Friday, December 31, 2010

Justice League of America # 194

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and sometimes, though not in this case, 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 Justice League of America # 194 (DC, 1981).

I really shouldn't be bringing more old comics into the house. Several months ago, I resolved to whittle down from twelve longboxes to five, and I'm only partially there. (I've discarded, sold or donated three of them!) However, going through all these has revealed rather more holes in my collection of DC's Justice League of America during its classic era of, say, 1975 to 1983 than I thought that I had. So when a local shop, Marietta's Great Escape Comics & Games, announced a 50% off sale on their back issues, I headed over there with a wish list, just like I probably did when this particular issue was originally published and I was in middle school. Among their backstock were several kind of beat-up "reader quality" copies which they priced quite nicely at fifty cents apiece. Cover price!

I was eleven or so when I first read this issue and I was convinced that it was the coolest thing in the entire world. While unsurprisingly it doesn't really hold up that well, apart from the luscious art by George Perez, it still maintains a simple charm. Gerry Conway's by-the-numbers story is the sort of thing that Justice League's writers have been doing in their sleep for decades on the title. Basically, the heroes get smacked around by some villains, get together and figure out a new plan, use teamwork to save the day and defeat the villain. This time out, it's a baddie called Amos Fortune, who uses magic to confound our heroes.

It's the magic that made this one worth reading - when I was eleven, anyway. Fortune, whose motivation doesn't seem much deeper than "beat the good guys," somehow turns various Tarot cards into living entities who beat up on the good guys for him. One of them ages Superman into a doddering old seventy year-old, The Fool makes the Elongated Man distracted and goofy, The High Priestess bewitches Green Lantern and The Devil blinds Zatanna.

Well, once they all get together and teamwork-teamwork-teamwork their way to victory, Fortune reveals his master plan and sics Death on them. Honestly, I'm pretty sure that if somebody had shown eleven year-old me that legendary ABC Warriors with the robots with bazookas riding on dinosaurs, I would probably have been so excited that I would have dropped stone dead, because eleven year-old me had to pick up his eyeballs and jaw from the floor after this guy showed up. Death's appearance - a skeletal knight in a storm cloud - was the neatest and most blindstorming thing I'd ever seen. I'd been reading Justice League whenever I could find it for about six years by this point and loved this book absolutely, but suddenly SKELETON DEATH DUDE trumped EVERYTHING that came before.

Within a year I discovered Ghost Rider, and Don Heck started drawing JLA, awfully. Soon, the only DC book left that I wanted to buy was Legion of Super-Heroes. I concluded that the Tarot cards featured in this comic were so hotdamned cool that I saved up twelve bucks and had my mom pick me up a Rider deck from Eddie's Trick Shop. Twelve year-old me didn't get the point of all those Minor Arcana cards, when the Major Arcana was much cooler, although some of them cards had bare boobies. Thirteen year-old me brought the deck to school, and, completely misunderstanding exactly how one was supposed to do Tarot readings, I did a fortune-telling for a friend named Cy James and drew Death. I explained that the card didn't necessarily mean death but "great change." About three weeks later, Cy killed himself.

While logically, I knew that the creators of this comic had nothing to do with how that turned out, and also that Cy must have been in the middle of a horrible home life with so much inner turmoil and that my "fortune telling" has nothing to do with his final decision, I blamed myself and this comic for ages. That was why this comic had been absent from my collection of classic era JLA for so many years.

I think that I'm still missing the one where Green Arrow quits, though.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Service of All the Dead

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 Service of All the Dead (Macmillan, 1979).

All right, so it took a few books, but this is one that I liked a lot. Again, it feels like Colin Dexter had been reading his P.D. James by establishing a close community of unhappy people with a lot of frustrations and secrets boiling to the surface, spending several chapters building things up to an inevitable death. But there's a delightful monkey wrench that gets thrown into readers' expectations, because after this fascinating opening, we're thoroughly expecting Morse, the book's hero, to be called in when the first body is found. It doesn't work that way at all.

Morse actually shows up while on vacation and meets one of the players long after the unpleasantness has settled. One man had been murdered and another had killed himself and three others had moved away. The killing was pinned on the suicide by the inspector of the Oxford city police - Morse works for the Thames Valley Police, apparently a different jurisdiction - and the case closed. But Morse finds the whole thing a little too sticky and ugly and starts poking into it, calling Lewis in to get him over his fear of heights, and finds a third body, months old and unidentified, but almost certainly one of the people who everybody thought had left town.

