Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dodgem Logic # 1

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Dodgem Logic # 1 (2010)

Well, I'm certainly willing to shell out four bucks to see what Alan Moore's up to while he's waiting for artists to finish illustrating his comic scripts. Turns out that he's had a long-standing pipe dream about being the editor and publisher of his own magazine. So he licensed a few tunes for a CD and sold some ad space and got some friends and wrote some articles.

The resulting hodgepodge, Dodgem Logic, resembles an APA more than a professional magazine, although it is nicely printed, on good paper. There isn't any sense of uniform design, which really makes it unfriendly to readers' eyes when they can't tell where articles stop or start. Moore's lead feature, a six page article on the history of underground newspapers, looks like three separate stories, with different fonts and background colors, but it's full of really interesting facts all the same.

The first issue comes with a free CD called Nation of Saints, which is a compilation of Northampton-based music from across the spectrum, with not-quite-getting-it country (if your country song is more than six minutes long, you're not quite getting it) to hip-hop. It's got that terrific Jazz Butcher song "She's on Drugs" which I hadn't heard for many years, and the lead track has that noted duck marcher and warbler Moore returning to the studio for the first time in a while. And it's got something by one of those guys from Bauhaus who isn't Peter Murphy, if you like that sort of thing.

The magazine features health articles, recipes and accessorizing tips, and illustrations by regular Moore cohorts and spouses like Kevin O'Neill and Melinda Gebbie. It's all done with a playful, lighthearted touch, like a bunch of buddies who know their stuff cobbling something together in the hopes that you might get a kick out of them. I can just see Gary Ingraham as an eager sixteen year-old offering to do the local music reviews and a short history of rock bands who've played Northampton. Maybe the magazine lacks focus and defies categorization ("lifestyle," maybe?), and while I don't think this will become essential reading for anybody not already curious about Moore's projects, since it's done with such enthusiasm and lack of pretension, it's impossible to begrudge the gang behind it. Some of the artwork is child-unfriendly, but otherwise it's recommended for older readers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lighthouse

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Lighthouse (Faber & Faber, 2005).

I read this last week and I'm still pretty aggravated that I had foolishly looked at Wikipedia months beforehand and had a crucial plot point spoiled. Then again, it's the sort of thing that I can see most reviews mentioning. Usually, we like to see the heroes in our fiction overcome strange and unwelcome obstacles, but the one that Commander Dalgliesh runs into during the course of The Lighthouse is really, really outre, and one of the most satisfying left-field turns that P.D. James has yet concocted.

So, with that minor disclaimer in place, in the thirteenth novel in the series, Dalgliesh and his special team are sent to a remote island off the Cornish coast which has functioned for decades as a getaway for the rich and powerful. A body is found hanging from the lighthouse: a very successful author, loved by millions but hated by everybody who knew him. All of the genre's tropes are established early on, especially the trick of having the victim offend practically everybody he comes across during his last day alive, and the extremely isolated setting is an English cozy standard, although done with one eye on 21st-Century politics.

I was a little disappointed that, once again, James can't quite escape some of her own tropes. Very, very old motives are once again at work, with pensioner-aged characters unable to get past what happened to them during the events of World War Two. I sort of wish she had reread Original Sin before embarking on this tale, and decided that she probably shouldn't go that route again.

This is definitely a book that I enjoyed much more while I was reading it than after the fact, as I'm having trouble coming up with any reasons to recommend it to anybody. It's possible that, after doing this for forty years, James is having trouble making her stories really stand out, but then again the previous two novels, Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room, just crackled with a modern feel and genuine excitement. Despite the very contemporary trappings and politics, this just somehow feels too old-fashioned by some measure. I say that even with the remarkable twist that keeps Dalgliesh out of the action for a good chunk of the story and lets DI Miskin and DS Benton-Smith take a welcome turn at center stage. Recommended with reservations.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Essential Avengers Volume 7

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Essential Avengers Volume 7 (Marvel, 2010)

It took me six months, and I'm not saying I deserve a medal or anything, but I just finished reading (or rereading) every Avengers comic that Marvel published in its first eighteen or so years. It's a little difficult to say exactly when; Marvel doesn't include any proper publication information in the pages of their Essential series. Even when they decided to be complete dicks and redesign their books in a nose-thumbing at geeks like me who like to have matching spines on our bookshelves, they didn't take that opportunity to give their books page numbers, much less anything helpful in the table of contents. It really doesn't make all of those breathless Roy Thomas annotations like "*See the current ish of Cap's own mag!" any easier to understand.

