Thursday, December 31, 2009

Black Orchids

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Black Orchids (Farrar & Rinehart, 1942).

The ninth Nero Wolfe book in the canon is Black Orchids, the first of several collections of short novellas. This one contains two mysteries by Rex Stout that originally appeared in shorter form in magazines, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death."

Each of these stories is only about ninety pages long. While it was interesting to read adventures without the space for so many twists and turns like the novels do, I was still left a little unsatisfied by them. In both stories, the method of killing is just this side of utterly ridiculous, and neither really rang true to the series so far. Perhaps I'm being influenced by the Chandler that I am also reading, but it does seem out of place. When someone becomes angry or desperate enough to murder, it's usually a matter of arranging time to just shoot them down with impunity, rather than concoct an elaborate deathtrap. As Chandler pointed out, that's the hallmark of the Sayers-Christie school, the British approach to killing, and it feels a little out of place in the very New York world of Wolfe and Goodwin. The deathtrap in the lead story really is silly, and I'm not saying it brings the whole piece crashing down - after all, The Nine Tailors features one of the most implausible killings I've ever read, and it's still among my favorite novels - but it certainly jars a lot.

"Cordially Invited to Meet Death" was more entertaining. While "Black Orchids" and its cast of flower-fanciers and living mannequins has its charms, it's the bizarre whirl of Manhattan socialites and their menageries of hangers-on that proved the more charming of the two. I'm certain that one of the many novella collections I've yet to read will prove a better introduction to the characters than these stories, but it's an entertaining enough distraction.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Get Lost

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Get Lost (Hermes, 2008).

I guess I was always loosely aware of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito's artwork from the superhero comics that I read in the 1970s. After all, they were the art team behind Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, which everybody at Teasley Elementary School owned, so you couldn't help but know them. What I did not know was that around two decades previously, they had worked together as writers and artists of several titles released through their company MR Publications. Among these comics was Get Lost, a cash-in of Mad that was so blatant, William Gaines took the duo to court over it. I mean, look at that cover. It wouldn't be out of place on any of Mad's first thirty or so issues.

MR only published three issues of Get Lost. They won the lawsuit, but other problems at the company, apparently having a lot to do with a 3-D comic that didn't sell well, brought everything to a crashing halt. The original issues are incredibly scarce collector's items, which makes Hermes' repackaging of the three a very nice find. At thirty bucks, it's a little steep for the page count, but I found a heavily-discounted copy at Louisville's Great Escape and was willing to give it a try.

As for the contents, well... I wasn't as taken with it as I'd hoped. Hermes did a fine job with the reproduction, and they included some supplementary material, including an introduction and an interview, but they really overstated the importance of this comic in their hyperbole. The artwork is very good, and there are a couple of great chuckles to be found, but no more than that.

Perhaps having assistance from some more writers and artists might have helped. Apart from a single script, Andru and Esposito were responsible for every page of Get Lost, while Mad was the product of a great big Gang of Idiots working under Harvey Kurtzman's direction. A parody of the monster movie The Thing in the third issue was by far the funniest thing in the book; I could take or leave the rest of it. High marks to the publisher for such a good-looking package, but even for fans of 1950s humor comics, I really don't think this is essential reading.

Friday, December 25, 2009

High Fidelity

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of High Fidelity (Penguin/Riverhead 1995).

There's a blurb on the back of this book, Nick Hornby's debut novel, warning men to keep it away from women. Sound advice. There are some things about fellows that ladies are better off not knowing.

Maybe the most surprising thing about reading the book was learning how very faithful the film adaptation was. I remember that a mailing list that I used to be on was absolutely livid that it was relocated from London to Chicago, but I wasn't distracted by the change of venue at all. It's a story about archetypes as much as characters, and some folk are the same the world over, especially if they work at or spend lots of time in record stores like Championship Vinyl.

If you are not familiar with it, it's the story of a breakup and its aftereffects. Rob, like all men, can, if he chooses, catalog everything in neat and easily-followed lists. He does not forget the incidents in his past which he has elected to classify as being massively important. If he didn't do that, he'll forget completely in time, which is how some guys can easily remember the names of everybody who took the stage at the Concert for Bangla Desh but have trouble remembering our significant other's extended family. His lover Laura - their names coming from the leads in The Dick Van Dyke Show can't be a coincidence - has become fed up with his complacence and left him.

Rob broods, he justifies, he totally lacks insight into how his actions are perceived, and he's a whole lot like everybody I've ever met or been myself who's just been dumped. Maybe this book is less a secret strategy guide for women dealing with guys as it is a reminder to men that it's okay; we're all like that sometimes. Happily recommended.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Judge Dredd: Mechanismo

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 Judge Dredd: Mechanismo (Rebellion, 2009)

It's been a couple of years now, but I was talking once in my Thrillpowered Thursday blog about how Rebellion really needs to bring the sprawling Mechanismo epic back into print. This was a mammoth story full of subplots and subterfuge, detailing the deterioration of Chief Judge MacGruder as she orders the development of robot judges. It seemed like a good idea at the time; with the judges' numbers seriously depleted after the high bodycounts of the "Necropolis" and "Judgement Day" epics, something needed to be done. Turns out, this wasn't it. The stories wormed their way through the pages of the weekly and the then-biweekly Judge Dredd Megazine from 1992-94, before coming to a storming conclusion in the aftermath of a 16-part story called "Wilderlands."

Back in May of '07, I suggested how Rebellion could repackage the story for bookshelves and they have done something quite similar, and very satisfactory. The new "Mechanismo" book, released in October, contains the first three serials from the storyline and deal with one robot, Number Five. These originally appeared from October 1992 to December 1993 and feature art by Colin MacNeil, Peter Doherty and Manuel Benet, with scripts by John Wagner. Although there is a great deal more of the story to come, this book ends on as satisfactory a point as is possible, and hopefully we will see MacGruder's next series of moves in a second volume in 2010.

Wagner does a terrific job in telling the story from multiple viewpoints. The focus shifts from Dredd to various robots to a hapless security clerk, and he uses his frequent Mega-City One trope of having dingbat teevee news announcers comment on the action, which is both effective and very funny. MacNeil and Doherty certainly bring their usual A-games to the party, and Manuel Benet does a laudable job for what I believe was his only assignment for the House of Tharg. It was certainly odd to see a new name dropped in the deep end for what was a critically important story, but Benet's work is pretty good, if perhaps not completely suited to Mega-City weirdness. Production of the book is mostly up to Rebellion's very high standards, but an unfortunate production error left a few erroneous credits on the spine and front cover for artists whose work does not actually appear in the book. Overall, though, a fine collection of a very good sequence of stories, and highly recommended. More, please!

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years (Bloomsbury, 2000).

Here is a book that I wish I could say that I enjoyed more than I did. Jamyang Norbu is a Tibetan-rights activist who has lived in exile for decades. I found this promising Holmes pastiche, published in England and America under this title and more recently available under its original name, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, misfiled at a local library and suspected my wife might enjoy it. We both quite liked Laurie King's The Game, and I'm a big fan of William S. Baring-Gould's speculation about what Sherlock was up to during his years underground following the incident at Reichenbach Falls.

Fellow Baring-Gould fans will be disappointed to read that Norbu doesn't allow Holmes to linger in Europe, and there's no mention at all of Irene Adler, because Norbu ships him off immediately for India with a packed itinerary in the company of Rudyard Kipling's fat Bengali spy Huree Chunder Mookerjee. Doyle was pretty clear that Holmes did spend some time in the region and perform some assistance with politically sensitive matters around the Forbidden City in Tibet, and I can certainly see how this would appeal to Norbu's own interests, but it truly is a shame that he elected to fill in practically every possible blank and account for darn near every minute of Holmes' time between "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House."

As far as stories go, taken on its own it's still a bit dry for my liking. It's interesting to see Holmes cut off completely from his resources and unable to use his name as a calling card, but I never felt that Norbu really captured his voice. This Holmes is too friendly, too cordial, too willing to relate his past triumphs, and not at all the same man who, in King's novels, really wished that Doyle fellow had kept his mouth shut. If you have read The Game, then I can recommend this as a curious counterpoint, but otherwise it was an unsatisfying distraction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Muppet Show Comic Book # 0

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Muppet Show Comic Book # 0 (Boom, 2009).

