as a character too silly to survive and should have never been created in the first place. And, Slott turns that completely on its ear. Yes, she’s silly and so he has silly fun with her, yet at the same time making her very endearing as a character. He doesn’t try to rationalize or make excuses for her. He accepts her on her level. The scenes with her are funny, but he’s not making fun of her as much as he is of people that just write her off.

You compare that to the many writers who don’t seem to grasp that. They cannot look at a character like Johnny Thunder without deriding him as a character. Instead of accepting him as being a fun and valid character, they have to make him into a second class JSA-er, kept on hand more for his Thunderbolt than anybody in the team actually liking him. Thus, he’s killed off for someone that is a little more edgy and kewl. Ditto, with writers and fans looking at the Giffen-DeMatteis League and seeing a book that since it took itself as less than serious, the team and characters aren’t worthy of being taken or treated seriously.

Are writers and fans so thin-skinned at being judged over reading comics they must defend it by such overcompensating? See, superhero comics aren’t what you think. We have them having affairs, almost graphic on panels of rape, turning evil and killing each other off. The old stuff was just silly, look how much more adult and better this new stuff is. It’s artsy and dark.

And, when they say they like silver-age stuff, and do their own homage or take to it, it’s that wink-wink, nudge-nudge aspect by playing up the goofy and silliness aspects, more parody and pastiche than anything else. Hint, Gardner Fox and Stan Lee while they might have been trying to write fun stories aimed at an all-ages audience, they were playing it straight. They were trying to tell a validly good story within certain conventions. It’s why I generally don’t like books like BIG BANG, or Alan Moore’s silver-age homages such as 1963, and Tom Strong. They just read false. Moore’s best superhero story remains “For the man who has everything” in that it plays everything completely straight and true to what went before without pandering to meta-fictional concerns and in-jokes. He’s not trying to make the comic more adult and mature nor trying to capture a specific feel of the past and forcing the two to co-exist. He tells a plain good and very emotionally moving story.

Is there a creator more frowned upon than Steve Ditko? Everyone knows what happened to the Blue Beetle. However, look at his other creations for DC.

Creeper: Ditko’s Creeper was hard hitting journalist Jack Ryder who went undercover at a costume ball to try and find a missing scientist. When shot, he is given a formula to heal him and a device that allows a man to have his outer clothes be invisible, thus soldiers could move around dressed as civilians and still be instantly ready for war (don’t think about it too much) . Thus he uses his new gifts and his rather bizarre costume to pretend to be either nuts or some kind of demonic creature. Either way, he frightens the bad guys.

Of course, since he acts a bit nuts, it’s not long before his dual identity is starting to be treated as such. He gets killed off, then brought back. Only this time he IS either insane or possessed by some demonic creature. Oh, and being a serious reporter is now replaced with being a gonzo journalist.

Captain Atom: Luckier than most, Captain Atom just got revamped by a character with no similarity other than the name. The Ditko stories, retconned as a cover for the new Quantum powered hero. However, when DC was looking to turn a hero into a bad guy responsible for wiping out the heroes in the future, guess who got slated...the following hero. And, they still managed later on to have it revealed that the hero isn’t really Nathanial Adams but a quantum clone and made Adams into Monarch.

Hawk: Ditko’s Hawk & Dove, don’t know if he wrote it but it’s an interesting look at how two extreme views can be both right and wrong and thus the most right answer is acknowledging that both can be true (which is where I have my doubts of it being written by Ditko and the objectivist A=A philosophy. This is more like recognizing that I=I, but sometimes also J). In fact, I remember one point where Hank and Don are being lectured by their father: you’re both right, but until you realize that, you are both wrong.

The death of Dove would lead him to be written by Mike Baron as a stereotypical conservative (don’t know why Baron insists on writing conservative characters when he obviously thinks they are all NRA supporters and jerks) who actually puts on a costume and fight crime. Karl Kesel would undo a lot of the damage in his series, making Hawk still a bit of a jerk, but one with good qualities as well: his love for his brother, courage, steadfastness by his friends). Guess we already know what happened to him when plans to make Captain Atom a villain became all too obvious and so there was a last ditch replacement...There was an easy way to bring him back AND keeping Extant, but Geoff Johns kinda ruined that.

