Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Batman: Contagion

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 Batman: Contagion (DC, 1996).

There might be two ways to look at this book, but the question of why in the world I own it should probably be raised. When I lived in Athens in the late 1990s, I would occasionally visit the J&J Flea Market a little north of town. There, one vendor had a very impressive room full of very inexpensive comics. Most of them were three-for-a-dollar and probably worth even less, but he also had several boxes of more entertaining 1970s books - Superman Family, Metal Men and the like - for not more than two bucks each. Occasionally, a trade paperback or graphic novel would slip in for the same very low price, and I would usually snap it up, thinking $1 a quite fair price to sample a very long story from comics with which I was unfamiliar.

I also suffered from that foolish malady common to collectors where I wished to have shelves full of books. The quality could come later; first, I wanted the shelves to look impressive and full. This sometimes meant that I would spend an occasional dollar or two on books that I normally would not, just to swell the shelves. You know the greatest thing about swearing off the bloat of my material world a year and a bit ago? I'm no longer tempted by dumb things like that.

At any rate, I suspected that I wouldn't enjoy the book, and I was proved right. I disliked it from the start, as the designer evidently chose to blow his budget on a long lunch. The very first page of the book is the first page of story, and it opens very abruptly, without any kind of scene-setting or even credits. Parsing out who wrote and drew what, and where this material originally appeared, is like a jigsaw puzzle. On the inside back cover(!), there's a list of comics where these chapters were originally serialized. I count twelve, but there are thrteen chapters inside. The twelfth episode is labeled "part ten." The original covers of these twelve comics are reproduced at the size of postage stamps. Alan Grant is credited as one of the five writers on the inside front cover, but because some of the interior credits are edited out, I'm unable to tell what pages he actually scripted.

In other words, this is yet another slapped-together, thought-free, half-assed cash-in to rip off as many Batman readers as can be suckered in by it. Having said that, it is certainly possible that the $19.99 edition presently in print might have addressed some of this volume's deficiency. That is, after all, a price 50% greater than the $12.95 that DC originally charged for this book. We know that DC is capable of so much better - see their astounding series of Starman Omnibus volumes - and so it's just pathetic seeing how they can just crap out books with the barest minimum of work and get away with it.

But really, all the tinkering in the world couldn't turn these comics into anything readable. DC, like its principal rival, often creates "crossover" stories which wind their way through several loosely-related titles over the course of a couple of months. Indeed, "Contagion" was a management-decreed storyline, mostly (apparently) written by Chuck Dixon, and given to the comics' regular creative teams to tell. For my readers unfamiliar with this practice, it would mean that on one week, you could read part one of the story in Batman # 529, and parts two and three the following week in Catwoman # 31 and in Azrael # 15, and so on. There is, bluntly, no way in the universe that this could ever result in a satisfying read for anybody. It never has worked, and it never will. The closest that it has ever come was in a Grant Morrison-led crossover called One Million, and that worked because DC suspended its normal operations for a single month and let the story, as directed by Morrison, take over its entire line through individually-labeled and designed titles, and even that epic was fraught with pointless, unnecessary moments and melodramas that fell on their faces.

Well, maybe it worked somewhere else. Sometime soon, I'll try looking at a similar Superman crossover event from the period and see how well it reads.

This time out, the five writers attempt to tell a story where a lethal, no-known-cure plague called The Clench is brought to Gotham City and many of the city's wealthiest are trapped with it in a luxury high-rise. They send word to the city's underworld that they will pay five million for a cure, leading Robin, Catwoman and a bounty hunter in a race to find one of the only known survivors of the disease. Meanwhile, Batman, Huntress and Nightwing try to keep order in the city after the Clench escapes into the population, and the untrustworthy Poison Ivy, who is immune to all diseases, is recruited to help.