Well, I can't help but feel a little disappointed with this one. Having successfully published a pair of four-issue Muppet Show miniseries, Boom has committed to an ongoing title. I don't know that you can tell that huge of a difference if you're picking these up from the funnybook store, but this one is labeled issue number zero, as is the fashion among publishers. While the script is by the mighty Roger Langridge as usual, he has taken a well-deserved break and it is drawn by fill-in artist Shelli Paroline.

Don't get me wrong; her art is terrific and she does not put a foot wrong. She is easily the second best person to ever draw Muppet comics, but she's not Langridge, and I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that a fill-in artist helped out this month, since it is his name that sold this book to me. Let's face it; there was a tremendous amount of subpar entertainment sold to us with the Muppets' brand stuck on it until fairly recently. That Christmas TV movie last year, for instance.

Anyway, issue zero is the story of the "Pigs in Space" movie, as pitched by Fozzie and Rizzo in alternate order to a pair of not-so-anonymous studio executives, each interrupting and carrying on the storyline into nonsensical directions. Somehow, it's further interrupted by Muppet Labs and Muppet News Flash breaks which further comment on the Swinetrek's mission. I've forced the News Flash guy's "bigamy" pun on about ten people since I read this comic; it's brilliant.

I'm not sure I believe the Muppets really need an issue zero relaunch, but having read it, I was as charmed as I could have hoped. It's a dense, funny read, with a lot of action in a wild story that takes a good while to read. You don't often feel like you get your money's worth in modern mainstream American comics, but Langridge packs so many gags into the fast-moving story that it really satisfied me. This is really good stuff, highly recommended for readers of all ages.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best of 2009

A quick note to my readers: I have updated my LiveJournal with a list of the year's best, including my favorite books and comics of the year. Check it out!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Complete Ace Trucking Company Volume 2

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 Complete Ace Trucking Company Volume 2 (Rebellion, 2009)

One problem American fans have learned about Rebellion's business is that they're forced to work with a deeply inept distributor called Diamond to get their product into American comic shops and, earlier in the year, Diamond elected to cancel quite a few already-solicited books in a cost-cutting measure. Among those impacted: the second volume of Ace Trucking Company, a demented, wild comedy by John Wagner, Alan Grant and the late Massimo Belardinelli which originally ran for five years in the eighties. Fortunately, the collection is available through British bookstores and eBay sellers, and from the 2000 AD online shop, so I eventually landed a copy and was very pleased to reread these lunatic adventures.

Ace Trucking is a barely-profitable shipping company run by a motormouth called Ace Garp, who's just one dirty get-rich quick scheme away from either the big time or a very long prison sentence. In fact, he starts this book in jail, a couple of years after he and his crew were put away at the end of the first collected edition. It's set in a very weird future where few humans can be found. This gave Belardinelli the chance to design a completely alien environment and huge casts full of freaky, comical aliens, strange architecture, bizarre spaceships powering through asteroid belts and gangly-limbed space pirates whose T-shirts smoke pipes.

Belardinelli drew all but two of the sixty-odd episodes reprinted in this mammoth book. While he was recuperating from an illness, an anonymous member of the Giolitti art agency, who represented him in England, stepped in for him. Otherwise, this book is all him, and you've not had the pleasure of enjoying Belardinelli before, you should really rectify that. Almost every page looks like he was really having a ball designing this series, and just laughing himself silly with the in-jokes and weird aliens eating each other. Admittedly, towards the end it gets a little dry. The final epic serial in the book was clearly one where the writers were running out of ideas, and Belardinelli wasn't finding very much inspiration as our heroes endlessly searched across the planet Hollywood and through one parody after another in search of some treasure. Before it started its downhill slide, though, Ace Trucking really was something great.

So the entire series is available in two omnibus editions. Obviously, the first is the more consistent of the two, but the second is still full of essential moments, including Ace's recurring enemy Evil Blood, parallel universes, chicken gangsters, labor unrest, sacred worms, porcine royalty, cargo holds full of space fertilizer and contraband beetles which, when ingested, blow your mind so far out that your eyeballs play table tennis against each other. It also contains the strip's spectacular farewell epilogue, in which Ace learns just how unnecessary he actually is to his company's fortunes. You won't find this book at an American comic shop, but I highly recommend that you track down a copy from England.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ghita of Alizarr

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Ghita of Alizarr (Catalan, 1990).

A couple of years ago, I noticed that Bizarro Wuxtry had a copy of Eros Books' old complete edition of Ghita of Alizarr. I didn't know what it was, but the photo-cover, featuring a model in one of those Red Sonja bikinis caught my eye. So I asked Devlin about it, and he told me that Frank Thorne had done it in the late '70s or early '80s for a European publisher, and I remembered liking Frank Thorne's art on Red Sonja, but honestly wasn't curious enough to even open it.

About a year ago, some blogger or other mentioned Red Sonja somewhere. I recalled again that I did enjoy the two issues of Marvel Feature that I had as a kid, and asked whether Bizarro Wuxtry had a collected edition in stock. Devlin did not, and I didn't want to commit to a special order for a passing fancy which might not last as long as a glance at Frank Thorne's pages, so I let it slide.

But for a buck, I'll try lots of things. The Great Escape in Louisville had the first chunk of the Ghita story, a 48-page album from Catalan, in their cheap box, so I picked it up. My eyes have been rolled to the top of my head ever since. If you're the sort of person who put down a Red Sonja comic and said "that was all right, but what this comic really needs is for the girl to get naked a lot and for the writer-artist dude to draw himself into the story as a totally cool old wizard who goes to bed with her. With comedy rape scenes, it needs that, too. That'd rock!"... well, then, this is the comic for you. It is not, however, the comic for me. To the garbage this goes!

If nothing else, the dollar spent has totally cured me of the desire to ever again revisit Thorne's Red Sonja. Thank you, Great Escape! When in Louisville, pay 'em a visit!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Doonesbury: The Original Yale Cartoons

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Doonesbury: The Original Yale Cartoons (Sheed and Ward, 1973).

I've been telling myself for years that I should track down the little reprint of Bull Tales, the comic which preceded Doonesbury, and found it surprisingly easy to find once I put my mind to it. Garry Trudeau started the strip when he was an undergraduate at Yale, and it appeared in the student paper there. After a few years, he felt ready for the big time, and reworked almost all of the comics into what became the first 18 months of the daily Doonesbury; material which later appeared in the 1972 collection Still a Few Bugs in the System.

If this isn't a unique experience in comics, it's certainly a darn rare one. I'm ready to stand corrected, but I can't think of another example of getting to see a cartoonist's "rough drafts," as you might call them, available so extensively as these were. Comparing the two is completely fascinating and fun for amateur archaeologists like me, and I could spend all day telling you about odd little differences between what the Yale students got to enjoy while waiting in classrooms for their profs to show up, and what those first dozen or so subscribing papers bought from the syndicate a couple of years later.

Most striking, in a broad sense, is that there are Mike-n-Mark strips, and there are B.D. football strips. The characters never meet, at least in the sequences reprinted here. One disagreeable flaw in Sheed & Ward's collection is that it is never clear whether this is a complete reprint of all the original comics, or perhaps it's an omnibus of the two small albums that Yale University Press had previously released, so it's possible that Trudeau did have the characters interact in strips we cannot see today.

The awkward roommate strips of Doonesbury's earliest days, with Mike and B.D. failing to get along, take on a completely different tone in Bull Tales, because it's a girl named Cathy Dillworthy who gets Mike as her dormmate, and that's what the original phrase "still a few bugs in the system" referenced. You can almost picture the meetings with the syndicate, can't you? I can imagine they were excited to try and sell something so daring, from such a strong new talent, but still realistic enough to know that middle America in 1970 was not ready to confront the possibility of cohabitation between co-eds over their Corn Flakes and coffee. So out went Cathy and in came the "odd couple" pairing of a jock and a turkey.

Plenty more was ditched for fear of offending the general public's sensibilities, including profanity and an amazingly tasteless rape reference, and if the 1971 Doonesbury sequence where a dean of admissions at then-unnamed Walden instantly admits a blonde wearing a little black dress seemed outre, consider that his Yale antecedent admitted the same blonde, not wearing anything.

Compared to the comics you can find on the web today, there's nothing shocking about Bull Tales, but I can see how this became such a big event at Yale forty years ago. This may not be an essential recommendation, but if you like Doonesbury or are interested in the evolution of newspaper comics, you should certainly hunt for a copy of this, and shouldn't find it too difficult to locate.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Taste for Death

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of A Taste for Death (Faber & Faber, 1986).

