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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe

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 Archie Meets Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2012).

I thought that I was through with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe for a time after my second pass through the corpus. Then I read that Robert Goldsborough, who had written seven novels continuing the tales of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin into the early nineties, at least five of which I had enjoyed a good deal, was working on a prequel to the series. Goldsborough's last Wolfe adventure, The Missing Chapter, was published nearly twenty years ago, and I was pleased to learn that we'd have another story of these squabbling associates and friends, with the sparkling wordplay and fun character quirks that elevate all of their many adventures.

I was fortunate to receive a prerelease edition of the novel, but I'm sad to say that I'm of two minds about it. Goldsborough is the expert, and I bow to his craft, but this is far from the meeting that I had envisaged. What I can say, gladly, is that Goldsborough tells his story extremely well, and uses Stout's supporting cast effectively. He gives some players, notably Del Bascom and Bill Gore, more page time than Stout ever did, and since Saul Panzer takes the lead in the groundwork investigation, Goldsborough shows us just why Archie has such respect for his talent and ability. It does raise the question, however, about why Panzer is so accommodating and cordial to the newcomer. And, of course, Cramer, Rowcliffe and Stebbins are all present and correct, growling at the private eyes and threatening their licenses.

That's perhaps my problem: it's too by-the-book. Despite Goldsborough's genuine success in crafting a believable Prohibition-era mystery - it concerns the kidnapping of Tommie Williamson, as alluded in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance - and grounding it firmly in the period, he plays it too safe. I confess to some bias; some months ago, I really enjoyed an early novel by John Lescroart called Rasputin's Revenge, which unofficially, and pseudonymously, places a younger Nero Wolfe in action in Imperial Russia during the Great War, and it struck me how much more vibrant and fun Wolfe is when stripped of his rules and routines. Some of the most memorable imagery within Stout's novels come from those instances, such as Too Many Cooks or his war against the criminal Arnold Zeck, where Wolfe is uprooted from his comforts. I had hoped in vain to read of Wolfe putting his world into place, but, sadly, his routine is already set in stone. The only difference is that, rather than Archie explaining to a prospective client that his boss is up in the orchid rooms from four to six, it's Panzer explaining it to Archie.

While this is a huge quibble for me, I can imagine that Wolfe's many fans will happily overlook it just for the satisfaction and the genuine pleasure of returning to the brownstone and enjoying more time with one of detective fiction's greatest characters. Both in constructing a good mystery, and in detailing the too-young-to-vote Archie Goodwin, Goldsborough really succeeds, and while he's unfamiliar with New York City and new to the detective game, there's an honest and realistic spark to Goodwin as a person. When Wolfe offers him a permanent position in his household, it's natural and believable.

I also have to credit Goldsborough for playing within the rather ridiculous rules of time within the original corpus. Readers are forced to handwave away the fact that none of the regular or recurring players seem to age within the forty-year span of Stout's novels, because the tradition is that each story is set around the time of its publication. Consequently, a story that takes place six or seven years before Fer-de-Lance has to be a story set around 1928. Goldsborough does a fine job evoking the time, with attendant quirks of language ("autos," "beanery"), technology, and customs, but while I can imagine that many readers will finish this book hoping for Wolfe and Archie's next adventure, it leaves me hoping that, if Goldsborough does have another story in mind, it is set in 1924 or thereabout, and is a tale of a Wolfe who has not yet become sedentary and hidebound. That's what I'd like to read. Recommended for Wolfe's fans.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Please Pass the Guilt

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 Please Pass the Guilt (Viking, 1973).

When I first read Rex Stout's considerable body of work, I found myself running out of steam at the end, and it felt like there were at least four books that I just blew through as quickly as possible to get to the last one, the masterful Family Affair. If I may express an unpopular opinion, Stout really did write too darn many of these stories, and he began repeating himself even before the 1960s, but his plots and the sparkling wit of his storytelling went a long way toward papering over the problems.

