Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Adventure Comics # 516

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 Adventure Comics # 516 (DC, 2010)

Here's a neat idea that I'm enjoying, although it probably appeals to me more than most, and I'm not screaming-from-the-rafters wild about it, either. Since Paul Levitz's new series of Legion of Super-Heroes began in May, DC Comics has given additional room for the feature in the pages of Adventure Comics. This is an anthology book that DC originally published in the 1930s and recently resurrected after several years of being dormant.

The main Legion of Super-Heroes book has begun a story that takes place at least a decade into the characters' time as a team. Readers hope that, from there, it will continue as a proper, ongoing narrative with twisting, soap opera-developments. This does leave an awful lot of room for missing backstory, however, especially with Levitz using characters and ideas from several other writers' take on the property during his twenty-year absence.

(It's a lot like Arthur Conan Doyle returning to life and writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, and incorporating elements from Andy Lane's All-Consuming Fire, Jamyang Norbu's Missing Years, William Baring-Gould's ...of Baker Street and Nicholas Meyer's Seven Percent Solution into his canon. At some point, Doyle might want to clarify what his backstory actually is.)

So while Legion is telling one grand, complex story, there's a companion storyline in Adventure, which is telling one-part flashback stories from the team's earlier days. These are illustrated by Kevin Sharpe, who proves to be competent but uninspiring. Like Yildiray Cinar on the main book, there's nothing at all wrong with his artwork, and it's leagues better than some of the incoherent slop that DC has been publishing in many other superhero books, but I miss the days when I would read Legion and be inspired to try and draw myself. I still contend that what Legion needs is someone with a radically new and wild approach. Put the next Kevin O'Neill, the next Henry Flint, the next Mike Allred on this title before I fall asleep.

Interestingly, the "second feature" in Adventure Comics suggests that somebody at DC has the notion to shake up their staid approach. Each 20-page Legion story is paired with a 10-page backup. For now, this is an Atom feature scripted by Jeff Lemire, the writer and artist behind the celebrated Essex County and Sweet Tooth series. Lemire strikes me as a very odd choice to tell stories about the freaking Atom, and I suppose that the current story, in which the Atom matches wits with a computer hacker called the Calculator, is about as good as anyone can expect a 10-page Atom feature to be.

Artwork for this is provided by Mahmud Asrar, and, again, it's competent and not confusing, but just downright dull. Based on what I've seen of Lemire's own artwork, I can't help but wish the writer also drew the story, but I suppose the trademark-worrying suits at DC can't imagine their bloodless superhero stories looking like anything else but another bloodless superhero story. I don't really feel right recommending this to anybody except Levitz Legion fans, and even then not too wildly.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Complete D.R. & Quinch

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 Complete D.R. & Quinch (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2010)

I don't know whether I have very much left to say about D.R. & Quinch, but I'll give it a try. Originally published in 1983-84, it still sits pretty high on my list of favorite Alan Moore titles. It's a juvenile, loud, anarchic and convention-busting serial about two heavily-armed students who enjoy boozing up more than anybody you ever met, and whose wild adventures set the template for many Alan Moore heroes that would follow. You can find the DNA of Waldo "Diminished Responsibility" Dobbs and Ernest Errol Quinch in almost all of Moore's Tomorrow Stories, and you can find the DNA of The Young Ones, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the National Lampoon feature O.C. and Stiggs in these stories.

Dated they may be, but D.R. and Quinch's brand of mayhem and one-liners remains one of the most entertaining and ridiculous experiences in comics. Moore, abetted by Alan Davis's remarkable designs, clear storytelling and solid character work, came up with some incredibly absurd plots and, once D.R. is given dialogue in the second story - the first is told in narration - it's comedy gold on every page. Sure, the duo's brand of fun involves everything from playing tennis with hand grenades to terraforming planets to write obscene graffiti, but really, who among us hasn't longed to get away with that?

