Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Chew # 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, if you can call it that, of Chew # 1 (Image, 2009)

This is sort of an anti-review, because sometimes I feel like writing whatever the heck I want. If John Layman or Rob Guillory stumble across this, apologies, gentlemen, you deserve more professional consideration, but that AdSense link over to the left doesn't give me one-tenth the hits that the ads on my food blog bring. If Brian Michael Bendis stumbles across this, I hope he'll twitter to all his rowdy friends about how the Hipster Pad's Bookshelf is almost 100% linkblog-free!

So I found a new comic shop last week. It's been sitting in a strip mall in a spectacular location in Sandy Springs just north of the perimeter for two years and I never heard of it. It's called Teahouse Comics and, despite supposedly keeping my ears and eyes open in the Atlanta market, they have not done one thing to find me, a potential customer, who, you know, talks about funnybooks on the internet a lot.

Despite desperately needing to fire their marketing department, Teahouse turned out to be a really good comic shop if you're in the market for this sort of comic shop. I noticed it on a Tuesday evening when I was meeting my wife and friends over that way for supper and pulled in. The woman working the place was getting things set up for unpacking and displaying the new funnybooks the next day, and she did a great job making me feel welcome and asking whether she could help me. Considering how many comic shops I've been in where the proprietors could not be bothered getting up from watching either Disney films or porn - well, okay, that's happened twice - or their Magic The Gathering game - that's happened a lot more - just that basic level of service is a good thing.

Teahouse is just one of those Diamond Distributors catalog stores, which seems to be what the hobby wants, but not what I need. They had a heck of a lot of stuff from the last six months of the Previews catalog, and not all of it superhero stuff either, but, you see, I don't want to buy very much that's in that catalog - just 2000 AD and LSH as far as regular titles and I pick those up elsewhere - and I'm looking for shops that have giant collections of incredibly neat treasures that I didn't know existed, or, like the four alleged collections of One Big Happy, I've never actually seen. Giant stacks of Lion, old New Yorker books, the first fifty issues of DWB, embarrassing spiral-bound dot-matrix Thundercats slashfic zines, untranslated Go Nagai and a Julius Knipl book that Ben Katchor himself does not recall writing (which, if you think about it, would both make sense and be the most awesome thing ever). That's what I want in a comic shop.

So Teahouse wasn't it, although it was still a million times better than many, and the woman was nice and I wanted to buy something. That's why I was glad to see that Image Comics has released a series of low-priced reprints of several of their popular comics' first issues to get new readers to try them out. The debut issue of Chew is among them. This is a book that I have seen a lot of my peers reviewing and enjoying, but a combination of budget and increasing malaise with this hobby have left me disinterested in trying new things. Put another way, I have known for more than a year that a book called Chew exists, but not that Teahouse Comics does.

Anyway, it is just as well that I didn't pick up this first issue before now, because I see that there are already some collected editions of Chew, both a low-priced trade paperback and a big, thick hardcover. I would much rather consider buying those than following any more comics. I don't need any more floppy periodicals, but I do need to find out what happens next in this series as soon as possible. This strip is terrific!

It's about a detective who receives psychic information from whatever he eats. The writer explains on page two that apples let him feel the orchard and the pesticides, and hamburgers let him visualize the slaughtered cattle. The only thing this man can eat without getting stuck with all this unwanted information: beets.

The already high concept is ratcheted up further by setting the action in a just-around-the-corner future where the government has banned the consumption of chicken, citing bird flu fears. Yet a conspiracy-minded populace thinks they're not telling the truth, and a poultry-loving populace turns to a black market. Detective Tony Chu and his partner are trying to bust a speakeasy restaurant, but get caught up in a big mess that quickly involves the FDA, a food kingpin and a really heinous serial murderer. What surprises me, looking back on this first chapter, is how integral the comic's two central weird concepts are to the story. That is, because we're set in this oddball world where chicken is illegal, and because Tony Chu has "cibopathic" psychic powers, the story develops the way it does. That's a very neat trick.

I'll also say this, for the benefit of Chew's many champions who don't read my favorite comic: this is just about the most 2000 AD-iest comic that I've ever read that didn't actually run in 2000 AD. It may be spread over an expansive 22 pages, but both in the way Layman and Guillory create their world and very punchily run readers through an introductory adventure in it, I am absolutely reminded of something that Si Spurrier might have written a few years back before he started wasting his time with Silver Surfer comics. In another world, us fanboys are totally pestering Tharg about when we'll get more Lobster Random, Harry Kipling and Chew. That may not make a lot of sense to you, but I can't give this a better compliment. And if you like Chew, why the bejesus are you not reading 2000 AD?

The only thing I'm not entirely keen on is the style that Guillory uses for his character designs. That's by no means a criticism. His pacing and storytelling are really impressive, and there's a double-page spread - the sort of thing that I usually don't like - which just knocked my socks off. I just don't care for the style he's using, and there are plenty of other artists - Steve Roberts and Mark Pingriff come to mind - whose style I don't care for but I look forward to their comics all the same.

