Wednesday, November 08, 2006

09/06 This months good reads!


As comics have been getting less interesting, I’ve been reading more pulps. There’s more creativity, more super-heroism found in the likes of G-8, the Phantom Detective, Jim Anthony, and the Spider than in most so called superhero comics these days. While it’s cool to see the Shroud make an appearance in MS MARVEL and know that he’s a conglomeration of the Shadow, the Green Lama, and the Black Bat of the pulps, it’s great at going back and seeing the originals.

One of the forums I frequent ran a Shadow comic cover and trivia “Survival” style contest. Ultimately, I won, the prize being a reprint of a Shadow pulp, “The Invincible Shiwan Khan”.

As far as I can make out, this is the 3rd of the Shiwan Khan novels, the first two were actually reprinted in hardback that I have in my collection, and I read the first story, long enough that I really don't remember the details.

There are interesting little tidbits to this novel. One, it uses quite a few of the more obscure Shadow agents such as Dr. Roy Tam, Jericho, and Myra Reldon in addition to appearances by Harry Vincent, Hawkeye, Shrevy, and Cliff Marsland. Also in appearance are not only Cardona, but other Shadow novel police regulars Commissioner Weston, and FBI agent Vic Marquette. I think this ultimately weakens the novel in that it diffuses all of the characters to being just little more than names and expositional devices. With such a cast and memorable villain, one would expect a huge epic of a battle and it never really quite achieves that. Nor does it really achieve the Gothic atmosphere that the novels usually contain.

Another interesting bit is that there is no real getting around the fact that Shiwan Khan does have mystic abilities, able to communicate and control various people telepathically usually through some kind of aromatic medium. And his mystics likewise have some abilities such as able to generate an electrical field that works on some kind of psychic level, a strongly inebriated or trained mind is proof to it.

But, the chief interesting angle is it's pretty obvious if the people that made the Shadow movie read only one pulp novel it was this one. There's Roy Tam, not a very regular Shadow agent, I'm not sure if he was in the other two novels or in any of the others that I’ve read. There's the telepathy (admittedly in the other Shiwan Khan novels). More telling is the use of the knives called Phurbas, blades that can be given a life of their own by the Tibetan mystics! It's obvious by the way they are mentioned, that this is the first appearance of them in the Shadow novels. However, the way they get used, it's not clear if there is something to the claims (as some of the magic done by the mystics and Shiwan Khan have no rational explanation behind them) or if it's all slight of hand as the few times they do get used suggests. The first time we see one of the knives take a life seemingly of its own accord, also figuring prominently in the scene is a mummy case! Both are rather significant in the movie.

Next up, the tilting floor of Shiwan Khan's throne room in the movie (it was just on last night, so I was reminded of this detail), in the novel his throne room was smaller and didn't have a mechanical floor. However, it was designed so that the room was built at deceptive angles that would throw off one's aim and movements as they subconsciously adjusted even though they thought it was all perpendicular. It's not hard to see the movie taking something that works well in prose but not in film unless you have someone explaining it, and coming up with something like the mechanical floor that the result is almost the same but far more visually active that doesn't require any clunky exposition explaining what's happening.

I’ve always viewed the movie as an interesting hybrid of the pulp and radio Shadow. This reinforces that, the Shadow and Margo Lane seem drawn a bit more like their radio persona's at least in personality and style, while visually the Shadow is himself from the covers and comics. But, a lot of the elements of Shiwan Khan seem to be taken straight from the pulps, not just made up for the movie.

So, the end result is that the novel is interesting, but it's not really because of its own story telling ability. As a novel it's not really terribly exciting or driven. The plot has several holes in it such as Shiwan Khan is in Chinatown but he makes use of a Caucasian woman that he controls telepathically and has her make herself up as an Asian and uses her as being a messenger to various men of wealth and ability that he's seeking to control. It's a bit hard to believe that he cannot use his abilities and resources to get an actual Chinese woman. It makes a bit more sense that the Shadow uses Myra Reldon in an almost duplicate manner as she grew up in China and is a willing confederate who's proven herself capable. Khan's overall plan isn't terribly interesting either, as he's just basically brainwashing citizens to go back to live in his Tibetan kingdom. (An actual flaw to Gibson’s writing, really. He was good on atmosphere and such, but his imagination for plotting was often lacking, his criminals were hardly grandiose despite themselves to the point that even a villain like Shiwan Khan is ultimately a bit mundane) And the Shadow being on hand for the climactic scene is through such a lucky incident that even Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been embarrassed to write the scene. And, by the novel's end, sadly much is left unresolved.


