Tuesday, February 26, 2013

LSH Reread, part sixteen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 54-59, 1988-89)

Major developments:

*The team's morale is low and so is the active membership. Seven heroes are missing or on leave when a Khund calling himself The Glow attacks the prison world of labyrinth, freeing dozens of dangerous prisoners on his quest to release the Emerald Empress.
*Meanwhile, the White Witch looks to be returning to Earth, Dream Girl is having second thoughts about her fling with Atmos, Brainiac 5 has put the LSH completely behind him, and Blok has stumbled into a trap and is held prisoner by a strange reptilian "inquisitor" and his odd, short, blue associate - slash - servant. The inquisitor wants to learn the secret of Blok's long life (he is a silicon-based lifeform). They also abduct Shady and the very badly wounded Mon-El, who are still searching for medical help. Blok's body contorts and he grows and changes again - what had previously seemed like artistic fancy is established as his rocky body actually growing - and they escape back to Earth.
*Lightning Lass makes one more play for Pol, who finally figures out what she's after and gets spooked that this older woman is throwing himself at him. Violet makes herself available to Ayla for another of her "talks," only to have Ayla, who's probably still in denial about her sexuality, bite Vi's head off. They apologize and walk off together. Just as well Pol shot her down; that wasn't going anywhere.
*The "inquisitor" is revealed to be in the employ of the Empress, who murders him for his failure and kills dozens on her quest for immortality.
*The Empress and the Eye are slowly turning into a gestalt entity. Quislet attempts to possess the Eye and is baffled that he fails. The Eye destroys Quislet's ship, forcing the weird being to promptly say farewell to his friends and pop back to his home dimension of Teall.
*The Empress begs Sensor Girl for death, and for help in freeing herself from the Eye. After some hesitation, Jeckie uses her power to hide the Empress; the Eye cannot possess what it cannot sense. But in a stunning twist, we learn that the Empress is decades older than we thought, and that the Eye had been keeping her young and beautiful. She ages instantly into dust at Jeckie's feet.

Apparently, to read some fans tell it, this run of LSH is supposed to feel like an afterthought, and a loss of time on my end isn't going to counter that impression. It's actually really good, although I do wish that Levitz and Giffen had done something with Mon-El and Shady instead of leaving the couple in effective limbo for so long. It could have been tragic and stunning to have Shady force the decision and send them both into the Phantom Zone, for instance, for however long it would take for medical science to find a solution to how Mon-El's body could be repaired.

Anyway, this run of six issues is built around disasters and trying to find closure in the wake of the battle against the Time Trapper. It's actually kind of sad when Pol finally realizes that Ayla's been coming onto him and rebuffs her, but it gives Ayla/Vi fans as much resolution as they were going to get in 1988. It's even sadder when Quislet's ship is disintegrated by the Emerald Eye, leaving the weird little energy being from another dimension no choice but to quickly thank his friends for all the fun and pop out of our world entirely.

I love the way that Giffen draws Tellus immediately after Quislet goes. There's this one little panel of Tellus fruitlessly calling out to him, asking for his friend to come back. It is the saddest thing ever.

But it's the final fate of the Empress that really impressed me the most this time through. I can't believe that I forgot about this. Comic book supervillains never get to go out this cool. Three years previously, Levitz and artist Greg LaRocque had turned the Empress from a villain who was rarely depicted as all that threatening into one of the greats. She goes out in style, with a huge body count and a final revelation about her own age before disintegrating into dust. Those final few pages between her and Sensor Girl are completely amazing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Truck Food Cookbook

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 Truck Food Cookbook (Workman, 2012).

This is not a book that I would have wanted to read had anybody else written it. I really like John T. Edge's style a lot - his Southern Belly is absolutely essential reading for anybody in the southeast who shares our interest in travel and food - and envy his ability to go all around the nation meeting people and discovering new recipes. However, my favorite thing to do when reading books about restaurants, whether in buildings or on wheels, is to savor the possibilities of visiting them. And since food trucks are still blinking in the sunlight in Georgia, that's not so easy for us to do with our small travel budget.

The city of Atlanta cannot stand food trucks. It has spent years coming up with new regulations, bureaucracy, and red tape to prevent their emergence. Last year was the first time we were really able to enjoy them, when a gravel lot was opened up alongside I-75 at Howell Mill. So, over the course of last year, more than two dozen trucks started their engines, especially as some of the suburbs, like Smyrna and Alpharetta, invited owner/operators to come join them at set times on the calendar. There were at least two stupid and mammoth occasions when City Hall made attempts to stop these infernal hippies and beatniks from committing the crime of selling food and having fun, but you can start to hear the regulators grumbling that they done lost this fight. And after they'd had such success running all the hot dog carts outta town, too!