As for Detective Chu, well, I'm not entirely sure when I'll be finding out what happens next - things are a little crazy on the home front - but I am definitely looking forward to it. And if you've got a big box of Pippin and TV Century 21 and FOOM and Help! and sixties' Charles Addams paperbacks and a first printing of Guilty, Guilty, Guilty and those giant Little Lulu hardbacks that I once stumbled across for pennies at McKay Books in Chattanooga, swing them by Teahouse Comics in Sandy Springs, would you? Heaven knows I need something to bring me back there. Chew is very highly recommended. Teahouse Comics is recommended over either comic shop in Auburn, Alabama, but it's a long, long way from a Bizarro Wuxtry or a Great Escape or a Beguiling.

Monday, September 27, 2010


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 Gambit (Viking, 1962).

I won't say that Gambit is anywhere near my favorite of the Nero Wolfe series, because I do enjoy the stories for their breezy and light touch. This one, nevertheless, has such a fascinating structure that I found it compelling even as it descends into something really dark and ugly towards the end. It honestly reminded me more of the bleaker examples of hard-boiled noir that I have read than anything else in this series.

The story begins in a very light-hearted fashion, with Wolfe, in a fit of pique, burning the newest edition of a dictionary because he disagrees with a definition. Hired to look into the poisoning death of a chess master, which has left an innocent man under arrest for want of any other suspects, Wolfe sends Archie to look into the Gambit Club, and for a good while, the book is every bit as lighthearted and funny as its predecessors.

Things get a lot darker when it becomes evident that Wolfe knows who did it but, in a matter that reminded me of PD James' later novel A Certain Justice, he will never prove it. The ending is quite unforgettable, and for once I found myself pretty sympathetic to Inspector Cramer, whose fury this time out is pretty justified. Did Stout intend for things to play out this way, or did he write himself into a corner with a murder this perfect? Recommended.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Volume 15

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 (Volume Fifteen) (Rebellion, 2010)

We are just about teetering on that little precipice where I won't be able to recommend these books quite so wholeheartedly any longer. Even 2000 AD's biggest supporters must admit that the venerable British comic took a quality stumble in the early '90s. This block of 46 Judge Dredd episodes - 36 from 2000 AD and ten from the first installments of its sister book Judge Dredd Megazine (the current issue of which celebrates the title's 20th anniversary) - was produced when the title itself was floundering somewhat. The Slaine saga "The Horned God" and the Dredd epic "Necropolis" had each just ended, and with them went the period that most people define as 2000 AD's "golden age."

This is the first book in Rebellion's Complete Case Files which might really feel a little off-putting to new readers. The stories are set in the aftermath of "Necropolis" and the death of sixty million citizens - wrap your brain around that number - at the hands of Judge Death and his mind-controlled army. Many of the episodes refer back to it, whether by visiting how some of the supporting players, such as the teenage serial killer PJ Maybe, made out while the city was in turmoil, or by showing the desperation of citizens trapped in refugee camps waiting for new apartments to be built.

That's not to say that it's all relentlessly grim. 1991 saw the debut of Garth Ennis, then a promising young newcomer to comics, as Dredd's lead writer in the weekly comic, while John Wagner and Alan Grant moved over to the Megazine to script his adventures there. In time, Ennis would start repeating himself and running out of ideas, but his first few installments really are interesting. He starts out with "Death Aid," in which an old Dreddworld antagonist, Elmort Devries and his Hunter's Club, decides to liven up things in the Necropolis-hungover city with a sponsored mass kill. For charity.

Then there's "Emerald Isle," a celebrated six-parter which teamed Ennis with artist Steve Dillon for the first time, and let the two of them loose on every Irish stereotype that they could cram into thirty-six pages. From singing fish to potato guns ("Spud gun to smash!" is just a lovely line) to a good-natured, hard drinking Irish judge in a green uniform whose idea of getting news from informants is taking Dredd on a pub crawl, they're all here and all ridiculous.

The artwork throughout the book is terrific. Apart from Dillon and old hand Carlos Ezquerra, there are standout episodes by Anthony Williams, Jim Baikie and a tremendously freaky story about a shapeshifting spider-like alien drawn, with the demento-dial cranked up to eleven, by the late John Hicklenton.