On my second read, I was in no hurry, perceived or otherwise, and I resolved to do right by Please Pass the Guilt, the penultimate of the stories, and which suffered the worst of my impatience a couple of years back. But the reality is that it's incredibly dreary, just Wolfe-by-the-numbers. There is, briefly, the twist that the television network executive who was killed in an explosion might not have been the intended target, but Stout wasn't able to drive the storyline past the interminable delays and roadblocks caused by the rules around the characters.

A good quarter of the book is spent just drumming up somebody to serve as the client, and then there's the long-winded problem of tediously getting everybody to Wolfe's office for another of his meetings... at this point, it really feels like Stout was completely bored and fed up with his own structure, and, restless and aggravated by all the hoops that he had to jump through to play by these rules, he put his characters through the same grind in every bit as bad of a mood.

Desperate for some levity or humor, I found myself casting the roles of the players with actors who were active in Hollywood in 1973. I figured parts for David Janssen, Peter Falk, Ed Asner and Loretta Swit before concluding that any book that gives a fellow nothing more to do but pretend it's one of those old Million Dollar Movies of the Week doesn't have a lot to say at all, really. Not recommended.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

LSH Reread, part two

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 290-296, 1982-83)

Major developments:

* "The Great Darkness Saga." The classic 20th Century villain Darkseid emerges after hundreds of years away from galactic events. He pulls the information about the planet Daxam from Mon-El's mind and gets himself a super-powered army, three billion strong.
* Supergirl makes her first return visit to the 30th Century after more than a decade.
* Dream Girl is elected team leader.
* Dream Girl's sister Mysa, the White Witch, joins the team. Blok starts macking on her almost immediately.
* Ayla (as Light Lass) leaves the team.
* Colossal Boy and Vi begin dating.
* Cosmic Boy's younger brother Pol is seriously injured.

Naturally, "The Great Darkness Saga" dominates this run of seven issues. It's a five-part story - at the time of publication an unusually long one - with two issues that deal with aftermaths. Paul Levitz is the writer throughout, with the art team of Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt providing most of the artwork. Episode five of "The Great Darkness Saga" is an extra-length 41 pages, rather than the usual 25. Episode two, however, is only 18 pages. There is a separate seven-page backup story, illustrated by Howard Bender and Rodin Rodriquez, set during the adventure and focusing on the three founding members. Similarly, Bender assists with issue # 295; Giffen and Mahlstedt illustrate seven pages of framework around a flashback story set during the team's early days that is drawn by Bender.

I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the flashback, "The Origin of the Universe File," more than I did the epic. I guess it's because, despite its scale and scope, "The Great Darkness Saga" is simply a standard superhero adventure with the team all getting together to overcome the gigantic threat of the day. It's not at all bad for its genre, and occasionally wonderful - especially when Supergirl punches Darkseid into orbit, only to have him instantly "Boom Tube" his way back to the planet to clobber her from behind - but it really does feel like a story that's been copied and duplicated by so many similar superhero epics over the last thirty years that its oomph has been lost. There's also, however, a ridiculously fun double-page splash where Giffen, with a wink and a grin, poses his characters like Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam."

No, the "Universe File" story appeals to me a little more for its very strange and welcome take on the old DC continuity of the Green Lanterns. It shows 'em up to be a bunch of thugs operating on the behalf of galactic tyrants, basically. The Legion is summoned to the Time Institute, where scientists have been injured by a weird bolt-from-the-beginning-of-time. It's DC lore that anybody who attempts to view the creation of the universe briefly sees a huge hand holding a galaxy, and then weird lightning blasts them. The Guardians of the Universe - those blue-skinned short fellows in red robes who control the Green Lanterns - have decreed that nobody, anywhere, has the right to attempt to use time travel to look back at creation, and want to punish anybody who tries. Some cheek!

