Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Way Through the Woods

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 Way Through the Woods (Fawcett, 1994).

This one isn't merely masterful, it's incredibly fun. One of the recurring tropes in PD James's novels is that Commander Adam Dalgliesh repeatedly stumbles into a murder when he's meant to be on holiday. In Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods, the author playfully subverts that convention. Here, Chief Inspector Morse insists that while he's on vacation, he will not interfere with a police investigation of a missing woman, and flatly refuses to come back from his furlough early. Yet he does contribute to the case, in a gleefully amusing way...

Huge fun from start to finish, and with a confident use of cerebral ratiocenation and crossword clues, this is further evidence that Morse, in the 1990s, was a much more interesting character than the one who begun this series. Recommended.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Starman Omnibus 6

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 Starman Omnibus Volume 6 (DC, 2011).

If my spirits sagged just a little with the contents of the fifth Starman Omnibus, it wasn't for long, because I knew that the sixth and final collection would be one to remember. Good heavens, did this series ever go out on a high note. I really admire the way that James Robinson constructed the epic "Grand Guignol" storyline, with its team of trapped heroes struggling against impossible odds and a city of villains. I like the way that he uses alternating chapters to first advance the story and then step back and show how the situation got to this point, elegantly and effectively dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts across some 2500 pages of the adventure up to that point. It really is a damn fine bit of writing.

One of my happiest memories of reading comics came with the climactic episode of that story. I had moved from Athens back to the Atlanta area and returned to town to collect my monthly books and visit my pal Dave Prosser, who now lives in Idaho. He, also buying Starman every month, hadn't found time to read the issue. Damned if I was going to wait until I returned home the next day to find out how this epic was going to wrap up, so while he fed and played with his menagerie of pets after a day's work, I curled up in a recliner to read it, and found cause to exclaim aloud three times as it unfolded. "Shut up! Don't spoil anything!" he would bellow back. I'm still not able to read one character's wildly unexpected, out of the blue demise without my eyes popping out of my head.

And as good as it is, I'm not sure that the last adventure, a three-parter set in 1951, isn't even better. There's a painfully mawkish episode of sentimentality to get through before it, but it's really worth it. There's an elegant grace to the way Robinson and artist Peter Snejbjerg finish up the saga and answer the series' final mystery. It's got another moment that retains its power to punch readers in the gut. You'll know it when you read it: when a character lets Jack know that he can hear music, a lump comes right up in my throat every stinking time. It's just excellent.

DC has really done this series right. The $50 price point for each of the six books has often been tough to swallow as my belt has had to be tightened, but the editor behind this series can definitely take a bow, because this is easily one of the best reprint jobs that the company has ever done. It compiles everything that Robinson wrote for the series, in proper order, with nothing skipped. The uniform design, the supplementary material, the commentary by Robinson, everything just shines with love and sincerity and the very rare case of this company putting somebody in charge who is determined to see it done well, and done right. When Grant Morrison finally ends his run on Batman, I want editor Anton Kawaski to be in charge of putting all that into an equally sensible run of books. That way, I'll finally read the dang thing.

Starman was one of the two or three best American comics of the 1990s, and its reproduction here is faultless. Loudly recommended.

Friday, March 25, 2011


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 Fletch (Bobbs-Merrill, 1974).

I can only conclude that either none of my friends have read this book, or that none of my friends have read a darn thing I've ever written. I have written, repeatedly, that one of the reasons I love John Wagner's Robo-Hunter comic so much is the way that writer keeps ratcheting up the chaos, piling a teetering, inverted pyramid of plot complications on his protagonist. Reading these stories is a treat because there just seems to be no way in the world for our hero to either get out of this mess, or for the problem to get any worse. And yet the problem keeps getting more and more ridiculous and gigantic and messy. That's my favorite kind of escapist fiction.

I was aware that there was a silly Chevy Chase movie based on this novel by Gregory McDonald, and aware that people like Kevin Smith have been raving about the books, hoping to make more movies about the character, and finally got around to seeing what the fuss was about. It turns out that there are several novels in the series - I have two more, just waiting for me to finish a second read of the debut - and I was long overdue for looking into this.

Fletch, an investigative reporter in California with a disastrous personal life of debt, drugs and divorce, is deep undercover researching the drug trade on the beach when he's approached by a man about a job. He wants Fletch to murder him and flee the country. He claims that he has inoperable cancer, does not wish to suffer, and cannot take his own life because his family will lose a three million dollar insurance policy.

Fletch decides to investigate his new acquaintance's story just as the beach deal gets heavier and his two ex-wives and their lawyers start complicating matters even more. It's an amazing balancing act, watching the plot strands spiral faster and faster until McDonald puts all the banners into one hand and, masterfully, executes one of the most satisfying payoffs I've read in ages. This was one of the most fun experiences that I've ever had reading a book. Damn right I recommend it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

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 Many Worlds of Tesla Strong (DC, 2003).