Personally, I'm not able to read it without the heavy knowledge that the good times are about to end; probably the next five books in this series are going to be a little rough going before they come back to the episodes from late '95, which is when Dredd would become consistently great again. But this has a lot to recommend it even without that prescient knowledge. From the dark exploration of what the former Chief Judge Silver had done during "Necropolis" to the goofy performance of what passes for Macbeth in the future, it's a really great set of stories, and fans of Ennis and Dillon's later triumphs on Hellblazer and Preacher will definitely want to see their first collaboration. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


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 Emitown (Image, 2010)

I got a request for review from writer and artist Emi Lenox, which was nice. I don't get enough of those, I'd say. So yesterday, the fellow who was here to clean our air conditioning ducts suggested that we might want to box up the cat and step outside while the smelly anti-mold treatment worked its way through the house. My wife and daughter took that as their cue to hit the road and shop, and I sat down on the front steps with the cat and the laptop and read about the first hundred pages of Emitown, a 400-page collection of some of her daily diary strips. I found it so fun and engaging that I was blissfully unaware of this blasted cat yodelling in her crate for what turned out to be a long time.

Having said that, four hundred is a heck of a lot of pages for a project like this. I certainly appreciate Image Comics and Lenox giving great value for money, but this is not the sort of book that anybody will want to read in one go, no matter how sharp the cartooning is. I do like Lenox's style a lot, although it amuses me the most - and this might sound monstrous of me - when she's drawing herself bawling and upset. There's a bit towards the end when she gets a speeding ticket, a parking ticket and a flat tire one right after the other, and while a part of me was sympathetic to her plight, another part was guffawing since the accompanying artwork looked so funny.

Autobiographical comics seem like they must be a tricky thing to review, because the plot is somebody's actual life and choices. I don't know that this is either fair or sensible to "review." I'm pushing forty with a teenage son; I doubt that Lenox really wants to know what I think about all that coffee that she drinks when she only has $3.72 in her checking account. "The protagonist of the story constantly complains of money issues while simultaneously spending an insane amount on unnecessary items that only end up upsetting her," one might say. (And she has a dog! Why do people with no money have dogs?! And get off my lawn and quit dancin' like that!)

To be honest - and admittedly one of my very few experiences in this genre is the amusing Dar by Erika Moen, who makes a cameo appearance in this book - I don't see the attraction anymore in documenting your life like this, as I seem to have passed the point in my life where I care to revisit much of it. My LiveJournal, past and present, used to be incredibly important to me, but sometime this year I just got so completely fed up with a project that I started of moving entries from my old one to the one that I've used the last four years that even the most innocuous incident just aggravated me. I didn't care how well I thought I wrote whatever it was that I was rereading, it was history and needed to be buried. This was certainly coloring my experience with Lenox's book. Again, it's sharp cartooning and occasionally both very funny and silly, but it also struck me as sometimes unnecessary. Perhaps everyone's diaries are stories that will always read best as they are unfolding.

That said, one trick that Lenox uses proves to be really amusing. There are some supporting characters in the "narrative," a little army of "romance cats" that take the place of details that the artist might have otherwise spilled about dates that she's been on. At one point, she breaks this habit and reminds anybody with whom she might have gone to dinner that they have been asked not to read Emitown and to please stop if they are, but otherwise, we're left to guess what might have happened based on the helmeted cats' antics. This is a delightful trope and, looking back over my own heart-on-my-sleeve journalling, it's the sort of thing that I should have done years ago. Similarly, for a short time, the Emi of the strip has a secret superhero identity and a male sidekick, but they fade away after he makes it known that he's a sidekick to other heroes. That was actually pretty sad.

Overall, it's good fun and once you get into it, sometimes engaging, but I do think that readers are going to get more out of it if they're under thirty or otherwise actively document their own life. The occasional intrusion of portraiture or action-adventure figures drawn in a somewhat different style into her diary - it reminds me of Matt Kindt - suggests that Lenox has even more appealing work ahead of her and need not get complacent with her diary work. Recommended.

(A PDF of this book was provided by the author for the purpose of review.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Final Deduction

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 Final Deduction (Viking, 1961).

As I'm moving into the "home stretch" of Rex Stout's novels, I find that I'm not wanting to alternate with other writers. I'm enjoying them enough that I'd like to just try and get them all finished before the end of October. Should be doable.

So The Final Deduction is from 1961 and sees Wolfe and Archie hired to consult on a ransom case. It seems to turn out all right - half a million is paid and Althea Vail's kidnapped husband is returned, but when a member of the household staff turns up dead, the family has to confront the unpleasant reality that the kidnapper had inside help. But then just two days after he is returned safely, Jimmy Vail is killed, crushed to death by a fallen statue of Benjamin Franklin, and Inspector Cramer wants to know what Archie was doing at the Vail's house earlier on the night the man died...