The frame story around this flashback sees Ayla leaving the team, and is an example of the occasionally troubling way that Levitz writes some of these relationships. I believe that he gets some of them very right and very honest - Thom clearly loves Nura more than she does him, and theirs isn't a relationship that's going to last for many years - but there are ugly and one-dimensional examples of the girls being demanding harpies and the boys being overprotective control freaks. There's no two beans about it; Ayla straight up tells Brin that she's quitting the team and going home to Winath, and he's got a day to decide whether he's coming with her. Then she catches him kicking back in a rec room with Blok and watching the flashback adventure on television and yells at him for not taking her demands seriously. Yikes. Good riddance, Ayla.

But it's not just the young ladies who are acting like jerks. You know how Duplicate Boy catches his girlfriend lounging around naked with Gim? He's actually several planetary systems away and spying on her with telescopic super-vision. One of his teammates tells him to pay attention; they're supposed to be rebuilding some broken cities or something. Evidently there is not a 30th Century equivalent of Facebook. That assumes that Vi is able to use the correct password to change her relationship status to "It's complicated." More on that soon, of course.

I like the way Giffen and Mahlstedt use establishing shots, and design a strange, weird and consistent architecture for future Earth. I think that their intentions are often ruined by the reality of the production. These comics, with their limited coloring options and register-printing, often see the details painted over by the color. Carl Gafford, the colorist, certainly tries amazing things, and occasionally succeeds, but he's hampered by the technology available to him. Should this material ever be printed in DC's black-and-white Showcase line, much of what Gafford does with video images and special effects will be lost completely, because he's working outside of any solid linework by Giffen and Mahlstedt.

I also really like how Giffen wants to get away from basic humanoid design. Toward the end of this run, Mon-El and Shady take a few weeks' leave after he had been so seriously injured by Darkseid, and decide to hang out on a place called The Science Asteroid. Its caretaker is this ugly turtle-slug thing, who leaves a trail of slime behind him as he shuffles along. Following him around is a tiny little robot that sucks up the slime. What a great little concept!

Now, many years before this run of stories, there had been a celebrated flash-forward look at what the Legionnaires would be doing as adults. In retrospect, this story is probably best remembered for the very awkward way that the adult Legionnaires decided they were grown-ups by changing their "teen hero" names from Lad, Boy, or Kid into "Man," making their already clunky monikers sound almost lovably boring and dull. I also recall Garth and Ayla's brother Mekt adopting a Snidely Whiplash mustache. Why this story was celebrated by anybody is a mystery, but one of its revelations was that Shadow Lass didn't make it very far into her career. Her statue is in the Hall of Heroes with the inscription "Died saving the Science Asteroid," leading many fans reading these stories in 1983 to suffer cardiac arrest. Nobody paid any attention to turtle-slug slime guy; Levitz was setting up Shady's death! Or not, as it would turn out.

Shady and Mon-El's relationship, incidentally, was one of those that doesn't feature one of the two acting like a demented hothead all the time. I like the way that they, and Jo and Tinya, have a more mature focus. Even Jo can be mature, when Tinya tells him to, anyway.

More in a couple of weeks!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Loose Balls

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 Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association (Simon & Schuster, 1990).

Five and a bit years ago, I met a fellow who was - I'm not kidding - every bit as angry that the Kentucky Colonels didn't move to the NBA as he was in 1976. He'll go to his grave kicking dirt on the shoes of Indiana Pacers fans.

The Pacers, along with the New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets, had previously belonged to an upstart league called the American Basketball Association. Those people who could attend this league's games in the days before wall-to-wall sports coverage across dozens of channels really enjoyed the competitions, the personalities, the slam dunks, the three-pointers, the fourteen-inch-high afros, and everything that exemplified this scrappy, in-your-face league and its shoestring budgets. Those who saw Dr. J in his earliest days, or a wild man like Marvin Barnes, swear that they played a very special and crazier game. Sports historians say that the ABA's attitude took over the NBA, and that the staid, team-based game of basketball was changed permanently by the ABA's cult of personality.

Speaking of personalities, this league had them in spades. Marvin Barnes, who later played for Detroit and Buffalo in the 1970s before burning out, was, by any definition, a complete lunatic. In one fabulous story, not understanding how time zones work, he refused to fly from Louisville back to St. Louis, because it appears that the plane will land a minute before it takes off. Blowing off practices, losing cars, destroying hotel rooms, this guy was a complete nut before such behavior was really known outside of rock stars.