D.R. & Quinch did not run for very long. Moore only wrote six stories, each between one and five 6-page episodes, before retiring the characters. They were resurrected in 1987 for nine "Agony Pages" scripted by Jamie Delano in which the demented duo offered advice for readers. Their advice usually required access to fission material or Adnan Khashoggi's telephone number.

There have been collections of D.R. & Quinch before, many times, but this is by far the most expansive and complete collection published to date. It contains all of the Moore episodes, and all nine Delano-scripted pages, reproduced in color for the first time. Two years ago, Rebellion had released a volume which did have the Agony Pages, but in black and white. This volume also includes a huge collection of pin-ups and sketches of the characters, along with some cameos that they made in the pages of a British comic convention's program book, and a couple of pages of Moore's original script.

I don't know what more to add. It's a great collection of very funny comics, done very well on nice paper. It's the first of two collections aimed at the American market as a co-publishing venture of Rebellion and Simon & Schuster, the other being a new edition of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 01 with a new cover, and everybody's hoping that emphasizing the resumes of Alan Moore and Alan Davis over the comic where they originally appeared might make a difference in how the books perform domestically.

Unlike the previous collections in 2000 AD's large graphic novel line, these are available from big box domestic retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and don't have to be special-ordered through comic specialty shops with fingers crossed. Happily, these have been designed to fit right in with the many previous collections, with matching spines and layout, so people who have been collecting the line and care about this sort of thing (going by the forums, that would apparently be "almost all of us") can breathe easily - Simon & Schuster have totally done right with this collection, and it bodes well for future books in the line. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Complete Peanuts 1975-1976

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 Complete Peanuts 1975-1976 (Fantagraphics, 2010)

I don't know that I'll do another entry on a Fantagraphics Peanuts collection on these pages, because they're really quite difficult to write. ("More of the same great comic strips!") The publisher is now halfway through the reprint program, and this is the first book that covers the material that I might have first read in the Sunday funnies of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I was a kid.

I think this is the first of the Fantagraphics books to make readers a little wary of the decline in Schulz's work that would come in the nineties; this is the book that introduces some of Snoopy's relations. I don't know about you, but there's only so much Spike that I'm interested in reading, and I think all of it was published by about 1981. In the mid-seventies, however, Schulz was still at the top of his game and putting together some ridiculous and hilarious storylines.

Probably the best of them sees the perpetually clueless Peppermint Patty getting tired of her school and unwittingly ends up enrolled in an obedience school for dogs. In another high point, Marcie spends an entire summer camp beating up some boy. Why on earth Schulz thought Snoopy needed kinfolk at all with those two causing such enjoyable havoc, we'll never know. Recommended.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Power Girl # 1-12

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 Power Girl # 1-12 (DC, 2009-2010)

I've mentioned a time or two how very much I enjoy the artist Amanda Conner, and so when I got the chance to pick up the twelve issue run of Power Girl at a nice discount, I figured they'd be good for a read or two. The book, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, is continuing beyond these initial twelve issues with a different creative team, another aggravating reminder that the major two comic companies have a really hard time keeping top talent on a book for very long.

So Power Girl is a DC Comics C-lister, a frequent supporting player with a confusing backstory who occasionally gets fandom's spotlight on account of her stacked figure. Not entirely immune to the charms of a really great artist drawing a really fit superheroine, I was glad to give this a try and found it mostly charming and occasionally hilarious. I've mentioned many times that mainstream DC books seem to have become an impenetrable, tangled mass of crossover continuity, but happily the publisher does put out a few books, like this one, that don't require any real knowledge of what is happening in every other book to enjoy it.

Power Girl is a much-beloved protector of New York City in this iteration. She has a few recurring baddies, such as the body-hopping super-genius Ultra-Humanite, and she deals with all her confrontations with a very amusing exasperation. This builds until a wonderful peak in issues 7 and 8, which sees her dealing with an alien from a 1970s-themed planet. Sometime in the (real) seventies, DC had introduced this character as an odd take on Sean Connery's bizarrely-costumed character in the film Zardoz. These comics use the very outdated character intact, as the ruler of a planet that's all lava lamps, chicka-chicka-bow soundtracks and groovy afros, and he is all about the lovin', baby. Power Girl's rising aggravation is played beautifully, with a great payoff, and Conner had me in stitches with the expressions on the characters' faces.