I really enjoyed the way that this novel got increasingly complicated, and how Wolfe keeps stirring trouble, and infuriating Cramer, by accepting a commission from one of the Vails' children to find the ransom money. Honestly, this one started a little dry - I can't imagine many readers finding Althea Vail as being either very sympathetic or very engaging - but I was enjoying it tremendously by the time I finished. Perhaps not the meatiest of Wolfe adventures, but a very welcome distraction. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution

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 Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution (Volume One) (Vertigo, 1994)

In the cold light of day, this is... a very, very flawed book. It's a story where I found myself apologizing for a full half of its contents for many years, assuring newcomers that it's "difficult" but it improves tremendously. That's not quite true. While Grant Morrison's Invisibles indeed improves hundredfold and presents some completely amazing stories by the time it winds its way to a remarkable conclusion in its seventh volume, this first book is more than difficult, it's a downright painful slog. Half of it is pretty good, a quarter of it is okay, and the last quarter is the pits, just dire. If I ever told anybody - oh, hell, I told many - to start reading The Invisibles with this book, I don't need to apologize for the story, I need to apologize to them.

That said, The Invisibles was a comic series written by Grant Morrison for DC's Vertigo imprint from 1994-2000. It ran for 59 issues which are collected in seven trade paperbacks with wildly divergent designs and no sense of uniformity, which I can't stand in book series. I suppose that puts me on the side of the villains in this tale. The Invisibles are a secret society of anarchists and chaos magicians who have been waging an underground war against... well, here it falls down a bit. Would it help if I explained that the villain in this comic is the same villain as in the TV series The Prisoner?

Mentioning The Prisoner is important, because much of The Invisibles' iconography is informed by British culture, particularly television culture. There are bits later on where we meet characters who are, effectively, Jason King and Detective Inspector Jack Regan, and a key moment in episodes two and three of the first story, involving baddies dressed like fox hunters, is pulled from the Avengers episode "Escape in Time." (The Invisibles is hardly the first comic series to pilfer Peter Wyngarde and Diana Rigg; just ask the Hellfire Club.) The first issue of the series, in which Dane McGowan rebels against his boring Liverpool life and vandalizes his school, features a teacher who echoes "Mr. Liberal" from a celebrated Grange Hill parody.

So there are lots of references which will appeal to fans of British TV, but readers unfamiliar with these programs will have a tougher time finding an entry point. Morrison structures this story in a very unusual way; the result is pretty tough to wade through. Having identified Dane McGowan, for some reason to be explored later, as their latest recruit, a British-based cell of magic-using terrorists and freedom fighters has to break him out of a sinister prison - slash - reindoctrination center and leave him on the streets of London for a few days in the company of a homeless magician. He gives Dane a crash course in a new philosophy before the cell is ready to take him on for his first assignment: traveling back in time to the Reign of Terror to rescue the Marquis de Sade from evil Cyphermen and bring him to the present.

To say that Morrison throws readers in the deep end is an understatement. The readers' identification figure, Dane, is a completely unlikeable jerk and most of the rest of the core cast don't even get introduced properly until halfway through this book and then this first mission is... well, it's a narrative mess and a huge miscalculation. That's a shame, because the series starts out pretty strongly, albeit uncompromisingly densely, before derailing.

The first four of the eight issues here are illustrated, gloriously, by Steve Yeowell. They contain some really amazing moments which are worth revisiting, and the fantastic way that Morrison uses foreshadowing and flashbacks means that readers who stick with the series do get to revisit them in surprising ways. There's a beautiful scene where Dane and his homeless mentor, Tom, are on a swingset and Tom sees a couple dressed in 1920s period clothing arguing. There's another great moment when a riot squad finds a grenade without a pin, and the whole series at its best is like this, a memorable story punctuated by unforgettable moments.

Yet "Arcadia," the four episodes illustrated, not as gloriously, by Jill Thompson, presents a mess that's far more dense than the story which preceded it, without the punctuations. The Cyphermen are groovy villains - like the Sheeda mentioned in this blog earlier this week, Morrison seems to specialize in creating Doctor Who villains for other projects - but the Invisibles' objectives in this story are muddled and unclear. Thompson's artwork - I won't criticize it overmuch as she's since developed into a quite remarkable painter - lacks the dynamics necessary to keep the events punchy, although she does create a really memorably grotesque image in the head of John the Baptist being used to power some phantasmagorial machine.

The problems here are mainly down to Morrison, who fails to sell what the purpose of the excursion is, and, among other things, what the darn head is doing as part of the narrative. While Morrison remains one of the most wildly imaginative voices working in comics, and often the most entertaining, he's inconsistent, and once in a while drops the ball badly when pacing a story's structure. During the climax of episode eight, bringing most of this book's events to some kind of resolution, Dane and his ally Lord Fanny are desperately fighting off an assassin in a fast-paced scene, while "simultaneously" in two other time zones, the other characters are involved in much slower-paced, almost languorous, dialogue-heavy sequences.

I certainly recommend The Invisibles as a whole; there are amazing sequences in the stories that follow this one. Honestly, though, I think newcomers might do better to start with book two, which I'll be rereading next, and plan to come back to this one after book four.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume One

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 Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume One (DC, 2010)

When DC first announced Seven Soldiers of Victory, a proclaimed "mega-series" written by Grant Morrison, I was equally excited and skeptical. The superhero publishers often promise that their big crossover epics will be both self-contained and understandable, and they invariably disappoint. The notion here was that, over thirty (!) chapters, Morrison would tell an intricate, interweaving story across seven 4-issue miniseries and a pair of bookend specials. The plan was that readers who only wished to try out one or a couple of the miniseries could have a fully-told experience with no loose ends or confusion, but readers who bought all thirty chapters would have a really amazing read, seeing plot strands from the various stories weave in and out of each other.