I picked up an interest in minor league sports and defunct leagues a few years back, and was interested in seeing a Will Ferrell comedy called Semi-Pro, which suggested there was an additional ABA team, the fictional Flint Tropics, though I never did. This film seems to have prompted either a new print run or a new round of publicity for Terry Pluto's 1990 book Loose Balls, making it more readily known to readers. "Oral histories" have become quite common over the last decade or so, but this style was apparently still new enough to spark some critical grumbling when it was released. Pluto doesn't insert much of a narrative into the book; rather, he organizes his interviews into a roughly chronological narrative with little side stories of various teams, players or events.

It does feel a little longer than perhaps it needs to be, and indeed it takes a while for the story to get going, since the initial tales of potential owners grumbling for power go on for what seems like sixty pages. Once play begins, and the characters start bouncing off each other with fun anecdotes and history, it becomes a much breezier book, almost light at 440 pages.

I would have preferred color photos and a little more of a structure for each chapter that shows off which teams were playing. Two charts at the beginning of the text help a little bit, but aren't particularly user-friendly, especially the one that reproduces old team logos in smudgy black-and-white. Hopefully, one day somebody will repackage this book with a much more interesting and fun design. Recommended for all sports fans.

Friday, October 12, 2012

I Want My MTV

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 I Want My MTV (Plume, 2011).

I pretty much wanted this book from the instant that I heard about it, and it didn't disappoint. It's a fantastic oral history of the network that every teenager in America, after 1983, cared about at least just a little bit, no matter how much they protest that couldn't have been the case. Dozens of network programmers, VJs, musicians, journalists and managers - Kurt Loder is one of the few insider names who, unfortunately, didn't participate - have all gone on the record to tell the story of the channel's first fifteen years or so, before reality programming and malaise finally set in and music videos were no longer in fashion, left to the internet's tender mercies.

Oh, there is dirt. I ended up feeling bad for Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons. I even ended up feeling bad for Billy Squier, of all people. Somehow, either I had forgotten or I had never seen this one legendarily awful video of him air guitaring his way around some blowsy bedroom through spasms and pants-on-fire issues while wearing a darling ripped pink tank top. Squier thinks it derailed his career. YouTube confirms its awfulness. It's even worse than that Journey video on the loading dock, but I wonder how much damage it really might have done. I'm not even aware of MTV singling it out in the late eighties as an example of a totally awful video. I don't even think that the local UHF "Ghetto MTV" station that we enjoyed, waiting for our cable company to pick up MTV, showed it.

(Actually, I think the story of what was then WVEU-69 would make a darn fine story as well. It started as a music video channel that kept the B-52s, Eddy Grant, and "Big Electric Cat" by Adrian Belew in ridiculously heavy rotation before eventually becoming the home of syndicated action shows like The Champions, UFO, and Spectreman. These days, it's a CW affiliate. Boring! But there was one Thursday night around 1984 where they played the uncensored "Girls on Film" and "China Girl" and some other nudity-packed videos. Legendary. Also, they'd frequently green-screen their VJs on top of the videos like they were pretending to interact with the artists. No way would MTV ever do that.)

Anyway, the book is huge - about 600 pages - and engrossing and funny, and assumes a degree of either reader knowledge or a willingness to pop onto YouTube. Naturally, there are omissions - for all they promoted and used the character, I was surprised that Randy of the Redwoods was glossed over entirely, while, on the artistic side, the prolific director Tim Pope was barely mentioned at all - and, just like the typical offerings on the channel itself, whacking great chunks will drift by in long discussion about artists or genres that won't interest everybody. But whether you're interested in the music or the incredible divastorm of office politics, a tangent sure to please everybody else who could not stand Adam Curry, there is plenty to enjoy here. Recommended for pretty much everybody in America presently between the age of 35 and 45.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Al Jaffee's Mad Life

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 Al Jaffee's Mad Life (It Books, 2010).