The patchwork story, with its artificial cliffhangers, just does not engage in any way. Dixon's installments are the most energetic, and Denny O'Neil's the most somber and humorless. At one point, Robin starts to succumb to the Clench, leaving no doubt as to how quickly this plague will be cured. Unresolved subplots from these books wander through and just confused me. Commissioner Gordon has been outed from his job when the book opens, and his replacement is a dim buffoon. The Clench has evidently been dumped into the population, deliberately, by a gang of Azrael's old enemies. I'm sorry to spoil that, but telling you that the rogues' gallery of an already-forgotten C-list supporting character is behind this allegedly important story might best explain why this book is not recommended at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds

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 Attenbury Emeralds (Hoddard & Stoughton, 2010).

I used to keep a blog about Lord Peter Wimsey, but it turned into work. A chore without pay. Reading Dorothy L. Sayers' novels and stories have always been just about the greatest pleasure imaginable - Gaudy Night, firmly, is my favorite novel of the 20th Century - but I didn't enjoy keeping that blog, and shelved it, and let the books rest for a while longer.

Eventually, happily, my wife finally picked up the first book and started reading. I returned the later Sayers books to my own reading pile to refresh my memory of things so that we could discuss them. I fell in love again so much that I decided to give the fanfic of Jill Paton Walsh another try. When Thrones, Dominations was released in the nineties, I read it without enthusiasm, appreciating the effort but not able to embrace it. I never picked up the second continuation, A Presumption of Death. Each of these were built from, rather than being based on, existing material - an unfinished novel and some magazine articles about how the Wimseys were coping with the war - and it is perhaps discordant and rude of me to use a word as dismissive as "fanfic" to describe Walsh's very hard work, but that's just how I perceive it.

Thing is, though, I love Peter and Harriet so much that, as I reread Have His Carcase and Murder Must Advertise to discuss them with my wife, and we watched the BBC adaptations together, I found myself not only willing to give Walsh another try, but excited. Thrones, Dominations was much improved after collecting dust for so long on my shelf, while A Presumption of Death felt a little long-winded and didn't really inspire either of us to talk much about it. I ordered The Attenbury Emeralds, but Presumption didn't leave me very optimistic. Fortunately, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Set in 1951, with Peter now a striking sixty years old(!), it's a story that begins with Peter telling Harriet the story of his first case, in 1921, eight years before they met. As a personal aside, Walsh chose, unwittingly, to debunk my own theory, unfounded, that Peter had met his close friend, and future brother-in-law, Charles Parker while Peter was still engaged to a woman named Barbara, based on the familiarity with which the two speak of her in Clouds of Witness. One must, grudgingly, concede that Walsh is almost certainly correct, and that Barbara had to be history before Peter had any reason to ever meet Charles. Peter was still yammering about her in 1926, seven years after she dumped him, because that is simply what men, unguarded, will do. The silly ass waited around for Harriet for six years, so we should know full well he lets his romantic fantasies lead him through heartbreak, no matter how long it takes.

Anyway, Peter brings up this first case after they read of the death of Lord Attenbury, whose prized emeralds vanished during an engagement party. The complex story takes quite some time to tell, and when that adventure had concluded, Peter had found his standing and command, and was mostly over the shellshock that had laid him low for most of his first two years back from the war. But there is still a great deal more book to cover, as Attenbury's heir turns up with a curious problem. He needs to sell the emerald, which is stored in a bank, to cover the very high death duties set in place by the government after World War Two, but the bank will not return it, as they have been told that Attenbury was not the actual owner.

As with the best of Sayers novels, the actual detective fiction is equally important to the development of the characters and the very keen sense of social observation. I do regret that Walsh did not take the opportunity to write further adventures set during wartime rather than skipping so far ahead, but this allows her to really get into the disintegration of the aristocracy, its sons and heirs killed in action and the survivors hit with crippling, estate-shattering death duties and the subsequent changing social strata.