There was very little reason to think that this could work. Even accepting that this was Morrison, writer of most of the best superhero titles of the last twenty years, DC Comics just isn't set up to succeed on this level. Whether through poor editorial control or last-minute artist swaps or unannounced tie-ins forcing readers to buy extra comics just to understand what the heck is happening in the funnybooks they've already paid for, this publisher repeatedly drops the ball. Morrison was the architect for just about the only line-wide crossover that I can remember ever enjoying, the high-concept One Million, and DC couldn't even compile a collected edition of it without leaving out a chapter necessary to understand the story's epilogue.

So it was both a relief and an absolute shock to watch Seven Soldiers unfold and it turn out to be one of Morrison's five or six best stories, ever. It's amazing, wild and wonderful, and I find more fantastic connections and hidden treasures each time I read it.

The story takes its title from a 1940s DC trademark, in which seven wartime costumed heroes would beat up Nazis and protect the homefront from spies and saboteurs and fifth columnists. Over time, nostalgia-minded writers and editors would revisit the concept - Geoff Johns seemed particularly interested in it - revising the lineup and the details to fit the ongoing DC continuity.

In the one-off issue that kickstarts the epic, one of the aging, surviving Soldiers assembles a new team of seven wannabes to revisit an old case that his fellows had tackled in the '40s. (There's some comic book hocus-pocus explaining how said Soldier isn't well past "aging" and into "ninety-some years old," but don't worry about it.) This new team of Seven Soldiers meets a spectacular, unbelievable end at the hands of a brutal and amazing foe, a timejumping race of extradimensional insect-riders called the Sheeda. It's a terrific issue, illustrated by J.H. Williams, which does a great job setting up a new group of engaging and entertaining characters as the heroes and then one-ups them with the half-seen, stunning villains of the piece. Somewhere, there's an alternate universe where Morrison has been writing Doctor Who and using the Sheeda as the villains there and the whole planet is enthralled.

So, humanity's salvation comes down to a new team of Seven Soldiers, who (a) do not know that there is a mutual threat against civilization and (b) do not know that they are a team and (c) do not meet each other. Morrison's new Seven Soldiers are a mix of new characters who take the names of older DC properties, revamped versions of older characters and, at least in the case of the stage magician Zatanna, slightly new takes on existing continuity. Each gets a four-issue miniseries to tell their tale.

This new hardback collection of the first half of the epic reprints the Shining Knight and Guardian stories in full (illustrated by Simone Bianchi and by Cameron Stewart), as well as most of the Zatanna and Klarion stories (drawn by Ryan Sook and by the awesome Frazer Irving), along with the one-off introduction. It's incredibly fun. I had always reread each miniseries on its own between the bookends, but coming to them in staggered order like they are printed here reveals patterns and repeated memes between the adventures, tying things together masterfully. Zatanna and her apprentice visit the scene of a battle staged in the Shining Knight's adventure, and meet a man who is referred to in the Guardian's tale, which literally crosses paths with Klarion's during a chase scene on a New York subway line. This is perhaps my fifth time reading it, and I'm still finding new details that I'd missed before.

This is the third publication of the story, which originally ran as thirty single issues published in 2005. There was a four-volume trade paperback collection in 2006-07, which, in a rare attack of common sense, your favorite Hipster Dad did not purchase, and now this very nice hardcover. DC chose an unfortunately thin paper stock, but it's otherwise a nice-looking book, with a small section of design sketches rounding out the fifteen chapters. It's great fun, and ranks between All-Star Superman and New X Men as my pick for Morrison's most engaging and wild work of the last decade. Of course it is highly recommended, but now the next question is whether to dig out the next fifteen issues from their comic box, or wait until the second hardcover is released later in the year. Decisions, decisions.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Too Many Clients

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 Too Many Clients (Viking, 1960).

The classic film Chinatown begins with Los Angeles PI Jake Gittis being hired by a lady who is not the woman that she claims to be. Chinatown was such a major influence on the genre of detective fiction that upon reading a book that predates it by a good fourteen years, I knew exactly what was going on when a client calls on Archie Goodwin for an unusual tailing job. In Too Many Clients, he's the first of what would be several individuals wanting to hire Wolfe and Archie. One or two of them are even who they claim to be.

Of course, Chinatown goes off in its own direction. Too Many Clients sees the real gentleman turn up dead the same evening that an impostor has hired Archie, leaving a lot of awkward questions and the discovery of a very interesting windowless apartment, its interior covered in racy pin-ups, ostensibly used for late-night "dictation." This is a somewhat more action-oriented adventure than many of the other novels. Archie plants one of the firm's reliable freelance operatives in the apartment to see who will turn up, and this generates a few laughs.