I really like the way that Morse can't relax. He's just a bundle of tightly-wound frustrations and aggravations. He's compelled to dig, constantly. It makes him very difficult to work with, and, despite trying to turn on the charm, ultimately impossible to live with, but irresistible to watch. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hellboy / Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice

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 Hellboy / Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice (Dark Horse, 2010).

There's no getting past it; I do have a problem with this book's ending. I just didn't get it. I'd rather address it at the start of this writeup than end on a sour note, though, because it's otherwise a terrific book. I just didn't understand what happened after the climax. In this new one-off from Dark Horse, the paranormal investigator Hellboy - you know him; he was in a couple of movies and some very good comics - runs across the dogs and cats from Dark Horse Comics' latest minor sensation, saves the world with them and then... well, he leaves the woods telling one of them that he'd be right back and the pug looks at him funny. Hellboy returns to the farm where the adventure began and evidently decides against going back, and then the last page confused the issue even more.

See, the last two pages might have left me scratching my head, but the other twenty-odd had me grinning from ear to ear. It might not be the best Beasts of Burden adventure, but there are certainly far worse Hellboy stories. Jill Thompson's artwork is reliably gorgeous, whether painting cute little puppies and pretty wood landscapes or ugly tramp hideouts and golem-like monsters with discarded human skulls for heads. Her Hellboy is really great, and I love the sense of confidence he portrays, and especially the way the dogs scatter and scurry around him, little blurs of motion caught in freeze frame. I especially liked a very quick scene where Hellboy takes in his new allies with barely a pause and moves on.

I call Beasts of Burden a minor sensation, and I'd like to expand on that. Thompson and writer Evan Dorkin have come up with one of the best and most genuinely original concepts in American comics in ages, and have been quietly telling stories that seem to get a good bit of critical praise, but I don't know that this has translated into the massive sales that such a neat series deserves. We all talk big about wanting to reward originality in fiction, and wanting to see new and clever ideas that haven't been done before. There's a great big beautiful hardcover collection of the previous Beasts of Burden stories, and hopefully this little one-shot will prompt more of Hellboy's many fans to give it a shot. You should, too, if you enjoy horror or black comedy at all. It's a hugely rewarding and very good series, and I'm looking forward to Dorkin and Thompson's next adventures with these characters.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn

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 Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (Macmillan, 1977).

The third Inspector Morse novel has an interesting feel to it which reminds me more of PD James' Dalgliesh series than the first two in this series. In the earlier novels, Morse seems assigned to fairly basic, mundane, non-exploitative cases, and for the most part the reader follows the investigation from his perspective, meeting all the participants as he does.

This time out, however, Colin Dexter crafted a very James-like scenario of a particular, somewhat isolated business that keeps to itself and doesn't court publicity. It's a syndicate in Oxford that proctors exams for foreign nationals, and the newest member of the faculty, a deaf man named Nicholas Quinn, has stumbled on something scandalous, and while Morse figures that he learned something that killed him, he's baffled not only as to what, but when the man was killed.

Most of the book is pretty interesting, but one ongoing facet of the investigation really got my attention. Like the previous book, Last Seen Wearing, there's a really weird emphasis on pornography, particularly the scurrilous, hide-your-face 1970s British variety. This time out, it appears that most of the faculty made regular visits to a porn cinema in town, and the couple hiding an office romance would go there and... you know, I'd like to think I have an open mind towards erotica, but I'm telling you, Dexter makes this subject sound really shamefully skeevy. Recommended for older readers.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fade to Black

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 Fade to Black (Bantam, 1990).

If you'd told me that one of the more entertaining of all the Nero Wolfe stories was one set against the backdrop of the 1980s cola wars between Pepsi and Coke, I'd have called you batty, but darn if Robert Goldsborough's fifth adventure of Wolfe and Archie isn't one of the most charming and clever in the whole series. It's easily the best of his first five, and a notch or two more entertaining than some of Stout's less inspired offerings.

So what's going on here is that a small advertising agency is at war with a big Madison Avenue firm. They each have contracts with cherry-flavored sodas with really contrived names and backstories (and, speaking as somebody who knows his ginger ales from Buffalo Rock to Ale-8-1 and back, I know contrived), but the smaller firm figures that there must be a mole somewhere, as the larger firm keeps trumping them with new copycat campaigns rushed out before they can get their original "creatives" into the public eye. Wolfe has little time for industrial espionage, and even less for soda pop, but agrees to let Archie ask some questions. Almost instantly, a potential informant from the big firm comes forward, and, in a none-too surprising development, Archie finds his dead body.

