Sunday, December 30, 2012

Shakara: The Destroyer

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 Shakara: The Destroyer (volume two, Rebellion, 2012).

I am in a very small minority of 2000 AD readers when I say this, but good grief, Shakara slowly rumbled its way to an overlong and frankly conventional conclusion. It shouldn't have been like this. The second and third adventures for this weirdest of protagonists - a skinny, long-limbed, ultraviolent red-eyed beast inflicting almighty hell on a galaxy of equally weird antagonists - were joyful in their embrace of the bizarre and the outlandish. This was a series that was as unconventional as it was gorgeous.

Henry Flint, given the chance to draw a universe of incredibly weird, inhuman beings and technology, shined on every page, thanks to the writer, Robbie Morrison, trusting him to design and execute all of his wild concepts. Engine-driven planets, black hole hand grenades, clones from a million different dimensions, eyeball brains sitting in meditative repose over gangly shoulders... this was a series not at all afraid to think big and deliver.

And this made its perhaps inevitable decline all the more tragic. Shakara was a series that didn't provide many answers. All we needed to love it was to have a company of cyborg tyrannosaurs for the red-eyed screamer to slice in half. What we emphatically didn't need was for the red-eyed screamer to be met by a blue-eyed talker. No, sadly, the third story ended with the surprise appearance of a weird blue-and-black critter who was kind of like our protagonist, and the fourth explained, ad nauseum, that he was the true, lawful descendant of the long-dead Shakara race. As villains go, Cinnabar Brenneka was just about the most long-winded one possible.

David Tennant's third series of Doctor Who ended with Davros and the Daleks planning a convoluted thingumajig to end all of creation with a reality bomb or some such silliness, and, damnation, a dying Shakara in the fifth story is bent on stopping Brenneka from executing the same dratted thing. The comic looks beautiful, and there are ample sidebar weird concepts like an infinitely large arsenal hidden in a tesseract and a prison planet that terraforms itself to kill anybody sentenced to it, but at its core, this is a disappointing story about a bad guy who talks too damn much and speaks in the hoary language of generic sci-fi baddie. Very little here, in point of fact, hasn't been written before. It's recommended in small part for the artwork, because it's not much like anything ever seen before, at least.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Certain Justice

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 A Certain Justice (Faber & Faber, 1997).

I first read A Certain Justice shortly after it was released, at a time in my life when I was getting a little exhausted with the detective fiction genre. I was, in retrospect, too reliant, then, on the "British lady" school, with little variety to keep things interesting. But another problem that I had with the book was that I simply couldn't understand the setting. All the business of barristers and chambers and the attendant office politics had me baffled. Subsequent attempts at the story just had me rolling with it, accepting that I'd never understand this business.

Since I last read this novel, I happily made a terrific decision. I watched several episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey, and read some of the adaptations and sequel stories by John Mortimer. While the whole world of barristers remains quite strange to American eyes, this novel now makes a lot more sense. Mortimer's influence has been so strong, in fact, that I "cast" the actress Patricia Hodge in the role of Venetia Aldridge, who, just as her life is spiraling out of control, is found dead in a Grand Guignol tableau, with fresh blood poured, long post-mortem, over her head and one of those oddball wigs that English law fetishizes.

All the typical Dalgliesh traits and tropes are here in this book. The chambers office and Aldridge's home life are both incredibly insular and overprotective communities full of secrets and privacy, and the Met's powerful commander is righteous, calm, and frightening in his destruction of every barrier put up to protect the desires of the dead. I love the character; he's like a force of nature bending and breaking everything into something open and respectful. Recommended, after a short introductory course of Rumpole.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

LSH Reread, part nine

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 # 324-325, vol. 3 # 13-16, and Annual # 1, 1985)

Major developments:

*The Kryptonian Dev-Em is captured and cloned by the Dark Circle. It is revealed that their entire region of space is populated by clones of five people.
*Officer Gigi Cusimano's short fling with Sun Boy has become both fodder for the gossip columnists and not entirely good-natured putdowns from Chief Zendak. It looks like she's taking up with Dev-Em after the Dark Circle's threat is nullified.
*Timber Wolf, along with Karate Kid's sensei, arrives on the sadistic planet Lythyl to fulfill his old friend's last request: to literally plant a seed in the planet which will eventually lead to the downfall of the corruption that runs it.
*Violet comes on strong to Sun Boy. Nobody in the galaxy predicted this. They later attend Graym's christening as a couple. Vi gives Yera a totally uncalled-for stinkeye before the service.
*Five new Legionnaires are inducted: Magnetic Kid (Cosmic Boy's younger brother), longtime Substitute Hero Polar Boy, the non-humanoids Tellus and Quislet, and the mysterious Sensor Girl, whose identity is unrevealed but comes with a strong recommendation from Saturn Girl.
*The five new members are immediately abducted in a trap by Dr. Regulus in another bid for revenge against Sun Boy.
*Following an attempt on Laurel Kent's life, the team discovers an unusual conspiracy. Kent, a student at the team's training academy, is a descendant of Superman. Brainiac 5 notes similar recent attempts, some successful, to kill the descendants of 20th Century heroes, including the Flash and Hawkman, and deduces that one of the Justice League's old enemies has been waiting in cryo-sleep for ten centuries and sending robots to periodically attack the families of the old heroes.
*Speaking of the 20th Century, Brainiac 5 mourns the 1000-year anniversary of Supergirl's death. He'd been crushing on her for years, of course, but it wasn't until her death in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths # 7 that month that readers learned what he'd always known: the time of her inevitable death.

Some background scientist observes that Brainiac 5 mourning his longtime crush, Supergirl, makes as much sense as grieving over the death of Helen of Troy. She's not quite right, but it's an interesting observation. In one sense, this is the point where LSH starts to take an inevitable slide, trapped as it is by the ironclad rule of DC Universe continuity. This is a shame, because here's a great run of comics, with the anchor point being the arrival of five new Legionnaires, the most to join the team at one time in... maybe ever?

Paul Levitz is going to spend the next few years trying to figure out what to do with Magnetic Kid, who is Cosmic Boy's younger brother. Polar Boy is an interesting case. When he and the rest of the original Substitute Heroes were devised, his snow-and-ice power was made to seem silly and useless. Then Jack Kirby and Stan Lee came along, invented Iceman of the Uncanny X-Men, and made those powers practical. So everybody kind of had to admit that there was no reason for him to have been relegated to the Subs.

The team gets its first two non-humanoid-shaped members with Quislet, a small energy being who zips around in a baseball-sized "spaceship," and Tellus, a big, lumbering, telepathic whale-walrus dude whose real name, magically, is Ganglios. Tellus is his(?) superhero name. And then there's Sensor Girl.

Some of this requires a little bit of hand-waving, what with all the Science Police / EarthGov / United Planets security clearance and everything, but while the active Legionnaires are considering whom to induct among all their applicants, Saturn Girl steps in and asks everybody to do her a favor. Vote in this mystery chick with blonde hair and a mask and what is, while very much a 1980s costume - measure her shoulder pads sometime - one of the absolute best superhero costumes ever. Whoever she is, she looks awesome. Decades later, once the continuity was kind of reset to sort of shortly after the end of volume three and this Legion was revived, some artist, Yildray Cinar, maybe, decided to redesign this classic costume and created instead the ugliest eyesore in comics. It was a shame. No, Sensor Girl, properly dressed in big shoulder pads, gloves, boots, cape and full-faced mask, her powers unexplained and her origins a deliberate mystery, is an absolute classic character. The next several months of people trying to figure out who the heck she is and what her powers actually are... this is a tremendously good subplot, and all kinds of fun.

But the Supergirl tragedy helps feed into this mystery. In time, Brainiac 5 will start to wonder whether the girl he loved has somehow escaped her death and is hiding out in the 30th Century. What really happened is much more mundane and real-world and will, in time, have huge ramifications for the title.

I kind of doubt anybody reading this doesn't know this already, but basically, in the mid-1980s, some very boring person at DC Comics concluded that their funnybooks were too confusing and too full of parallel universes and they should start over, if not from scratch, then close enough to it. They'd discard decades of baggage and unpopular continuity and make some big changes that should probably never have been changed, inspiring a few breath-holding child readers who would, one day, grow up to write comics, to swear that one day, if they ever had the chance, they would, in turn, "fix" all these unpopular and unnecessary "fixes" that DC was inflicting upon its characters and stories. One of these "fixes" was getting rid of Supergirl.

The Girl of Steel had first been devised in the 1950s, and despite a very troubled publishing history, she had been a huge success in merchandising and toy sales, and even had a 1984 feature film do some small business. But in the new "fix," Superman would truly be the last son of Krypton; its only survivor. He'd have no cousins, and no Bottle City of Kandor with a million shrunken Kryptonians living in his Fortress of Solitude. Supergirl had to go, leaving a dozen writers, as talented and as far afield as Peter David and Evan Dorkin, spending the last thirty years coming up with new versions of the character to keep the trademark alive and selling T-shirts while not letting Superman have any girl cousins. For a few years, there was a Supergirl in a white T-shirt, and for a few years, there was a purple blob who shapeshifted into the trademarked look, and for a few years, there was a Supergirl with firey angel wings, and, of course, all that anybody remembers is that "Supergirl is Superman's cousin."

But it's one thing to have Brainiac 5 mourn the girlfriend he never could really have on the thousandth anniversary of her death at the hands of the evil Anti-Monitor. It's about to be quite another to have him mourn somebody who... never existed?

