Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Madame Mirage

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 Madame Mirage (Top Cow, 2008).

Can't help but envy Paul Dini just a little bit. He's worked his way up from the grind of the writer's rooms at Warner Brothers animation department, where he gained name recognition on the 1990s Batman cartoon, into enough of a known quantity to be in demand whenever anybody needs a comic book about a sexy brunette in fishnets, lingerie or evening wear. Take Madame Mirage, for instance, a comic book that looks so incredibly obvious that, when I first saw it on the racks at Marietta's Great Escape, I genuinely said, "Hey, a Paul Dini comic" before even seeing his name on it.

Years later, I cashed in some store credit at a shop in Chattanooga for a very low-priced collection of the title, firstly because it was cheap and secondly because I'm a rather idiotic male who occasionally gets distracted by comic books about sexy brunettes in fishnets, lingerie or evening wear.

So the heroine of this book has boobs like basketballs and wears this anachronistic fetish-wear dress in the same sort of bleak, angular technopolis as Witchblade and Aphrodite IX and all these other Top Cow heroines with long legs, giant boobs and large foreheads. This time out, the world is one where the superheroes have been outlawed, and so the villains have formed some sort of corporate conglomerate to control all the new technology. The baddies thought they killed off two sisters who invented some hologram mcguffin, but one of them - the stacked one - shows up again with a gun and bod for sin.

The artwork, by Kenneth Rocafort, is serviceable enough for this sort of material, but this is scarcely very challenging work. He draws Madame Mirage well enough to be considered for any fill-in work on Witchblade or the other Top Cow titles, but this really looks like nothing more than a standard Top Cow house style, with emphasis on babes and weapons and a little gore.

All the elements are here for a really terrific comic book for a fifteen year-old boy without access to the internet, basically. I think I would have liked it a lot in 1986, but then again, I liked the similarly titillating DNAgents back then. It's kinky without being vulgar, but also unimaginative, dull, plays its one plot twist about two chapters too early for it to impact the climax, and lives up to every stereotype about Top Cow comics and their monotone interest in the restraint of "good girl art," where it all seems to be about tease without payoff. Not recommended at all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Popeye: Wha's a Jeep?

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 Popeye: Wha's a Jeep? (volume five) (Fantagraphics, 2011).

Fantagraphics is very nearly finished with their complete reprint of E.C. Segar's run on Popeye, with just one more volume to go after this. It's a breathless, surreal and ridiculous collection of fisticuffs and wonderfully funny violence, and every home should own it.

As before, the format is broken down between the daily continuity strip in the first half and the unconnected color Sundays in the back. Some of the Sunday strips have their own storyline - there's a "gold rush" story that runs for a few weeks - but mostly, each stands alone and, as before, shares a page with Segar's other strip, Sappo. Unfortunately, Segar completely lost interest in this little strip, but rather than retire it and give the main strip a few more panels, he oddly decided to have the character do a weekly lesson in silly art, like drawing a letter A and adding enough lines around it to turn it into a person's face. This went on for many, many months. Clearly, Segar was saving all his might for Popeye. There's one where Olive decides to disguise herself as a male suitor to make Popeye jealous. This was a terrible, terrible idea. I don't know whether anything funnier than this page appeared in print, anywhere, for two or three decades.

The daily strips start with Popeye having started an island nation of men who've grown tired of wives bossing them around and this goes on for quite a few entertaining months before the characters, having won a south Pacific war, return home for the introduction of Eugene the Jeep, a prized and coveted weird animal who, living partially in the Fourth Dimension, is able to predict the future and escape any confinement. Confronting a salt-of-the-earth fellow like Popeye with a high concept like that is a work of genius. The Jeep leads Popeye on a quest for his long-lost Poopdeck Pappy, so's he won't be an orphink no more, only to find Pappy a coarse and rough old salt who's not interested in his ugly kid. Pappy, of course, looks exactly like Popeye, just with a couple of extry whiskers.

The disappointment of the once-cute Sappo deteriorating into a waste of space knocks this down just a peg from the previous volumes, but the half-hour I spent guffawing over that strip with Olive dressed as a guy probably makes up for it. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fletch Won

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 Won (Warner, 1985).

Well, here's a pleasant surprise. I've kept slogging through Gregory Mcdonald's novels despite several back-to-back losers. I figured that he completely peaked in the 1970s, but Fletch Won is not at all bad. It's not as good as the first couple of Fletch novels, nor the first Flynn book, but it's a pretty good read, and the first seventy pages are just one laugh after another. It's a very intelligent and funny book.

This is the earliest Fletch case that Mcdonald penned, with our hero being bounced from one newspaper department to another. He doesn't make a good obituary writer, for example, because of his tendency to truthfully note that some of the recently deceased never actually accomplished anything in their life. So he gets moved to the society page, ideally to interview a wealthy tycoon who plans to make a huge donation to an area museum, only the tycoon gets murdered in the newspaper's parking lot, and nobody other than the paper or the museum seems to know a thing about this donation.

Fletch begins investigating, angering the paper's actual crime reporter, and finds himself shot at, doused with gin, and stripped naked, all before noon. He's supposed to be getting married in a couple of days, and somebody else at the paper has an idea that he should be looking into an escort agency that wrangled its way into free advertising on the paper's sports page.