I realize that I tend towards the hyperbolic, but bear with me. Years ago, I read this book, after seeing the television adaptation on PBS's Mystery!, and concluded that it was among my two or three favorite novels of the last century. I liked it so much that, irrationally, I stopped reading PD James after her next three books failed to be as amazing as this. Well, I never claimed to be a very good or a very fair prose reader.

Rereading this, I'm still as sold as I was in the early '90s when I first absorbed it. This is a magnificent novel. It is the seventh Adam Dalgliesh story, written some nine years after the previous entry in the series, and it deals with the mysterious deaths of two men in the vestry of a London church. A former MP, who recently resigned after a religious experience, and a homeless tramp are found with their throats cut. Commander Dalgliesh has recently been assigned to a unit designed for the handling of potentially sensitive or scandalous crimes, and as baptisms by fire go, you couldn't ask for something more outre or potentially scandalous as this, particularly as the late Sir Paul Berowne had very recently been linked in a gossip sheet to the deaths of two young ladies who had worked in his household...

I love this book so much. I love the way it just sweeps through the social strata of contemporary London, with a series of crimes that links penniless children, political agitators, civil servants and aristocratic relics. PD James just effortlessly fills in backstory for a huge cast of players caught up in this horror, and man, I want to see the TV version again something fierce now.

I'm having trouble coming up with a way to explain what elevates this from a good novel to something that feels so special to me, and I think it's this. At no point reading it did I ever feel like I was reading a novel, with pages and chapters and a climax that was a measurable distance - centimeters of paper - away from me. The experience is just so immersive that, in prose, James was somehow able to make readers feel like these events were genuinely happening in London, 1986. It feels less like contrived fiction and more like modern history. Perhaps I'm the only one who gets this impression from the book; like most detective fiction, it is marginalized and certainly attracts little academic or critical attention, but this novel just bowls me over completely.

Over time, most great novels find their due, as they say, but this one, certainly among the greats to my mind, probably won't. I wish that wasn't the case. Every home should own it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Chronicles of Genghis Grimtoad

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Chronicles of Genghis Grimtoad (Marvel, 1990).

Well, this was an interesting little surprise. I have a few issues of Marvel UK's early '90s anthology Strip, and so had seen a handful of episodes of Genghis Grimtoad, a two-page sword-n-sorcery parody by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ian Gibson, three of my favorite comic creators. However, my small collection left me with enough gaps in the story that I really couldn't follow it. On the other hand, Gibson's art is so darn great that I had actually pencilled the series in for a possible feature on Reprint This! one of these days. So yes, I was very surprised to find that the full series - a mere 48 pages - had already been collected; I found this early '90s Marvel Graphic Novel for $5 at Knoxville's remarkable Book Eddy.

Now that I can read the whole thing, however, well, the art sure is good. It's really less of a parody than I thought it was, and more of a straight action piece. It's simple, lighthearted and doesn't really do anything different with the genre's set pieces. You've got the heroes on the run from an evil warlord who has usurped the kingdom, and strange beasts in the hinterlands, and really everything that had been done to death in dozens of Conan cash-ins over the decades. The only oddball points are that all the magicians are big freakin' frogs, our hero is a little incompetent, and one of them speaks with a lisp.

If you like Ian Gibson's art, then rest assured that he draws the hell out of this comic and it looks completely terrific. On the other hand, the writers didn't bring their A-games this time around, and even if you like this Lord of the Rings/D&D stuff, you will certainly have read far better than this before. Recommended only for Gibson fans, really.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Over My Dead Body

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Over My Dead Body (Farrar & Rinehart, 1940).

I love the way Rex Stout created this remarkable character in Nero Wolfe and then apparently spent the better part of his career finding new ways and opportunities to make him uncomfortable and aggravated. In the fifth and sixth novels in the series, Stout moved the action away from New York City, forcing Wolfe out of his eccentric regime, and in the seventh, Over My Dead Body, he makes Wolfe deal with his younger days in Montenegro and confront his long-lost adopted daughter. Nobody in fiction can needle quite the way Archie Goodwin can; when he learns that Wolfe has a daughter, I had to put the book down from laughing.

All of this comes to light when Wolfe is asked to settle a claim about some stolen property. Naturally, it's just a matter of time before somebody ends up dead. With foreign nationals involved and war about to start in Europe - the book originally appeared, in abridged form, in American Magazine a couple of weeks before Germany invaded Poland - the FBI takes an interest in who might be spying for what nation, and whether Wolfe's loyalties might not lie someplace else. All of this conspires to keep him in a really bad mood, even by his own standards.

I enjoyed this one a lot. You can tell that Stout's not allowing comfort with his creation to allow him any complacency, and he's enjoying shaking up the formula as much as crafting a really solid mystery. It turns out that this is the earliest of the Stout stories to have been adapted for the 2000-02 Nero Wolfe Mystery TV series. It's not one of the handful that my wife and I have seen; I need to keep my eye out for those box sets, don't I? Recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Showcase Presents Ambush Bug (DC, 2009).

"Only about a thousand people bought Ambush Bug, but every one of them went on to write for Robot Chicken." -- attributed to Brian Eno (poss. apocryphal)

In the grim, awful eighties, we had these standup comics who insisted, by right of their maximum-volume catchphrases, that they were funny. You'd have Joan Rivers bellowing "Can we talk?" and somebody, somewhere was laughing, but nobody you'd want to share a meal with. And they had to be funny, because they insisted that they were funny, and there was a laugh track, so it had to be true.

Ambush Bug started as a lighthearted, self-aware supervillain, created for Superman and the Doom Patrol to have somebody new to fight. Evidently, Keith Giffen and his collaborators fell in love with the idea, and then spent the next several years coming up with madcap comedies based around the idea that Ambush Bug and his cast all knew that they were characters in a funnybook and acted accordingly. And it's apparently all very funny, because the stories keep telling you that they're very funny.

So the Showcase book, it contains sixty squajillion issues of Ambush Bug, a series which people - trustworthy people, people whose opinions I respect - have said for years were the funniest things DC ever printed. When I read this book, I felt like the NASA bigwigs in that episode of The Simpsons who watched a six second clip of Married... with Children and concluded that my God, the people of America are idiots. Or, you know, finding Joan Rivers on USA Night Flight once in 1987 and spending the next fifteen minutes waiting for her to say something that made me laugh.

To be fair, there's a screamingly funny Steve Ditko parody about a third of the way through this book. Twenty pages later, Giffen, Fleming and Oskner repeated the gag, since it was too good not to. Those were the only laughs I got. They were resounding, stomach-hurting, kneeslappin' laughs, but the only ones. There are 480 pages in this book.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Love and Rockets: New Stories # 2

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Love and Rockets: New Stories # 2 (Fantagraphics, 2009).

Maybe complaining that an anthology series like Love & Rockets isn't bringing you what you want is less a reflection on the material than on the reader's expectations, and maybe it isn't, but I honestly didn't enjoy this latest 100-page collection at all. It's much the same as last year's predecessor, with fifty pages of Jaime Hernandez revisiting the weird SF-n-superhero world that's long existed just on the other side of the hills from his Locas stories, and fifty pages of brother Gilbert being as surreal and demented as he likes.

This time out, however, the Ti-Girls adventure makes even less sense than the first outing. Dense with references to untold stories and parallel timelines, it almost does a good job in showing modern superhero epics up as the wastes of time that they are, but it does so at the cost of its own narrative. In six months, I'll remember the details of this story about as well as the last time I tried to read JLA or Legion of Three Worlds: just some convoluted, well-drawn mess.

As for Gilbert, he's made the mistake of introducing us to his new character Killer, while using the technique, perfected towards the end of the Luba saga, of jumping around in the narrative's timeline. I suggest that only works well once readers know the characters and their situation and understand the relationships that he is straining. Two story chunks in, and I do not know who these people are, because he hasn't lingered on any one place and time long enough for them to impact us.

There are fewer than ten pages of Killer this time out, though. Sadly, the bulk of Gilbert's contribution is a 42-page dialogue-free dreamlike mess called "Hypnotwist," in which a blonde cutie wanders from one surreal shocker of nudity, violence and bizarre landscapes to another. I couldn't follow it.

I have a lot of goodwill towards the creators, but the latest iteration of L&R just hasn't rewarded my patience at all. Not recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Big Sleep

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Big Sleep (Knopf, 1939).