I've learned a few things from this reread. Among them: The Avengers chews up and spits out writing talent. Everybody who started on the title came to it with enthusiasm and clever ideas, but it took about twenty issues for the shine to dull. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart each had almost two years of really fun stories in them, but by the time each writer petered out, you can feel the words dying on the page. Lee's last ten or eleven stories, which lead Volume 2, are arguably among the worst things he wrote for Marvel, but they're the highest of art compared to what Thomas, who started really well and probably better than Lee, turned into by the end.

I've written in previous reviews how, one by one, all those legendary mammoth Avengers storylines were revealed to be little more than B-movie trash, but "The Kree-Skrull War" really took the cake the second time around. That's the one where, instead of focusing the melodrama on the Mighty Thor flying through space and smashing the bejezus out of an alien battlefleet, Thomas built the climax around Rick Jones, the teen sidekick character who never got the memo to just go the fuck away, locked in a closet with a talking turnip remembering a bunch of old funnybooks from the 1940s. It's the worst thing ever, at least until Englehart's "Celestial Madonna" story, every page of which screams to the heavens with a misbegotten insistence of self-importance as Mantis, raised from birth to be Little Miss Perfect, use the phrase "this one" instead of "I," and, well, marry a tree, ascends to a higher plane of consciousness. If you ever thought this saga was ever worth reading, it's because you read it when you were twelve. And wrong.

On the other hand, there's some far better art to be found here than people think. Don Heck doesn't get a lot of praise, but his mid-sixties work is beautiful, just effortlessly contemporary. There are so many artists in the biz who never update their fashion references, and so Heck's zippy LBJ-era suits, cocktail dresses and cigarettes, emphasizing the now so casually, just shine with period cool. Admittedly, a lot of the work that came after him was simple Sal Buscema journeyman stuff, but Neal Adams' hyperdramatic posing and agonized faces in Volume 5 even make "The Kree-Skrull War" worth looking at.

But George Perez... now, there's a guy who has a deserved reputation for drawing terrible books, but man, could he ever draw them well. Volume 7 includes some of his early professional work and it's so terrific that I got actively aggravated whenever he missed a deadline and some inventory story or fill-in artist showed up. In this volume, Englehart finally winds up his increasingly tedious tenure with another big, overrated epic called "The Serpent Crown," in which, for reasons I never understood, the former teen comedy star Patsy Walker insists that Hank McCoy, the Beast, make her into a superhero and she gets a supersuit that lets her become "the happy-go-lucky Hellcat!" I guess that's a good thing; I adored another Marvel team book, The Defenders, in which she starred, when I was a kid, and those rereads don't depress me nearly as much as these do.

Well, at least the art in "The Serpent Crown" is nice, but the story, in which the Avengers are trapped on a parallel Earth - a cute, in-jokey version of DC Comics' Earth, with stand-ins for their Justice League - in which... well, a crown with serpents on it mind-controls everybody to... well, I never figured out what was going on. Replace "serpent crown" with "antelope codpiece" and you've got the same story, basically.

Gerry Conway and Jim Shooter take over script duties from there and things improve massively, although not really to the point that I was ready to tell everybody I knew about these great funnybooks I was reading. There's a four-part crossover with the dementedly, lovably silly Super-Villain Team-Up in which the team gets caught in the middle of a war between Dr. Doom and the Atlantean archvillain Attuma, and Ultron shows up again, and the Grim Reaper, a deeply silly bad guy who can honestly take credit for being one of the few genuinely, believably insane characters Marvel came up with, shows up again, because his brother Wonder Man got brought back from the dead, but his brain patterns had already been used by Ultron to program the android superhero the Vision and Grim Reaper has a complaint with that... I swear it makes more sense when you read it.