The breath-holding children who write comics for DC today and seem to want everything to be like it was in the late '70s and early '80s, only, you know, more violent and bloodthirsty and unreadable, will sadly be shown, as this Reread unfolds, to have something of a point.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Absalom: Ghosts of London

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 Absalom: Ghosts of London (Rebellion, 2012).

Seven or eight years back, there was a successful and popular series in 2000 AD called Caballistics Inc. that followed the adventures of a gang of occult demonbusters. Among the supporting players in the series was an aging, alcoholic, hard-as-nails London copper called DI Harry Absolam, who took a keen interest in the team when he learned one of them was harboring a nasty demon.

Fast forward a few years. Caballistics' writer, Gordon Rennie, had stepped away from comics for a time to do some work in the video game industry. When he returned, quite welcome, to the pages of the Galaxy's Greatest, many people hoped that he would resume that series, and some others, and deal with the lingering subplots left behind. But he did what has, surprisingly, turned out to be a much more fun idea instead. He took that supporting character, brushed off almost every connection to Caballistics, even changing his name from Absolam to Absalom, just so everybody's clear, and made him the headliner of his own unrelated series. And good grief, does he ever carry it well.

Harry Absalom has got to be one of the least likely lead characters for an adventure story. Rennie, very ably assisted by Tiernen Trevallion on art chores, has gone back to the old ideal that 2000 AD's leads shouldn't be pin-ups. He appears to be in his late sixties and keeps a "purely medicinal" flask of some kind of spirit around, but it's strongly hinted that he's much older than he appears, and he's a lot meaner and tougher. Trevallion draws him with so much impact that somehow, this skinny, cancer-ridden old cuss, with dialogue that deliberately echoes John Thaw from TV's The Sweeney, appears to be the most intimidating copper in London. Put another way, if I had to go rounds with a comic book cop, I'd rather take the short experience of Judge Dredd's daystick than worry about what Absalom's going to do when he tells me I'm nicked.

Absalom heads a special task force assembled to enforce The Accord, a five hundred year-old diplomatic treaty between the throne of England and Hell. Unfortunately, Hell has a hard time keeping track of all its denizens, who often find themselves tempted to cause trouble on Absalom's manor. As we follow a new detective sergeant assigned to his force, we learn that there are creepy and occasionally timelost entities throughout the country. Some of them seem to want to behave or assist Absalom in keeping the peace, and others have mayhem in mind. Once again, Rennie is creating another big supporting cast in a deeply-layered story full of subplots. I hope we meet the weird undertaker with the strange eyes and - is that a brass plate in the back of his head?! - again very soon.

Absalom was an immediate hit when it launched in the summer of 2011. This collected edition compiles the first three stories from 2000 AD: two serialized adventures and a one-off. There's a fourth story, another one-off, currently available in the annual year-end bumper edition of the comic, Prog 2013, and fingers are crossed that Absalom will be back defending his manor in another serialized adventure later this year. It's a terrific series, and one which everybody would love to see much more frequently. Nobody would complain if this were given a seven-month residency. Absolutely recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tamara Drewe

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 Tamara Drewe (Random House, 2007).

I always enjoy reading collected editions of comics and seeing whether I can spot the breaks from the original publication. Here's one where I couldn't. Posy Simmonds wrote and illustrated Tamara Drewe, a contemporary take on the Thomas Hardy novel Far from the Madding Crowd, as a weekly strip in the Saturday edition of Britain's Guardian from 2005-07, with a book version soon following. It received a good deal of critical acclaim and attention, and, in 2010, there was a feature film adaptation that was either never released in the US, or buried so completely that nobody ever heard of it.

The story is set in a small Dorset village, where Nicholas and Beth Hardiman, a crime novelist and his long-suffering wife, run a little getaway for writers and try to hide their crumbling marriage. Into an increasingly taut situation, Tamara Drewe comes home to the village with the impact of a guided missile. She's recently undergone plastic surgery and is showing off her gorgeous face and body. She's working as a newspaper columnist and dating the drummer from a pop band, much to the horror of a local teen who adores him, and it doesn't take very long for a tangled mass of interpersonal relationships and jealousies to develop.

I really enjoyed this story. It's witty, and smart, and all of the very different characters are drawn with believable traits. The teens who take out their frustrations on Tamara's e-mail address book are really funny, and Simmonds gives readers as many reasons to enjoy and appreciate the cheating Nicholas as to hate him. It's a great depiction of small town boredom and dreaming, and beautifully drawn throughout. Owing to language and some nudity, this isn't for everybody, but it's happily recommended for older readers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds

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 Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds (Rebellion, 2012).

Funny things can happen in just a few weeks. 2000 AD had one of its periodic jumping-on issues, with the first episodes of new or returning series, back in September and for a short while, everybody was agog over a brand new offering, Brass Sun by Ian Edginton and INJ Culbard. The artist has only done a handful of things for the Galaxy's Greatest, while Edginton has written hundreds of episodes of several ongoing series and serials over the last decade. Readers and fans were buzzing contentedly over this new project, and then suddenly, with only a murmur of advance hype, there was this remarkable twist in a Judge Dredd story called "The Cold Deck" - about which, more here next month - and everybody plum forgot about poor old Brass Sun, which was lost in a tidal wave of excited chatter.

While "The Cold Deck" certainly deserves the attention - does it ever! - I'd like to come back to Brass Sun before it's completely forgotten, because it really was an incredibly interesting and promising story. It's among several recent 2000 AD series to feature a strong female lead, in this case an inquisitive and tough teen named Wren who lives with her grandfather outside a mean, medieval city. The world is dominated by an ugly religious order and her grandfather, a former bishop who went into hiding with one of those heretical "telescope" things and a bad case of "open mind," has left Wren with a diary and clues to learn more about their world before it is too late. Their solar system, he knows, is a gigantic, full-scale clockwork orrery. And it is winding down.

To be honest, the early parts of this first story didn't appeal to me as much as I had hoped. As wild and fantastic as that concept is, and as welcome as it is to see a young female lead in this often very male-dominated magazine, the religious order that runs the planet of Hind Leg is just so unpleasant that I didn't enjoy reading it for a few weeks. The villain came straight from the school of stereotypes, a humorless bore who just puts all nonbelievers to the stake like several thousand fictional antecedents. I didn't want to see Wren triumph against this guy, because it meant having to put up with this guy. So I was pleasantly and thunderously surprised when he didn't make it past the first five weeks alive. This story had many more places to go, and much to do.

Edginton is doing a very good job letting us get to know the new characters that emerged after the narrative moved away from Hind Leg. There will be many to keep track of before we're done, but Wren, who's completely outside her experience but so firm in her convictions that she's exploring everything with an eye toward putting everything in its place, is very much the series' lead. Everything from the costume design to the big, expansive double-page spreads of cities and planets looks fantastic in Culbard's capable hands. The concept, along with Wren's characterization, evoked what felt like a never-made film by Hayao Miyazaki, and so I was especially pleased when we started meeting strange machines that looked like something from that director's film Castle in the Sky.

Interestingly, and happily, Culbard is said to be alternating stories with another frequent Edginton collaborator, D'Israeli, so we might conceivably get stories more frequently than the typical modern 2000 AD model, with its constant aggravating year-plus gaps between them. D'Israeli is apparently meant to be working on the second story early next year, possibly for publication in the early summer, which would be great.

Brass Sun is not yet available in a collected edition. The first story, "The Wheel of Worlds," began with a double-length opener and ran for twelve episodes. Clicking the image above will take you to 2000 AD's online shop, where you may purchase the issue with the first installment. Happily recommended.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Nothing But The Truth

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 Nothing But The Truth (Delacorte, 1999).

I won't pretend that I was completely sold on Nothing But The Truth, another of John Lescroart's legal thriller mysteries featuring Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky. It certainly starts well. Dismas's wife Frannie has vanished. For several chapters, this is a scary book, punching home how weird and frightening it is when your spouse disappears. Then it gets even more frightening when we learn why: she had been subpoenaed by a grand jury looking into a murder, didn't tell her husband about it, got on the wrong side of a crusading ass of a district attorney who is massively abusing the power of a grand jury, and is finally able to phone home hours later after she's been jailed for contempt.

Frannie has always been shown to be a headstrong troublemaker, but I had a lot of difficulty believing that the Hardys' marriage has hit such a low point that she didn't want to tell Dis about the grand jury, and refuses to give up the murdered woman's husband's secrets. While she hasn't been having an actual affair with him, she's become too close a confidant, and, torn between guilt and loyalty, she clams up completely. Did I just not want to believe that Frannie's actions were that credible, or did I just not want to believe that these wonderful characters' marriage is in this much trouble? I'm not sure, but I didn't like either choice much.

Once Dis and Abe get involved with Bree Beaumont's murder, things get even more convoluted and exciting. The police have not gotten far, because the investigator assigned to it had been killed a month previously, derailing everything, and Beaumont's connection to the probable next governor of California is causing one roadblock after another. It's a wild tale with political shenanigans and domestic terrorists and a complicated business about gasoline additives. It's so well constructed that when an organization poisons San Francisco's water supply, which, in less capable hands, would feel like a contrived invasion from a much sillier book, it doesn't feel like anything more than the next natural step in a escalating sequence of events that is kicking innocents in the head along the way.