Comics I have enjoyed of late:
THE THING (sadly no more)

BPRD: An enjoyable read with appropriately creepy art by Guy Davis. At the very least, you should get these in trade paperback, it really is one of the most enjoyable series of mini-series with actual story plotting and characterization.

THE ATOM/THE SECRET SIX/BIRDS OF PREY: All have one thing in common, Gail Simone. Seriously, people that say Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison are the best superhero comics writers around are just off in their head as Gail combines the strengths of both and none of their weaknesses. Wannabe writers like Judd Winnick and Chuck Austen could stand to study her work and understand what writing really is. Gail can do strange and odd-ball with almost meta references without actually feeling like she’s ridiculing it. Instead, she comes across as someone that truly loves the characters she writes. she actually delivers on characterization, giving characters distinctive voices that feel right. Nor does she let her own prejudices get in the way of how she writes a character. Thanks to the way he’s been handled in the past (and even currently), she has no love for Green Arrow, but when he appears in BIRDS OF PREY, she doesn’t write him as such. Instead you can almost feel the heartache between Ollie and Dinah. And, even with all that, she delivers clever plots and plot twists, stories that grow out of the characters involved. THE ATOM teams her up with Byrne at least in the opening story, and it’s a wonderful pairing. Byrne’s style has changed, I don’t think his figure work carries quite the same power or punch that it used to, but he’s no slouch on story-telling and drawing distinctive and recognizable characters. I don’t have to analyze a panel of his work to understand what the artist was trying to get across, it’s there in front of you.

AQUAMAN: At times I think Guice draws the current character a little too old looking and whoever thought pairing him up with Dezuniga on this last issue made a big mistake. And I wish we had the real Aquaman. Yet, despite all that, Busiek delivers epic drawn story, Again, there’s actual plotting going on, it’s a bit episodic but there is storytelling in every issue, not a chase scene, some fights and a little dialogue.

THE THING/SHE-HULK: These two likewise share a writer, in this case Dan Slott. Both books are rather cutesy in some regards to being self-referential, a little too much so in the latter. But, both are pretty good superhero books as well, light-hearted and at times heartfelt in their approach to their characters. They both also tended to share some good clear superhero style artwork. Still, I’ll freely admit the real reason I’m getting SHE-HULK is because of the Two-Gun Kid.

JUSTICE: In many ways, the way the Justice League should be. I have only one gripe is that a central plot concerns, why isn’t the world perfect with superheroes? Well, most of the problems raised with this question are problems that are fixable today. Given our technology, that we pay farmers NOT to grow crops and such, why does the world still have people living in shacks, 850 million starving, etc? And a world that has both superheroes AND supervillains, maybe we should wonder why those worlds are as stable and well off as they are. I think superheroes can be used to illustrate social issues and inspire change. But, it’s a mistake to actually bring such concerns into the comic and ask why haven’t they solved them? And then come up with some comic book explanation in order to make the heroes not look ineffectual. Even if superheroes existed, we’d still have many of the same problems unless you go the route of SQUADRON SUPREME (about the only way to really address that type of question). But, JUSTICE has some gorgeous art, Alex Ross works better on top of another artist when it comes to storytelling.

JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED: Thanks to the unceasing moroseness of the regular DC and Marvel Universes in general, I find myself looking outside their main books for reading material. Of interesting note is that in JLU, one can find a guest appearance of the original Shining Knight, Vigilante, and the Freedom Fighters. You can see Vixen, Gypsy and Vibe be real heroes and not see themselves as general losers. I read it to remind myself that comics can be just plain fun. If they’d just eschew the animation style artwork and add just a tiny bit more meat to the stories, you’d have a great all-ages book. As it is, it’s one superhero book that is great for pre-teens and kids, if you want to hand out books for Halloween or stocking stuffers, this is the one.