It's certainly not perfect, but the flaws are not too obnoxious. Like most comics of this type, the need to keep character subplots moving results in a strange compression of time. Unless I missed something, the whole series takes place over the course of about four quite ridiculous days. The creators' decision to leave after just twelve chapters means that most of these subplots are wrapped up far too quickly and unbelievably in the last issue. It doesn't pretend to be high art, but for a fun superhero book, you could easily do a million times worse. There's a trade collection of the first six issues, but really, there's no reason why DC's collected editions department couldn't have bound all twelve in one book. Recommended if you're in the mood for this sort of thing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Three Witnesses

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 Three Witnesses (Viking, 1956).

I seem to be about a year in and halfway through my complete reading of the Nero Wolfe stories, and while I certainly prefer the longer novels and their twists and turns, sometimes one of the short stories provides a nice surprise. Three Witnesses collects three novellas from the mid-fifties, and the first of them might be my favorite of that length that I've found so far.

"The Next Witness" is a very fun story which starts with Nero Wolfe furiously out of his comfort zone. He's been subpoenaed to appear in court at the trial of a man who had attempted to hire him, and who is now accused of murder. Incensed that his testimony will be used to help convict a man that Wolfe believes to be innocent, he chooses to bolt, risking a contempt charge and being arrested by a police force that would just love to rub his arrogant face in it. I had a ball with every page of this one.

The other stories were also quite good, although I personally would have preferred that they had been placed before "The Next Witness" so I would not have compared them unfavorably. There's a good yarn about accidental bigamy, and one where Archie brings home a dog and intends to aggravate his boss with its presence, only to have it backfire on the one hand and prove critical to a murder case on the other. They were all very fun, and I see that both "The Next Witness" and "Die Like a Dog" were adapted for the A&E TV series. I'd love to check those out sometime. Recommended.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Golden Age

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 Golden Age (DC, 1993)

Here's a book that, based on how mainstream superhero comics have turned out over the last decade or so, I should not like at all. James Robinson's The Golden Age is a studied exercise in navel-gazing and paying much more attention to comics' past than thinking about what could be done with new characters in the future. In time, this would become DC Comics' reason for existing, and result in a line of mostly unreadable garbage. But back in 1993, such exercises were pretty rare, and this book was something very novel and exciting. Even in light of how its influence would spread over the rest of the line, the book remains a curious and fun thrill.

The story is set just after the end of World War Two. America has been defended by a volunteer army of costumed mystery men, a handful of whom have gone undercover in Europe, but most of them have been ferreting out fifth columnists and infiltrators on the homefront. One of the most celebrated has been Tex Thompson, who has returned from secret missions overseas to praise and a place in the US Senate. But Paul Kirk, the Manhunter, has also been working in Europe, and he comes back with armed gunmen on his trail.

Prior to The Golden Age, most of the four-color heroes of the 1940s and 50s were the typical two-dimensional strongmen of the day, flawless boy scouts working for the greater good. Robinson really gives life to these heroes, letting characterization lead his story. Interestingly, while this was presented as an out-of-continuity "elseworlds" adventure, thanks to Robinson's later work, some of the character traits and flaws presented here became standard for DC. It's a very interesting prologue to Robinson's masterpiece Starman, which began in 1994 and quickly became one of the best American books of its decade, and which turned some of the characterizations presented here into canon.

It's far from perfect, and the last act revelation of what's been going on with Thompson's project to build an atomic-powered hero is eye-rollingly silly, but every time I come back to this book, I leave impressed. The depiction of flawed men and women trying to leave their heroic pasts behind owes a huge debt to Watchmen, but Robinson still creates some wonderful characters out of old archetypes. There's an absolutely magic bit where the former Green Lantern tackles a criminal in his civilian disguise, and the criminal realizes who he is fighting just by observing the way he talks and carries himself. The art by Paul Smith is extremely good - where the heck has he got to, I wonder - and it all adds up to a very fun experience. Not essential, but recommended all the same.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home

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 Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (Fawcett, 1970).