These aren't simple reads, and Lescroart's heroes' painful battles against City Hall leave me blinking and reaching for something lighter to chase each book as I finish them, but they're engrossing and thrilling, if not always fun. Recommended with reservations.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

LSH Reread, part eight

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 # 321-322, vol. 3 # 9-12, and Legion of Substitute Heroes Special # 1, 1985)

Major developments:

*Dawnstar and Brainiac Five crash-land on a primitive planet with religious issues.
*Dev-Em, a descendant of Krypton who's been a very minor supporting character, inflitrates the Dark Circle on behest of some police organization.
*The missing five Legionnaires return home. Vi confronts Yera, declining to forgive her for impersonating her, but establishing an awkward peace - I guess - between them.
*Element Lad and Shvaughn have their smooching interrupted by a Legion mission to thwart some alien thieves in Hong Kong.
*Cosmic Boy takes a leave of absence. Shortly afterward, he and the other founders, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, formally tender their resignations to make way for new blood on the team.
*Timber Wolf agrees to undertake a dangerous and mysterious mission on his own as a bequest in Karate Kid's will.
*The team protects the three candidates for Earth's presidency from Khund assassins; Invisible Kid accidentally kills one of the attackers. Mojil Desai is elected the planet's new president.
*Element Lad is re-elected team leader.
*Prefiguring his late 80s/early 90s work on Justice League during its long "bwa-ha-ha" phase, Keith Giffen pencils and plots a Legion of Substitute Heroes special that plays the team as mostly ineffective and goofy, but they nevertheless save the planet Bismoll from the oh-so-1970s villain Pulsar Stargrave, somehow.

It's interesting to see just how little is happening during this period of the comic, but how incredibly entertaining it all is. There are fights and explosions and super-powered stuff, but the draws are the character interaction and the artwork. Steve Lightle's stuff is - and I know, I keep saying this - just so damn good.

I have to say, though, that while the proper book(s) are reliable and engaging and keep me caring about the characters, it's what Keith Giffen does with the Substitute Heroes Special that really warrants comment. This book is hilarious. It is actually a follow-up to an issue of DC Comics Presents from about two years previously. My copy has gone into hiding, but it had been a longtime favorite.

In that story, the then-new character of Ambush Bug had hopped on Superman's back just as he was traveling on some mission to the 50th Century. He stops in Metropolis in the 2980s, hoping the LSH could hold onto Bug for him, but they were out of town and he leaves him instead with the Subs. They are depicted as utterly incompetent, well-meaning goofballs, and they lose him. The book's a complete riot, and includes an amazing exchange between the Bug and the Subs' newest member, the unfortunate Infectious Lass. She is sent to distract Ambush Bug using her "feminine wiles," which works for about the half-second that makes up Bug's attention span. He, who has spent the entire escapade thinking he's at an amusement park, asks her what she does, having already been tickled by the Subs' various and ridiculous powers. "I make people sick," she says. "I'm sure you do, honey," he replies. I've loved Infectious Lass ever since.

In the special, the Subs and Gigi strike out for the planet Bismoll, where former LSHer Matter-Eater Lad has entered politics, and which has been invaded by Pulsar Stargrave - what a name! - and his disco fashion sense. Chlorophyll Kid has gained about a hundred pounds since we last saw him, and Infectious Lass has unwittingly passed along some gender reversal germs to Color Kid, and Matter-Eater Lad bites off Pulsar's nose. (It must've been the season for it; Ace Garp bit off Jago Kain's nose in 2000 AD around the same time.)

The book ends with Polar Boy coming to the sad realization that his team really is a band of incompetent boobs, and, in a final panel, realizes that their time has passed. In what would become a Giffen hallmark - this really does prefigure much of his work on Justice League a few years in the future - this could-be-touching epiphany is nothing more than a throwaway joke in the final panel.

The other really important moment is that the three founders all retire. While this has been telegraphed and hinted at for many months, it's still a surprising development. They'd been the core and the heart of things for so long that it would have been an inconceivable development just a couple of years before. Their story is far from over - in fact, there's a Legionnaires 3 miniseries about them that I don't own - and the books probably can't really exist without them, but it's a reminder that nothing's really all that safe in the 30th Century.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Stainless Steel Rat

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 Stainless Steel Rat (Rebellion, 2010).

One thing that has marked the last dozen years of 2000 AD is the number of recurring series has skyrocketed, to the point that quite a few series routinely only show up for a single story every couple of years. There are just so darn many strips in the mix that there isn't room for all of them. That wasn't the case in the late nineties, when the comic was home, principally, to one-off serials. I started thinking, then, about how successful the comic's three adaptations of The Stainless Steel Rat had been. I wondered, then, what other classic pulp sci-fi could be adapted into 2000 AD serials. Fred Pohl, perhaps, or E.E. "Doc" Smith? Maybe something really ambitious, like Asimov's Foundation?

But no, there would be no space for such things as 2000 AD refocused on lots of recurring players. Harry Harrison's character of Slippery Jim DiGriz has been the only classic SF hero to make his way to the pages of the comic, in three early '80s storylines - each about 75 pages - that adapted the novels The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, and The Stainless Steel Rat for President. DiGriz is a very ethical master criminal, if by "ethical" you include the definition "able to convince himself that what he's doing really isn't all that wrong, since he doesn't wish to actually hurt anybody." He's a con man, a master of disguise and self-defense, and can squirm out of just about any trouble with seconds to spare.

The adaptations, by Kelvin Gosnell, are little miniature masterpieces in the art of adaptation. The novels can hardly be accused of being very challenging or layered with subtext, but to distill them into punchy, all-action comics so well is a real feat. Gosnell, one of 2000 AD's unsung heroes of its early days, really uses the comics' structure and form perfectly, with each episode balancing the advancing plot, some thrilling action and witty narrative, and a perfectly-timed cliffhanger. Anybody with an interest in writing comics should study these things closely to see just how amazingly well Gosnell manages the pace and timing.

That said, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World suffers just a hair from being incredibly complex. It's a wild story about a criminal called "He" who begins wiping out his enemies in the galactic Special Corps via time travel. Harrison must have had a ball in the original 1972 novel - I confess I've not read that one - playing with the "timey-wimey" loops and possible futures and causality that Doctor Who only started playing with a few years back. It's a head-scratcher in places, and even Slippery Jim thinks that events get so weird he doesn't want to deal with them any longer, but it sure is clever.

The artwork is by Carlos Ezquerra, and it's reliably fantastic. It's just really great, lazy afternoon pulp fiction that reads like a roller coaster. Rebellion's long overdue collection reprints all three serials in their original black and white - in their only previous reprint, for Eagle Comics in the mid-80s, they had been badly colorized and shrunk to traditional American funnybook dimensions, although they did include some terrific new art by Ezquerra for their covers - and has a short foreword by Harrison, who sadly passed away earlier this year, leaving behind the twelve Rat novels and a whole mess of other books besides. I had no freaking idea that Harrison ghost-wrote Vendetta for the Saint, wherein Simon Templar, implausibly, breaks up the Mafia. Made a good two-part TV episode with Roger Moore, mind.

Although such a thing is very, very, very unlikely, what with rights issues and 2000 AD's own gigantic bank of recurring series that never seem to have room, I sure would love to see more comic adaptations of Slippery Jim. And Bill, the Galactic Hero. Him, too. In fact, I still wouldn't object to somebody, somewhere, drawing up some stories based on Hari Seldon's theorems. Anyway, this book is definitely recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

LSH Reread, part seven

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 # 317-320 and vol. 3 # 6-8, 1984-1985)

Major developments:

*It turns out that the Lyle Norg that got spit out from the Dream Dimension back in # 310 was not actually Lyle, but a "demon" taking advantage of the Negaton Bomb to... errr... enter our universe, sit in a room and mope for months, take Invisible Kid and Wildfire back to his dimension, and then cackle and threaten and use phrases like "you'll rue the day" before our two heroes return home. A subplot worth every last page, that one.
*Shady's cousin Grev, infiltrating a rebel cult on their home planet of Talok VII, runs afoul of the Legion's old foe the Persuader, and a dangerous Talokian villain named Lady Memory.
*Lady Memory's touch drives Mon-El temporarily mad with his ten centuries of quasi-life in the Phantom Zone suddenly remembered. Superboy helps him snap out of it.
*Ayla and her criminal brother Mekt are sent back to their home world of Winath by the weird, villainous Zymyr. Mekt is turned over to the Science Police; Ayla, her lightning powers restored, returns to Earth to rejoin the LSH, although not her former boyfriend Timber Wolf.
*The five members who are missing in Limbo (Chameleon Boy, Element Lad, Phantom Lass, Shrinking Violet, and Ultra Boy) find themselves on an automated planet used by the alien Controllers to build Sun-Eaters. They destroy the planet, and take a detour to the pages of DC Comics Presents # 80 on their way home.
*Steve Lightle takes over as regular penciler of the Volume Three titles, with Terry Shoemaker, Dan Jurgens, and George Tuska alternating in Volume Two. Lightle is an unsung hero who never gets enough praise from fandom.

In earlier chunks of this story, I'd said that my impression had always been that the Tales title felt like the work of the B-team, and this bears it out. The "Death Trip" story that wraps up the cul-de-sac subplot about Lyle Norg - surprise! He was really a demon! - is just Paul Levitz (and Mindy Newell) on autopilot. It does not feel like the culmination of a storyline that was first suggested a year and a half previously; it feels like he and Keith Giffen came up with a twist ending for issue #310 at the end of a wild all-night plotting session, and, months later, the indelible evidence of their craziness apparent for all the world to see, had absolutely no idea what in the world to do next.