It is nice on those occasions where the writers stopped feeling obliged to pay lip service to the comic's mountain of continuity. It's hard to create lasting escapist entertainment when you can't even escape from the stories that preceded you! Creating new characters and villains, like a really odd guy called Graviton who's the director of a scientific think tank and notably older than the rest of the cape-clad cast, made for much more fun stories than the backward-looking ones. Having said that, George Perez could draw almost any superhero comic and I'd be willing to give it a look. As for Essential Avengers, volume one is probably worth it for the early Stan Lee / Jack Kirby / Don Heck material, and volume three for Roy Thomas's best work, and volume seven for George Perez, but "essential" really is pushing it, to be honest.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Vworp Vworp! # 1

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Vworp Vworp! # 1 (2010)

Doctor Who Magazine has been running its tie-in comic for more than thirty years now, and it's usually been a terrific read. There have certainly been patches where it hasn't been as consistently entertaining as the TV show, but frankly, anybody who'd rather watch "Destiny of the Daleks" than read "The Star Beast," or watch "Terminus" over reading "The Stockbridge Horror" just needs their head examined.

It's for people who know that the comic is as vital and engaging a part of Doctor Who's canon as anything else in the fiction that Vworp Vworp!, a fanzine co-edited by Colin Brockhurst and Gareth Kavanagh, is intended. The first in a planned periodic series, the zine is a loving tribute and analysis of the comic. Just like British newsstand comics from the 1970s, it even comes with a free gift - a set of rub-on transfers of the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and some Daleks, drawn by Paul Grist!

Inside, I quickly realized that the writers really know their target audience. The writing, like the best work in Doctor Who Magazine, expertly strides the line between "academic analysis" and "huggingly enthusiastic." The story of "The Iron Legion," the magazine's first serial, is told via interviews with Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons and original editor Dez Skinn, and would not be at all out of place in the professional magazine that they're praising. The writers also turn their attention to the final Eighth Doctor strip, "The Flood," and to Adrian Salmon's thunderously weird "Cybermen" serial. There's a tribute from the magazine's archivist, Andrew Pixley, and David J. Howe resurrects his early '90s "Collectors Corner" feature, designed to look like it came right from an old issue.

There are three new comic strips as well. None of them are necessarily essential, but I enjoyed all of them just the same. "The Master's Life on Mars," by the zine's co-editor Kavanagh and John Daiker, was my favorite of the three. It's a clever little runaround that fiddles with the resume of the last actor to play the Master on television. Daryl Joyce's "Clash of Empires" and Christian Cawley and Justin Abbot's "Time Leech" are also very fun. I think that Joyce has been doing professional work for some time, but there's no reason why the other creators couldn't be doing work for the big leagues pretty soon as well; it's all high-quality stuff.

Overall, it's a really good-looking package, very slick and professional. (It's easy to forget just how terrific fanzines can look these days!) Brockhurst's design work is really impressive, and they're able to cram buckets of entertaining and insightful material into the eighty pages. I enjoyed it all very much and will certainly return to it frequently. Very highly recommended to all Doctor Who fans.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14 (Rebellion, 2009)

Judge Dredd isn't always the easiest series to follow, or for new readers to appreciate the complexities of the storylines. Most of the early material - particularly the stuff in black and white, often drawn by Bolland, McMahon, Smith, familiar to Americans through well-worn collections - stands alone very well, but while most of the color episodes - and there are a lot more of them - stand alone just fine, there's so much more pleasure to be found when you get used to all the lingering subplots that build through them. Case in point: "Necropolis," a simply amazing 26-part epic from 1990 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. This story's been collected a couple of times before, but to get the best effect, it needs to be read with the three months' worth of episodes which preceded it. Happily, this giant story is finally available in one collection. The fourteenth edition of The Complete Case Files compiles 38 episodes in one incredibly satisfying chunk of a book, and it's one everybody who loves comics should track down. It's one of Wagner's finest moments.