Would "entertaining, but unmemorable" be too great a cliche? I am a little behind on writing these reviews, but I find details from the heavier plot of the next book in the series overwhelming my memory of this one, a book I read just a week ago. Too Many Clients arguably features an atypical flow for a Nero Wolfe adventure, but it's still amusing and while I enjoyed it, it seems after just a very short time to be a little more of a "popcorn" sort of story, and unsatisfying in the long term. That's the problem with being sandwiched between two better books, I suppose.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Essential Defenders Volumes 1-4

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 Defenders Volumes 1-4 (Marvel, 2004-08)

Here's a title that has mostly not aged at all well, but there's a run in the middle that is nevertheless completely transcendent. I just finished rereading all four volumes of Marvel's Essential Defenders, covering about the first 90 issues along with a pile of tie-in and crossover volumes, and it turned into a real slog at the end, but when Steve Gerber was writing it, this was even better than I remembered, and a real gem.

The concept came from the pen of Rascally Roy Thomas, a "tie-everything-together" fanboy who enjoyed making anybody who wanted to read comics be required to absorb fifty-eleven footnotes referring to previous adventures. In some of the books he wrote and edited, he started having some of Marvel's heavy hitters join forces against various threats to our universe. Eventually, these characters formalized for the readers' benefit in a title called The Defenders but didn't formalize with bylaws or elections or anything silly like what the Avengers were doing with their ID cards and government clearance. Much of these stories are standard period juvenilia, just fun beat-em-ups by the likes of Len Wein and Gerry Conway with occasionally terrific artwork by Sal Buscema.

Volume Two is the book to buy. Starting with a storyline that begins in the pages of the anthology Marvel Two-in-One, the late, great Steve Gerber took the writing chores for 28 issues, including tie-ins and quarterly "giant-sized" issues. Sixteen of these appear in the second volume and twelve in the third, but, unfortunately, his run is not quite complete. In one issue, the Hulk leaves the action to make a memorable guest appearance in Gerber's Omega the Unknown before returning to the Defenders storyline. Since Marvel does such a good job catching all the ephemera and tie-ins in these Essential books, the omission is pretty glaring. It's possible that, as Gerber was unhappy with Marvel resurrecting the character around this time, the publisher just shelved it either for legal reasons or grouchiness.

Anyway, Gerber's run is a vibrant and wild counterpart to his seminal run on Howard the Duck at the time, with a host of very strange villains called the Headmen taking center stage and our heroes dealing with stolen brains and an interplanetary Amway salesman called Nebulon, among other thunderously weird stuff. It's biting, unexpected and surprising at every turn and has aged very well. I like it far more than I remembered it, and I remember it as being great. If Marvel had any sense, they would reprint the full 29-issue run across two hardcovers, in color. I would buy the heck out of those books.

Unfortunately, Marvel's strange policy in the seventies of moving creators here and there without any rhyme or reason puts an end to the wonderful run. David Anthony Kraft and Ed Hannigan take things from there and these haven't aged at all well. Of low note, there's Hannigan's bizarre decision to turn Kraft's urban criminal Lunatik into some sort of otherdimensional exile, and Herb Trimpe's uninspiring art, and this one completely weird issue by Kraft and Carmine Infantino where most of our heroes, found unconscious on the Siberian shores and dying of radiation poisoning, spend several days being transported to Moscow and treated by Bruce Banner while the action keeps switching to a chase and fight scene in New York City that maybe takes twenty minutes. The books have a really odd sense of time and keep confronting readers with it. The characters occasionally refer to events from comics published twenty-four months previously as happening "two years ago," grounding the action in a one month/one issue timeline, and then making Nighthawk's civilian identity suffer a federal audit that pretty much takes up Carter's entire time in the Oval Office.

Finally, there's a villain in a storyline set in Asgard who must be seen to be believed. One day this guy, who dresses in dragon armor with a huge, teeth-filled "mouth" helmet, is going to end up as a feature at Nobody's Favorite. Maybe he doesn't stand out too much in a book with guys with giant bird wings coming out of their ears and Xemnu the Titan, but he even struck me as faintly ridiculous when I was nine. Anyway, volume one, I'd recommend for readers who have a taste for old superhero fight comics. The second and third volumes are must-haves, at least until Marvel reprints the Gerber stories in a better format. Volume four will even strain the patience of completists. There's a fifth volume out now; I figure I can live without it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth Volume 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 Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth Volume 1 (Rebellion, 2010)

Here's a book which, honest to heaven, I did not need. I don't mind the reputation I get as one of 2000 AD's online cheerleaders, and as I have cut way, way back in buying new comics, it's only the constantly-improving, mindblowing platinum age of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic (well, and Legion of Super-Heroes) that has my ongoing interest in the medium at all these days, and it's sort of expected that I'll buy all these things the publisher releases. But Rogue Trooper is far from my favorite property in the 2000 AD world, and this is a series that has been reprinted a lot. Unfortunately for my wallet, I neglected to send an exception to my regular order at my favorite comic shop, and, well, now I have these stories for at least the fifth time.