Well, now that I've wrapped up all of Laurie King's Russell & Holmes novels currently available in paperback, I've decided to read all of Raymond Chandler, which I've never done before. His first novel, The Big Sleep, followed more than a dozen short stories churned out for one pulp adventure magazine or another in the 1930s, where he perfected his vibe of a weary, downcast world of ugly people and shady secrets. Then he used plot elements from these stories to fashion longer novels, which startled the critical establishment when they learned anybody who wrote for those sorts of magazines could turn out to be one of the finest wordsmiths in the English language, and one of the most important of all American writers.

The great thing about reading this book is how it shows up the film version with Bogart and Bacall to be hopelessly miscast and wrongheaded. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's a terrific movie. So is the 1970s Long Goodbye, but it's not a faithful adaptation of its source either, and neither Elliot Gould nor Bogart were right to play Philip Marlowe.

There's a scene towards the end where Marlowe reflects that either creating or believing in fiction is much easier than relating or accepting the truth, a maxim that I wish I had remembered some four years back when my life got turned upside down by somebody's lies. It was an event which really changed my life for good, and made it so much more difficult for me to trust or embrace anybody. I wonder whether Marlowe experienced anything similar. The bulk of the book is based around his search for the truth; his obligation to General Sternwood is concluded pretty early on, and most men in his position would drop things, but there is much more in good detective fiction than simply closing cases. Marlowe gets his hands dirtier and dirtier as the bodycount rises, but he has to. Nobody else will.

It's a great pleasure to reacquaint myself with the master. I've never read the next three books in the series before, and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bart Simpson #50

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Bart Simpson # 50 (Bongo, 2009).

Earlier in the week, Chris Butcher, manager of Toronto's simply superb bookstore The Beguiling, published a fascinating essay on the problems of "all ages" comics in a marketplace dominated by child-unfriendly superhero stories. As a dad whose son beat a hasty retreat from the increasingly desperate DC Comics into the more sensible climes of Bongo ages ago, I found it a truly interesting read. And with the fiftieth issue of Bart Simpson, Bongo has come up with something flatly unmissable for anybody who likes fun comics, regardless of your age: they've got Sergio Aragonés onboard to write and draw the title.

In a way, it's almost like symmetry to have him working on The Simpsons. I'm of the opinion that the last really watchable season of that show, over half its life ago, was the one with the episode where they went to New York and Bart ever-so-briefly visited the offices of Mad.

I've been reading my son's Simpsons collection for quite some time now, and the comics are only sporadically great, but they're certainly good enough to pass the time without frustration. This issue, which features several short stories, is easily the best of Bongo's titles I've ever read, even bettering the one that pretended to be an anthology of other countries' Simpsons comics. The lead story starts with a bored Bart and Milhouse spitting on passing cars before tedium leads them to start designing a rocket. Professor Frink offers well-intended assistance, but, in much the same way kids will lose interest if you try and direct them towards particular comic books, grown-ups ruin everything, building up to a wonderful double-page spread packed with dozens and dozens of interested parties surrounding the house on Evergreen Terrace. I know that Aragonés is billed as the world's fastest cartoonist, and having seen him prove that for the crowd at UGA earlier this year, I believe it, but this double-page spread must have taken him at least the better part of an hour.

Put simply, this is a comic so fun that I'll happily buy two copies: one that I have ordered to have for my son's collection when he returns home after a few months with his mom, and one to give him to read while he's up there. It's one of Mad's greatest artists drawing the ultimate middle school boys' comics. Setting aside the reality that kids that age, as I say, tend to lose interest in anything you suggest for them, if you've got a middle schooler in your life, you've no business not buying this, for them or yourself.

(Note: Normally when I post a review, I include a link in the image so curious readers may order it from Amazon, or, if not, a link to the publisher. However, Bongo Comics does not appear to operate a web site (?!?!), so the link goes to the SNPP fan site. If you'd like to read this comic, and you should, please stop by a local comic book shop and ask for it by name!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pluto volume 5

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Pluto volume five (Viz, 2009).

I'm behind again, but not too far! Naoki Urasawa's Pluto has been blowing my mind all year long. The sixth volume (of seven collected editions) should be in American stores this week and I believe the conclusion is due in January. If you have not been reading this, you are missing one of the two or three best comics of the year, and you would do well to hop on now so that you can enjoy the mayhem as it wraps up next year with everybody else.

Now, if you haven't been following along, Pluto is a contemporary adaptation of a 1960s Astro Boy story called "The Greatest Robot in the World," in which some unseen force starts wiping out the planet's most powerful robots. Several years previously, most of them saw combat during a war in the Middle East that saw the region devastated and a hated dictator in UN custody. Now working civilian jobs and beloved by the public, the robots and human scientists must discover what force is targeting them before it's too late...

Pluto is structured like a murder mystery and much of the action follows Gesicht, an indestructible humanoid who works as a police detective for Europol. Gesicht's chief concern is that a robot has found a way to violate its prime directive against killing humans, because whatever this thing that's attacking robots might be, it's leaving a trail of corpses in its wake as well. Simultaneously, Gesicht is targeted by a hate group that's out to avenge a human death that the detective once caused himself in the course of an investigation, and has found a willing patsy: the dead man's brother.

Urusawa has really mastered a style of slow-burn storytelling where every revelation and development feels like a kick in the stomach. There's a overpowering sense of doom on every page, with a situation that just gets worse and worse. He's crafted such vibrant, sympathetic characters in his story that I found myself turning pages frantically in worry, particularly when two of the robots, Hercules and Epsilon, meet on a clifftop, preparing to confront their enemy.

It's a stunning mix of genres which will appeal to fans of literary SF or detective fiction as well as traditional action comics. Gesicht's storyline, for example, reminds me of the novels of Isaac Asimov that starred Elijah Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw. Urusawa tells his story beautifully and the artwork is just amazing. He's clearly one of the major talents working in modern comics, and I highly recommend you check out his work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nothing at the End of the Lane

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Nothing at the End of the Lane (Lulu, 2009).

There's just something about the production of Doctor Who that inspires so much more curiosity than any other television series. Anything else, we just take it for granted that it was being filmed in some dingy studio or backlot somewhere, and its cleanup for DVD is a matter of boring technical necessity. Nothing about removing grains from old 35mm prints of, say, The Saint strikes me as being essential reading. But give me 15,000 words about finding some new frames that were once cut from a 1967 Nigerian repeat of episode three of "The Faceless Ones" and I am totally hooked.

Nothing at the End of the Lane is a very sporadically-published fanzine devoted to the specialist minutiae about the restoration of black and white Doctor Who. It's not a read for fans who think they have an iron in the fire about whether Martha or Rose was more in love with our hero; it's for people who want to know about the 108 missing episodes and their "telesnap" reconstructions. The two lengthy issues of the zine are long out of print, but the editors have put together a very nice reprint in a single omnibus bookshelf edition, and it is just fascinating reading.

This could have ended up being pretty dry reading, and certainly some of the articles veer towards the eye-punchingly introspective. Worst among them is a questionnaire-styled interview with several of the fans who recreate lost episodes via filmstrip-like slideshows and a capture of the audio. I concede that I just don't have the patience to sit through these, no matter how laudable and praiseworthy the work put into them is, and I certainly don't care about their adherence to the original camera script of the televised episode. Thankfully, for every moment of too-deep-for-the-small-screen navel-gazing, there's something much lighter and equally loving, like David J. Howe's nostalgic memories of a Cyberman serial called "The Invasion," or a bizarre comic strip in which the TV Comic Dr. Who and his two grandchildren help Big Name Fan Ian Levine rescue lost episodes from the Wicked Witch of the West!

With contributions from notable fandom names like Richard Bignell, Richard Molesworth, Andrew Pixley and Stephen James Walker, the book is packed with interesting stories, and bizarre, trivial items coming to light after days spent researching copyright clearances and payments to actors' agents to try and source a print of some 1965 serial. It's probably not for everybody, but if the facts of Doctor Who are just as interesting to you as the fiction, then this is certainly a book for your own library.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 13

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 Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 13 (Rebellion, 2009)

Back in the summer, Rebellion issued the thirteenth in their series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files. This reprints all the Dredd episodes that originally appeared in 2000 AD from March 1989 to January 1990 in one very nice package. Most of them are in full color, although these originally saw print back when 2000 AD only had a single color episode each week out of five stories. For ten weeks in the period, the Slaine storyline "The Horned God" got the color slot, kicking Dredd to the front of the comic in black and white. So now you know, it's been twenty years since Dredd was a black and white comic. Lotta pages under the bridge in all that time!