I think there's a strong influence from Chris Claremont in Wagner's writing at this time, particularly in the way that his 1980s work on The Uncanny X-Men would let subplots and background details grow over the course of several issues. Wagner, in time, became the master of this style of storytelling, and reworks it today better than anybody else in the medium. It's fascinating the way he finds old details from much older stories and brings them to vibrant life in his contemporary tales. About five years before "Necropolis," during the events of Judge Death's third attack on the city, there was a brief incident where the Dark Judges were teleporting throughout the city blocks, evading capture. Wagner revisits that, briefly, revealing that one woman was left in a partial coma by Death, his malignance influencing her behavior, and setting the stage for his powerful allies to break into this dimension.

"Necropolis" itself is just plain amazing. It starts with some very odd pacing, with the two Sisters of Death tormenting Kraken, a rookie who is entrusted (he sais, hedging his bets against spoilers) with Dredd's role while our hero is otherwise indisposed. The first two episodes are all action with very little plot development. But as events build, and Kraken comes under the Sisters' influence as well, the story becomes a taut, epic, page-turner. It's genuinely horrific - as events spiral into unbelievable carnage, some of the citizens' desperation will make your skin crawl - and it's all visualized in gory detail by Ezquerra, who, I believe, sets a 2000 AD record with 31 straight weeks of color artwork without missing a deadline.

This was the last hurrah for the Dark Judges as fabulous, frightening villains for the strip. Fear, Fire and Mortis were brought out of mothballs for a crossover between Judge Dredd and Batman about eight years later, and Death was periodically seen in ill-advised cameos and black comedy roles that turned him into a joke, before Wagner and Frazer Irving rehabilitated the character and gave him a great sendoff in 2004. When you read this story, however, you really wish they'd all been retired permanently, their impact undiminished.

Perhaps in retrospect, "Necropolis" did more harm than good, first by giving 2000 AD's editors at the time the idea that the characters of the Dark Judges could stand up to repeated (mis)use, and also by giving incoming writer Garth Ennis the idea that Dredd's big epic storylines needed to be bleak, carnage-filled apocalypses, leading to 1992's misbegotten "Judgment Day" saga. But taken on its own, it really was a triumph, and Rebellion's terrific reprinting in their Case Files series is one that every fan of British comics should own. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And Be a Villain

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of And Be a Villain (Viking, 1948).

I wonder whether future generations will still be able to make any sense of this novel at all. The murder that gets Nero Wolfe involved happens live on the air during a radio talk show, during a sponsor's segment where the hostess, Manhattan socialite Madeline Fraser, and her guests drink some cola called Hi-Spot and tell the audience how wonderful it is. That's such a strange little relic of the past that even I have difficulty imagining it. Amazingly, the murder - poison slipped into one of the bottles - wouldn't have worked had the patient guests not played along, rather than insisting they be served a scotch and soda. It's radio; who'd know the difference?

Yet the book has a timeless zing anyway, thanks to the presence of a teenage fangirl who adores Miss Fraser, talks a mile a minute in some remarkably entertaining late '40s slang, and who quickly drives Wolfe to distraction with her firecracker attitude and surly petulance. Sixty years later, this same character could be dropped into a murder mystery about Twilight fans with minimal alteration. Highly amusing, entertaining, and recommended.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Exit Wounds

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008)

Here's a story about life in contemporary Israel that came wrapped in "book of the year" blurbs and hype and breathless praise from many writers whom I trust. It turned out to be an enormous letdown. Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds spent a week on the review stack in limbo before I decided to return it to my reading pile and give it another chance, certain that I missed something. A reread didn't persuade me that I missed anything, or, if you like, that there was anything to miss.

Exit Wounds is the story of a cab driver who is told that an unidentified body in a recent terrorist attack might have been his estranged father, who has been missing since the bombing. Alternately, it's the story of a young woman who concludes that her secret, older lover must have died in an explosion and searches out his estranged son to have a DNA match done.

It sounds like something gripping and heartrending, but it feels like Modan couldn't find any drama from what could have been a plot without a single complication, so she has to concoct a book's worth of artifice in order to keep the duo from finding closure. At one point, she throws in the unbelievable obstacle of a gravedigger's strike, for pity's sake, to keep a DNA test from going through. Yet I can't remember whether that comes before or after she spends about three pages having a possible witness demand a bribe before he will tell them whether he might have seen Koby's father that day. It's the depth of Koby's estrangement which provides the most frustrating obstacle, though. It doesn't matter how long Koby's father has been dead to him, since the book's not going to progress until he gets over it.