When writer Mary-Lou Weisman got together with the celebrated Mad cartoonist Al Jaffee to tell his quite weird and wonderful story, I wonder whether she had any idea how remarkable it really was. The book is only 220-odd pages, and we don't even get to his wartime comics until 140 pages in. Typically, I admit, I tend to skim past the long discussions of childhood in order to get to the good stuff quicker, but the story of his childhood turned out to be the absolutely riveting part.

Jaffee spent his childhood being uprooted and ferried back and forth several times from the United States to a shtetl in Lithuania. He and his brother were finally brought back to America, for good, in the late 1930s - Lithuanian shtetls being no place for anybody to be as Hitler's army started marching through eastern Europe - and when his mother refused to leave, that was the last he saw of her.

His memoir of life in Zarasai is so detailed and so full of imagery that it proves completely captivating. This sort of first-hand recounting is really appealing to amateur historians like me and probably completely essential to academics. University libraries should have this book in stock for this alone. It's so interesting that the rest of the material, about Jaffee's work on Humbug, Help and Mad, while fun, simply isn't quite as engaging. Working with Harvey Kurtzman I've read about; strange European religious communes like this, not so much.

Jaffee's famous fold-ins, and his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," along with his peculiar syndicated comic strip, Tall Tales all proved to be very popular, and Weisman did a great job interviewing Jaffee's cartooning peers and writers about comics to get a sense of how appreciated and loved he and his work are. It's a really fun story, and certainly recommended for anybody who's studying these great comics.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

His Shoes Were Far Too Tight

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 His Shoes Were Far Too Tight (Chronicle, 2011).

Edward Lear, the Victorian-era poet best known for "The Owl and the Pussycat," was a master of silly, inventive, nonsensical wordplay. He's also credited with popularizing limericks, without which, I fear, my father-in-law would have far fewer ways to amuse or confound his grandchildren. Sadly, Lear's work, which was once very popular, has slowly slid under the radar over the last few decades.

Daniel Pinkwater and Calef Brown have masterminded a wonderful reintroduction to Lear in one of the most thunderously silly books I've seen lately. His Shoes Were Far Too Tight, a 40-page hardback, is instantly recognizable thanks to Brown's eccentric, folky artwork. Inside, Pinkwater contributes a kid-friendly biography of Lear, and pays him appropriately goofy tribute in verse, and then it's off to weird tales of Pobbles, Jumblies, Quangle wangles and Runcible spoons.

I've given this book a try-out test drive on some unsuspecting four or five year-olds who've come by the shop, and it's gone over very well with them and their grown-ups. It's a gorgeous book full of silly things, and it kind of reinforces the reality that grown-ups are perfectly capable of being just as ridiculous as kids. Happily recommended for elementary school-age children, and their grandparents.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

LSH Reread, part one

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 284-289 and Annual No. 1, 1982)

So I told myself that as soon as I finished rereading Rex Stout, I would reread Paul Levitz's seminal 1980s run on Legion of Super-Heroes. I also told myself that I wasn't going to blog about them, and I also told myself that I wasn't going to give DC Comics any more entries here, after they decided to publish that unbelievably shitty Before Watchmen series. I contradict myself sometimes.

A little background information to explain what came before: Legion of Super-Heroes is a long-running concept at DC which, in the hands of deeply inept editorial policies, has become, over time, the poster child for All That's Wrong With Comics Today. Over the last twenty years, the storyline has been abruptly halted and restarted from scratch at least four times, abandoning all that came before and trying to get it right, and then allowing continuity porn czar Geoff Johns to rewrite all of these disparate stories into one crossover narrative. And long before that, it was the poster child for All That Was Wrong With Comics in the Early 1960s. But between these two bookends of shame, this really did feel like something special and memorable.