The first of those episodes is the classic "In the Bath," in which Dredd reflects on his battered and bruised body while trying to enjoy one of his rare moments of scheduled downtime, only to find he still can't escape the crazy, ultraviolent city for even a few moments of peace and quiet. The episode, by John Wagner and Jim Baikie, was instantly praised as a classic, expertly mixing quiet pathos with absurdist comedy.

Most of the book is written by Wagner. By this point, he and Alan Grant were working individually, and Grant doesn't contribute quite as many episodes as before, but he does bring some real gems, best among them "A Family Affair." This is a really mean-spirited, hilarious look at things spiraling way out of control when Dredd goes to inform some citizens that a family member was killed in a police shooting. Steve Yeowell paints the episode, and there's a two-panel moment when someone realizes exactly which policeman did the shooting which is the funniest thing ever. Yeowell's third series of Zenith was running about the same time, and it's very interesting to see him apply the same style, but with color.

There are no major storylines or epics in this collection, but Wagner does touch on some earlier threads that carry on from earlier volumes. At this stage, there are still comparatively few recurring characters in the series, but Anderson and Hershey show up again briefly, and we have a return for the disturbed Judge Kurten, now in his new base of operations south of the border, along with Rookie Judge Kraken, who will become a major player in the fourteenth book.

There is a small, unfortunate printing error in this edition. The Colin MacNeil-painted "Dead Juve's Curve" repeats an error from its original printing and has a couple of pages out of order. It's an unfortunate hiccup, but one easily overlooked among so much really good material. Don't let the number 13 on the book deter you if you're new to Dredd: this is a perfectly fine starting point for new readers, and it might do you well to begin here before the apocalyptic events of the volume which comes next...

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Black Tower

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Black Tower (Faber & Faber, 1975).

The Black Tower was P.D. James' fifth Dalgliesh novel. She had a short detour prior to it with 1972's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a novel about a private detective named Cordelia Gray who operates in Dalgliesh's London, but honestly, I didn't enjoy the two Gray stories very much when I read them some time ago and have decided to pass on them for now. Gray is namechecked early in this episode, as our hero is recuperating from an ugly illness. Moody and world-weary as ever, Dalgliesh has decided to retire from Scotland Yard, but takes a month's convalescent leave in coastal Dorset to be certain of his decision, and to follow up on an old friend's request for advice.

Unfortunately, he arrives at the deeply eccentric Toynton Grange, a rest home for disabled patients run by a miracle-believing oddball who has his staff dress in Franciscan robes and observe meditation periods, too late to learn why Father Badderly had sent for him, as the old man had finally passed away a few days' previously. But his wasn't the first death in the isolated community, and naturally, this being a P.D. James novel, there will be more to come in the days to follow.

I found it interesting to see that for the second time in just five novels, James elected to take her hero out of London and force him to work when he's meant to be on leave. This is an interesting case where it certainly doesn't look as though a murderer is at large, but there's such an ugly, heavy sense of brutality and unhappiness in the community that the question of who might be next will certainly weigh on your mind. Her masterful command of plotting and character development, which I noted in an earlier review took a couple of books to develop, is now fully formed, and a harrowing sequence where an invalid decides to take her own life and take a painful climb, hauling herself up several flights of stairs, is really chilling stuff. James also deliciously teases us with information about the last day of a character's life, leading us to believe we're reading the moments leading up to her murder, only to twist things a few pages later and see that she's alive and happy, her death still some time away.

Structurally, it's a very interesting story, set at the tail end of the time when people would communicate their acceptance of a visit of several days' duration via postcard, and simply not follow it up with a phone call. One of the most interesting things about reading detective fiction from various eras, as I am doing, is observing how changes in technology and social etiquette would force a book's plot to move in radically different ways if tackled today. James, sensibly, always seems to avoid using slang or references that tie her pieces to any given era, but more than any fashion or cultural reference in the text, this simple use of the era's rules for social intercourse date the piece as something from England's past, and it's very interesting to me that a book written within my own lifetime feels so much like a period piece. Since the Adam Dalgliesh series spans forty-six years, I think that I'll enjoy seeing how James will concoct the events of later novels in keeping with contemporary culture's mores, and how her hero will reflect them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga (Abrams ComicArts, 2009).

So everybody reading this knows of Tezuka, right? A longtime favorite, since back in the days when I was glancing through all those lovely untranslated editions of Vampire and Cyborg Big X that I couldn't afford some twenty-odd years back at a shop in Doraville called Nippon Daido, he was the first Japanese comic artist to kick the medium screaming out of its four-panel gag origins and into something long-lasting and meaningful. He wasn't perfect; he was mercurial and prone to leave series uncompleted once he'd met his contractual commitment, and even within an otherwise structured series, he'd become bored and restless and prone to tilt the narrative in wild, unexpected directions. But nobody, nobody in the medium could pull it off as well as him, and nobody designed a world where both humanity and technology could be so equally treated with love and optimism, even in works that explored our darkest possibilities. He's called the god of manga for good reason: not one American would be reading any were it not for his pioneering work.

I've had the huge pleasure of speaking with this book's author, Helen McCarthy, a few times at Anime Weekend Atlanta, and she'd agree that it's possible to go a little too overboard with the praise, and that it needs to be tempered just a little. Tezuka was a rotten businessman, and a good twenty years atop the sales charts probably left him a little complacent, and an easy target for the iconoclasts who started pushing Japanese comics in new directions in the late sixties.

Much brilliant work was still ahead of him, of course: Black Jack, a little more than a third of which is now available in the US thanks to Vertical, and Ayako, which they're said to be releasing next year, would be developed in reaction to a belief among younger artists that Tezuka was past his prime and relying on old glories and character designs. In the late seventies, he even had the indignity of temporarily losing the rights to his iconic Astro Boy, requiring the creation of a substitute character, the terrifically-named Jetter Mars, for a new project.

In all, his was an amazing, restless career, the work of an artist constantly adapting to the marketplace on one hand, and forging new paths with the other. McCarthy's lovely coffeetable biography, packaged with a short documentary DVD, is the first English-language bio of one of the comic medium's most influential and important figures. Like Mark Evanier's 2008 biography of Jack Kirby - brought to you by the same publishers - it's heavily, copiously illustrated and will leave any reader desperately wanting to know more. Yet focusing, as I tend to, on Tezuka's comics and films leaves me in danger of overlooking all of the material on Tezuka's personal life. Again, McCarthy really brings a lot of fascinating material to light, with facts about his studies and his legacy, and pages of photos of the artist, in his always-present glasses and beret, always hard at work being Japan's ambassador of comics.

I must say that the overwhelming bulk of the material in this book was completely new to me, a tidal wave of series only briefly seen mentioned in Tezuka's woefully incomplete Wikipedia listing, and much of it sounds completely fascinating. Thanks to this book, you can add quite a few more comics to my already long wish list of series that Vertical or Viz or DMP or Dark Horse or somebody needs to issue in English. Does somebody want to bring out Barbara or Rainbow Parakeet in the next year or two so's I can buy them?

Like the Kirby book, I do think the book is somewhat lacking for the absence of a really comprehensive Tezuka bibliography, the sort of thing that rolls on for endless detail-packed pages of minutiae and facts about exactly which issues of which anthology featured these stories in the first place, but I concede this is the sort of specialist interest not really suited to the work. All of the gorgeous art, reproduced so lovingly, and the tantalizing hints about series we've not yet seen in English just leave me hungry for more about Tezuka: more details, more facts, and more comics. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Too Many Cooks

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Too Many Cooks (Farrar & Rinehart, 1938).

Well, the first thing that crosses my mind to tell you about the fifth Nero Wolfe novel is not to read the thing on an empty stomach. In it, Wolfe reluctantly agrees to leave the comfort of the Brownstone to deliver a speech about the greatness of American cooking to the members of les Quinze Maîtres, the world's greatest chefs, who meet every five years to sample each other's creations and elect new members to replace those who've passed away between meetings. This year, the group is meeting at Kanawha Spa, near Quinby, West Virginia, and Wolfe elects to travel by train for a deeply amusing personal reason: he hopes to persuade one of them to cough up a closely-guarded recipe. (Neither the spa nor the town really exist, but Wikipedia suggests it is based on the world-famous Greenbrier, which is near Quinwood.)