Meanwhile, of course, Portland, Los Angeles, Madison, New York, and other cities figured this out a decade or more back, and welcomed these entrepreneurs. The startup costs for a food truck are about 10% of the cost of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, so that encourages big dreamers without a lot of capital to get cooking and try their ideas out on the public. So this book is a celebration of food truck culture, full of stories and anecdotes and silliness and love. The bulk of it is a cookbook, with the stories appearing as sidebars throughout the pages.

It didn't take me long to shrug and accept that I wouldn't get the chance to visit many, or any, of these places, and just treated the book as a loving tribute to and a record of a growing and popular subculture. It was just huge fun to read, and it leaves me anticipating the spring, when we'll get to revisit some of our local favorites like Roux'd and the Blaxican and W.O.W. and the Mac and Cheese again. Mmmmm. Recommended.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

LSH Reread, part fifteen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 48-53 and Annual # 4, 1988)

Major developments:

*The four conspirator Legionnaires - Brainy, Saturn Girl, Duo Damsel and Mon-El - have to move more quickly as they are being suspected. Mon-El, implausibly but hey! comics, brings a dwarf star to Earth to power a device of Brainy's. This goes disastrously wrong and nearly kills millions. Tellus, Magnetic Kid, and Sensor Girl have figured out they're up to something. Magnetic Kid confronts Brainy but is rebuffed.
*Starfinger plans to send a pulse wave through space attuned to the Legionnaires' flight rings. He receives a sample ring from a mysterious "Doctor Hazeg," whom the in-disguise Cham recognizes as actually Colossal Boy. Starfinger later sees through the deception when he realizes Hazeg's identity.
*The conspirators fess up in part: they're attempting to break the time barrier and avenge Superboy's death by destroying the Time Trapper. The rest of the team agrees that's a good idea, but they don't know that the four have sworn to kill the entity or die trying, and that they firmly intend to do it alone. Brainy begins to despair that the time barrier cannot be broken, but he's encouraged by the strange reappearance of their presumed-dead friend Rond Vidar. They use the Infinite Man's power over time to burst the barrier and attack the Trapper.
*So things go straight to hell: Everybody's ready to leave and kick some entropic ass at the end of time, but Brainy has powered the device to only take the four of them. Somehow Rond Vidar comes along as well, revealing his secret when they reach Time's End to battle the Trapper: he's got a Green Lantern ring. The battle is still pathetically one-sided: the Trapper injures Saturn Girl after her attempt to attack his mind, he kills Luorno's second body, and even after Mon-El punches the Trapper through a dying star and smashes a planet (!) into him, the Trapper shrugs off the attacks and wounds Mon-El so grievously that, even when this series ends the following year, he still has not recovered. Brainy's secret weapon is to reincarnate the Infinite Man: the personification of constant, ceaseless rebirth goes to war with the personification of entropy and death, and the two vanish back to the very beginning of time, where the Trapper's very existence creates a paradox. Both beings may be destroyed, but the costs are pretty high.
*Using the Infinite Man in this fashion means the death of its human host, Jaxon Rugarth. Polar Boy charges Brainiac 5 with violating the Legion constitution's guideline against taking life. The trial splits the team, some of whom agree that Rugarth's mind had been destroyed years before when he became the Infinite Man in the first place. The final vote is 11-7 in favor of acquittal with several abstains. Brainy bequeaths Luorno his force field belt before resigning, Shady takes an extended leave of absence looking for medical help for Mon-El, his invunerable body shredded by the Trapper, and the White Witch was so infuriated by Brainiac 5 that she abruptly left without discussion or explanation. The team, to put it simply, is in shambles.
*While her lover is unconscious, Shady prays to her gods and ancestors for his life, and "binds" herself to him in devotion, a ritual similar to marriage, which involves her cutting off part of one of her fingers.
*Ayla, Pol, and Tellus take a mission to Pol's home planet of Braal, which has been beset by earthquakes. These are caused by a Gil'dishpan called Hywyndr. Ayla flirts pretty heavily with Pol, who I believe is about ten or eleven years younger than she.
*Starfinger reveals himself to his prisoner Colossal Boy as Char Burrane, the first criminal who Gim apprehended after getting his super powers. The Espionage Squad, Dawnstar, and the Science Police raid his headquarters and capture him.
*Dream Girl finally has that fling with Atmos in a short backup story. Garry Leach draws it. That man never got enough work.
*Greg LaRocque leaves the book after a run that started a little dry but improved so much over time. He's replaced by returning artist, and co-plotter, Keith Giffen with issue # 50.