It's not perfect - there's a run of about thirty pages where every example of sparkling wit and clever dialogue gets interrupted by somebody very reluctantly agreeing to provide Archie with yet another alibi - but it's incredibly fun, with Goldsborough's best-developed and most amusing supporting cast. I also started detecting here a few circumstantial clues that suggest that he's actually aging the characters. It's never overt, but it makes the off-key use of the word "chap" in his previous novel seem a little more sensible. Something about the tone here and there makes me perceive Archie as, not merely clued-in to an earlier time than the supporting players, but actually a little bit older than the perennial late thirties of Stout's novels. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe such things are sacrosanct, but the discordian iconoclast in me can't help but be amused by the notion of a silver fox-styled Archie. Recommended.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fiends of the Eastern Front

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 Fiends of the Eastern Front (Rebellion, 2010).

Of all the recent examples of contemporary funnybook writers paying tribute to, and rehabilitating the image of, mostly retired or deceased members of the industry, Pat Mills' talking-up of Gerry Finley-Day hasn't got a lot of press. You've got plenty of blogs and essays discussing Seth's curations of Doug Wright and John Stanley, and Eddie Campbell's defense of Vince Coletta got a lot of attention, but, as is disagreeably common, the British creators just don't get a lot of press in the American-dominated blogosphere.

The thing here is, most people aren't going to know what the heck that Finley-Day did that was allegedly worth discussing. We all like to call Pat Mills the godfather of British comics for his work on Battle Picture Weekly, Action and 2000 AD, but Mills is just as quick to cite Finley-Day as the man we should actually be praising, for his work creating and editing an apparently bleak and miserable girls' comic called Tammy, which ran from 1971-84. Mills later brought Finley-Day into Battle, where he wrote D-Day Dawson, and to 2000 AD, where he created The V.C.s, Harry Twenty on the High Rock and Rogue Trooper. The annual 100-page year-end edition of 2000 AD, available this month, features a new Finley-Day Rogue Trooper story, his first comics' work in more than twenty years.

Of course, a reputation's only worth what we can see. In the case of his heroes Wright and Stanley, Seth has the publisher Drawn & Quarterly on his side, putting out lovely editions of those artists' work. While most of his other, earlier work for IPC remains in limbo, Rebellion has repackaged most of his 2000 AD series and serials for everybody to enjoy. The most recent of these is Fiends of the Eastern Front, which ran for ten weeks in 1980, and is considered one of the downright oddest stories that appeared in 2000 AD in that decade.

Many things make Fiends stand out from its companion stories of the day, like its tone, unusual protagonist and brevity, but the real surprise is that it isn't a science fiction story at all. Of course, after more than thirty years of strips as widely divergent as Slaine and Bec & Kawl, that doesn't seem like a big deal, but an occult World War 2 thriller in which a German infantryman figures out that his Romanian allies are a company of vampires was really unusual at the time. What elevates it from curiosity to such a delightful pleasure is the twisting plot, the terrific framing device of having the tale recounted from a dead man's diary found in a present-day building site, and the great artwork by Carlos Ezquerra, done in between the first two serialized adaptations of The Stainless Steel Rat. Plus, it must be said that Captain Constanza is a truly great villain, all smiles and believably urbane charm when necessary, with a bloodthirsty streak just behind the surface.

After the serial, Fiends was retired as a lead feature for a respectable 26 years. It was reprinted a time or two - one of these coincided with a surprising one-off episode of The Scarlet Apocrypha by Ezquerra and Dan Abnett, in which the Romanians find that Russia has their own super-vampire weapon to oppose them - and found a new life in a series of four novels written by David Bishop. Bishop later collaborated with artist Colin MacNeil on a second comic story, serialized across eight issues of the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. It's not at all bad, although it reads as a little more choppy and fragmented in places than most of these episodic installments naturally do. Bishop came up with some excellent action set pieces in this story, and a terrific, underplayed enemy for the vampires in a beautifully-designed golem with a look quite unlike any other I've seen before.

So Rebellion's latest reprint is the most complete to date. It's still pretty slim; at just over 100 pages, this is not a concept that gets run into the ground. It includes Finley-Day and Ezquerra's original story, Bishop and MacNeil's 2006 revisitation, and Abnett and Ezquerra's 2002 one-off. That's everything save a silly cameo in a silly Garth Ennis Judge Dredd epic, which wouldn't have been necessary or sensible. The only complaint that I have is that sadly, there wasn't room in the budget to revisit the lettering on the MacNeil pages. Halfway through that run, mercifully, Ellie De Ville stepped in to letter the project; previously, MacNeil had been doing it himself with less-than-stellar results.