Coming on the heels of the LSV epic in the Baxter book, everything feels similarly hungover, like the creators are looking for what to do next. I think that Levitz will quickly recover and work wonders with the small spaces in between the epics, but perhaps spreading the cast and events over two completely separate titles a month which can only blow kisses at each other is wearing, especially when much of the plot revolves around the cast either being split up, or back at headquarters and worried because so many people are missing.

It's a weird set of comics, because only the first is really stupid, but all of the rest feel like marking time and moving characters around from place to place. They're not bad, but not particularly engaging, either. They're leagues better than the Legion had been in the "Omen and the Prophet" days just eight or so months previously, but "they're inoffensive" is hardly a compelling reason to tune in. Better things are coming.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


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 Barbara (DMP, 2012).

A few years ago, my friend Helen McCarthy was giving a presentation, and told an audience that we should all urge Vertical Publishing to put together an American reprint of Osamu Tezuka's weird, surreal and violent 1972 serial Barbara. Since Helen knows what she's talking about, I turned right around to a fellow from Vertical and asked him to reprint Barbara. And Ambassador Magma; that, too.

Vertical is one of my favorite publishing houses in the world, but while all of their many Tezuka reprints have brought them lots of attention and love, they probably have not planned on translating and repackaging every single thing that Tezuka wrote and drew over his fifty-year career. Nevertheless, I made sure to mention Barbara to them, and Ambassador Magma, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

A couple of years went by, during which Vertical did not do anything that I kept pestering them to, but licensing other Tezuka comics instead. Meanwhile, another company, good people with the horrible name "Digital Manga Publishing," used Kickstarter to fund a second printing of their release of another Tezuka serial, Swallowing the Earth. The experiment was so successful that they tried crowdsourcing the funds for a small run of Barbara. Well, that got my attention.

I picked up their release of Barbara from a dealer at Anime Weekend Atlanta a couple of months ago. It's a nicely-sized book, 440 pages along with a detailed introductory essay by Frederick Schodt, who's been writing about Japanese comics and cartoons for a good few decades, and who can put this very odd and very striking serial into perspective. It's one of many from the early seventies where Tezuka was, on the one hand, planning and preparing some comics and the attendant cartoon adaptations and merchandising for a mass audience, and other stories in smaller circulation anthology magazines that targeted adult readers.

So this is the story of a novelist named Yousuke Mikura who is slowly losing his mind, questioning the reality around him, so obsessed with questions about the value of the art that he's creating and that all of the craftsmen, painters, and writers who preceded him had designed that he is beginning to suffer from very dangerous hallucinations. He stumbles across this vulgar, alcoholic hippie bum named Barbara in a subway station and invites her home. Barbara seems, at times, to be there to defend Mikura from his delusions, but, at other times, to bring more chaos and turmoil into his life. Some days, she is inspiring him like a muse, and other days, she is destroying his life like a supernatural force.

It's very much a story for adults, but also very much a story of its time. The level of domestic violence in this book is - even accepting that Mikura and Barbara are out of control drunks who have big issues with reality - completely shocking. The nudity is also a real surprise. There were pretty strict limits in Japan at the time about what an artist could draw in a commercial publication, and Tezuka used angles and perspective to make certain scenes appear more explicit than they actually are. The artwork is stunning throughout, with very curious choices in character design. Mikura doesn't look like a standard Tezuka leading man, but more like a lump of granite with sunglasses, and Barbara, stumpy and stumbling, with eyes that see everything, is hardly a heroine type.

The story goes in completely wild directions, but little of it can be trusted. We seem to get an explanation for Barbara's otherworldly influence on the proceedings, but it's not from a very reliable source. As fortune tellers and witches and even one of Tezuka's fellow comic artists offer the protagonists their take on what's going on, the answers are still murky. It's a mean, strange ride with an unforgettable climax.

I mentioned the curious nature of the book's American publication above because it has meant that, apart from sparking a brief controversy between a few Big Name Fans about the morality in publishers taking pre-orders through Kickstarter, this book received a very small print run and is slightly harder to find than would be ideal. Some Amazon sellers are offering it through that service, although Amazon itself has already sold out of their stock. Independent stores might also have difficulty sourcing it. Digital Manga Publishing has proceeded with this business model, and I understand that they plan a spring release for Unico and a summer release for Triton, two other Tezuka serials. For what it's worth, I genuinely don't care where the upfront money comes from if it means more Tezuka in print in English. I really, really don't.

So. About Ambassador Magma, people...

Sunday, December 2, 2012


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 Appaloosa (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005).

I told myself that I was going to read all of Robert B. Parker's bibliography, and, despite the very long list of books, it hasn't been much of a challenge. His Spenser series started out in the early 1970s with surprisingly cerebral detective fiction despite the tough-guy leads, but the series peaked in 1981 with the excellent A Savage Place. There were occasional high points thereafter - 1993's very good Paper Doll, for example, returned the series from straightforward adventure novels and back into Chandler-inspired mystery. Adding two additional series, set in the same universe, didn't invigorate things as much as the author might have wished. It became amusing, in 2003, to have Jesse Stone, star of one series, enjoying a one-night stand with Rita Fiore, a regular supporting player in Spenser's world, and to have Sunny Randall, star of another, seek professional counseling from Spenser's girlfriend Susan, but at this point, after finishing 48 of 68(!) novels, I'm reading more for the occasional character beats than any surprises in the plots.

Helpfully, I know that I - slow reader that I am compared to some of my friends - can finish a Parker novel in about a day. Starting in the late 1990s, he started churning these books out at a frankly ridiculous rate, about one every three months. They had devolved into basic adventure before then, of course, but they were never so repetitive when Parker took his time with them. The worst part is the he-man psychology, wherein Susan and Spenser, or some other woman and Spenser, or Susan and whomever has the misfortune of falling in love with Hawk, have what feels like the millionth conversation about why these men do what they do, and why this occasionally means killin' folk.

Speaking of repetition, I don't know that I will ever understand why it was necessary for both Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall to both still be in love with their ex-spouses and seeking therapy. Try reading Shrink Rap and Stone Cold back to back sometime and tell me that the character moments are not identical.

I certainly didn't expect Parker's latter-day devolution into quickie, repetitive novels to bring that same psychology to the Old West. He'd indulged in the Western genre before, with 2001's pleasing Gunman's Rhapsody, and, four years later, introduced a new series set in the same period. There were four novels featuring the gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and the first, Appaloosa, was made into a feature film that starred Ed Harris and Viggo Morgenstern. Their schtick is that they're gunslingers who will clean up crime-ridden towns after being duly deputized and given the power to enact new bylaws at their whim. So when a powerful rancher and his gang of forty gunhands begins terrorizing the town of Appaloosa and killing the marshal, Cole and Hitch need to come up with a good plan to get the rancher to justice and, once he's tried, see that he makes it to prison before anybody else can spring him.

Cole finds the love of a good woman - no, that's not true, there's little that's good about Allie French - and it doesn't take long before, needing some pages to fill, they have detailed heart-to-hearts about why it is Cole and Hitch do what they do, and do it so well. There's not a lot of it, mind, but it reads as though, committed to finishing three or four novels every year, Parker was unable to change gears successfully and find anything new for men and women to discuss, or craft a leading man with the wit and levity that makes Spenser appealing. So when we do get into what passes for characterization here, it goes on for several very shallow pages - the eye-rolling, simplistic metaphor of stallions fighting over mares is about as subtle as an avalanche - while the actual action plot, when it gets going, is handled without passion or depth or, really, much attention at all. The climactic gunfight between our heroes and the Shelton Brothers seems to play out over about a third of a page.

At this point, it's only stubborn resolve that is keeping me with Parker, along with my own needs as a reader. While I find P.D. James, whom I am rereading, much more satisfying in every possible way, her novels are so dense, challenging, and complex that it's nice to have a simple palate cleanser between each of them. After two zero-challenge Parker books, I'm ready for something with meat on its bones. Not recommended, nor are about the nine books that came before it.

Monday, November 26, 2012


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 Guilt (Delacorte, 1996).

John Lescroart's Guilt opens with two longtime friends, attorneys Wes Farrell and Mark Dooher, ogling a cute girl, as longtime friends might be expected to in any bar as the night grows long. Dooher intends to have her. He'll be successful, and, a few years later, they'll be wed and she'll be expecting his child, but only after Dooher has killed two people, one of whom is his current wife. This isn't spoiling much; the man is clearly shown off as guilty throughout the book, which first asks how the police will catch him, and then how his old pal Farrell will get him acquitted.

It's also not much of a spoiler to say that he will. Farrell had been introduced as a supporting player in Lescroart's previous novel A Certain Justice as a deeply depressed attorney who had lost faith in the law as a result of a really disheartening miscarriage of justice. This is, in part, that story: how Farrell got his old friend off a murder charge, knowing deep down that he had killed at least two people, but never understanding how. That's most of the book; the events of A Certain Justice actually happen, chronologically, about three-quarters of the way through this text. The final act asks whether the restored Farrell, allied with one of the author's regular players, Lieutenant Abe Glitsky, can do anything about it.

I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed this as much as I did, as so much of it is a foregone conclusion. Dooher is a fantastic opponent, one who hides his villainy extremely well, and never, ever feels that he's doing the wrong thing. It's a complex and complicated world, and he proves to be an excellent master villain to Abe Glitsky. I enjoy Lescroart for many reasons, but one of the best is the way that he populates such a busy world, full of characters, any of whom can take the spotlight for novels or portions of novels. As this book progresses, both Glitsky and Dooher become widowers. Lescroart doesn't make the resulting symmetry too obvious, but it links them, and the interaction this sparks is fabulous. Recommended, especially in tandem with the earlier book.