Oh, sweet merciful heavens, Giffen's back and he's remembered how to draw.

There has been speculation over the years about sales figures for the book. The numbers that are posted monthly - to some controversy - at sites like The Beat don't stretch back as far as the late eighties, so it's anecdotal research. Still, the smart money's on LSH losing at least a third of its audience when it moved off the newsstands and into comic shops only as a Baxter-only title, and rising only briefly with 1987's "Death of Superboy" four-part crossover. This allegedly didn't hold, and sales continued deteriorating.

From my own experience buying these as back issues, pretty much everything between issues 20 and 50, along with the overprinted # 2 through 6 and excepting # 37 and # 38, came from quarter bins. There was next to no back issue market for LSH in the 1990s. That said, the final thirteen issues were much more difficult to source. They didn't cost me any more than cover price, but the price tags of several different comic shops around Atlanta and Athens on my issues confirm that I had to look around quite a lot for them. The conclusion that I draw is that, after the Time Trapper story, comic shops found reason to cut their orders, massively. This probably came around the same time as a notable atrophy in the collectibles hobby, along with DC flooding the market with short-lived and forgotten miniseries. The ad pages of LSH during this period are like a roll of dishonor, with title after title that nobody bought. We remember the standouts and forget all the failures. In 1988, DC seemed to have a pile of them, and it probably made sense for retailers to try three copies of something new and cut three copies of the slumping Legion.

That's entirely speculative, but I think that's what sets the stage for Giffen's return and his unbelievably fantastic new style. It won't last very long, and, within years, it'll be buried by the "Five Years Later" run with its nine-panel grid and focus on random background objects, but for a few months in 1988, Giffen is absolutely masterful. He's again visually defining characters by their hair, something that both Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque had let slip, and not their costumes. In fact, it's here that many of the Legionnaires quit dressing in costumes entirely. One of his first moves is to retire both Phantom Girl's and Dawnstar's Cockrum- or Grell- designed 1970s peek-a-boo suits, which I think are the last of the sexy-ladies Frederick's of Hollywood-by-way-of Logan's Run costumes from that period to stick around. Now, not only is her hair graying - perhaps a fashion choice - but she's wearing a red jacket. I really like this idea; it breaks the characters further away from defined "superhero" image and costume and allows them to dress like actual people.

But before we get to Giffen, there are two long-running plots that need to be resolved. The Starfinger story is by far the less satisfying of the two. He's just a laughably shallow and unbelievable villain, and his gigantic, super-powerful criminal empire just does not make any sense. Worse, it turns out that he just happened upon the source of his power, the mindless genies Starlight and Starbright. There's a brief moment of interest in watching the lesser-powered members of the Espionage Squad finally defeat him, but it's all an unsatisfying bore.

On the other hand, there's the Time Trapper story. Holy moly.

There's a great suggestion in the letters page that this whole "conspiracy" thing is really just gearing up to an elaborate surprise birthday party. If only. Levitz, LaRocque and guest artist Pat Broderick really sold the heck out of this ongoing story, and once Giffen returns, it's work by people at the top of their game. It's the nature of superhero fiction to sell the idea of heroes battling against insurmountable odds, but this story pulls it off like very, very few others. The most remarkable moment is the brave idea of sidelining Saturn Girl almost immediately. Over the previous few years, she had been spotlighted as the most strong-willed and surprisingly powerful of all the Legionnaires, particularly when she defeated Universo, and so watching her fall here is an incredible shock.

The death of Duo Damsel's second body is, similarly, driven home by the emphasis placed shortly before on what death means to her species. She explains that she effectively "died" several years previously when one of her three selves had been killed by Computo and has been either living on borrowed time or living a lie, which is hardly the sort of thing that you'd think her husband would wish to know.

Issue 50, and the amazing trial coda that follows it in # 51, is arguably the pinnacle of the book. I might be proven wrong over the next two reread chapters, and I'm really looking forward to revisiting Giffen's artwork again, but the impression that I have always felt was that this masterpiece simply wasn't going to be topped. "Life and Death at the End of Time" is absolutely one of the best single issues of any superhero comic, especially in the way that it upends the status quo and leaves the last year of the book with the team in shambles, trying to come to grips with what the hell just happened.

For those who enjoy the lighter side of the 30th Century, however, there is the amusement of watching Ayla make what's apparently one last attempt at heterosexuality with her fumbling flirting with the oblivious Pol. The fans in the letters pages have suggested that the founding trio are pushing thirty and Pol is at most maybe seventeen. That's okay, kid. If my older brother's best friend's twin sister had started coming onto me when I was seventeen, I'd probably have been clueless myself.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Suspect

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 Suspect (Dutton, 2007).