Having said that, if you've never read Rogue Trooper before, you could certainly do a lot worse. This collects all of the character's adventures from 1981 to 1983, written by Gerry Finley-Day and illustrated, brilliantly, by the likes of Dave Gibbons, Eric Bradbury, Brett Ewins, Cam Kennedy and Colin Wilson. The artwork really is terrific. I've long lost interest in revisiting these storylines, but the artwork constantly sucks me right back in.

These are future war adventures set on a hellworld with poisonous atmosphere. The only man who can breathe in this toxic nightmare is the last of a company of genetically-engineered super-soldiers. He's accompanied by the squabbling dogtags of three of his dead buddies - "biochips" which retain personalities and memories until they can be returned for newly-grown bodies. But since our hero's company has been betrayed by a traitor general and the ironically-named Rogue has gone AWOL to track that man down, they can't be returned any time soon.

I've always accepted that Rogue Trooper is a great icon for merchandising and adverts - Rebellion made a good video game of him in 2006 - thanks to Gibbons' simple, but memorable design. But honestly, these stories are pretty darn juvenile, without the necessary kick that keeps them interesting for older readers. Preteen boys would eat this up before anybody else, although the artwork is a selling point on its own. Also of interest are two bonus episodes. The meat of the book reprints all of the weekly episodes from about a 19-month stretch, but among the bonus supplements are two rare episodes scripted by Alan Moore that originally appeared in the old annual hardbacks. One of them is pretty by-the-numbers; the second, with art by Jesus Redondo, is probably the best story in the book.

For those of you who've kept an eye on Rebellion's ongoing reprint program of the last six years, Tales of Nu-Earth 01 collects the entire contents of the two books released some years ago in partnership with DC, plus the Alan Moore episodes, plus the first seven episodes from the third book, which Rebellion released without DC's involvement. It's a very nice upgrade, as upgrades go, just not one that I personally needed. If readers would please excuse my lack of enthusiasm, I do recommend this for the art - there's not a page of Gibbons that shouldn't be owned by everybody who likes comic art - but really only for readers who have not bought the previous editions.

Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South

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 Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South (revised edition, Algonquin, 2007)

Well, I finally finished this book after more than a year, but I assure you that I have not let it sit untouched over all that time. This was a wedding gift from our friends CB and Elizabeth, and it proved immediately useful; we took our epic honeymoon road trip six weeks after we got married and made it a point to stop into one of the restaurants spotlighted here, Southern Kitchen in the town of New Market, Virginia, on the way back.

John Edge's delightful book is, I'm certain, going to continue to prove very useful for years to come. It's one part guidebook to fiercely independent and unique restaurants across the south and one part social history, with little sections spotlighting everything from Brunswick stew to Krystal to Duke's mayonnaise.

There's a lot of room for quibbling in a book like this, which is part of the fun. For every inclusion that I approve ("Wintzell's in Mobile, Alabama! Damn right!"), there are omissions that are baffling. A book like this can't be comprehensive, but nor could it conceivably pretend to be. It's the story of some places across a great region, and as fun and sparklingly-written as it is, it can only be bettered by the many revised editions that readers craft themselves. I wonder when we can visit all these communities in coastal North Carolina, Marie? Terrific fun and highly recommended.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Plot it Yourself

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 Plot it Yourself (Viking, 1959)

Interestingly, the previous novel in the Nero Wolfe series, Champagne for One, left me pretty cold, but the next one up, Plot it Yourself, is a real treat, one of my absolute favorites. In it, a consortium of publishers and agents have uncovered a plot to force authors to cough up settlements in bogus plagiarism claims, the sort of thing that J.K. Rowling has had to fight more than once. Everybody agrees that the authors are being scammed, but nobody can figure how the perpetrators are getting their "proof" into the authors' homes or agents' files.

It usually doesn't take long for a body to turn up in these stories, but this one is an entertaining slow burn watching Archie and Wolfe at work on a very different sort of case for them. When somebody does get killed, it's a result of Wolfe planning a trap for their unknown enemy, using one of the fellows who claimed to have been ripped off as bait. But somebody blabbed and someone is killed and Wolfe responds with a very entertaining rage and fury.