The most obnoxious obstacles, however, are the two protagonists themselves. Koby and Nuni are simply unlikeable, aggravating, bad-tempered jerks. Nuni, depicted in the dialogue as rather plain but drawn with the same lumpy, thin-lined appearance as all the other characters, is thoughtless and offensive and Koby is a surly, judgmental bore who does not have a single positive relationship with anybody, from co-workers to family. If only these two could just get along, the narrative suggests, then they could find closure. Yet the characters are simply so unpleasant that I simply could not care less whether they ever do, making the hackneyed, literal "leap of faith" conclusion one which meant nothing. Not recommended. Avoid.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kiss 'em Goodbye

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Kiss 'em Goodbye (Ballantine, 2010).

Proof, if any were needed, that my wife's a keeper: she got me this book for Valentine's Day. Y'all read that and weep, fellows: my lady bought me a sports book for that most Hallmarky of Hallmark holidays. And a box of sea salt caramels from The Chocolate Fetish in Asheville; that, too.

What Dennis Purdy has done is compile the stories of something like eighty teams that have closed down, from a wide variety of sports. It's one heck of a fun idea, but I say that from the perspective of somebody who has nostalgic fascination about those elements of the past that only exist in photos and memorabilia. Just five years ago, the kids and I got together with my buddy Matt and drove to Macon to see two teams that no longer exist, in a league that folded last year. The names "Macon Knights" and "Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers" mean more to me than the name of the girl who rode down there with us.

Conceptually, the book is a great idea, and many of the entries were really fun to read. I enjoyed the stories of the NASL's New York Cosmos and the PCL's Hollywood Stars a lot, along with everything related to the American Basketball Association. I love the ABA. I'm not sure what I would enjoy more, watching the Hawks host the Cavaliers for a night to see Joe Johnson and LeBron James play against each other, or taking a time-traveling trip to 1975 to see any two ABA teams play, just to say I did. And possibly get supper at a Hungry Fisherman while I was back then.

The book does have a major flaw in that Purdy seems to expect a pretty intensive knowledge base from his readers. I understood from his introductions that the author knows more about baseball in the 1890s than practically anybody, and perhaps there's a great deal that's entertaining about the turn-of-that-century shenanigans that saw men with handlebar mustaches eventually forming the present-day Major League from the ashes of what seems like two dozen regional associations with assorted ownership struggles. Lacking the background, however, I was completely lost whenever any of these New York Knickerbocker-era teams turned up in the narrative. Since the book is listed in alphabetical order of the teams' cities, and since old-timey baseball and similarly antediluvian football teams from the NFL's archaeology make up the bulk of the book, it was very easy to get confused, and, frankly, bored.

What would have made this a much more fun read would have been to organize the stories by sport and detail them chronologically, taking time out for more extensive histories of particularly notable or colorful teams. Frankly, no reader should have to consult Wikipedia to understand the distinctions between the National Association, the National League, the Union Association and the Players Association when there's a 360-page book in front of them that could have taken the time to lay it out chronologically.

The stories from the 1950s onward are much easier to follow, and there really are some wild and funny tales about teams that were doomed from the outset, or beset with fires, floods or owners literally moving them out of town in the middle of the night. I can totally understand lots of people in Baltimore still spitting fire about what happened to the Colts, especially since I met a fellow three years ago who is still cheesed off that the Kentucky Colonels didn't make it to the NBA.

There are great stories here, but I'm just not satisfied that this book told them as well as it might. I'd certainly love to see a second edition one day, where the frustration factor never overwhelms my genuine curiosity. Recommended with reservations.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Best of Battle

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Best of Battle (Titan, 2009)

Battle Picture Weekly was, of course, one of the best and most important comics ever published. It wasn't just a simply entertaining, well-written and drawn collection of great war stories, it was a critical building block in the development of modern comics. Since without it, you'd never have had a 2000 AD, I've always been interested in it, and any chance to see these terrific stories is one worth taking.