Otherwise, this is a terrific little book. It's nicely-priced for British readers at £9.95, and, in what must be a first for any 2000 AD project solicited through Diamond for the American market, it's actually priced at a proper exchange rate of $14.99, without some insane markup. Let's see more of that, please! Recommended? Absolutely! Now let's get somebody to reprint more of Finley-Day's ostensibly excellent 1970s stuff so Pat Mills can call his mission accomplished!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror # 16

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 Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror # 16 (Bongo, 2010).

Another year, another Treehouse of Horror comic. I typically don't buy these - even when I watched The Simpsons on television, the Halloween show was always one I'd skip - but Bizarro Wuxtry set aside a copy of this one for me because Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer contributed the 15-page lead story. Well, if it's Dorkin, I'm willing to roll the dice.

Really, these two did a terrific job on their collaboration. It's a wild and loving - if that's the word - tribute to Jack Kirby's monster comics of the late fifties, with scientists bringing atom-age creatures to Earth. Carnage, mayhem and gore results, as Springfield gets obliterated and the cast, knowingly wordy as these old comics were, gets decimated in progressively grislier encounters with the alien menace. There were a couple of bits where I thought it sailed a bit too far for my liking, but I'm an old fuddy-duddy and nobody cares what I think. Maaaaaatlock!

As impressive and funny as this was, it's one of several stories in the comic. Honestly, I think that the most entertaining tale is a 13-pager by Peter Kuper, which opens with Bart getting his eyeball stuck sticking out of his head when a wedgie from Nelson goes awry and becomes a clever parody of various Edgar Allen Poe tropes by the end. While Dorkin's Kirby pastiche follows a pretty clear, if hilariously blood-spattered, path, Kuper's story is an unpredictable mess and I greatly enjoyed watching it unfold. Probably not for younger readers, or the fuddy-duddier among us, but if you still enjoy the guilty pleasure of gruesome fates and unhappy endings, you may find some malevolent chuckles here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chew: International Flavor

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 Chew: International Flavor (volume two) (Image, 2010).

For the second collection of their Eisner award-winning Chew, creators John Layman and Rob Guillory pull off a really neat switcheroo. The plot this time out revolves around a plant called a gallsberry which tastes exactly like chicken. In a world where eating chicken is banned after "bird flu" has killed millions, there's considerable interest in the plant, which only grows on one Pacific island. But with events moving way out of our hero Tony Chu's control, he may need the help of a gorgeous, tough USDA inspector. But as soon as she presents herself as a new member of the supporting cast, she's stunningly killed off, leaving Tony framed and thousands of miles from headquarters.

Overall, this is a very fun and very twisted little adventure, full of subplots and left-field turns. Everything from the backstory to the new members of the cast of double-dealing, backstabbing supporting players works wonderfully. If they ever do make this into a TV series, I'll be on board from the first episode. Until then, there's obviously a third collection that I need to get. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Last Coincidence

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 Last Coincidence (Bantam, 1989).

I enjoyed this novel considerably more than Goldsborough's previous Nero Wolfe adventure. While last time out, we were treated to a pacey, slow, made-for-Centrum Silver account of a boring nothing of a case, this time there's a much punchier story that hits much closer to the brownstone. Thirty-five pages in and somebody's dead and Cramer is bellowing at Archie, who had the misfortune of starting an argument in the street with the dead somebody in front of witnesses shortly before he was killed by an ugly blow to the head, his body next to his Porsche.

Keeping things personal by involving the family of regular supporting player Lily Rowan gives the story a real sense of urgency. Archie's with the characters as events play out, and a false confession is extracted from Lily's nephew. As with the later Rex Stout novels, distrust of the police is important to the story's tone, but there's more than one weird coincidence at work here, especially the way that nobody seems to have an alibi.

There are some eyebrow-raising moments where the tone doesn't feel quite right, such as having Archie twice refer to somebody as a "chap," which seemed hugely out of character. Otherwise, this is a very loving pastiche, and a clever and engaging story that really kept me guessing and surprised. It has renewed my hopes that the next three Goldsborough novels will be as fun as the first two had been.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Invisibles: Bloody Hell in America

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 Invisibles: Bloody Hell in America (Volume Four) (DC, 1997).

The fourth and shortest volume in The Invisibles represented a last-gasp chance for writer Grant Morrison to refocus his plotlines and make his occult techno-conspiracy thriller a little more palatable for audiences who had been dropping the book during its initial run. After 25 monthly issues, the comic took a one-month break and came back relaunched with a new first issue ("volume two, number one," a common, desperate sales ploy in the industry that occasionally works) and a new regular cover artist in the reliable Brian Bolland. The plotting was planned to be more straightforward, with more pedal-to-the-metal action and gunplay to keep readers' attention.