I've really been enjoying John Lescroart's novels more and more as they go on. It looks like I've got five more ahead of me, with a sixth to be published this year, and I hope he's got many more to come. As he increases the number of his characters and expands their world, they become more vivid and real than so many of his peers in the business of series fiction.

One of his secret weapons has been the use of multiple protagonists. High-powered lawyer Dismas Hardy or veteran cop Abe Glitsky are certainly able to carry stories on their own, but with the release of 2005's The Hunt Club, he expanded their world to add a private investigator and his agency, and, in 2007's The Suspect, he gave Gina Roake, one of Hardy's senior partners, the lead role. This isn't at all like how Robert B. Parker had separate series of books that shared supporting characters between them; rather, these books star a community, a family of friends and co-workers, and any of the characters can become the lead.

At this point in the series, Gina Roake is in her fifties, and still devastated by the loss of her unlikely fiancee, the irrepressible gadfly David Freeman who had died a few years previously. Roake finds herself defending a literary hero of hers, a writer named Stuart Gorman. Complicating things - and this being a Lescroart novel, things are already very, very complicated - is the inspector assigned to the crime, Devin Juhle, the close friend of the firm's main investigator, Wyatt Hunt. The Hunt-Juhle friendship echoes the established Hardy-Gltsky relationship, and nobody is ever happy about the possibility that these friendships are being taken for granted, or used for legal advantage.

Roake really needed a turn in the spotlight. Hardy and her other partner Wes Farrell have a little more life to them, and she enters this book somewhat defined and constrained by the loss of David Freeman. But with a past that comes back to haunt her, and a recommendation of her services that turns out to be a lot less flattering than she first thought, she's a real standout character by the end of the book. As always, the mystery and the questions about who is being truthful and who is hiding important secrets will keep readers guessing who to believe, because Lescroart doesn't go in for unreliable narrators so much as entire unreliable casts. Even though this novel doesn't (for the most part) have that lingering sense of danger hanging over everybody in it - and that's actually a welcome break - it is still a very fun and very engaging read. I enjoyed the daylights out of it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

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 Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012).

I'd been intending to read Michael Chabon for many years, and finally succumbed to the siren's song of Telegraph Avenue, or, more accurately, its wonderful cover design, suggesting an LP pressed on red vinyl. Set in 2004, it's set around a used record store in Oakland facing the impending threat of a huge development coming up down the street that promises to have a fairly amazing music department as well, but there is so much more going on than just that.

Chabon mixes several stories of old friendships, marriages, and families all hitting rough waters at the same time. The big new mega-store that wants to move in is just the catalyst for a lot of old heartbreak and poor decisions resurfacing at once. I had to wince a few times reading this.

However, I laughed out loud much more often. I love Chabon's style, which assumes a great deal of popular culture literacy of his readers, and breezes through everything from Rudy van Gelder to blaxploitation cinema and 1970s Marvel Comics. Some of these are important to the narrative, and others, including more off-kilter references to Black Bolt and the Inhumans than anything that I've ever read before, are just perfectly timed and flawlessly judged. It takes a good eye and a good mind to match specific emotions by analogy to some four-color spectacle that most readers might have forgotten, and have it work every time.

It's not a quick read, and the author does get pretty weighed down with detail, and I had more than one complaint about some of the Jaffees' parenting choices, but I really enjoyed this book and have two more by the author on my shelf to follow it. Recommended for older readers.

Friday, February 8, 2013

LSH Reread, part fourteen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 41-47, 1987-1988)

Major developments:

*The Legion tracks their mysterious foe Starfinger to a satellite. They battle him, his army, and his strange "Bond girl" bodyguards Starlight and Starbright. Starfinger self-destructs the station after badly injuring Colossal Boy and is presumed to have been killed.
*Longtime supporting player Laurel Kent reveals that she is not actually a descendant of Superman at all, but one of the immortal robot Manhunters (as in "No man escapes the...").
*Cham signs out on one of his Espionage Squad missions.
*The weird anti-energy lifeforms from Quislet's home universe abduct him and Wildfire through a black hole and attempt to punish him for stealing his exploration/survival vessel, but they escape.
*The egotistical blowhard Atmos, from Star Boy's home planet of Xanthu, applies for membership in the team. Chuck and Luorno recommend him for the Academy; he brashly turns them down.
*Three weird (and ponderous) aliens called the Lords of Luck reveal that they have been manipulating events in Garth, Ayla, and Mekt's lives, including the accident that gave them their lightning powers. They arrange for Mekt's escape from prison. Garth recaptures him.
*Brainy has been at work in his lab, but it's revealed that he and three others are quietly working on something on their own. Mon-El, distant and cold to Shady, is likely among them. Tellus unwittingly learns that Saturn Girl is also involved, and he coins it a "conspiracy." He confides in both Magnetic Kid and in his former teacher Luorno, not realizing that she is the fourth conspirator.
*Over the course of several identities and assignments, Cham works his way up Starfinger's criminal organization, confirming that he has survived and is still working his schemes.