The series and serials in BPW were drawn by some of the best artists working in Britain at the time, including Eric Bradbury, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Ezquerra, Cam Kennedy and Mike Western. Many of the stories were devised by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and while they only scripted a few themselves, they assigned others to the likes of Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Hebden. They all developed storylines, sometimes sharply different from each other in tone, with vulnerable anti-heroes, radically different from the indestructible leads in American war comics. Reading just one issue of BPW after an identikit Robert Kanigher DC adventure is the greatest breath of fresh air in the medium.

Titan Books, which has been collecting Battle's most lauded strip, Charley's War, for several years now, landed the reprint rights to several old IPC properties what seemed like an eternity ago, and late last year finally released the first of their new Battle collections. The Best of Battle is similar in feel to their two Roy of the Rovers samplers, three hundred pages of reprints in a slightly oversized format with a paperback cover. The book contains the first 3-5 episodes of eighteen different series. Each comes with an introductory page and a short blurb written by either Mills or BPW's one-time editor, Dave Hunt.

I think the format is a good one, as far as samplers go, but it looks to me like Titan was a draft or two shy of assembling something really special. The most aggravating example is Hold Hill 109, a six-part serial by Steve MacManus and Jim Watson. Four of the six episodes are included in this book, which is nice, but what are the odds that Hold Hill 109 will ever be reprinted anywhere else? Between Charley's War, Johnny Red and Darkie's Mob, there are 12-13 episodes which are either already available in Titan collections or are due for release within a few months. Couldn't eight of those pages be given up to see all of Hold Hill 109?

I'm also a little surprised that Battle Action Force isn't even mentioned in the book. Admittedly, even with the nice artwork by John Cooper, the toy line tie-in, sort of a parallel antecedent to Hasbro's G.I. Joe line of the 1980s, was the sign that the comic's brightest moments had passed, but it still has a huge number of fans. Evidently there's some rights issues at work, as Palitoy still owns those characters like Baron Buckethead or whoever it was they were fighting prior to Cobra Commander, but considering just how important the Action Force was to Battle's later days - Johnny Red and Charley's War wouldn't have made it to their ends without Action Force sales propping up the comic - I think it should have been mentioned.

If readers would forgive the regular quibbling of a Monday morning quarterback, the book is truly a fine introduction to Battle, and one which will certainly get new readers excited about the other material Titan has planned. Six volumes of Charley's War are already out, the first collection of Johnny Red should be with us by the end of the month, and a complete Darkie's Mob - all 44 episodes - is solicited in the current Previews for later in the spring. The book also promises that collections of two of my favorite Battle series, Major Eazy and Rat Pack, are on the horizon.

The only other quibble that I have is that getting accurate shipping dates and advance plans from Titan is really like pulling teeth. Most of their books seem subject to interminable delays - where the devil is the third volume of Jeff Hawke, guys?! - and so it's impossible to guess exactly when we'll get the follow-up volumes that I've been craving. It's simply bad business to serve up an appetizer as tasty as this and shy away from the main course!

(Excerpted from Reprint This!)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crogan's March

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Crogan's March (Oni, 2010)

I've had the great pleasure of speaking with Chris Schweizer a couple of times now, and have been looking forward to the second Crogan book for what has seemed like ages. Since each story in the planned 15-volume adventure series is a single 160-odd-page comic, these don't arrive as quickly as anyone would prefer. There's a lot of research and development that goes into each book even before the creator lays out the action and the pacing, which must take forever, and the books' front and endpieces lay out the Crogan family tree, so readers can speculate on what action is around the corner.

This time out, we're introduced to Peter Crogan, the great-great-great-somethin' grandson of the hero of the first adventure. Peter is finishing out his contract in the French Foreign Legion around 1912, occupying hostile territory in northern Africa, when he gets a blustering new officer whose recklessness might keep him from ever going home. From sandstorms to thieves to desperate men fighting in the desert, this story hits all the genre's tropes, and executes them very well, ending with a remarkable, unexpected climax.

I really like looking at Schweizer's artwork and following the action on the pages. Once in a while, he does sort of lose me with an occasional character design - there's a fellow in here with a chin so mighty that he doesn't look human anymore - but I just love the attention to costume and period detail, and the great, sweeping, thick lines that carry the action from frame to frame. Even the sound effects accentuate the art, with the noise of a machine gun punctuating the panels and the characters' movement.