Going through my boxes of comics that I have not read since I bought them, I've found several that I wanted to give one more thumb-through before sending them off to new homes. One of them is this 64-page spinoff of Alan Moore's wonderfully fun Tom Strong series written by Peter Hogan. In it, Tom's adventurous daughter Tesla tries, unsuccessfully as ever, to save the day before her mom and dad get home from an important mission. This sees her hopping from dimension to dimension in search of her family's loyal and beloved assistant, Solomon, who's gone missing in a parallel universe.

About a dozen artists contribute to the story, each in charge of a few pages that illustrate the different worlds that Tesla visits while looking for Solomon. Some of the artists are given assignments tailored for their talents, most memorably J. Scott Campbell, who drew the cheesecake Danger Girl, gets a few pages in a nudist universe. In keeping with the rules of the genre, each world has parallel versions of the Strong Family, and all of them are missing their world's version of Solomon.

I seem to recall that this was released around the time that Alan Moore started growing bored with Tom Strong. It looks like Moore stepped down from the series after 22 issues, the last two of which were terribly delayed, in 2003, and several guest writers, including this title's Peter Hogan, carried the book to its conclusion. Despite the good art throughout, with contributors including Frank Cho, Chris Sprouse, Art Adams and Michael Golden, this is just an incredibly lightweight and fluffy bit of popcorn, with none of the excitement and unexpected twists that Moore and company brought to those four terrific years of the main title. Cute, but not really recommended.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Jewel That Was Ours

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 Jewel That Was Ours (McMillan, 1991).

I don't know whether any of Colin Dexter's many fans are going to appreciate me saying this, but the best thing that ever happened to that man's novels was the arrival of Central's television adaptation of them. I've been reading them in sequence, and found each and every one of the Inspector Morse stories to be a disappointment in one way or another, until The Wench is Dead, which was the first novel that Dexter wrote after the series began production. I can't account for this shift in quality beyond ill-informed speculation; all I know is that each of the novels let me down in one way or another until the eighth book.

In the second TV season of Inspector Morse, the producers began writing original teleplays for the characters in addition to adapting Dexter's novels. One of these, "The Wolvercote Tongue" by Julian Mitchell, served as the basis for The Jewel That Was Ours, the ninth book in the series. I imagine that it's a bitter pill for Dexter's fans to read me suggest that of these first nine books, the best two are one that has the same plot device as a Josephine Tey novel and one that's a novelisation of somebody else's story. I'm not trying to be an ass, honestly.

Anyway, this time around, Morse and Lewis are called in when an old artifact is stolen from the hotel room of a visiting American who, touring the region with a large group, has died of a heart attack. Shortly afterward, the body of one of the professors who was conducting lectures for the tour group gets pulled from the river. They have a busload of suspects who are keen to leave the country, a baffling number of links to old crimes and grievances, and a really disagreeable old lady who has constant opinions to interject about every stage of their investigation.

Even with the most disappointing of the early Morse novels, there was always a thing or two to keep me reading. Watching Morse grumpily go way too far in the wrong direction of an investigation, insistent that he's correct, keeps the character interesting and vibrant. I like the high wire act that Dexter plays, allowing us to cheer for a character who is wrong as often as he is right and not let him seem incompetent. This very human, deeply flawed construction really drives this story. If I may be allowed to heap further indignities on the notion of Dexter's originality, I also found echoes of P.D. James' better novels, before she started repeating herself, anyway, with the use of decades-old vengeance coming back to haunt survivors of an old tragedy and betrayal. It may be following in other writers' footsteps, but it's a hell of a good story, with a really cerebral and tantalizing mystery at its core, and I enjoyed the devil out of it. Recommended with gusto.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One Or Double

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 One Or Double (Rumic Theater, volume two) (Viz, 1998).

Rumiko Takahashi is one of my favorite comic creators, and that's despite having spent the last decade writing and drawing some pretty subpar material. In the eighties and nineties, however, she and her studio were responsible for some really interesting and entertaining comics. Several of the short stories that she released during the mid-eighties are available in some long out-of-print collections from Viz. These were released in their older line of books, larger than the contemporary size of digests, with the artwork flipped to the English standard.

Takahashi drew Urusei Yatsura for the first part of the decade. This appeared weekly in the pages of Shonen Sunday, but, if I understand correctly, it was never a year-round series. It would run for 36 or 40 weeks of the year, allowing the creator to fill the rest of her time with various one-offs, and the short stories that would introduce the sporadically-scheduled horrific adventure Mermaid Saga. The unrelated one-offs got the umbrella title of Rumic World, and she has continued working with these short stories. Apparently, apart from the episodes that get slotted into Shonen Sunday in between installments of her ongoing series, a new one-off by Takahashi appears annually in a special edition of Big Comic.