The Question: Again, the original character could easily be treated straight forward. Like the Creeper’s Jack Ryder, The Question as Vic Sage is a Journalist, capital “J” intentional. Certain professions are cultures in and of themselves, that there is an ideal they strive to reach, a goal that is a bit outside of just working. Some it is probably self-delusional because it makes them willing to put up with certain abuses for bad pay in the name of the ideal. But, as such, their nature makes them a different culture, a brotherhood that binds them. Journalists (including writers, editors ((sometimes to a lesser degree as they are portrayed as the middleman)), photographers, etc) are one such. The Journalist is dedicated to truth and public’s right to know, to keep the powerful honest to the public and will butt heads with people that want stories that don’t offend big business, that don’t threaten lawsuits etc. The Journalists are the Darrin McGavin version of Kolchak, Murphy Brown, etc. To a certain degree, Fox and Mulder ascribe to some of the same philosophies driving Journalists. That’s all you need to know to write a compelling Question series. You don’t need to know or ascribe to one whit of objectivist philosophy. The problem is when you start casting aspersions on the character’s sanity or credibility, you pretty much undermine the character. The thing is with the original Nightstalker was that these horrors really did exist, that Kolchack is a hero because he is standing there at the edge fighting them and tell us about them despite the fact he’s not going to get the stories to clear. If you make it questionable, you have something very different. Compelling, maybe. But, not the same. The Question can be seen to represent the Journalist in his unflinching manner to report the truth regardless of what it means to his career. He has his detractors, people more worried about their jobs and the money, their positions than searching for the truth.Luckily for Sage, he has a boss that appreciates all that.

Now, Denny O’Neill had a problem with Ditko’s philosophical beliefs, so he shot Sage in the head so that he could help enlighten the character in Eastern religion. His hard-nosed personality was made into a being very unlikeable and more to having a chip on his shoulder and bad tempered than it had anything to do with following one’s own convictions. Still, it was very compelling reading. However, Alan Moore got into the mix as well. Moore’s Watchmen was alternately a pitch for the MLJ heroes as well as re-worked for the Charlton ones and then told to develop his own characters. Here, the Question became Rorshach, which is an intriguing look at the character who wouldn’t back down. Again, though, this belief and this nature is accompanied by a traumatic event and a bit of a break from reality. By the time we see him, Rorshach is still every bit as unbending as he was before, but he’s also clearly nuts. The Question did briefly appear in the Huntress mini-series where he tries to help her as he was helped. It’s by Rucka and it’s an amazing little bit of work re centering the character. He’s cleaned up a bit and is more centered, getting the feel that he’s not denying what O’Neil did but making it part of the character’s past, that he’s integrated his internal conflicts a bit.

However, Veitch comes along and he’s obviously more heavily influenced by what other writers have done than the character himself. Vic is now an old schoolmate of Lois Lane’s and had an awkward crush on her. And he hears cities talk to him, a modern day urban shaman. Or at least he thinks he does, it could all be in his head. This is where I was getting at with attacking the character’s credibility. This may make an interesting story, but a writer or an editor should at least take notice that this really misses the point of the character. It might as well be a Rorshach mini-series.

The JLU cartoon picks up on Rucka’s hints of romance between Sage and the Huntress but I cannot quite gush over their portrayal of him. Their portrayal is in keeping with how the derivative character of Rorshach in WATCHMEN has adversely affected his source. Like Veitch's mini-series, the Question cannot be just highly principled, but he has to have the taint of being borderline insane, here a complete conspiracy nut. Even if he's correct, it's still played off as being funny and a bit of a nutjob. You’re not to take his ramblings seriously. It's exactly the type of Question comic/tv show that Vic Sage's detractors in the Ditko version would produce. to their point of view, a man with such strong views must be nuts. Now, the Question will be in the much heralded 52 event, we’ll see if he’s handled better there. But, recall what these same creators did to Blue Beetle, so can we really expect them to treat the Question as being a very different character than Rorshach? After all, we don’t expect to see Captain Marvel as being derivitive of Miracle Man.

Shade, the Changing Man: A minor science fiction series by Ditko with a very unique look and powers, a vest that taps into the viewer’s fears. Only Ditko could draw this convincingly without making a mess of the page. He didn’t get around much, though he and the Black Orchid both appeared in Ostrander’s SUICIDE SQUAD book. And, both pretty much got Vertigoed and changed beyond recognition. Well, Orchid got dead and drawn into the big vegetable gestalt that is know as Swamp Thing.

The Stalker: Short lived fantasy series about a man trying to reclaim his lost soul or something. As a backup comic, I never read it myself. However, this extremely minor character became the villain for the 5th Week JSA event that lead into their comic being revived. The story also had another hero, Dr. Occult, losing his soul but being saved by sharing his partner’s Rose and somehow Occult is still Occult. They followed this up with the first JSA story being about a person that was born without a soul being somehow reincarnated. I have real problems with acknowldging the existence of souls yet having people pretty much exist as normally as before. But, that’s another rant.

More Comics and Pulps here!

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