Schweizer is planning to create 15 adventures in this saga, with the third, set in 1776, due next. I've still got my fingers crossed that he'll tell the story of "Calloway" Crogan, the 1950s PI, sooner rather than later, but whatever order these are released, it's definitely a series worth following. Possibly not for the youngest of readers, but this book and its predecessor are happily recommended for anybody aged eleven and up.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 2007).

There's a certain predictable side to looking into books like this. I realized after reading some Howard Zinn that there would be more negative reviews that focus on the "how dare dat unAmerican commie pinko say dese dings" side of the argument than actually focus on the content of the book. With James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, there's so much that can be said about what a wearying slog this book is than falling back on right-wing whining, but, alas, few seem to want to make it. Let's see what we can find on Amazon... "dissent," "socialist ranting," "anti-American propaganda," yup. Well, at least about half of the commenters took the time to look at the forest, and, like me, found it desperately needing some weeding.

I certainly appreciate Loewen's perspective. After reviewing eighteen different high school history texts, he turned both barrels on the publishers of this dreck, accusing them of ignoring anything controversial in favor of "blind patriotism, mindless optimism" and feel-good mush - anything to avoid ticking off some loudmouthed parent somewhere. So the book straddles two tough objectives: to correct misconceptions about our history and also to address why the truth has been so badly obscured.

I like the message, but not the delivery. Loewen's argument is a sound one, but man, this book is a chore to wade through. It's just an endless, 360-page march through dense text, strident arguments and constant finger-pointing about how rotten our ancestors were and... well, really, how rotten everybody still is. Sadly, the book starts off with an upbeat and friendly tone before descending into shrill screaming. There's assuredly a lot more that we should know about Helen Keller's communism and Woodrow Wilson's racism, but the "secret history of America" approach soon gives way to relentless negativity.

In short, the story of America that students should want to learn is abandoned in order to attack sacred cows. There's just got to be a more subtle, clever and effective way to do that than in something this exhausting. Not recommended.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The V.C.s: Back in Action

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The V.C.s: Back in Action (Rebellion, 2009)

A comic as old as 2000 AD thrives by keeping one eye on its past and another on the shock of the new. Once in a while, the editors will revive a dormant feature. The V.C.s is one that thrived well during its decades in hibernation. The original series, whose creators included Gerry Finley-Day, Garry Leach and Cam Kennedy, ran for nine months in 1980 and was fondly remembered by a legion of fans for many years. One of them was writer Dan Abnett, who finally persuaded editor Matt Smith to give his revival the go-ahead. The resulting series ran for five short runs over four years, the first three of which are collected in this edition from Rebellion.

Set decades after the original, this space opera sees Major Steve Smith, the hero of the first series, living a blue-collar life while Earth has been at peace with their old enemies the G'egeekajee. On the anniversary of the armistice, the aliens surprise Earth with a sneak attack, prompting Smith, who's spent the last several years haunted by the ghosts of his dead colleagues from the first series, to re-enlist. What follows is a fascinating action series which involves several alien races in a long guerrilla war against an implacable enemy.

Honestly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped at the time, and a reread isn't knocking my socks off, either. You could do a million times worse, but Abnett never really finds voices for the disparate characters in Smith's crew, beyond simply "the girl" and "the obnoxious one everybody hates," and consequently it's almost impossible to become engrossed in what happens to them. The artwork, however, is superb throughout. Henry Flint gets things off to a strong start before regular 2000 AD pinch-hitter Anthony Williams comes aboard with his own, inventive stamp. It only disappoints in comparison with the creators' other projects; this simply isn't as exciting as I had been hoping.

Oddly, it looks as though the story won't be concluded anytime soon. As noted, the book reprints three of the series' five runs in 2000 AD. A follow-up book is advertised on the inside back cover with a December '09 release date, but the collection was never issued, and does not appear in Rebellion's plans for 2010.

This book was originally offered for sale to North American comic stores through Diamond, but was withdrawn and canceled with no announcement. Interested readers will have to order it from a British bookseller instead. Readers looking for some intricate outer space action, or fans of Dan Abnett's work for Marvel's "cosmic" titles, could certainly do worse than to check this out.