A few months ago, I read three of Harry Kemelman's detective stories about Rabbi David Small which I had found in an omnibus at a library sale. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a bookstore with credit to spend and picked up another four novels in the series. I'm not reading them in order, just as they strike my fancy.

In Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, Small is in his early thirties and the principal crisis in the community is not the murder of a local boy. He had gone south to play college football but an injury brought him home, where he'd done little but aggravate his family and sell some pot. However, his body is found in a house that's crucial to the main plot, which deals with the political schism going on in the local congregation.

I really enjoy the way that Kemelman varies the structure of the books so that the focus can shift from a traditional murder mystery to something more subtle. This time around, I was more fascinated by the infighting and bickering than who finished off the punk. Kemelman has such a natural flair for dialogue and character that conversations go on for pages and I just get immersed in the debates and the give-and-take.

It's very much a book of it's time, and occasionally just terribly suburban. The period's racial issues are addressed with the subtlety of a jackhammer and the possibility of marijuana making the rounds of area bowling alleys is depicted as just about the worst thing ever. Nevertheless, it's an amusing and occasionally engrossing read, and while I wouldn't claim that you're losing out by skipping it, I think I can recommend it for mystery readers looking for something a little light and off-kilter. Psych and Monk fans, for example might get a kick out of it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files 01

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 Restricted Files 01 (Rebellion, 2010)

I guess that every so often, things work out for the best. You probably know that Rebellion has been publishing a series of "Complete Case Files" for the long-running Judge Dredd feature. (The first of these was finally released in a special edition for the US market just last month.) These include the stories from the weekly progs and, from the most recent volume, the monthly magazine, but they have skipped the stories from Fleetway's old hardcover Christmas annuals and summer special issues.

Fans had asked at the time to have the annual and special stories added to the Case Files collections as bonus features, but only a handful trickled in. Finally, however, Rebellion has given the stories a two-book collection of their own. The first volume covers the first seven years of extra features from these specials along with stories from the 2000 AD, Dan Dare and Dredd solo annuals. After a pretty shaky start, there is some amazing material in the first book.

About the first quarter of the 400-page collection is really more interesting to archaeologists than to contemporary fans. While Dredd's stories were settling down into a single continuity orchestrated by John Wagner, the annuals were typically churned out by Fleetway editors with just a glance at the source material. Several of the stories are uncredited, and some of the artwork bears just a faint resemblance to the source material. There's a tale about a city called "Mega-Miami" which looks like the city in the 1970s with a future cop running around, and a deeply unfunny, early attempt at a "House of Tharg"-styled crossover where most of 2000 AD's characters of the first couple of years throw a Christmas party in Dredd's apartment. It looks like the artist, Keith Page, knocked those six pages out before lunch.

But a hundred pages in, we get to the point where Alan Grant takes a job with Fleetway editorial and Wagner takes an interest in what's going on with these books. The greatness starts with a Steve Dillon-illustrated episode from 1980 and doesn't waver after that. It includes dozens of fully-painted pages by Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra, along with Brian Bolland's "The Alien Zoo," possibly the only example of Bolland coloring his own work.

Some of these Wagner and McMahon collaborations had been compiled by Titan in a 1985 collection, but most of the book has never been reprinted. One of this duo's stories is a 16-pager called "The Fear That Made Milwaukee Famous," and it's wonderful, simply one of the wildest, goofiest and most inventive adventure comics I've ever read. In it, Dredd rides out in the desert to apprehend a mutant criminal who really does not want to be called "Chickenhead" and the two of them are besieged by thousands of skeletal ghosts of a dead city. Elements of this amazing story would resurface in the creators' later Last American miniseries.