Here's how things started: Back in the late 1950s, when children's comics were actually suitable for children and weren't filled with images like (as Matthew Brady described it recently) something out of a Herschel Gordon Lewis film, DC was publishing a title called Superboy. This explained that Young Clark Kent, after diligently filling his role as the class nerd, finishing his homework, and doing all his chores like a good teenage boy should, would have fun adventures. Often, he'd fly a thousand years in the future and hang out with some other superpowered kids his age. These were teens who had been reminded by a kindly benefactor that, once upon a time, the young Superboy did his civic duty and rescued cats from trees and saved Smallville from bank robbers. The Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH) - and there really was a Legion of them, to the point that even comic book fans would sometimes shy away from reading it, fearing the rumors that there were too many characters - was a zero-imagination superhero "club," with a clubhouse and byzantine rules and bylaws.

The stories and the artwork were perfunctory and mundane, even by the low standards of the period. I'd say that they have aged terribly, but that's being unduly generous to suggest that they were any good in the first place. DC Comics were drafted by unimaginative old men with no vision and no wish to consider what the world of the 2960s might actually be like. You know what the LSH did? They saved Spaceville from space bank robbers, basically. Management remained baffled that, across town at Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the original Bullpen were creating comic books that anybody over the age of seven might want to read.

Mercifully, a teenager named Jim Shooter, who would become one of the most important figures in the industry and medium in the late 1970s and 1980s, figured that the way into the business was to break in via the DC Comic that needed the most help. Catching a DC editor on a rare occasion where that man gave a flip about new talent, Shooter sold the company on some of his (comparatively) much more complex and intricate stories, and soon, this high schooler from Pittsburgh was dragging Legion of Super-Heroes kicking and screaming into the mid-1960s. Shooter drew actual relationships and individual characterization into this enormous cast of characters while at the same time crafting more complicated science fiction storylines that suggested the writer had actually read a book more recent than Rocket Man Sam. These are still clunky and not always satisfying, but a huge leap forward.

By the late 1960s, Legion of Super-Heroes was the regular feature in DC's long-running anthology Adventure Comics, and had one of comics' most vocal and organized fan bases. The combination of inter-character drama and unpredictable SF melodrama had hundreds of fans interacting via amateur, mimeograph fanzines and some of the earliest examples of comic book fanfic. LSH fans were predominantly female, reflecting the fact that the cast was about 50% female, far more than any other superhero group. The writers often didn't know what to do with the girls, and, especially in the mid-1970s when artist Dave Cockrum redesigned the costumes to give everybody a glam rock/disco makeover, the boobalicious, plunging necklines and bikinis didn't initially look like this was a female-friendly comic, until you saw all the bare male skin on display as well. Colossal Boy, Tyroc and Star Boy were showing off as much skin as the ladies, and that's before Cosmic Boy started strutting around in some barely-there black leather thing that left most readers wondering where his friend, probably on all fours with a ball gag, had got to. The difference is that embarrassed artists and readers got the fellows covered up in time. It's only girls in comic books who need to wear bathing suits and boots, you know.

There are still flaws, considering the standards and expectations of the time. Sexuality is always straight - you had to leave it to the fanficcers to insist that the tragic, girlfriend-free Element Lad was gay, and fans had decided that Ayla and Vi would eventually ditch their boyfriends and hook up decades before the official book allowed hints of it. (That's an early example of what we'd now term fanon, actually.) The future's also overwhelmingly white. Well, blue, green, and orange, too, because humanoid aliens in the 30th Century come in all sorts of primary colors, but certainly not very black. When the team finally got, briefly, a black member, it was the astonishingly racist Tyroc, who was everything that a separatist afraid of Black Panthers could dream of. He wasn't around for very long.

So in 1974, Legion of Super-Heroes got co-billing with Superboy in his own book, starting with # 197. After # 258 (1979), Superboy went off to his own, Smallville-set comic book, and Legion of Super-Heroes kept the numbering. The Legion of the 1970s was uneven but always entertaining. It was also dangerous: back in the days when a death in a funnybook actually meant something and stuck, three members of the cast were killed in action, their sacrifices always remembered by all the surviving heroes. Paul Levitz had been one of several rotating writers who came to the title during this period, most memorably during a lengthy storyline (by the standards of the day, a positive epic at five whole issues) in the #240s called "Earthwar."