Each of Stout's novels seem to revel in the rich accounting of the greatness of amazing food, and this one really goes, delightfully, overboard. I read a chapter or two on Thursday while waiting for a friend to join me for lunch at a favorite restaurant here in Atlanta and was about ready to kill somebody myself if he didn't hurry the heck up and arrive so we could eat. Speaking of which, yes, somebody gets knocked off in short order, in a "locked room"-style killing, but the group doesn't really pause, and certainly doesn't cancel their meeting like us 21st Century sissies probably would. In the thirties, real men didn't let things like murder get in the way of amazing meals.

This brings me to the second thing that comes to mind, and that's the problem of reading a book written in the thirties, set in rural West Virginia, with a truly unfortunate and dated attitude towards race. It is so prevalent in this book that it gave me pause on many occasions, and you expect going in that some hick sheriff of the period is going to be a bigoted jerk to all the spa's staff. Yet it's simply a little heartbreaking to read Archie Goodwin, our hero and the man with the wittiest narration and quickest, most delicious comebacks in fiction, repeatedly reveal himself to be just as casual in his use of vulgar racial epithets as every character in the book. I cannot reveal how, but when cold cream, gloves and burnt cork make a vital appearance in the narrative, it becomes apparent why the producers of the terrific TV series earlier this decade, the one with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, never dared dream of adapting this one under any circumstances.

As for Wolfe, well, he's a condescending bully to absolutely everybody as usual, so you might not mind his talking down, tactlessly, to a group of the spa's servants assembled in his room. Stout, unsurprisingly, attempts to show a sympathetic edge under Wolfe's smug, superior tone by revealing that Wolfe is familiar with the works of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar - Dorothy Sayers occasionally employed the same sort of trick to suggest Lord Peter Wimsey wasn't quite as unbearable as his class and position would otherwise make him - but the stunt is revealed by its response - the educated man falls for it - to be part of the same risible, painful attitude that infests the book. I read a Buddy Bradley story from the mid-80s last month where the character tried to claim he wasn't a racist because he liked Jimi Hendrix and was instantly shown up by the other fellow. It's the same argument; that Stout allowed Wolfe to get away with it will remain with me far longer than the details of the murder.

Well, that and Archie charming his way into a European girl's graces with some improvised muck about horses and mares. There's always a lot to love in a Nero Wolfe novel; sadly this one comes with a considerable amount to loathe as well.

Friday, November 6, 2009

James Bond: The Girl Machine

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of James Bond: The Girl Machine (Titan, 2009).

By this point, everybody's familiar with what you get in these Titan editions, right? Three newspaper stories from the mid-70s, full of grandiose villainy, topless ladies, fisticuffs and great artwork by Yaroslav Horak, right? Yeah, but this time there's an extra treat. It turns out that a year or so after the strip was cancelled, the Daily Express considered relaunching it, and hired the great Ron Embleton, whom you may know from Oh, Wicked Wanda! and several Gerry Anderson strips, to illustrate twelve tryout strips.

That the project wasn't continued is a huge shame. With no disrespect to Horak, John McLusky or any of the great artists who did such a fine job with Bond over his quarter-century run in newspapers, Embleton was clearly the man who should have been drawing James Bond since the beginning. The actual content of the book is as interesting as ever - Bond's ally Suzy Kew has an awesome moment modelling undercover as a "big game hunter" - but this time out, the stunning supplementary material completely overshadows everything. Well done, Titan, uncovering this fascinating might-have-been! Recommended for older readers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Game

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Game (Bantam, 2004).

Credit where it's due: with The Game, her seventh novel of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, Laurie King succeeded in keeping me worried out of my skull that something really unpleasant was right around the corner for our heroes. The villain of the piece proves to be dangerously demented, and a combination of insanity and infinite resources really looks like it's enough to finally beat the invunerable Holmes.

Getting to the meat of this one takes a little patience, however. I was unsatisfied with O Jerusalem, even as reading the sixth novel, Justice Hall, proved why it was necessary for King to fill in the characters' backstory in that longwinded fashion, because of what felt like research overwhelming the narrative. It seemed like each nuance of the foreign culture, and every minute of the arduous travel, had to be detailed in minutiae. Here, as 1924 dawns and Russell and Holmes travel to India to search for the missing Kimball O'Hara (you'll remember him if you've read your Kipling), King again seems more interested in immersing readers in the culture than getting on with the story. I concede that she's playing by the rules; Holmes' powers as a master of disguise and an undercover operator rely on his ability to completely immerse himself into his new identities, after all, but it can become a little wearying.

It's probably more snobbery on my part than any fault of the fiction. It was always amusing when Doyle had Holmes vanish for weeks on end, only to turn up and startle Dr. Watson with his reappearance somehow. Something about the hoops that Mary has to jump through can't help but bother me. Sure, I suppose being uprooted and forced to learn foreign languages and etiquette at a moment's notice comes as part and parcel of being married to the world's greatest detective, and Mary knew exactly what she was getting into some years previously, and Holmes would never have allowed himself to fall in love with anybody not capable of doing the job.

Still, with one hair-raising adventure after another, and three novels spanning three continents, set across a period of less than five months, I understand Mary's exhaustion and sympathize wholeheartedly with her when she says that the next time her wretched brother-in-law needs some job doing, they should decline and relax for a year or two. Unfortunately, there's enough of a hint dropped towards the end that I'm pretty sure the summer of 1924 will see our heroes in Savannah, of all places, looking for a mysterious woman who was on the steamer to Aden with them. Poor Mary!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Non-Being and Somethingness

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Non-Being and Somethingness: Selections from the Comic Strip "Inside Woody Allen" (Random House, 1978).

I had a short little recurring gag over at my Reprint This! blog earlier in the year. I heard that Abrams was releasing a collection of the 1970s Inside Woody Allen comic strip by Stuart Hample and pretended not to believe such a thing existed, because, well, who would believe that there was ever a Woody Allen comic strip? It wasn't a very good gag, and I only used it twice, but you must admit the idea's a little wacky, especially when the book was supposed to carry an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. He's been dead for over twenty years!

Well, there really was a Woody Allen comic strip, and Abrams' book, Dread and Superficiality, really does exist, and it really does have an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. It will be released next week, and money's been tight enough to suggest that I probably won't be getting a copy, but what I did find was Non-Being and Somethingness, the first collection of Woody Allen comics, released back in 1978 and drawing from the strip's first eighteen months. Fuller, then in his 80s, contributed the deeply strange introduction, a ten-page comic in which a small group of polygons and geodesic shapes, drawn in scratchy ballpoint around typewritten captions and balloons, debate philosophy.

I think Allen's self-imposed exile from the mainstream has gone on so long that we've forgotten how popular he once was, and how riotous his standup act had been. That's the Woody Allen of this comic, a funny, bespectacled, neurotic guy hopping from therapist to therapist, unable to grasp that maybe football players aren't the best people to give advice on the question of free will. The comic, full of playful, rhetorical questions about faith, dating and celebrity, was written and drawn by Stuart Hample, and an excerpt from his own introduction to the new book appeared in the Guardian earlier this month.

Well, I say Allen was popular, but I'm pretty sure my parents always despised him and I'm certain that Inside Woody Allen never appeared in any of the Atlanta papers. The references to sex and religion would have certainly made this a no-go in the area back then. It's certainly an odd strip, rarely if ever laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly unique and occasionally quite clever. Eventually, though, I came to appreciate the collection more for bringing me a slice of cultural history that I'd completely missed the first time around than for its actual comedy content.

Spoiled by modern strip collections, I found Non-Being and Somethingness's presentation really aggravating. The designer, who, as the text-filled cover might indicate, appears to have been something of an idiot, seems to have thrown panels onto the pages at random, and there's an awful lot of wasted space. A 96 page book should have had room for at least a couple of hundred strips, but several pages here include just three panels in a diagonal tier. I really wouldn't mind popping back in time thirty years and smacking the designer in the head with a copy of a Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts book.

I am betting that Abrams' new collection looks a lot better, and is much more comprehensive than this version, and if you click the image of the old edition above, it will take you to an Amazon page where you can order the new one. While I wouldn't rank Inside Woody Allen anywhere near the top of American comic strips, it's certainly a neat curiosity and fans of the form might enjoy looking through it. Next, be on the lookout for Hipster Dad Books' first release, in the summer of 2010: a collection of the Buddy Hackett comic strip. With an introduction by Dwight Eisenhower.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures volume 2

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures (volume two) (Dark Horse, 2009).

The history of Indiana Jones comic books is a long and often disappointing one, full of scattershot miniseries by rotating banks of creative teams. For my money, the best of all of them was Marvel Comics' Further Adventures of Indiana Jones in the mid-80s, but as this second Dark Horse omnibus demonstrates, even it had its share of flaws.