Here's another run of the comic that doesn't really invite a great deal of comment. These are mostly pretty solid comics, and have aged well, but nothing in them really stands out as transcendent, either.

Well, there is Starfinger, I suppose. Good grief. I somehow remembered him as a powerful and entertaining villain. He isn't. He's ridiculous. He doesn't even begin to appear as though he's a scheming, dangerous planner, but rather a spoiled child. He is prone to utterly childish temper tantrums and fits of ego, and his whole position of "how dare the Legion interfere with my plans?!" is the sort of thing that somebody who grew up in a vacuum and never heard of superheroes would take. The "killing his underlings who fail him" angle is so overplayed that he appears less like Darth Vader and more like the sort of boss that no criminal would bother working for. There's got to be an easier way to make a dishonest living than working for this lunatic in his carnival costume!

Worse, Paul Levitz makes one of his very few letters page mistakes with Starfinger. Now, for years, Levitz has been one of the most entertaining figures in all of comics fandom when replying to reader input. He's been thoughtful, humble, honest, and accepting of fan praise and of criticism. He's defended his work in a professional and tactful way, and accepted the blame when things didn't work as well as he'd hoped. Somehow, though, he let one clue too many slip through the net. If Starfinger doesn't turn out to be the criminal whom Colossal Boy had captured in issue # 39's flashback issue, I'll be very surprised, because Levitz darn near spells it right out in neon.

The oversized episode with the Luck Lords is published as LSH's 30th Anniversary issue. Like some previous collections along the same lines, it features guest work by artists from earlier days, including some fine work by Dave Cockrum. I remember this issue very fondly and very particularly, because, when I came back to LSH in the 1990s, I bought this back issue, along with thirteen or fourteen others, from the quarter bin at a shop in Athens, Georgia, and enjoyed the heck out of it. One of the other issues came from about three years into the controversial 1990s run spearheaded by fans-turned-pros Tom and Mary Bierbaum.

Anyway, this anniversary issue showed that three bizarre, all-seeing aliens called the Lords of Luck had overseen and manipulated every event in Garth Ranzz's life. The other issue, which I read the same evening, showed that the Lords blinked and missed the fairly major event of Garth actually staying dead; the Bierbaums decided to claim that Garth had never been resurrected, and that all this time it had been the shapeshifting Legion of Super-Pets blob Proty masquerading as Garth. Uh-huh. I understand that this, and some of the other, shall we say, eyebrow-raising retcons endorsed by the Bierbaums were subsequently erased from contemporary continuity and canon. GOOD.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Split Image

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free (but not this week), 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 Split Image (Putnam, 2010).

Split Image was the ninth Jesse Stone novel in fourteen years, and was released a month after author Robert B. Parker had passed away. Clearly then, I am very nearly to the end of his bibliography; the two final Spenser novels are still waiting for me, and then I'm moving on to Michael Chabon.

It's one of quite a few books in the second half of his career where one of our red-blooded he-man heroes is confronted with some exceptionally outre sexual deviancy. It isn't quite as ridiculous as the TV show CSI was, early in its run, but you can almost picture Parker, thinking with urgency and knowing he has about 120 days to finish this book, ticking down the list of unusual lifestyles that he's covered recently, looking for a new one: "Voyeurs, wife swappers, con artists, Bonnie & Clyde-fetishists... hmmm. Haven't done incestuous twins marrying retired mobsters yet..."

In less contrived news, the book brings Stone's flirtation and quasi-relationship with Sunny Randall to a reasonable close. Randall had featured in five or six of her own novels - all of Parker's detective series are set in the same Massachusetts, with supporting characters crossing around between them - before being more formally folded in as the major supporting player in Stone's. They realize that they've been falling in love for years, and, the impediments of their ex-spouses removed and finally consigned to the past, the series concludes with the two thinking positively about a future together. It's not often that series fiction gets a happily-ever-after wrapup; I'm glad that things ended this way for the two, regardless of whether Parker had more ideas in store. Recommended as a distraction.