It's a dense, ridiculous book with lots of competing plot threads jamming against each other. It's so much more fun than the dull Carioca and Moxie, which each had just a single, tawdry plot that the inventive, decisive Fletch of the earliest novels could have handled in his sleep. Our hero is at his best when complications from every possible angle pile up. It's not always successful - the liquor store shooting isn't resolved in any satisfying way, and the climax requires the police to move very, very slowly so that a house of cards can be coherently constructed from all the random aces that Fletch has been given - but it's a pretty fun book overall. It gave me hope - dashed, as it turned out - that the next couple would also entertain. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rumpole Rests His Case

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 Rumpole Rests His Case (Penguin, 2002).

When Columbo returned to television in 1989, on ABC after a twelve-year absence, it was a shadow of its former self. It was pretty good for the most part, and even brilliant a couple of times, but not a patch on the consistent quality of the 1970s NBC series. People debating why usually focus on the pacing, the light comedy padding, or the really awful guest stars. Seriously, Columbo had the best rogues gallery of anybody on TV in the 1970s, and in the new series, they gave him Fisher Stevens? Rip Torn? Greg Evigan? George Wendt?!

But the real problem with 1990s Columbo was that the writers had completely lost touch with how to connect to a general audience. In the 1970s, the series was watched by audiences of all ages and demographics, and the writers respected their intelligence. There's a 1976 episode where a Betamax is used to fake an alibi. Video recording was still mostly unknown to most of Americans then, but it's treated very matter-of-fact and no fuss is made of it. Compare that to what happened fifteen years later when a fax machine was used for a similar purpose. A forensic scientist has to explain what it is to Columbo, and the late, great Peter Falk then spends four minutes doing his "How about that? Gosh, I've got a cousin in Long Island. He sells used cars, and, gee, I bet he really could use a machine like this. Wait 'til I tell my wife, etc." schtick. See, 1990s Columbo was written for Matlock's audience. The producers never made any attempt to connect in any way with modern, urban viewers, just the Centrum Silver crowd, and assumed that they wouldn't understand technology unless some other old fogey joked about it. And from there, it's just a short hop to the "dancing Dick Van Dyke" animation, some six years after that idiotic baby was on Ally McBeal.

I mention all this because there's a short story in one of John Mortimer's last collections of Horace Rumpole stories that absolutely blew my mind with its clueless fogeyness. I figure he wrote this story in 2001, by which time even the last of those brain-dead "You've! Got! Mail!" aol.com zombies that we spent the 1990s fighting with had been, at last, assimilated into internet culture. Email should not have been a mindblower anymore, and yet here we still have "Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf," in which the spectacular courtroom twist is that, wait for it, somebody else sent emails from the accused's computer! Look, I understand that you've got to make the protagonist the hero in detective fiction, but the reader should be safe to assume that the story in front of the protagonist is one that reached him for reasons that include nobody else, prior to events reaching the hero, has been able to make sense of them. This? The first question anybody should have asked is, "Who else had access to your computer?"

There are other, similarly predictable twists in some of these stories - it will stun nobody to learn that an Afghan refugee is not who he claims to be - but nothing really sinks to the bottom like that email story does. At least, unlike the previous collection that I detailed for this blog, this collection does have a few interesting subplots that work through the stories. The best of them concerns Rumpole's grouchy war against his chambers' new ordinance against smoking indoors. Rather than admit defeat and taking his cigars outside, he attempts to blackmail his head of chambers, Soapy Sam Ballard. Rumpole has learned that, many, many years before, Ballard had sung in some pub rock Doors cover band. Watching this backfire on Rumpole as the stories continue, with Ballard embracing his rock star past, is every bit as satisfying as the ongoing war of attrition with She Who Must Be Obeyed. It's only in the courtroom where Rumpole's victories are more than just moral, but it's in the courtroom where the plot is the least satisfactory.

Why in the world are these so incredibly inferior to the TV series? Admittedly, there, you had the pleasure of remarkably consistent casting and some excellent performances by so many terrific actors, but I don't think that I was overlooking slipshod plotting just to be wowed by the guest stars. There's just a depth to the television Rumpole that the short stories don't convey at all. I'm looking forward to trying one of the novels, where, presumably, a much deeper and involved main plot is required. There are three, and I'm hopeful that finally finding out what happened with those Penge Bungalow Murders will be a pleasure. This collection, however, I don't recommend.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Cardboard Valise

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 Cardboard Valise (Pantheon, 2011).

Oh, I've got a lot of time for Ben Katchor, and it's always very well rewarded. I haven't enjoyed a comic as much as I did his latest work, The Cardboard Valise, in ages.

In his previous books, Katchor has created a sort of skewed version of New York City and its environs. This time out, he really broadens his view in a story - really a series of interconnected strips that can be read in any order - that links three travelers from a big city to the island nation of Outer Canthus.

I found myself eventually reading just a few pages a day and, when finished, I put it back on the bottom of my pile for a reread as soon as it's feasible. It's a book where the odd angles at which Katchor stages the action work in tandem with the strange revelations of the text. Everything is revealed in such a natural way that readers might have to stop and question whether something mentioned in passing is a real occupation or restaurant, or another of Katchor's only-a-little implausible fictions. It's an amazing example of world-building, and the sort of place I could easily lose myself. Highly recommended.