Packed as it is with so many inventive and clever stories, none of which outstay their welcome, it's difficult to point out the highlights or notable moments. Interestingly, John Byrne has a short story in here as well. At the time, the artist was very popular for his Marvel Comics' work inked by Terry Austin. I don't know that there are many other examples from the period of Byrne inking himself, but his line was altogether too heavy back then, as it remains today. On the other hand, Byrne drew a really impressive Mega-City One, and I think it's a shame he did not contribute again.

Byrne at his best, however, is a wholly different prospect than McMahon or Dredd's co-creator Carlos Ezquerra. His pages are really thrilling and full of life and wild, vivid color. The scenes of Dredd and Cursed Earth cowboys warring against giant tarantulas are really impressive, and nobody draws unbelievably obese men eating themselves sick as well as he does.

It's likely that the strange and ill-formed Judge Dredd of the book's first quarter might put off new readers, and so this might not be a good introduction to the character unless you know the circumstances and jump over those stories. Skipping past them, it's a very solid 300 pages of excellent comics at a reasonable price, around $30 in the US. The production is up to Rebellion's very high standards, and the artwork is reproduced very faithfully on very nice paper. It's a labor of love and exactly what the fans had hoped for, and I recommend it very highly.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange

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 Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange (Marvel, 2010)

Well, here's the most interesting thing I've heard of Marvel publishing in a long time. I got the world late that the wonderful Frazer Irving had some artwork in this new anthology book, so I swung by the closest comic shop to me on my way home last week to have a glance at it, and liked the book so much I bought it to read at length. This was a good choice on my part; it's a splendid little one-shot, and one definitely worth picking up yourself.

The book is an homage to the old black and white Marvel magazines of the seventies, only published in a traditional comic book size. It features four short stories about Greenwich Village's sorcerer supreme, with stories and art by Irving, Kieron Gillen, Pete Milligan, Mike Carey, Ted McKeever and Frank Brunner. That's not at all a bad lineup of talent.

The comics, sensibly, are free from Marvel's tangled continuity and just tell cool adventures full of demons and double-dealings. It was a really fun read and I just wish Marvel could publish stand-alone books of this sort regularly. Recommended.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Something Rotten

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 Something Rotten (Viking, 2004)

With the fourth book in his series of Thursday Next lit-fantasy novels, Jasper Fforde pulled a really unexpected trick out of his hat, with an unprecedented result. I finished reading, set it down on my "review" pile and retrieved the second book from the shelf in order to reread it. I've never done that before, but there's a simply brilliant character revelation towards the end of this book that left me so gleefully blindsided that I want to go back and check out the previous two adventures again with this new information in place before moving on to the fifth story.

As with the others in the series, Thursday has an unbelievable amount of nonsense on her plate to handle. Happily, she doesn't have a bizarrely-powered supervillain to handle this time out, but she is trying to stop a war with Denmark while giving Hamlet a vacation from fiction, and find the origin of another fictional character who's taken up residence in the real world and taking over the government with the help of mind control. Plus there's the business of her husband still being eradicated from the time stream while leaving behind a son who speaks in printer's gobbledygook and the reappearance of a 13th-Century prophet and an assassin who doesn't seem to spell correctly and a minotaur that's hiding out in western pulp novels and, basically, more headaches than anybody should have to deal with.

The book's big climax comes at a championship croquet match, which is so lovably ridiculous that I wanted to hug it. With all the completely absurd rules and deviations from what you think croquet is, it ends up reading more like a great big game of Calvinball. I think I giggled a little with every paragraph. I still wish that the Goliath Corporation wasn't so unbearably nasty, and that the bureaucracy and red tape of Thursday's world wasn't so soul-crushing, but overall, this series is such a pleasure that I can't help but recommend them.