Friday, November 23, 2012

LSH Reread, part six

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 1-5, vol. 2 Annual # 3 and # 316, 1984)

Major developments:

*A very large group of the Legion's enemies forms. They call themselves the Legion of Super-Villains and each must swear a blood oath to kill one of the heroes or die themselves.
*While that calamity is getting started, some sorcerers decide to resurrect Mordru, but are stopped in time.
*Garth and Imra's baby is born. They are surprised that the boy is an only child, as Winathian men almost always father twins, and Imra swore that she felt the thoughts of a second child. Unbeknownst to them, Darkseid had used the universe-wide darkness of Mordru's attempted resurrection to steal the baby. He sends it back in time where the baby will grow into the powerful monster Validus, the member of the Fatal Five who had slain Lyle Norg.
*The villains teleport the planet Orando into a between-universes limbo.
*Karate Kid dies in combat with his old foe Nemesis Kid who is, in turn, executed by Projectra. The villains scattered, she decrees that it was wrong to try and modernize Orando, and leaves her friends to return to our universe, while they travel on, planning to never be seen again.
*Element Lad, Cham, Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl and Violet are trapped in limbo, trying to get home.
*Ayla Ranzz loses her gravity-nullifying powers and regains her lightning powers.
*Speaking of Lyle Norg, he's alive again and wants to return to the weird world where he had briefly been seen in # 299. Jacques Foccart agrees to take him.

This is a much better group of comics than LSH had seen for several months. It handles the split between the new volume and the old really gracelessly and awkwardly, and making room for a new annual certainly doesn't help, but these seven issues just about pull off the transition and tell a really epic adventure pretty well.

In their favor, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen have clearly been reading Marvel's Uncanny X-Men and learned, from Chris Claremont, how to write villains. The clumsy moniker "Legion of Super-Villains" makes more sense to the readers than to many of these characters. Some of these old faces have only survived, awkwardly, into the 1980s because of the old fan demand to see recurring baddies. Radiation Roy, the most obvious example, is lost among them. He's a relic of the silly 1960s, when the Legion was called in by the police to stop space bank robberies, basically. This sort of "crooks do rotten things, by golly" perspective was long buried, and it looks like Levitz just doesn't want to use old characters like Roy, or Saturn Queen, or Cosmic King, all of whom have little to do in this adventure.

Now, Levitz and Giffen had already, in issue # 301, rehabilitated Lightning Lord from a bank robber who fires zap blasts, into something much more chilling and forceful. Here, he resembles Marvel's Magneto more than anybody else. He's lost in his rhetoric, brutal and hateful toward his sister Ayla, and believes that nature itself is speaking to him, reassuring him, via communication only he can hear. He's insane, but he's believably and coldly insane. Unfortunately, the LSV is so large, and features so many promising, newer characters like Zymyr, that the same rehabilitation can't be undertaken for all of the oldies with the space available. Hence, Roy doesn't get a personality upgrade; he's just the butt of a couple of jokes. Zymyr, incidentally, is a big purple tapeworm in a floating bubble. He's from a race with the quite ridiculous name of the Gil'Dishpan.

Structurally, though, this story barely hangs together. Because DC Comics, experimenting with this new shipping cycle of a direct market volume 3 and a newsstand market volume 2, can't be assured that everybody will be able to read all seven parts of this story, the annual and # 316 have to reference the big action in # 1-5 without relying upon them. These are side stories to the main action, and don't slot in as, say, "episode four of seven" like they might. There was one fumble that showed that I did not read them in the correct order. # 4 opens with a reference to Wildfire vanishing, which I thought the story would explain in a few pages. No, it happened toward the end of # 316, which I read after # 5. Not that it mattered much.

Okay, so it's not so much a seven-episode story as it is a five-episode story with two awkward additions bolted on. Even accepting that, it's still weird, because the villains' plot abruptly changes after issue # 2. It begins all dark and ominous about every member swearing a blood oath to kill a Legionnaire. This is mostly abandoned. Their real plot turns out to be to teleport the pain in the ass backwards planet Orando through limbo and to another universe, so all the baddies can be space bank robbers again, basically.

But I think that "Once a Villain..." - to give this story a name - has so many key moments of greatness that it's really easy to overlook the patchy overall plot. First up just has to be the arrival of Steve Lightle on art duties. Holy anna, is this guy ever a find. He takes over from Giffen after # 2 and the book instantly looks so much better. Giffen hit his absolute nadir in my book - even worse than the awful job on "Omen and the Prophet" - with the cover of # 2. This awkwardly-posed cover shows several of the villains attempting to look menacing, but since Giffen drew them with floppy circles on their shoulders instead of skulls with facial musculature, they look like a bunch of balloons on scarecrow bodies. The interior work is not much better. Lightle kicks things back the way LSH should look. He's a terrific artist who's never received his credit from fandom, frankly one of the best artists to ever work in the superhero genre. There are still some production problems, however. Colorist Carl Gafford's effects and things certainly look better on the whiter Baxter paper than on newsprint, but the downside is that the process shows off the flaws whenever a colored element is placed over otherwise black on the page. It's sort of like watching a super-hi-def digital remaster of Thunderbirds and wondering when they replaced those thin silver strings that hold up the puppets with big black cords.

And then things go completely wild when we get to Orando - poor, stupid, King Arthur Orando - and Nemesis Kid lays down the smack. Comics foretell heroes' deaths all the time, but what happens really is stunning. Back in the late 1960s, writer Jim Shooter had introduced four new Legionnaires in a very celebrated series of stories. Nemesis Kid, with his adaptation power to defeat any single opponent, was almost immediately outed as a traitor, and Ferro Lad died after seven issues. Karate Kid and Princess Projectra remained close while their fellow newcomers were lost. Karate Kid left the team for a solo series, set in the weird wild world of contemporary Earth during the days when Bruce Lee kung fu movies were all the rage, and Projectra, even when most of the guys and ladies in the team were showing off all that skin, was prancing around in a Frederick's of Hollywood outfit. Frankly, both characters were due for retirement. They didn't feel natural; they felt dated and ridiculous, so their happy ending and royal wedding should have been a sweet finale for them.

One year later, the planet is devastated by the villains and millions killed, and Karate Kid, beaten to the last inch of his life by Nemesis Kid, turns and dies heroically shutting down one of the engines that is driving Orando through limbo in a huge explosion. Projectra kills Nemesis Kid by breaking his neck. The villain's corpse is unburied and left to be kicked around by soldiers. What's left of Karate Kid's body is ceremoniously burnt on a funeral pyre, and Projectra gives a final farewell to her friends; Orando will remain in limbo or beyond. She had failed her people, and they want nothing to do with the United Planets or any outside world. Well, to put it mildly, holy shit.

This is so epic, and so amazing, that the dismissive problem of Lyle Norg still hanging around being ignored by everybody for seven months seems extremely weird. That, at least, will get addressed in the next batch of issues. Otherwise, "Once a Villain..." is certainly flawed but still really memorable, a powerful and gut-punching story full of excellent character moments and unexpected, jawdropping results. Most of the baddies get away, and five of our heroes look to be lost forever between dimensions. Especially with Lightle at work, it leaves me really anxious for what comes next.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Princess Knight vol. 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 Princess Knight volume one (Vertical, 2011).

I haven't had the opportunity to pick up any new domestic releases from the great Osamu Tezuka for quite some time, but a really wonderful reader sent me an Amazon gift card, and I figured the least I could do was pick up something from my wish list that I wanted to read and share with y'all.

Princess Knight, a comic that originally ran over three years in the mid-1950s, surprised me somewhat. I knew that it was a lighthearted adventure series for girls - Japanese publishers categorize it and like-minded comics as "shōjo," although the insistence among American fans of Japanese comics to use the same terminology remains baffling to me - but I had no idea just how whimsically it begins, and how dark and mean it becomes. I was expecting a medieval fantasy, but not really a fairy tale. Frankly, it's probably not possible to read it and not find it charming.

Tezuka's habit was to rewrite and recreate his comics after their original publication, and I understand that Vertical's release of Princess Knight, across two volumes, comes from a 1963-66 version for Nakayoshi magazine. It's the story of Sapphire, the only heir to the throne of Silverland, who must masquerade as a boy to inherit. Complicating matters is that she was born with both a "boy heart" and a "girl heart." Her boy heart gives her the talent to master swordfighting. When her girl heart unexpectedly dominates her, usually as a result of evil, magical intervention, she swoons and goes "ohhhhhh" and has to drop her sword. Not, perhaps, a comic for readers who study contemporary gender politics with great intensity.

It begins as light as gossamer and half as deep, but Princess Knight is a pleasant diversion with real surprises. It's dated, certainly, but the fairy tale mice and angels don't detract from the downbeat avenues that the plot takes. When Sapphire and her mother are imprisoned - Sapphire's deception is exposed quite early on thanks to villains getting the queen drunk, although her dual life continues by posing as two different people - it really does look bleak. The artwork is consistently amazing and, honestly, I enjoyed this even more than I thought I might. Recommended for all ages.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Vig

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 Vig (Donald I. Fine, 1991).