Most of the stories in this collection feature Takahashi's signature blend of high melodrama competition and a (mostly) real-world experience with the supernatural. Everything's done with a light, winking touch, and the foregrounding of plot over character lets Takahashi try out weird incidents without bending her existing characters to fit them. The most interesting installment in the One or Double book is a 1985 story called "Excuse Me for Being a Dog!" which is, effectively, the pilot for her long-running Ranma 1/2, except in this story of martial arts mayhem, the hero turns into a white dog whenever he gets excited and, in keeping with a Japanese art trope, his nose bleeds. "One or Double" itself is a 1994 story set in a kendo school in which the ghost of a much-hated, ultra-competitive trainer takes over a young student's body in order to keep pressuring his students into training harder. "Winged Victory" is a rugby story from 1989 with an inept victory spirit urging the team captain to keep playing after 999 consecutive losses. Sports, ghosts, it's the same ingedients blended together into different combinations.

I tend to really dislike collections like this. The stories themselves are very fun, but It was apparently assembled at random, with no context or notes about the original publication. On the other hand, it's actually a little relieving to read a complete story by Takahashi and know that she is indeed capable of ending a story. When you get to volume forty-odd of the agonizingly long-winded InuYasha, you start to wonder. Recommended with nitpicky reservations, with the hopes that a better, comprehensive collection of this material might one day emerge.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chopper: Surf's Up

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 Chopper: Surf's Up (Rebellion, 2010).

The good droids at Rebellion are really doing a great job issuing big, chunky, color reprint volumes lately. Hot on the heels of the Al's Baby doorstop comes this complete collection of Chopper, an antagonist of Judge Dredd who graduated to his own solo series after finally eluding capture, for what we hope is for good. He first appeared as a teenage cut-up in three different Dredd adventures in the 1980s, galvanizing the city's bored youngsters with his exploits as a graffiti artist and, later, as a skysurfer, before escaping all the way to the Australian wilderness. These earlier exploits, reprinted within three volumes of Rebellion's Complete Case Files of Dredd, are summarized in an introduction to this book. This definitely starts this collection off right; I can't tell you how many other books I own that would benefit from pages like this.

Chopper returned in a four-week adventure that first ran in 1988, written by his creator, John Wagner, and illustrated in black and white by Colin MacNeil. This proved to be very successful, and paved the way for a really remarkable follow-up, "Song of the Surfer" in 1989-90. Legendary among 2000 AD's fan base, this serial, again by Wagner and MacNeil (but this time in color) truly is a damned incredible piece of work. In it, Chopper follows his destiny back to another skysurfing competition, this one with the stakes raised to absurd levels by a promoter who has decided to return the sport to the dangerous days of its early, illegal years. He has chosen to make it a blood sport again, and, despite the outrage, still finds enough surfers to make it a reality.

It's a terrific story that touches on the tricky subjects of fate and destiny with an assured hand, wrapping them in a brilliant parody of the absurd world of sports (and, perhaps more accurately, sports commentary, prefiguring Wagner's crowning glory of the form in The Taxidermist, due for a reprint from Rebellion in a couple of months). It's a drama of the highest caliber, with a masterful use of pacing as the stakes are raised and the race begins, but the way that Wagner is able to deftly insert moments of comedy and satire as the story rockets forward is just amazing. This would be a very good story even without the parody; that Wagner was able punctuate it with moments of gleeful, sick absurdity like the smiling sports reporter announcing his own injuries without derailing everything, that's proof that Wagner is one of the very best writers in the medium. Of course, the artwork is completely sublime throughout. Twenty-plus years later, and not one artist in comics has stepped forward to paint exit wounds as frightening as what MacNeil managed here.

"Song of the Surfer" reaches an inevitable and tragic conclusion that definitely knocked thousands of readers on their head and still maintains a visceral power. That, arguably, really should have been the end for the character, but the comic's editors wanted to keep a good thing going. Garth Ennis and John McRea took over the character for a story that appeared later in 1990 in the debut issues of Judge Dredd Megazine.

These and some other stories by noteworthy creators, including the late Martin Emond, Alan McKenzie, John Higgins and Patrick Goddard, have appeared every few years until Chopper's final appearance to date in 2004. None of these stories come close to "Song of the Surfer"s power and energy, but they're all quite good in their own rights, and it is very, very nice to see them all packaged so comprehensively in one book. McKenzie's story is perhaps the weakest by comparison, but even it has a good deal to recommend it, from the vibrant art by Higgins to the curious subplot of the Japanese mega-city rebuilding and repopulating the Californian mega-city, which had been destroyed in a previous Judge Dredd epic story. This was evidently intended as part of the groundwork for a planned storyline in Dredd that, with McKenzie's departure from 2000 AD, was abandoned.

In all, it presents a genuinely fun look at a character aging in real time, from his early twenties and full of fire, to his late thirties and ready to turn down the volume and relax. It was great fun to revisit the character, and Rebellion certainly did him right with this splendid collection. Happily recommended.

Note: I've built up enough of a backlog to resume posting again, but entries will be a little sporadic for a while, probably no more than 2-3 a week. Thank you for reading!