JSA: With Paul Levitz back at the writing chores, we have about the best arc in this incarnation of the team as we get the secret origin of the Gentleman Ghost. Again showing, that sometimes you can break one of my normal dislikes and deliver something worthwhile. In this case it’s taking a character whose ambiguity and mystery is a big part of who he is and nailing it down and giving us a definitive history. Of course some of this groundwork was already done by the likes of Geoff Johns, so we had already lost some of the mysteriousness around the character, we know he’s not just some nutter with a gimmick pretending to be a ghost. But, Levitz runs with it and even gives us sort of an explanation as to why a ghost would bother stealing. It’s a good tale with all the characters in character and many having great moments. There are a few things out of the blue in the final issue which Levitz didn’t properly set up. There’s a rule in writing that states something to the effect that if you introduce a gun into the plot in the 3rd chapter, it goes off in the 22nd. Well, the inverse should also be true, you don’t have a gun going off in the 22nd, that you didn’t first introduce in the 3rd which is basically what happens here.

And, I’d love a reasonable explanation as to why JSA was cancelled to be re-launched in December/January. With the same writer and presumably art style it has had for most of its run. It’s numbers have been respectable even with Geoff Johns taking a break. Do they really think that a new #1 will bring in so many new readers, it’s worthwhile to not put out a product for several months to give people opportunity to get out of the habit of buying the comic and buying something else? Even story wise there’s no smart explanation for the hiatus, it just sorta ends. The only explanation I can truly think of is there are only so many titles that Time Warner/DC are willing to invest in at any given time. With all of these launches of new product at one time, some of the mediocre titles are given a break to see if some of these others prove themselves as most are marketed as mini-series. Thus the real reason that books like Justice League, Wonder Woman, and JSA have taken publishing breaks before being relaunched. That or Geoff Johns has gotten some dirt on Didio and nobody else is now allowed to write the JSA and so they have to wait until he clears some stuff of his plate.

There are some notable others.

THE ETERNALS: Neil Gaiman seems to be doing a fine job at explaining a bit of the contradictions in the history of the Eternals as well as finding a way of setting up a mystery and telling an audience unfamiliar with the characters about them at the same time. Romita Jr is about the only artist at Marvel these days that can really deliver this type of story and really capture both the mundanity and the epic scale of the characters at the same time. He’s one of the few that really captures the spirit of what Kirby’s art was about without actually aping Kirby’s style. My only complaint is that Junior’s work is delving a bit too much into shorthand, becoming a little overly stylized and caricature of it’s former self such as everyone generally having Bob Hope’s nose or Spider-man’s emaciated body type as opposed to being slender compared to other heroes.

BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK: I almost thought about waiting for the trade on this one. I enjoyed Wagner’s last retelling of a golden-age Batman story: BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN which was in the 40’s a rip on a Doc Savage novel. But, there’s really nothing that says it needs to be read in monthly installments, it’s from Batman’s early days and who really cares if it’s in continuity or not. But, I still like picking up comics each week and reading them in installments. Especially if they are fun. To me, this is Batman done right.

THUNDERBOLTS: I think there’s some interesting plotting, and for the most part it has great superhero artwork by Tom Grummett, often either colored or separated a little too garishly and has one recurring appearances by one of my favorite Marvel Characters, the Defender Nighthawk. However, I just don’t really care for any of the main characters or what really happens to them anymore. Zemo is acting just a bit too heroic like, Atlas a bit too whiny and Mach whatever too wishy washy and ineffectual.

Marvel’s Western books: A little hit and miss, but a bit more straightforward and honest with their treatment of the characters than overly gritty BLAZE OF GLORY or the joke fest of the 50’s monster titles. Bits of the larger Marvel Universe popin here and there such as Skrulls and a young Ancient One.

AGENTS OF ATLAS: Just the first issue of this mini-series is out, starring most of the Avengers of the 1950’s: Gorilla Man, Marvel Boy, Venus, the Human Robot, and Jimmy Woo vs. the Yellow Claw. I feel they are taking their gimmick a little too far in excluding 3-D Man soley because he’s a retcon hero, he did not appear in any Timely/Atlas comics of that time period. The first issue is out and is pretty darn good. Further into the series another 1950’s hero will be returning though has been thought to be dead for most of this time.

THE CREEPER: Bought the first issue against my better judgment. It’s amazing how they credit Steve Niles but not Steve Ditko when really the best parts of the story were because they were basically lifting Steve’s first story. Full of ho-hum additions, Jack Ryder is pretty much converted into a character I’m not interested in reading about on a regular basis. Artwork still stinks.

More Comics and Pulps here!

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