Levitz was succeeded by other old hands, with veterans like Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway taking turns as scripter before Levitz returned for the February 1982 issue, # 284. Conway had overseen a long storyline that involved a mysterious hero called Reflecto, an old villain called Grimbor, and some really silly space pirates and wrapped all these up for Levitz to start reasonably fresh.

And now that I've said all that, I am certain that none of these entries will end up as long as the introduction. I decided, at whim, to read the book in batches of seven issues, not realizing that this would mean that part one of the reread would bring us right up to the debut of "The Great Darkness Saga," a celebrated story that starts in issue # 290, for part two. The initial creative team is Levitz with art by Pat Broderick and Bruce Patterson, but it's short-lived. The house ads in the book inform me that Broderick left to draw Firestorm later in 1982. Levitz uses the old DC standard of a "backup story" to help advance his subplots. # 285 sees Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt teamed up on art duties for the first time in an 8-page backup story that focuses on Nura Nal (Dream Girl); they would become the main artists very shortly. Giffen inked by Patterson is very good; Giffen inked by Mahlstedt is sublime - one of my favorites penciller/inker combos in American comics.

I like the way that Levitz starts things off by acknowledging that this is a title where the cast is always in transition. His run begins with Chuck Taine (Bouncing Boy) in quiet contemplation in the headquarters room called the Hall of Heroes, where the three dead Legionnaires are remembered. He and his wife Luorno had married in a 1974 story, setting up one of those silly old bylaws, that you can't be married and remain a Legionnaire. So they became "reservists" to be called upon in emergencies. This amuses me because it reflects that old ethos that you can stay in a kid club until you're an adult, and that's just how people wanted the world to work in the kids' comics of the 1950s. The latest emergency passed, they return to retirement, where they're training kids in a Legion Academy. Comic book time doesn't equal real world time - especially when you're writing a comic set in the 30th Century - but it always seemed to me like the kids in that Academy stayed "enrolled" there for a really long time.

The second married couple were Garth and Imra, but they revised that dumb ol' rule so they - two of the three founding members - could still play with the rest of the kids. By this time, most of the Legionnaires are in their early twenties. There's no reason to hamstring themselves with dumb ol' rules they insisted upon when they were fifteen. One of those dumb ol' rules, though, was that there would be an annual selection for team leader. Here's where Levitz does fumble the comic book time / real world divide. Tradition had held that the creative team polled the readers for their choice for leader and wrote accordingly. The fans really loved this and played along, but with the characters squabbling and campaigning for about three issues a year, it does get old fast, and since there is virtually no break in the ongoing subplots, it always feels like there have only been maybe ten or eleven weeks in the narrative since the last election.

Another very dumb ol' rule that comes back to haunt the characters is that Cham is the leader of a team of "plumbers" called the Legion Espionage Squad, and he's answerable to nobody when he's on a mission. This has big ramifications in the last half of these stories, as one of his hotheaded missions ends with five of the characters stranded on a frozen asteroid waiting for help. Now, relationships between the characters are critically important, and here's where Levitz really transitions this book away from traditional superhero stuff in space into a proper SF soap opera. Colossal Boy, who gave up his '70s skintastic costume for something with sleeves and pants, and Violet, who's still stuck in her cleavagetastic green thing and is supposed to be dating a minor character we almost never see, start getting close while stuck out here. And Imra has the very bad luck to give a familial embrace to her sister-in-law's boyfriend just as the sister-in-law shows up to rescue them. OOPS.

At least Imra retires her lavender bathing suit while stuck on the frozen planet, finding one of her more sensible, warmer, old costumes in a trunk of their crashed spaceship.