Since I enjoyed one of John Lescroart's "son of Holmes" novels featuring a young, and never formally identified, Nero Wolfe, I figured that I owed it to the writer to try some of his other stories. In 1990, he began a long-running series of legal thrillers and detective fiction that feature a pair of protagonists who share friendships and a big pile of recurring characters. Dismas Hardy is a former cop who sometimes works as an attorney and sometimes as a bartender, and Abe Glitsky is a homicide detective in San Francisco.

The 13th Juror and A Certain Justice were both very good books. They were dense and unpredictable and very well written, but each was a little hampered by my personal biases. The woman in Juror who has hired Hardy to get her off a murder rap was so colossally disagreeable and annoying that I stopped caring what would happen to her, and the poor fellow at the center of Justice was caught in such an incredibly horrible situation, much of it, involving the politics down at the DA's office, he's completely ignorant, that I found the experience of reading it really depressing. It has one hell of an ending, mind.

Much more entertaining was The Vig, which preceded those two books and featured Hardy keeping a low profile and serving black-and-tans from the Irish-themed bar that he co-owns with his future brother-in-law. In this one, Rusty Ingraham, an old colleague from the DA's office, stops by to let him know that a killer they'd put away years before and who swore vengeance is out. They plan to arm up and keep an eye out for each other, but Ingraham vanishes almost immediately, his ladyfriend is found dead, and the ex-con, immediately in trouble with the dealers who've moved into his neighborhood, is on the run after one of those thugs gets shot. And then, somehow, the mob gets involved.

I enjoyed this one a lot for its spiraling sense of confusion and Hardy's inability to trust the word of anybody. Hardy believes that Ingraham was using him as an alibi to fake his death and get out of town, but can neither prove it nor find any reason why he would do that, particularly when the bodies keep piling up, and the only one we know for certain that the suspect didn't shoot is one of the dealers.

Overall, I really had fun meeting these characters and seeing Hardy driven to keep looking into a weird situation when it's not at all in his interest to keep digging. The storytelling is clear, even as the plot takes wild left turns, and I was left thinking that Hardy's bar would be a fine place to kick back. Next on my pile from Lescroart is Guilt, which is linked in some way to the characters in A Certain Justice. It's not a situation that I look forward to revisiting, but the characters and the storytelling are so very good that I'm happy to chance it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

LSH Reread, part five

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 310-315, 1984)

Major developments:

*Omen and the Prophet's battle against the LSH, on the sovereign planet of Khundia, has political ramifications. The Khunds fail to get them offworld before Omen's goal - an illegal and lethally dangerous Negaton bomb - is revealed. The bomb destroys Omen and the Prophet, and reveals, in the wreckage, the believed-deceased Legionnaire Lyle Norg.
*I say again, Lyle Norg comes back to life. You'd think that this would be huge.
*Computo is finally reprogrammed, Danielle Foccart is cured, and the team headquarters is rebuilt.
*Dawnstar returns to the team, accepting that Wildfire is, despite his lack of a human body, her soulmate.
*The book splits into two titles, one for the growing "direct market" of comic shops.

This will be a weird entry to write, as I'm certain to be channeling my inner 13 year-old, who turned on these funnybooks with a mercurial and hateful vengeance when they were published. Parenting a 13 year-old girl with wild mood swings and very loud opinions who takes everything way too damn seriously, I can imagine that my views in 1984 must have been pretty intemperate, but you know, even with the sober, calmer opinions of fortysomethinghood, the writers and publishers really did make some extremely weird decisions at this time, and the resulting comics truly are not very good at all. I can see why the earlier material - just a few months earlier - thrilled me so much at the time, because they remain, demonstrably, very good comics. But man alive, did they ever hit a bad, and really strange patch in 1984. To do so when an impatient and demanding 13 year-old is risking one-fourth of his weekly allowance on them, well, that's a recipe for grudges.

In the previous installment, I explained that issues # 307-310 are a four-part story about two overpowered, deity-level villains causing all sorts of violence and volume in a big, stupid, outer space fight. One thing I'd forgotten until parenthood is that the perception of time is totally different when you're a kid. Four months is an eternity. And so # 310 had been another terrible issue of noise, no imagination, and really bad artwork as Keith Giffen continued his new and painful experimentation in swiping. And it ends with a really stunning revelation: when Omen/Prophet gets sucked into another dimension, the other dimension spits Lyle Norg back into ours.

Now about a year before, in # 299, we briefly saw Lyle, as his successor Jacques Foccart stumbles across him in some hallucinatory, weird otherworld, but we're never sure whether the incident is a dream or fantasy. But in terms of what this means, well, it's enormous. In the 1980s, superheroes simply didn't come back from the dead like they embarrassingly do today. Especially in LSH, when the three deaths - four, if you count Luorno's third body - of heroes was something that the survivors remembered and honored. So 13 year-old me was expecting this stunner of an ending to be followed in the next issue. And it wasn't.

# 311 was another split issue to help Giffen out with his deadlines - he was a new dad, that's understandable - with one 12-page story drawn by him and a second drawn by the late Gene Colan. It didn't take me long in life to appreciate Colan a lot. When I was in high school, I thrilled to his 1970s work for Marvel on Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula. He was one of the giants. But when I was in middle school, I couldn't stand him. I probably first saw his work in the February 1982 issue of Wonder Woman ( # 288) and hated it so much that I eventually stopped buying the comic, which had been one of my favorites since I was old enough to read on my own. Honestly, his 1980s DC work is not as strong as his 1970s Marvel work - and you sit down with Wonder Woman # 293 and tell me I'm wrong - but while it didn't deserve the teenage spitting and hate that I roared at it, the comic still isn't very good.

Then things got worse. Okay, so in # 312, we're bound to start dealing with Lyle Norg, right? No, he gets a sentence of backhanded acknowledgement. The story is dull and unimportant - it's a two-part "police procedural" about Colossal Boy and Element Lad going undercover in the Science Police to find a blackmailer - the artwork is terrible, and there's a special announcement about something infuriating. My friends and acquaintances who grew up with British comics remember the cold childhood fury of the "exciting news inside, chums!" announcement that your favorite comic was to be canceled and merged with another title. Here's my version of it.

See, comics at the time were mainly sold on the spinner racks in drug stores and Majik Markets, and, once in a great while, you'd find back issues at the Cumberland Mall antique shows. Or, you could go by Benny the Book Trader and maybe get a back issue with a little U penciled on the first page for ten cents under cover price. The Book Trader was - in the suburbs of Atlanta - among the first stores to form the "direct market." News vendors, Eckerd Drugs or convenience stores could return unsold comics for credit against the next batch to come in but had limited control over what they received. The direct market, which came to dominate comic book sales in North America for the next thirty years, paid up front for non-returnable stock, but ordered specific quantities of what they wanted and believed would sell through.

DC and Marvel reasoned, correctly, that the growing segment of older comics readers would pay a higher price for better quality comics, printed on better paper and with higher production values, allowing superior color and without the occasional problems of badly-registered color overlays. At the time, DC's two best-selling titles were Teen Titans and LSH, and so the company started a very weird new policy for them. After the July 1984 issue, the "main story" moved from the existing newsprint title and into the Baxter book, priced almost twice as much - a then whopping $1.25, which isn't what you want to spend when your parents, expecting you to save all three dollars of your allowance, are incapable of hearing any prices without reminding you that in the good old days, funnybooks was only a dime - and only available in the direct market, or, shops like the Book Trader, where I was not guaranteed the chance to visit very often.

The August 1984 issue was taken over by what even 13 year-old me recognized was going to be the B-Team. I don't remember how I came to understand this from house ads and letters page announcements, but while Levitz and Giffen would be plotting the stories, they would be executed by others. # 314, for example, had a main story, in which the traitor Ontiir, who'd been working for the Emerald Empress back in # 302, ran back to his bosses in the Dark Circle and got Sun Boy, Brainy and Supergirl into a fight, that was drawn by newcomers Terry Shoemaker & Karl Kesel. The 8-page backup, again inked by Kesel and drawn by veteran George Tuska, was dialogued by Mindy Newell from Levitz and Giffen's plot. The backup ran for three issues and told the story of Mysa the White Witch's origin.

The plan was for twelve months in this format: new stories in both the slightly retitled Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes (volume 2) # 314-325, and the Baxter paper, direct market Legion of Super-Heroes (Volume 3) # 1-12. After the first year, Tales would become a reprint book, and # 326 would reprint LSH (Volume 3) # 1. Does that make any sense? Believe it or not, it lasted for a good while, since so many people were still buying their comics from newsstands and quickie-marts. The reprints in Volume 2 continued until the end of 1987, and the final issue of Tales, # 354, reprinted LSH (Volume 3) # 29.

As an adult, organizing the comics into a reading order is slightly problematic, since the ongoing stories only wink and wave at each other while moving along. To be honest, I'm not as familiar with Tales as I am Volume 3, because when, years later, toward the end of high school, when I started going back to find all the books that I missed, I only wanted Volume 3. The twelve issues of Tales just didn't seem to count. I eventually bought most of them, but can't honestly claim that I ever really cared that much, even during those times when my passion for Legion resumed in a big way.

And Lyle? Dude comes back from the dead in # 310 and finally gets about three pages of acknowledgement across # 314 and # 315. He's mopey, wants to be left alone, and wishes that he was still resting in peace. What in the world was the point of bringing him back to life - if that's what's happened - if that's all that Levitz and Giffen wanted to do with him? It is really, really weird.

But I never saw it at the time. I was hating the artwork after seven months of lousy stories and pictures, and this instantly-abandoned (or so it seemed) subplot about Lyle offended the bejezus out of me as a kid, and now they were taking the REAL Legion to some stores where I couldn't always go and charging more for it and leaving me with leftovers from minor leaguers. I dropped the book in the blazing, eternal fury of a pissed-off eighth-grader.