And if anybody spoils that character revelation that I mentioned, you have my permission to pop them in the mouth.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fantastic Four: Unthinkable

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 Fantastic Four: Unthinkable (Marvel, 2003)

I'd heard very good things about Mark Waid's three-year tenure as writer of Marvel's venerable Fantastic Four series, and that "Unthinkable," the second volume, was one of the wildest of all Dr. Doom stories, so I checked it out. Unthinkable is labeled volume two; as with the recent Daredevil stories that I read, it's a meaningless label. In this case, it's the second volume of Mark Waid-scripted stories, but how many volume twos do you reckon that a series that's run almost fifty years has managed under that sort of numbering?

Anyway, "Unthinkable" does indeed have a corker of a plot, in which Doom gets sick of losing to that accursed Reed Richards, who understands science better than he does, so he decides to attack the Fantastic Four with magic instead, embracing his gypsy heritage for the first time. (All gypsies in Marvel Comics are magical. It's something of a rule.) It's a good idea, and it's delivered with a whacking great moment when we learn that Reed and Sue's daughter, Valeria, is Doom's familiar. Waid and his artist, the late Mike Wieringo, knocked this scene out of the park with a brilliant cliffhanger to that issue.

Despite liking the idea behind the plot and one or two great moments, I really didn't enjoy this book very much, because the execution is really grim. There's an undercurrent of brutality and hatred in the early episodes that's deeply unpleasant. When Doom succeeds and captures his hated foes, it explodes onto the surface and just turns what could have been a wild, fun book into something repellent and nasty.

This tends to happen with me whenever comics veer too close to the realities of our world's ugly nature. Certainly, I can believe that a paranoid psychopath like Dr. Doom, operating in the real world, would take advantage of a victory to torture and abuse his prisoners, especially after being handed one humiliating defeat after another for years. I guess I just long for the good old days when the bad guy would just lock the heroes in a prison with some super-scientific power-neutralizer or something, because the alternative, shown here, makes for godawful reading.

The whole book is less a plot than a series of strung-together moments of physical and emotional cruelty. It's so heavy that it requires an epilogue to address the atrocities that Reed and Sue's son Franklin witnessed after he was abducted, and that issue's about the least pleasant affair I've read lately. It adds up to a huge, ugly burden, punctuated only by one or two script flourishes and the great way that Wieringo drew Ben Grimm. I really love Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, and I like the work of a couple of other creators. These, however, can be buried at sea.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Black Mountain and Before Midnight

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 Black Mountain and Before Midnight (Viking, 1954 and 1955).

I hate to say it, but for me, the story of how I acquired Three Trumps: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus trumps its actual contents. It's a collection of three Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, two of which had been missing from my wife's collection. Stout wrote an awful lot of detective fiction, all of it very entertaining, but more than Marie had managed to collect. After I read Fer-de-Lance, the first of the novels, I resolved to complete her collection. Living in a city with several decent used and antiquarian bookstores helps, but I'm good with that.

Actually, I don't much care for omnibus collections of novels; I would rather have each book separate, particularly as publishers rarely collect them in the correct order. However, I could tell I would need a little help. My wife was missing fourteen books in total when I started. I found ten in a couple of weeks, four looked to be a little more scarce. I noticed that The Black Mountain and Before Midnight each promised to be a bit more elusive, but both were compiled in this particular reprint. The former is one much sought by new and longtime Stout fans alike; while few of the novels and stories change the continuity or characters in any real way, The Black Mountain emphatically does.

I think it's a shame that practically every review gives away the event that sends Wolfe back to his apparent birthplace of Montenegro. Reading the opening chapters of this book would have been far more shocking had I not known. If you've been curious about starting this wonderful series, I recommend jumping to The Black Mountain early in your read so that you can enjoy the experience without the spoiler.

Honestly, I thought it was a good book, but nowhere near my favorite. It really was most entertaining to see Archie Goodwin so completely out of his element, and watching the duo forced to improvise outside of their comfort zone in the hunt for a killer, but I certainly prefer the New York-based stories like Before Midnight.