The sci-fi stuff works very well even if the dialogue never does. To Levitz's considerable credit, only the willfully stubborn could possibly be confused by any of this or who the characters are, because they refer to each other by name constantly, and address their feelings to the reader by way of lengthy thought balloon monologues. Whenever they use a super power for the first time in an issue, they announce what they're doing, and if their power has a limitation, a narration box explains it. So yes, these are dense and wordy comics, and that's what makes the genuine dialogue stumbles really stand out. That is, once you accept that this is going to be a clunky and graceless pile of talky stories, the worst of it stands out like a sore thumb. At one point, an alien Khund actually says: "Did not your squad leader drill you in the importance of disabling Nullport?" The team's wealthy benefactor, who had been revealed shortly before this run to be Cham's father (soap opera!) has a favorite expression, "By Ymir!" and, in issue # 286, he uses it about seventeen times. Characters always refer to their sweetie as "my love." The standard "I have been knocked unconscious" shout is "AYEEEIIII" - never an exclamation point, strangely - and green-skinned Brainy is always in a bad mood.

As far as team transitions go, this run sees Karate Kid and Projectra, two of Jim Shooter's sillier ideas, retiring from active duty. Karate Kid's power was, apparently, super-karate, and Projectra, recipient of another of the '70s most ridiculously silly skintastic costumes, could make people see illusions. This always struck me as not very effective and relied on writers to force it to work via contrivance. Once the bad guys knew that Projectra was among the Legionnaires that they were fighting, then any dragons or weird monsters that showed up were probably not going to be real. She never did proper fight-ending illusions like making the bad guys think that their arm had been severed at the elbow, did she? Anyway, Projectra was the princess and heir to the throne of Orando, a gimmicky medieval planet a whole lot like Peladon in Doctor Who, and dozens of others, and when her father dies, there's the expected power struggle because Jeckie isn't traditional enough and has allied herself with progressive aliens who don't act like King Arthur. So they stay behind and, in the extra-length Annual # 1, an expansive 41-page story, we're introduced to the team's first non-embarrassing, non-racist black member, Jacques Foccart, who takes the mantle of the second Invisible Kid in honor of the first, who had died.

The Annual also introduces a major supporting member, a redhaired Science Police officer named Shvaughn Erin, liaison between the team and the government/military, who will end up dating Element Lad. There would be an active voice within fandom who really hated this woman, because they'd decided that Element Lad was gay. Some years after Levitz left LSH, and, with the exception of his decades-later coda that would be published around 2009, the story concluded as far as I was concerned, some fans got to become writers and retconned Shvaughn as a guy who took female hormones. Not in my reading, guys.

Another new supporting player who shows up in this first batch of Levitz's run is a cranky alien doctor with the suitably alien name of "Dr. Gym'll." This guy confused the dickens out of me when I was in middle school and first reading these stories, because I thought that his name was "Dr. Gym," and characters were referring to him with grammatically incorrect contractions. "Dr. Gym'll says that you should..." read to me like "Dr. Gym will says that you should..." and I wondered why the editor didn't fix mistakes like that.

These were genuinely good fun, and I'm looking forward to the next batch of seven in a couple of weeks. Probably won't write quite this much though. I don't plan to, anyway.

Monday, October 1, 2012

When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat

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 When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat (Chronicle, 2008).

Since people call me a hipster dad, perhaps I'd do well to act like one every once in a while. With that in mind, here is a terrific book for parents to read to youngsters, just as soon as the moms and dads get the bubble gum out of their mouths so that they can scoobily-coobily chop-de-li-chop-li-chop-chop.

Written by Muriel Harris Weinstein and beautifully painted by R. Gregory Christie, I see this as an incredibly charming activity for parents and kids to share. It's a quite thin 32 pages, and priced pretty highly for it, but with pages so colorful and words so silly, it will inspire children to sing their own nonsense rhymes.

The book tells a little bit about Armstrong - Weinstein is also working on a proper biography of him - but mainly uses him as a character to get an elementary schooler scatting about bubble gum. With a little imagination and encouragement, and perhaps a little accompaniment from appropriate recordings, kids will be scatting about jumping rope or doing chores or whatever strikes their fancy. Happily recommended for kids aged six to ten.