Plus, I'd found Uncanny X-Men, which I liked better.

Next time, again, the reading order is tricky and fumbling, but I think it works best if I look at the first five issues of the Baxter book, the third Annual, and Tales # 316.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Black Tower

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 Black Tower (Faber & Faber, 1975).

I have always felt that Unnatural Death was the first of P.D. James' detective novels to really nail it for me, but the fifth book, The Black Tower, had, for some reason, always left me cold. I wonder why that was. Rereading James, I came to this book again for probably the fourth time, and this reading had me completely captivated. Just goes to show you that when an author whom you enjoy so much seems to fumble, it might be worth another try. Or four.

The story begins with Dalgliesh recovering from a life-threatening bout of what the doctors thought might have been leukemia, but he lucked out. He's told to spend several weeks recuperating, and he gets a letter from a very old acquaintance, a priest who has been working as the chaplain at an eccentric nursing home for the disabled way out on some isolated coast, asking for him to visit and give some confidential advice. But Dalgliesh is some days in visiting, and arrives to find his old friend dead and himself the owner of a great theological library, left in Father Badderley's will.

Despite himself, Dalgliesh starts looking into this odd little community, with its robed attendants and vow-of-silence shared meals, because this is one of two recent deaths which, while apparently natural, seem too coincidental. There is, of course, a killer at large in the small group, and the murders are not going to stop just because a Scotland Yard commander on convalescent leave is residing in one of the cottages.

I guess this book did not appeal to me because the killer's plot really is convoluted and requires some handwaving to accept the lack of reason paired with such meticulous planning. This will never be my favorite Dalgliesh story for that alone. But the prose is so much better than I ever credited it. I had been skimming the surface, and was missing just how creepy and oppressive this tale is. Some of the sequences are really horrific, and, focused on the detail, I found power that I didn't know this book possessed.

James is a challenging writer, piling on the detail of her characters' psychology and backstory. This much more complex approach, when compared with other writers I've sampled recently, results in books that take a little longer to get through. I can usually finish a Robert B. Parker in a day, but James takes me a week. It's almost always a very pleasant experience. Recommended.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beyond the Bulldog: Jack Davis

Today, a slight change-up here at the old Bookshelf blog. Regular readers know that I'm a huge fan of Mad and its classic artists. Jack Davis is certainly one of the greats, and a Georgia boy and UGA alumnus besides. There are a few collections of Davis's artwork available, and, if you love me, I have a birthday in about twenty days, you know. But even if you're not in the market for buying big expensive books from Fantagraphics for some guy whose work you sometimes read on the Internet, you should definitely be making plans to fly, drive, or hitchhike to Athens to check out this amazing exhibit of some of his work.

This exhibit is on display through January 6 2013 and features a couple of dozen original pages by Davis, among them the cover to Mad # 27, along with some quite rare memorabilia. These include some of his LP record sleeves and comics, including an issue of Humbug and the first of two issues of Yak Yak, a much sought-after humor book published by Dell, which features both scripts and artwork by Davis.

Mr. Davis explained to an enthralled audience that he did not much care for writing, preferring to illustrate scripts and ideas that others, particularly the great Harvey Kurtzman, brought to him. He was present for the opening of the exhibit, which is curated by my old friend, the excellent cartoonist Patrick Dean, one week ago. At 88 and a little hard of hearing, Davis has lost a spring or two in his step, but he's the epitome of the southern gentleman, absolutely gracious and kind and free in his compliments to the many creators with whom he has worked over the years.

The exhibit is entitled "Beyond the Bulldog" in part because, in Athens, Davis is probably better known for all of his iconic paintings and illustrations of UGA's Hairy Dawg - many hundreds of 'em - than he is for his movie posters, Time or TV Guide covers. Now, Patrick gave a very good speech before the large crowd at the Georgia Museum of Art, and one of his points got me thinking. He noted that Davis gave more character to Hairy Dawg than just about any other mascot in sports, and that's certainly true. You know more about Hairy's "personality" - such as it is - from any two drawings of the big bulldog than any representations of other college's little stars. But that got me thinking that one of the real signs of genius to Davis is that he gave character and life to everybody else's mascots as well. Sure, they're almost always twisted and mangled and crushed underneath Hairy's huge, mud-covered cleats, but if you want to know who Vanderbilt's Wacky Mr. Commodore is - I have no idea what the character's really called; we just named him that after suffering through that school's sub-minor league baseball pregame shenanigans one warm October evening in Nashville - he's present in Davis's drawings of him, and not from anything that Vanderbilt University has ever commissioned. I don't know whether it even ever occurred to Davis that he was defining Florida's gator as an overweight blob with halitosis as he drew Hairy stepping on him, but for untold thousands of UGA faithful, that's all that gator is. Now that's genius.

The day before, UGA had treated its fans to a predictably poor first quarter against Ole Miss before we woke up and remembered that we were meant to win the game. It was a big win, and a great second half, but the scare wasn't appreciated in the Davis household. "They shouldn't do that to an old man," he said with a smile.

Well, okay, I've possibly undermined the intent of the exhibit by talking so much about Hairy Dawg here, but when you look at the mud on the soldiers' boots in original Frontline Combat pages, or see those incredibly detailed mobs of people that he draws like nobody else, you'll see all this incredible work coming from the same perspective. Whatever he draws, be it a mascot, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, Gerald Ford, or Alfred E. Neuman, it's inspiring and amazing.

This exhibit is appearing at the Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, through January 6. Admission is free, although a small donation is requested. Copies of Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture are available in the museum gift shop.

(And, of course, while you're in Athens, you'll need something to eat! Stop by our food blog to get some recommendations about good meals in the Classic City.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

LSH Reread, part four

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, Annual # 2 and 304-309, 1983-84)

Major developments:

*Projectra and Karate Kid get hitched. They're the third pair of Legionnaires to marry, we're told, and they formally resign from the team to rule the planet Orando as Queen and Prince Consort.
*Shvaughn Erin and Element Lad have deduced that the Shrinking Violet we've been watching for months is an impostor. The real Salu Digby has been abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk. The "Vi" who has - in an almost big a surprise as the abduction - married Colossal Boy is a Durlan actress named Yera. The biggest surprise comes with the revelation that Colossal Boy intends to stay married to her, and, sorry, Queen Projectra, but it turns out y'all're the fourth Legionnaire wedding after all.
*Dawnstar breaks things off with Wildfire and takes a leave of absence from the team.
*Element Lad is elected team leader.
*Garth and Imra announce that they're going to have a baby.
*Two ultra-powerful beings, The Prophet and Omen, show up and start yelling at everybody.
*Keith Giffen buys a bunch of José Muñoz comics and studies them very, very closely.

This run of LSH is one that I'll always remember, because it goes from a huge high, and the peak of my teenage fandom, to the first of the three really big stumbling blocks that had me walking away from the comic. It's amazing, in retrospect, how quickly this happened, but that's teenagers for you. Within ten months of deciding I would be a fan for life, the quality of the book fell off a cliff between issues # 306 and # 307. It would recover, but only after I abandoned it.

But first up, there's Dave Gibbons. He illustrated the second annual, which is really a silly story in which five Legionnaires get lost in time and get into a scrap with Durlans posing as Greek gods, and I had not loved artwork so much since the passing of Dick Dillin, who had illustrated all those wonderful Justice League of America comics that I enjoyed as a child. Soon, I would find Gibbons' artwork in Marvel's American-sized reprints of the very fun Doctor Who comic, and then Watchmen, and then all of the stories that he'd done for 2000 AD. This was my introduction to his work, and I was amazed by it.

But the big deal here is the story about Vi. In the three previous chapters of this reread, I've made sure not to refer to Violet as Salu Digby, because she was abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk, and a Durlan actress named Yera was sent to impersonate her in the Legion. She fell in love with Colossal Boy, which was a dream come true for him, as he'd been crushing on Salu for a few years and was pleased that she finally reciprocated. Now, it must be said that Yera agreeing to marry Gim in the first place is just about the height of thoughtlessness and crappy behavior, but I think it's really interesting that creators Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen decided to keep them together. Gim, heart-on-his-sleeve sensitive guy that he is, forgives Yera for the deception, accepting that she personally had nothing to do with Salu's kidnapping and was oblivious to her incarceration. Yera offers to annul the marriage since she came into it with false pretenses, but he accepts her as she is.

As tough as some of that is to swallow, I'm glad that Levitz and Giffen stuck with it, because it allowed them to explore some new character quirks. He therefore becomes half of the third Legionnaire marriage, and the only one to a spouse who isn't also a superhero. Also, since his mother is Earth's president, and since there are considerable biases among humanity against Durlans, that opens some interesting political avenues. There will also be the business of how Salu, once she recovers and rejoins the team, feels about Yera and her old buddy Colossal Boy.

Issue # 306 is a flashback-filled story looking at Star Boy's history. The flashbacks are drawn, with reliable energy, by old hand Curt Swan, while the framing is drawn by Giffen and Mahlstedt in what would be the last example of the style for which Giffen was known. It's a great story, too. Basically, it's Star Boy kicking back with Wildfire to watch the election returns come in, and hoping that Dream Girl will lose so that she'll have time to pay attention to him again. (This issue was mentioned by comedian John Hodgman in a USA Today interview just last week. Thanks to Matt for the heads-up!)