Peter and Bunter's relationship is an anachronism in 1951, and events within the family - which, incidentally, absolutely blindsided me - put further strain on their place in the bold new world of the 1950s. Getting to the bottom of the curiosity of the emeralds, and identifying the series of accidents that have been plaguing the family for thirty years as murders, is exciting on one level and might have made for a good read; wondering what will happen next to the Wimseys makes for a spectacular one. Recommended with pleasure, and the hopes of more to come.

(In a perfect world, of course, based on how she handled Peter's fantastic cameo in A Letter of Mary, Laurie King would be writing stories of the 1920s Peter, while Walsh continued in the 1950s. And we would have one novel from each writer in alternating years. And ponies. And ice cream wouldn't make us fat.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bite Club

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 Bite Club (DC/Vertigo, 2007).

When Bite Club, a miniseries written by Howard Chaykin, first appeared in the mid-2000s, I dismissed it out of hand because it looked like pandering. Sexy vampires. If they're in YA prose books, then they're brooding, misunderstood young males, and if they're in comics, then they're aggressive females, usually naked. Make no mistake, Risa, the usually naked central character of the two miniseries, is every bit of a stereotype as Edward in Twilight. It just depends on your target audience. If you're writing for eleven year-old girls curious about sex, your vampire is Edward, and if you're writing for sexually frustrated twentysomething boys, your vampire is Risa.

I paused after I found a very, very cheap collected edition of the eleven issues of Bite Club when I realized David Hahn was credited with the art*. Hahn had, at that point, shown up a surprising number of times in some Bookshelf entries over the summer. I really do like his art quite a lot, and I'd probably enjoy looking at the work even beyond all the bare comic book boobies. Unfortunately, I chose to read it as well.

Oh, most of the original series covers were drawn by Frank Quitely. Some of them are cheeky and silly and those are worth looking at. Just not the text.

Bite Club is every bit as tired and tedious as I felt it would be when I first heard of it, and a lot of it is down to the protagonists who circle around Risa. The premise is that in this world, vampires are treated as an ethnic minority and have been running organized crime in Miami for decades. Just to show how much originality and thought went into this production, the family consigliere is an old Jewish lawyer who calls the young male leads "boychik." Well, of course he does.

But if no thought at all went into coming up with a Sopranos-with-vampires comic, even less thought went into crafting this thing so closely to the Vertigo template that it's practically a parody. Of course Risa is gorgeous, and a lesbian, and gets naked a lot, because this is a Vertigo book! Of course she comes onto the male protagonists, who are unsure and lack confidence about a) sex and b) vampires, who are just a metaphor for sex, because this is a Vertigo book! This hews so closely to the Vertigo stereotype that I think Chaykin spent more time seething about his contempt for the audience than he did developing the characters.

Put another way, when Risa is finally sent to jail early in the second story, above the objections of the rookie detective who has fallen for her aggressive, untouchable charm - and Lord, it's infuriating, the way the "nice boy" becomes so smitten with the idea of Risa as she makes the first move - anyway, when the narrative tells us that Risa is heading for jail, anybody who is unable to guess that Hahn will soon be illustrating an expansive naked girl fight in the prison shower has not read any fiction since kindergarten. It's that obvious, and that tiresome, and, really, not at all sexy and certainly not recommended.

*Note that, owing to poor reading of the credits on the part of this reviewer, the original draft of this review credited co-writer Tischman with pencils and Hahn with inks. I regret the error.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale

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 Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale (2nd edition, BBC, 2010).

This was a little exhausting. It was also a pain in the rear to read! At 704 pages, no paperback will be long for this world without putting only one half of the book down on your reading desk or table at a time while holding the rest gingerly. Since a book as compelling as this will be sending fans and researchers back and forth to their bookshelf constantly, I suspect this was a ploy of BBC Books to sell more copies - one to keep in as-pristine-as-possible condition, and one to have its spine destroyed by constant rereading.

Anyway, it's a lengthy, exhaustive, incredibly engaging back-and-forth correspondence between Doctor Who's executive producer and head writer from 2005-2009, Russell T. Davies, and journalist Benjamin Cook. It starts just before transmission of the 2007 season with David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, while Davies was prepping for the fourth season, which co-starred Catherine Tate, and goes right through the end of Tennant's time in the lead role. It is huge fun, because Davies is so incredibly effusive, candid and indiscreet.