It's always very enjoyable when an author can take a series with as many formulaic elements as these and subvert readers' expectations. While I never manage to guess whodunit in these books - I don't try to guess, but it occasionally happens in other writers' fiction - this is a rare example of a novel where I genuinely could not guess anything that would happen next. Wolfe admits that he's firing in the dark and that his investigation could be long and expensive, but I had no clue where it would go, and when the first murder victim appeared, it seriously surprised the daylights out of me. Simply a triumph, and one of the best novels in the canon. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Melvin Monster Volume 2

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 Melvin Monster Volume 2 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010)

The second volume of Melvin Monster was actually released several months ago, but I waited until my son was in town to pick up a copy, knowing that he enjoys it more than anybody else. The dude is thirteen, clearly a couple of years (at least) outside the original target audience for these comics, but he still chuckles and guffaws all the way through them. Although I've never once heard him exclaim "BAW" or "YOW." Yet.

Melvin Monster was written and drawn by John Stanley and it's a silly and surreal title where a fun-loving and kindhearted green beastie tries to go to school and avoid being eaten by his pet crocodile. His father's incredibly bad-tempered and violent and nobody's seen his uncle's head in years and his witch friend can barely control her temperamental broom.

Like the first volume, this is a wonderfully-designed (it's Seth again, naturally) hardcover that reprints three issues from the 1960s series by John Stanley. The reproduction is nice - it's done on that slightly yellowed faux-aged paper - and it's essential reading for anybody with younguns in the house. I'd actually call this essential for anybody who might have visitors in the seven to ten bracket. Kids might very well really enjoy a trip to "Crazy Uncle So-and-So's house" if they could be assured of a bookshelf full of John Stanley. What the heck's keeping you? Hugely recommended.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Champagne for One

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 Champagne for One (Viking, 1958)

I'm past the halfway mark in reading all of Rex Stout's novels and stories about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and this might be the first to really leave me unsatisfied, although it still has much that would interest a contemporary reader. In this one, the police would love to quickly close a case in which a woman known to be suicidal seems to poison herself at a party, except that somebody has alerted Archie, with his superhuman powers of observation, and he's been watching her like a hawk and insists that she had no opportunity to take any cyanide.

I'm not sure what part of the story rubs me the wrong way, but it might have something to do with the introduction of the poison. I watched the TV adaptation of it and reread the relevant section after finishing the book and I'm still confused by it. We'll chalk that up to my own poor reading skills, but it really does seem convoluted. Otherwise, this one still seems pretty dry, with Wolfe almost detached from the events and never really either engaged or engaging, and no sense of danger or menace from any of the action. There's a great scene where Archie and Saul, working individually, tail a couple to a restaurant and bust them in the act of covering up something, but this leads to a plot twist that has been rendered dull by the passage of time and countless subsequent uses in fiction.

In its favor, however, there's a really interesting look at society's morals from more than fifty years ago, with the rich well-to-dos of New York culture taking a special interest in those poor, unfortunate unwed mothers, and a strangely condescending attitude towards helping them re-enter society. While this is very much one of the most dated books in the series, it's certainly a curiosity on this front. Recommended, without much enthusiasm, for readers following the series, but certainly not any newcomers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

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 Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Random House / Doubleday, 2009)

Okay, so I'm biased. Perhaps shockingly so. The right has gotten so hotdamned stupid in the last dozen or so years that I find myself wishing that William F. Buckley was still around, because he, at least, espoused original ideas and presented them well. I'm very hotheaded, very temperamental and you probably wouldn't like me very much if you pulled a ballot for John McCain and Sarah Palin, if you think Sean Hannity's a great American, if you listen to any of his Islamophobic ilk on talk radio, if you genuinely believe Fox News is fair and balanced, or if you sympathize with that blue-haired nutjob who bawled about wanting her America back after Obama's inauguration. You probably wouldn't like me because I think you're a hotdamned moron and our nation, our planet, would be better off without your presence.

So yes, Idiot America is a book for people like me. It's not written in a way that will convert anybody. Charles Pierce is very much preaching to the choir. We had a temp at my last job for about seven weeks, before she kidnapped her stepdaughter and drove off to Tennessee with her. There was an occasion when she was telling me about some dangerous cult to which her husband had started donating, which was preaching about humanity having "three ages," one of which predated the dinosaurs. I raised an eyebrow and she, thinking she'd found a sympathizer, said "Right! Because everybody knows that dinosaur bones were put here by God as a test of our faith!" She wasn't joking. I don't think this book would persuade her of much of anything.

I certainly enjoyed the hell out of this book, but I wonder whether Pierce missed an opportunity. The deeply-held beliefs of creationists, talk radio audiences and their like aren't going to be changed by people ranting at them. It's going to take patient and slow explanation. Then again, I doubt any book is going to do it. The near-fifth of Americans who've concluded that President Obama is a Muslim got there by regular spoonfeedings of innuendo and assumption. When ministers in Texas can warn their community that they are at war with the "intelligent and educated" segment of society and their congregation just nods in agreement like Monty Python characters, you start to realize that books aren't going to help matters much.

I found the book entertaining and funny and certainly recommend it, particularly to people who have friends and relatives who lap up that Fox propaganda.