Everything changed, and, to my mind, in a terrible way, with # 307. Thirteen year-olds aren't known for being able to express much in the way of art criticism - in fact, forty year-olds are pretty often awful with it, too - but all I knew then was that, suddenly, Giffen's art looked like it fell off a cliff. There are, certainly, interesting panel layouts, but faces became elongated and sloppy, anatomy was all over the map, the camera angles were utterly bizarre, and there's a sense of energy and movement that, combined with how weird everybody looks and how incredibly thick the inking is - surely Mahlstedt wasn't responsible for these figures?! - gives the whole comic a sense of being rushed, wildly.

It doesn't help that the four-part story, "Omen and the Prophet," suffers for two big reasons. First, episodes two and three are shorter than usual. Part two is 14 pages, with George Tuska doing a much more competent job with a nine-page story in which Gim and Yera meet his mother, and part three is 13 pages, with Pat Broderick again turning in a much more professional looking job with ten pages about Projectra and Karate Kid. It really, really feels like Giffen was falling over deadlines and not leaving Mahlstedt time to ink anything. To be fair, Giffen had been extraordinarily busy, what with his LSH commitments and also launching another DC title, The Omega Men, and his son being born, which can be a huge crunch. But this is nevertheless really slapdash work, and the story is a complete bore as well, with a barely-coherent plot about overpowered loudmouths yelling a lot.

As if Giffen's work was not aggravating enough on its own, it soon transpired that the artist had been appropriating and swiping the comics of an Argentinian cartoonist named José Muñoz. The Comics Journal, in its February 1986 issue, called Giffen out on how flagrantly he was pilfering from Muñoz, doing much to derail his previously fan-favorite career, and giving his reputation a black eye that took decades to recover.

By that time, I'd already dropped LSH. I remember looking over some recent back issues in 1986 and a friend told me about the swiping. I shrugged it off, but was a little pleased to understand just why the artwork in my previously-favorite comic had turned so awful. More on the story behind that in our next installment.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crogan's Loyalty

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 Crogan's Loyalty (Oni, 2012).

I'll tell you what I don't like about Chris Schweizer's series of Crogan comics: they come out far too infrequently. Don't get me wrong; they're worth the wait, probably take this side of forever to research, write and draw, and each is huge fun. The third, Crogan's Loyalty, was released earlier this year, but since I have not gone out comic shopping for quite some time, it remained something to purchase some other day. Happily, my wife surprised me by picking up a copy from Schweizer when she saw him at Dragon*Con.

This time out, the heroes are the squabbling brothers William and Charles, who find themselves on opposite sides of the American Revolution. They are the grandchildren of the pirate character from the first book, back in 2008. This time out, the characters are set in the tough wilderness of the colonies. William has found himself a sweetheart who lives with her family deep in the forest near Indian land, and Charles has sworn loyalty to the crown and works as a guide for Hessian troops.

As with the previous stories, this is a fantastic, unpredictable adventure with high stakes and a degree of attention that few of Schweizer's peers come close to meeting. I love his artwork, and that deep, dark curve to his lines, and I love how incredibly well he lays out the action scenes. It's an amazingly fun story, certainly worth spending a couple of days with. If you've not read the previous stories, you will certainly want to track them down afterward, and then join me in impatiently waiting for the next one.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Our Lady of Pain

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 Our Lady of Pain (St. Martin's, 2007).

When I started reading Marion Chesney / MC Beaton's Agatha Raisin stories, I thought that I was settling in for a long, fun run, but I turned on them during the third book. In part because they were all plot contrivances and in part because Agatha's self-destructive romance with her neighbor was infuriating me, my eyes started glazing over, and I abandoned them midway through the one about the wellspring.

But her Edwardian Murder Mystery series appealed to me, as I enjoy reading stories set in this period. The first book introduced a gang of splendid, fun, characters and, once again, I settled into a run. I knew that this one would be a shorter one, as Chesney only wrote four books with these characters. I suppose because they do require a lot of research, and she seems to want to release a new novel every eight months or so, it was starting to become a burden.

And, sure as shooting, it became a burden to read them. Feeling like the absolute worst of media tie-in novelisations, these are uncomplicated plot-driven exercises that just stampede along with minimal character development and no depth or discussion. Some stuff happens, and then some more stuff, and then some more stuff, and it keeps happening, and, worse, characters get unreasonably angry with each other for perceived slights thanks to a determined lack of communication.

So this time out, Captain Cathcart starts escorting one of his clients while assisting her with a problem, and his sometimes fiancee, Lady Rose Summer, gets entirely bent out of shape about it, and then gets accused of her murder, and then lots of things happen, and Daisy and Becket finally hook up and then get married, and then unnatural roadblocks keep getting thrown at them, and then they're in Paris and Lady Rose has a chaperone, and then, and then... honestly, the mishaps stop being funny and end up aggravating and tedious.

Mercifully, the book does draw the series to closure. I see that some fans are hoping for another one day, but I'm fine with things ending like this. They didn't end with anything like the promise of the first book, but I'll credit her for not leaving many details hanging. Not recommended, sadly.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

LSH Reread, part three

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 297-303, 1983)

Major developments:

*Following events in the previous issues, Cosmic Boy's mother dies of radiation poisoning.
*Duplicate Boy calls out Colossal Boy for stealin' his honey, then decides Vi's not worth it and splits, leaving Earth.
*Chameleon Boy has lost his powers and decides to bond with his dad, quadrillionaire RJ Brande, who, not content with using "By Ymir" as an exclamation, also uses the words "fershlugginer" and, three times in one issue, "verdammt." Evidently, Durla is not an alien planet at all, but a neighborhood in Brooklyn that borders Potrzebie.
*Their swanky new headquarters is formally dedicated, and the Adult Legion story that foretold Shadow Lass's death is explained away as a possible future from an alternate reality.
*Karate Kid and Projectra announce that they're getting married.
*The Emerald Empress, previously depicted as the least effective villain among the Fatal Five, is redesigned as an incredible force of evil and bitchiness somewhere between Servalan from Blake's 7 and Joan Collins' character from Dynasty.
*Shvaughn Erin and Element Lad certainly look like they're dating to anybody not in denial about Element Lad's sexuality. We meet Shvaughn's roommate, Officer Gigi Cusimano, and Sun Boy instantly starts chatting her up.

When 12 year-old me first read LSH # 300, my mind was permanently blown. The frame story is set in the present, mostly around a few not-all-that-important events, but also at the Science Institute. You really have to handwave some magic storytelling stuff and pretend that it's science, but basically, Brainiac Five and his clever pals Rond Vidar and Professor Clicks-a-Lot are helping Andrew Nolan, the insane brother of the long-deceased Legionnaire Ferro Lad. Andrew has fantasy nightmares of the past or the future of alternate reality LSHs that show up on a video screen and keep him screaming in torment as heroes die ugly and awful deaths. Brainy's cure - and magic storytelling doesn't get more magical - is to twist the vertical hold knob and tune him into a happy alternate reality where Andrew, not insane, was welcomed into the team as Ferro Lad's replacement, whereupon Andrew sighs contentedly and, with a "pop," goes to live in that world. Okay, then.

But the nightmares are important, not the frame story. Illustrated by a who's who of LSH artists from the past, such as Howard Bender, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, and Dave Cockrum, most of these things are just incredibly ugly and violent. Sadly, I can't imagine them having much impact to a generation of comic readers inured to such things by the bloodthirsty bathtub fantasies of Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis and their ilk, but back when superheroes didn't get their brains blown out on-panel, or kill bad guys by breaking their necks, seeing it happen here was a complete jawdropper. I read and read and reread this story, and, many years later, when I needed a character to suffer a wild laser blast-through-the-chest death in one of the comics that I drew, I swiped Dave Cockrum's depiction of Tyroc's end.

I really like the way that Levitz and Giffen amp up the villains. Both Lightning Lord and Emerald Empress are shown to be incredibly powerful and uncontrollable. The unspoken effect of Lightning Lord's rampage is that Garth is probably every bit as dangerous and has the potential of being lethal to anybody around him, but, aware how anybody could be killed by his electricity, he deliberately reins himself far back.

I also like the way that they chose to depict Durla as an incredibly weird and alien environment. Chameleon Boy really suffered from his My Favorite Martian-era design in my book; real Durlans, about whom more in the next entry, typically choose to look quasi-humanoid in deference to everybody else, when they're really disgusting, slimy messes who live on a disgusting, slimy, messy planet.

There's lots more that I'm going to say - of course - about Colossal Boy and Vi in the next installment, but it is worth noting that the really awesome fight between Gim and Duplicate Boy is one of my favorites. Duplicate Boy is an interesting character. He's a distant supporting player in a different super-team, the Heroes of Lallor, who basically has every super power that you've ever heard of. (Grant Morrison later turned that idea on its head with a character who has every super power that you haven't heard of. As soon as you think of a power, she lost it.) There are always periods in comics where characters are made to be more impressive by being more awesome than everybody else by virtue of all the things they can do; we call these periods those occasions when comics are trying very hard to appeal to ten year-olds. So Duplicate Boy can duplicate all his opponents' powers, and gets to knock Gim all over the Himalayas by being as giant as him, while also as strong as Superboy. There is some great good-natured grumbling dialogue among the Legionnaires sent to break up their lovers' squabble over Vi, because nobody wants to take the kind of beating that Duplicate Boy can lash out, and certainly not for such a dumb reason. I love it.

It's an absolutely terrific run of comics, and has me anxious to see again what happens next.