There's a fair amount of celebrity gossip, but it's all much more interesting than trivia. The remarkable stardom of Kylie Minogue will probably leave most American readers, unaware of her really amazing run of British hit singles, baffled, but the genuine affection that Davies has for the actors that the show employed - especially the great Bernard Cribbens, whose real-world wartime experiences became the fictional Wilf's - was great to read.

The best experience is just understanding how Davies somehow managed to function at all in such an incredibly high-stress job. British television drama places far more of the load on one person - Doctor Who, unlike American shows, doesn't have a writers' room - and the amount of rewriting that Davies did on most of the stories will probably have you questioning why on earth he didn't just write every episode himself. I didn't always agree with Davies's choices on Who - despite so much to enjoy and embrace, four of his five super-big endings just fell flat for me - but there's no question that his work is the living definition of a labor of love. Recommended for anybody who enjoys the show, or anybody who wants to write.

Tuesday, November 8, 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 Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003).

This was an entertaining, albeit occasionally frustrating experience. Marie and I saw the film version ages ago when it was playing at Cine Athens, and we kept intending to pick up the comics from which it was adapted, but just never found the time or pennies to do so. Fortunately, the market took care of that for us. Since the books have been assigned in so many college courses - probably that recent wave of "Graphic Novels 101" that comp lit departments have been offering - there are second-hand copies all over the place now.

You can see why this material really appeals to academics. If you're unfamiliar with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it is a memoir of a young girl's childhood in Iran in the mid-1970s, as the Islamic Revolution begins the overthrow of the Shah. Autobiography! Important recent world events! A female writer! Graphic novels! This thing ticks just about every conceivable box of the lit department's diversity checklist. In the defense of the hundreds of undergraduates who have dumped their copies of this book, I can see why it might not appeal to audiences who really want to believe that comic books are synonymous with superhero action.

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus, this is a work that has found so much academic and critical approval that other peoples' opinions get in the way of forming your own. Frankly, it's a book that I wish that I could love, but I really do find it quite cold. I do love her art style, and the bold, clean lines and the stark black and white. I like the simplicity of the flat character designs, but at the same time, they are so simple and so without depth that all of the art is just a breath away from dissolving into random polygons on paper. There were moments where the simplicity got in the way of really connecting with the emotions; young Marjane's immature rant at, and rejection of, God really did not resonate with me.

There are certainly elements and anecdotes that I liked a lot. I love the little tween rebellion that goes on with young Marjane embracing western pop music like Michael Jackson and Kim Wilde and getting grief for it from grown-ups, and I love her character's ongoing naive hero-worship. But after finishing it, I was left with a feeling of curiosity rather than satisfaction. I would like to read more Satrapi, and certainly will, but the elevation of this slight, often whimsical tale into the award-winning juggernaut that it became leaves me utterly baffled. It is cute and charming, but probably not a book that I'll be diving back into any time soon. Recommended with reservations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City 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 Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2011).

I really don't envy anybody's job in trying to introduce Americans to the sprawling world of Judge Dredd. (This collection is among the titles co-published with Simon & Schuster for the American market.) Start anywhere in the present day, and much of the subtleties of such long-running subplots are lost. Start at the beginning and you're looking at something that really takes a lot of effort, primitive stories told in a visual language with which most Americans are unfamiliar. Dredd is always a work in progress, and his stories have leaked out into dozens of other short-run series with other lead characters, set in his universe with rules most familiar to readers who already know Dredd fairly well.

The godawfully titled Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One collects two of these short series, along with three installments of Dredd that feature a recurring criminal, wrapping up with a fourth memorable character starring in a two-part Dredd tale by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint. There is some very good stuff in this collection, but as a book, it is really difficult to embrace.