The omnibus is an attractive format; it reprints about 350 pages (15 issues) in color in a size just slightly smaller than the original comics. It's very good value for money at around $25. Yet the comics are anything but attractive. Between lazy, shortcut inking which tries to render entire crowds with the barest minimum of lines and the saturated, dayglow colors from a palette that screams "the 1980s," these are, emphatically, very ugly comics. I posted some particularly egregious examples from the first volume at my LiveJournal back in February. Several more can be found here; I don't know what possessed Marvel's colorists to just make a character and all his clothing red, or a huge crowd one solid pink, or set any of them on backgrounds of mustard yellow never seen in nature, but man, it looks hideous and sloppy and doesn't flatter the original linework at all.

The stories are pretty good. Several writers, principally David Michelinie with assistance and fill-ins from others, like veteran Larry Lieber, crafted some pretty good action-adventure hoops for Indy to jump through, with intricate conspiracies, nasty cults and weird, unknown civilizations. Sadly, however, none of the art rises above "workmanlike." Most of it is by Herb Trimpe, who, while mercifully no longer under instruction to try and copy Kirby, rarely finds any standout visuals. Jackson Guice, similarly, strides a line between "boring" and "what the script requires." Steve Ditko handles one fill-in with a minimum of enthusiasm; it's the best-looking episode in the book, but nowhere close to what I hoped a Ditko-drawn episode of Indiana Jones would look like.

That pretty much sums up the collection. I really got the impression that it was only Michelinie who took the assignment as the opportunity to create something memorable; those who worked with him didn't bring any fire-filled bellies to the table. As Indiana Jones adventures go, at least conceptually these aren't at all bad, and if you're willing to overlook the 1980s conventions of godawful coloring and characters who are constantly explaining the plot to themselves in thought bubbles, you can probably enjoy them for what they are. Recommended for Indiana's fans.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01

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 ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01 (Rebellion, 2009)

Rebellion has released the first in a planned four-volume collection of the ongoing ABC Warriors saga "The Volgan War" by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. It's part of the company's periodic hardback line, and it is completely wild and wonderful.

Over time, the story of the Warriors has gotten a little continuity-heavy, but this volume goes out of its way to be friendly to new readers. It follows on from the 2003-06 series "The Shadow Warriors" (reviewed a couple of months ago) with the decision to put their small-minded, demented member Mek-Quake into a sanitorium for some long-overdue rest, and this prompts our centuries-old robot heroes to reminisce about their earliest adventures, predating our introductions to them. It turns out there was a lot more to their backstory than we were ever told, and they're each surprised to learn that each of them crossed paths with a mysterious, flamethrowing "special forces" robot called Zippo...

"The Volgan War" really completes the long overdue resurgence of this once-classic title, which spent the 1990s a shadow of its former self. Mills has rarely been weirder or more inventive in throwing completely bizarre concepts at his readers, and while he's writing for a more mature audience than the ten year-olds who gobbled up the original series, with its bazooka-totin' robots on dinosaurs, he's still able to balance an intricate plot with high-wire ideas. So we get armies of multi-armed Hammersteins locked in combat with giant Mecha-Stalins, and taxicabs which can be converted into weapons.

But it's the artwork that drives this one out of the park. I've certainly admired all the great artists who've contributed to the series over the years, from Mike McMahon to Simon Bisley to Henry Flint, but in Clint Langley, the definitive Warriors visuals have at last been found. Langley's computer-created world is unlike anything we've seen in 2000 AD before, fully-realized, three-dimensional depictions of decaying future war battlefields populated by hundreds of rusting mechanical soldiers. In the comic, it looked pretty amazing. On the better paper in this book, the results are eye-popping.

This edition reprints the story that originally appeared in "Prog 2007" and issues 1518-1525 of the weekly, beefing it up with some extra pages - nothing too extravagant, usually just some double-page spreads - along with a long-overdue Warriors' Timeline, explaining things for new readers and clarifying some of the points that have caused some confusion in the past, along with the now-standard introduction and commentary by Mills. It's truly an amazing collection, and on the short list for the year's best book; yes, it's as good as that.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Island of Lost Maps

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Island of Lost Maps (Random House, 2000).

Chances are, most of the people who read my reviews are collectors of one shade or another. But I expect few of my readers are as nuts about crazily-expensive old maps as the dealers and buyers who make up the cast of this fascinating little story. It's a tale of true crime where the victims are fragile, ancient indices in the rare books departments of large libraries, and the criminal who vandalizes them is Bland by name, bland by nature, and vulgar in deed.

The story starts in Baltimore, 1995. While millions of us were thrilling to the fictional Homicide: Life on the Street on NBC, real-world cops in the city had picked up a man who'd been taking razor blades to books in the Peabody, silently stealing ancient maps to resell from his Florida-based antique business. Gilbert Bland had multiple identities, the trust of a growing circle of traders and property pilfered from quite a few universities and private collections before he finally made a mistake and was caught... but that was just the beginning of the story.

To be honest, the story itself was fascinating, but I was occasionally disappointed with the carefree way that Miles Harvey told it. I found a very good 2002 review of this book by Richard Strassberg (available here) which I found very much in line with my thoughts. Harvey personalizes his narrative too much; his research, interviews and groundwork should have given us a more objective, fact-based story, and let the curious characters he meets, like the ostentatious millionaire Graham Arader, provide the color. But Harvey allows himself far too much intrusion into other peoples' stories, resulting in tacky inventions, narrative fiction and navel-gazing psychoanalysis unsuited to the tale.

In all, it's a fine story, and I believe that anybody curious about incunabula or capers will find much to enjoy in it, but readers will also tire quickly of the way Harvey tells the story. George Peabody's ghost really has no place in a work like this. I have to recommend the book with reservations; the original article from Outside (available here) tells the story in a far more succinct and entertaining way than this book.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Louche and Insalubrious Escapades of Art D'Ecco

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Louche and Insalubrious Escapades of Art D'Ecco (Fantagraphics, 2006).

While I'm not certain I've ever encountered the words "louche" or "insalubrious" prior to this, I know that Roger Langridge is a huge Bookshelf favorite, and I'm always glad to stumble across his work. I found this a couple of months ago at McDonough's quite excellent Bunjee's Comics and spent a couple of days grimacing over 160-odd pages of the most ghastly, teeth-crackingly awful puns you've ever read. The back cover cogently points out that Langridge is a virus from outer space, and it's all downhill from there.

Originally serialized in the late 1980s across two periodical titles and two special editions, the comics in this book were a collaboration between Roger and his brother Andrew, who wrote the material and who perhaps can be blamed for all the lovely puns on every page. The structure is very loose, and each strip is little more than a skeleton to hang ridiculous comic interplay or neat disruptions of accepted panel layout. In one sequence, the story in the panels travels in a spiral around the page. In another, a character reaches outside the frame structure to retrieve an object from himself in another. When the characters are briefly imprisoned - by guards who resemble the Beagle Boys from Scrooge McDuck (and not far from the revelation that Karl Marx, making a quip about putting something on his bill, is actually Karl Barx in disguise) - Art d'Ecco actually grabs the panel borders, transforming the page into a prison cell.

As for the ostensible structure, we meet Mr. Art d'Ecco, a square-jawed oaf who apparently wants to be a 1920s dandy, but is held back more than a little by his idiot roommate, a triangular mess called the Gump. They get embroiled in one hot situation after another as the Langridges cook up ridiculous stories and adventures. Many of the larger details quickly fade into the background because the wild goings-on are so memorable and so odd, and so I can't really tell you what the plot of the sixty-page "La Trahison des Images" is, just that it's full of eyepopping visual gags and crazy wordplay. At one point, a familiar brick gets thrown, and you'll think, "Yeah, this is about as anarchic as Krazy Kat."

Put another way, this is a book where we meet a clean-up-teevee campaigner named Margie de Sade, who was once an actress who starred with Art as a character called Harlot Mascara. If you're with me in thinking that's about the best name for a character in all of fiction, then you need this book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Saw You...: Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of I Saw You...: Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections (Three Rivers Press, 2009).

While in Boston this summer, I stopped into one of our nation's very best comic shops, the quite awesome Million Year Picnic, and picked up a few things. Among them is this very interesting anthology edited by Julia Wertz. Apparently, and this is what I get for never having paid any attention to either traditional classified ads or to Craigslist, there's a whole subculture of people who are too shy to approach attractive people in public, and so they resort to leaving optimistic little mash notes somewhere they hope their crush will read. That strides a deliciously uncomfortable line between "desperate" and "pathetic," doesn't it?