I'll certainly give Stout all the credit in the world for changing his playbook so effectively in this novel, but I did prefer Before Midnight. This is another story where Wolfe chooses to navigate one of the more absurd facets of contemporary American society: an advertising competition meant to sell some product or other sees the winners become suspects when the man with the answers is found murdered.

I really enjoyed the hair-splitting that Wolfe and Inspector Cramer get into in this one. Cramer is on the hunt for the killer but Wolfe has been hired to find who stole the answers. They both know the other's more than likely looking for the same man, but the distinction is enough to keep the two, legally, at arms' length, in places very amusingly so.

So I was four away from a complete set, and wondering whether I'd have to pay a little more for them when I pulled into the local branch of The Book Nook. Out front of two of the locations, they have these dollar bins that I stopped looking into more than a decade ago; they're useful for nothing but gag gifts. The short version is that, by chance, I happened to pull into the one parking space available in front, and had I parked anywhere else, I wouldn't have seen Rex Stout's name on a green hardback dust jacket and wondered whether it might be the Three Trumps omnibus that I was looking for. Now that's how you find missing books.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Daredevil volumes 5-7 and 9

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 Daredevil volumes 5-7 and 9 (Marvel, 2006-08)

Well, these haven't aged well at all. I picked up this chunk of Daredevil written by Brian Bendis and mostly illustrated by Alex Maleev at a steep discount a few years ago. Bendis's story apparently begins in book three and concludes in book twelve, but what these volume numbers mean to anybody, I cannot guess. The eighth book reprints a storyline by other writers, and is so superfluous that the ninth book doesn't acknowledge it at all and the reading experience is not impacted by its absence in any way, leading me to question why Marvel published it in the first place.

This is a comic that does not hold up to scrutiny, and yet I recall enjoying the visceral experience of watching it unfold when I first read it. I can't imagine enjoying reading these as individual comics when they were each released. The pace is agonizingly slow, and each collection of five or six issues contains nothing that Steve Gerber or Frank Miller couldn't have told in just one.

I tried riding with the hype when Bendis launched a book called The New Avengers about five years ago. I lasted four months, sick to death of pages of nothing but slow zooms to a location - in a film, you might place some credits over those - or double-page splashes of explosions. If anything, his run on Daredevil manages to be worse. At one point, there's a double-page splash of Daredevil's girlfriend telling him the history of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. And man, people talk. It's entirely the opposite problem of the Marvel habit in the 1970s and 1980s of characters talking and thinking too darn much. These characters argue in long, pointless, oddly-parsed "natural" speech, with corrections and stumbles and stutters, questioning and interrupting each other. It might work well in film or in prose, but here it just feels like padding, forcing scenes to go on longer than anybody else in comics. One argument at the Daily Bugle offices about whether Daredevil's exposed identity counts as news goes on for ten pages. That's half the original comic.

Almost all the artwork is by Alex Maleev, who photoreferences to no positive effect. The action scenes are dull, static and hard to follow, and when he's forced to draw something that isn't something he can model, his deficiencies really show. One cliffhanger comes when Daredevil's old enemy, Typhoid Mary, shows up. Unfamiliar with the character, I thought for several minutes that she'd teleported Daredevil away with some orange cone thingy. Pages later, it turns out she set him on fire.

Quibbling over the artwork is a silly chore with comics this mediocre. The plot isn't a bad one: a former lieutenant in the Kingpin's organization outs Daredevil as attorney Matt Murdock, forcing Matt into the media spotlight, denying the charge while a host of other criminals try taking over the Kingpin's job. After a lot of back-and-forth, the crisis seems resolved and the tale skips forward a year. There's been some peace in the city, other heroes question Matt's actions, the Yakuza makes a bid for control and a reporter tries to learn what happened after Matt vanished.

This sounds like a great six-part story, collected in one book. It unfolds over twenty-six across four, with a retail price greater than $60. Maybe if Bendis and Maleev had decided against spending three pages showing Matt standing on his doorstep with hundreds of photographers flashing pictures of him and just got the hell on with it, we could have had that great six-part story. Not at all recommended.