First up are the three stories of Lenny Zero by Andy Diggle and Jock. These are hugely fun little adventures about a clever undercover judge who decides that a life of crime is too darn appealing and sets about taking down the assets of a gangster. They're followed by the first three of four stories for Bato Loco by Gordon Rennie and Simon Coleby. Our "hero" here is a weaselly little con artist and very minor link in various organized crime chains who manages more last-second lucky breaks than anybody deserves.

Unfortunately, while these are both fun little series and, as they are too short to be realistically collected any other way, it's good to see them finding space in an anthology like this, they are also the clear standouts of the material, and the rest of the book just doesn't measure up. Three Dredd episodes featuring the villain Slick Dickens follow these, and it won't take a very trained eye to realize that they all have the same plot, and not a particularly good one. The less said about "Street Fighting Man," with its sentimental underpinning and risible, out-of-character climax, the better, although it's certainly drawn well by Henry Flint.

The problems are just huge, across the board, despite the quality of the ten or so episodes that form the six Lenny Zero and Bato Loco stories. These are good stories, but this presentation doesn't make any sense to me. 160 pages simply isn't enough to really dig into the fun of Mega-City One's criminal culture. Slick Dickens is stunningly out of place among the violence and mayhem, and would have worked better as a single episode coda, suggesting how the criminal class of the city would like things to be. A larger book that incorporated, say, some of the classic Mega-Rackets of the early 1980s, or the completely brilliant "Flood's Thirteen" caper from five or six years ago, would have fit much better thematically.

While 160 pages were not enough to really dig into the material that could have been included, most of the stories here are still entertaining, and they're presented with Rebellion's expected attention to detail and excellent reproduction. Curiously, this book retains the interior design elements of the rest of their extensive line, but neither the front cover nor the spine match anything else from the publisher, an aggravating oversight that will annoy completists, most of whom probably have most of this material in other editions already. Recommended, therefore, for new readers only.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Devil in a Blue Dress

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 Devil in a Blue Dress (Norton, 1990).

Publisher's Weekly, strangely, described Walter Mosley's debut novel as "jaunty." That is not at all the word I would use for Devil in a Blue Dress. Set in 1950, it is the first in a cycle of novels featuring Easy Rawlins, a veteran recently fired from his job at an airplane manufacturing plant. Needing money, he takes a commission to find a lady recently seen in the company of a gangster. If you know your Chandler, then trying to find people who don't want to be found, in the presence of people who don't want anybody to find them, invariably leaves violence and corpses as the story progresses.

Plotwise, there isn't anything new at all in this book. Even the sex scene, once a bruised and beaten Easy falls into the arms of his femme fatale, proceeds with a weary sense of inevitability. But what I had never seen before in earlier work in this genre is the strong characterization and sense of place. Mosley's ability to build a 1950 that audiences have rarely had chances to see - the poor black neighborhoods of postwar Los Angeles - is downright amazing. It's a world where the bigotry and secrecy are natural and uncompromising, and where nothing is really left buried.

Violence is just an expected ingredient in hard-boiled, or California-based, detective fiction, but the sheer brutality of this book is nevertheless eye-popping. DeWitt Albright, the man who hires Easy, is revealed early on to have a sadistic, cruel side that overpowers everything and leaves our hero very uncertain about continuing, but then we meet Mouse. Oh, man. Mouse is a violent former associate of Easy's who stays in Texas most of the time. Dropping him into the proceedings is like lobbing a grenade into a burning building. Yeah, the force of the explosion might blow out the nearest flames, but at one hell of a cost.

In the end, the book is most satisfying if the reader is watching how this events affect Easy. The heroes of Ross McDonald or Raymond Chandler novels are wired to handle these kinds of escalating messes of lies and emotion. Easy isn't. While the outcome of the plot is fairly obvious from about thirty pages in, the impact on his character is less certain. Readers will be confident that he'll make it out in one piece, but the cost might be a little higher, and a little more honest, than what earlier writers have doled out on their casts. Recommended.