Obviously, there's a great potential for comedy in this odd, odd approach to meeting, and the dozens of cartoonists who have contributed to Wertz's book find takes ranging from slapstick to wistful to mean-spirited. Kazimir Strzepek, Shaenon Garrity and Alec Longstreth contributed particular favorites.

Many others weren't to my taste. Some of the artists choose to work in styles which I found confusing or difficult to read. Some of them are totally ready for prime time. Some of them, like Pete Bagge and Shannon Wheeler, have been there for years. Nothing in it really bowled me over. Some comics made me scratch my head and wonder what the heck I just read, but more of them made me smile and laugh. Certainly worth a look for older readers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The 86ers

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 86ers (Rebellion, 2009)

Rebellion, publisher of My Favorite Comic(TM), has recently suffered the aggravation of having some books solicited for direct-market distribution by Diamond, only to have the distributor turn around and cancel the orders. One of the books impacted by this was the collected edition of Gordon Rennie's The 86ers, released in May of this year. The book is available, therefore, to proper bookstores in Britain, and easily obtainable online, but not from local comic book shops. The series is a sequel to Rennie's 2002-2005 run on Rogue Trooper. A few months after his last episodes of that series, we met up again with Rafe, a genetically-engineered pilot introduced as one of Rennie's new supporting cast. She's transferred to the 86th Air Support Reconnaissance Squadron and tasked with protecting supply routes to a strategically important mining planet. The series could have been an engaging mix of future war, ancient superweapons and political intrigue, but unfortunately, it never really gelled as a serial.

It's my habit to not sit down and really reread the contents of the Rebellion trades if it's a reprint of material I haven't yet come to in my Thrillpowered Thursday reread, so perhaps I'm being unfair to The 86ers when I say that other than Rafe and the briefly-seen villain Colonel Kovert, a baddie from Rogue Trooper's original run, I have no idea who any of the characters in The 86ers are. There are a lot of them, and a lot of subplots, but after the ten episodes in 2006 (published in three batches over nine months) and the six that came six months later, none of them had made an impact on me at all. Rather than slipping the series quietly under the rug after that, Tharg commissioned six wrap-up episodes earlier this year from Arthur Wyatt, in order to get enough material to warrant publishing a collected edition at all. Rennie, clearly disinterested by this point, had moved on to work for some video game company. I'm sure Wyatt did the best anybody could hope for with what he had to work with, but neither the original run a few years ago, nor a refresher that I gave myself shortly afterwards, nor a quick thumb-through of this edition to confirm what was in it has provided my memory with the name of a single character other than Rafe or Kovert.

In many ways - and this is something we will definitely come back to in Thrillpowered Thursday - The 86ers exemplifies Smith's tenure as 2000 AD editor. He's done so much that is very right during his time in the hot seat, but his biggest failing has been the reversal of the semi-residencies that were common while David Bishop was editor. Ongoing series simply need extended runs of at least 10-13 weeks every year in order to make a consistent impact, particularly if they're going to have many recurring subplots and characters. There are occasional dramatic, exciting moments in The 86ers, and the art, initially by Karl Richardson before PJ Holden takes over, is quite good throughout, but there's too much talking between characters who take forever to do anything.

As a collected edition, The 86ers is nevertheless an impressive one. Released just a few weeks after it concluded in the weekly, the book contains all 22 episodes, along with the single installment of Rogue Trooper that introduced Rafe, some of the series' original covers and sketchbook art from Richardson and Holden. It's a truly fine collection of a sadly inessential series.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gahan Wilson's America

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Gahan Wilson's America (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

With the release of Fantagraphics' massive collection of Gahan Wilson's complete Playboy work just a week or two away, it's not a bad time to look back at one of the artist's earlier releases. Gahan Wilson's America was originally released in hardcover in 1985. A paperback edition, with a slightly modified cover, came out the following year.

It's a really sketchy sort of collection, which seems to feature comics and panels from several magazines, but nothing here is annotated or credited. Many of the longer pieces probably came from National Lampoon - I believe that he would have a 3-4 page strip there a couple of times a year - and some of the panels possibly came from Playboy or The New Yorker, and some might be new to the book. Who knows? The book's name is irrelevant to its contents, and might just as well have done to be called "Modern Life." Each chapter of 4-8 pages features some loose theme like doctors or technology or, of course, kids, and then presents a few Wilson cartoons which roughly fit the chapter title.

I've been noticing a lot more of these sorts of collections since I've been paying attention to the "humor" section in good used bookstores. This one came from the mighty McKay Books in Knoxville, and despite a couple of tears and dings in the dust jacket, it was well worth three bucks, much like the old Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperbacks are always worth picking up. But much in the same way that Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts series has changed the way that we can read that series, the forthcoming Wilson Playboy collection has changed the need to get many of these older titles - and there were apparently quite a few Wilson collections in their day, similar to this. Other than the old edition of National Lampoon's Nuts (mentioned last month by Chris Mautner at Collect This Now!), I don't think there's really any need to pay a premium price for any old Wilson book, since we know that there's better on the horizon - properly archived work presented with better reproduction on better paper. Still, for three bucks, you just can't argue with work as charming as this.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Red String, Volume One

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Red String, Volume One (Dark Horse, 2006).

At this year's Anime Weekend Atlanta, I resolved to purchase something completely new to me, and directly from its creator, if possible. Purely on a "best value" case, this proved to be Red String by Gina Briggs, a well-written romance story, told in that not-always-agreeable style where the influence of Japanese cartoons overwhelms every other artistic trope.

It is not unpleasant to look at, and Ms. Briggs' linework and penmanship is often lovely, but I did not see much in this first volume that really stood out as the artist's own identity shining through the hodgepodge of influences. While her inking, clothes design and use of effects are all first-rate, I was often confused and bewildered as to who the characters were. There is too great a reliance on basic body types among her cast; Miharu's fiance, father and uncle all appear to be the same age.

The story is a simple and engaging romance about a teenage schoolgirl who is informed by her mother that she'd arranged a marriage for her many years previously. As it turns out, Fujiwara is an attractive enough catch, and such a hunk that he immediately catches the eye of Miharu's scheming cousin, the ostensible villain of the piece. There are sidebar subplots about Miharu's school friends and a popular volleyball player, and our heroine's musings on destiny and love, and if you can stomach the sort of girly-girl daydreams of slow dances and nice boys without wondering why the heck you didn't pick up that collected edition of Frontline Combat the other week instead, then you'll probably enjoy this for what it is. I'm by no means the target audience, but I've read far worse in the genre, and would happily recommend this to middle school-aged girls.

The first three volumes were published by Dark Horse; a fourth was self-published by the artist, who continues the story as a webcomic. All are available from her website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ménage à 3: Round One

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Ménage à 3: Round One (Pixie Trix, 2009).

You know, this blog's a fine place to turn for suggestions about mindless violence and cerebral detective fiction, but it's been sorely lacking in bawdy sex comedy. Well, a few months back, I followed a news story about a collected edition of the web comic Ménage à 3 by Gisèle Lagacé and David Lumsdom, read the archives and mostly enjoyed the heck out of it. Actually, what I liked almost as much as the wacky goings-on was the obvious plan, from an early stage, to assemble the comic in digest editions from the outset. With just a simple tweak, the strip is revealed to be laid out perfectly for the digest-sized format common to Japanese comics, and the first edition is now available for purchase.

Ménage à 3 opens with a skinny, dorky wannabe cartoonist in Montreal coming home to find that his two roommates have fallen in love, broken his light table and are moving out. Fortunately, they were good enough to already place a notice for two vacancies, and before long, the hopelessly virginal Gary is shacking up with an overcharged, unemployed pervert called Zii, who resolves to do something about Gary's lack of a sex life, and Didi, a voluptuous free spirit who never can find her own satisfaction.

It kind of goes without saying that wacky hijinks ensue. That's all this is, really, is wacky, bawdy, R-rated hijinks. It's like a naughtier Three's Company, which suggests that no matter how often you get naked, or who you're with when you do so, a ridiculous misunderstanding and disappointment is always seconds away. The writers suggest the book's intended for older teens and above, and they're not kidding. There's nothing erotic here, but there's plenty of comedy nudity and downright inappropriate behavior. I liked it a lot, but the nice thing about web comics is that you can try it out yourself and decide whether it's worth the investment.