The other new trick in Morrison's arsenal was the employment of Phil Jimenez as the regular artist, Rather than mixing up art duties for short arcs and one-offs, Jimenez was taken on for a dozen issues to give the series a more uniform feel. It works very well; Jiminez really does give this run of episodes a very personal stamp and his work is just terrific.

At any rate, while the story in the previous three collections feels like it takes place over the space of perhaps one month, this time out we get our heroes enjoying more than a year of downtime, relocated to the United States for King Mob to recuperate from his injuries in the previous episodes and begin a kinky affair with his teammate Ragged Robin. They've been operating from a safe house in upstate New York but need to travel to the American southwest when a local Invisibles cell gets decimated by the military while trying to liberate a supposed AIDS vaccine from a top-secret, high -security establishment.

I've always felt that Morrison's only real disappointment as a writer is that he often fails to establish his villains very well. He comes up with plenty of memorable, if not downright brilliant concepts, but every so often readers run into a shouty villain whose motivation is unclear and methods very vague. The general in charge of this facility, who's in league with the otherdimensional, weird, superconspiracy that we'd met in the England-based episodes earlier in the series, is one of Morrison's all-time worst bad guys, a loudmouth who is depicted without nuance or dimension. Oddly, around the time this comic was first published, Morrison had a similar, shouty American general causing trouble in the pages of the long-running JLA, which he was scripting. I guess with so many high-concept notions and characters to play with, including the return of the much more interesting villain Mr. Quimper from the previous episode, something had to give.

It's an odd lapse on Morrison's part, as the rest of the story is incredibly interesting, with several fascinating new characters and hints about Ragged Robin's still-secret past. There is a scene in a diner early on that tries a little too hard to appeal to Vertigo's outsider audience, but it gives us one of several really good Lord Fanny moments, so it's easy to forgive. As the low-priced reintroduction to The Invisibles that this was intended, it isn't a complete success, but it's not a bad read.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Last Seen Wearing

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 Last Seen Wearing (Macmillan, 1976).

My objection to reading the first book in Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series had more to do with my own discomfort with the swaggering, misogynist attitude prevalent in the British police at the time than anything in the plot or its structure. I do often find it hard to separate a work of fiction from the politics of the time in which it was written, especially when, as with something so very sexist in belief, the tone affects the main characters.

Last Seen Wearing, the second book in the series, is a little better on this front, although Morse himself still comes across as quite paternal and petty on occasion. It never overpowers the narrative, however, making this a much more agreeable read. This time out, he's assigned a missing persons case which a recently deceased colleague had been working for more than two years.

There's a lot to like about this story, and Morse himself, who comes across as much more sympathetic and sad, really engaged me. He's every bit as gruff and aggravating as he was in the first novel, but the tone is just slightly different and everything really clicked. What impressed me the most is the neat way that Dexter allows him to be quite confidently wrong several times. It looks like the case is solved and conclusions are written in a manner that most authors would save for the genuine finale of their stories, only to have Morse shown to be completely and thunderously mistaken. I think you'd be gruff and aggravating as well, cast as the lead in a detective novel and expected to be right all the time, only to have your screw-ups hammered home as painfully as Morse gets it here. If you are curious about the character, I'd pass on that first novel and start with this one; it has aged much better and I certainly recommend it for fans of the genre.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Bloodied Ivy

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 Bloodied Ivy (Bantam, 1988).

It's true that Rex Stout always made his Nero Wolfe novels a product of the time that they were written. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and most of the rest of their cast - there was one returning character from the fourth novel, Too Many Cooks, who showed up three decades later having aged three decades while our heroes somehow didn't - were always modern. Well, Archie was modern. Wolfe, grouchily demanding his schedule and disapproving of the world outside his brownstone, would have been just as happy to have remained in prewar New York City as to have moved along with a world that, in Robert Goldsborough's third continuation novel, includes personal computers for Archie to enter his germination records, and a celebrity culture that includes references to David Letterman, Madonna, and Vanna White. If you had told me when I finished Fer-de-Lance last year that at some point in these books, we'd run into a Vanna White reference, I'd have called you a liar.

This time out, a nebbish professor at a small private college eighty miles north of town has come to Wolfe and Archie with a long-winded story about how a controversial right-wing colleague and mentor could not possibly have fallen to his death, but was murdered. Cast Woody Allen and John Huston in those roles and suddenly the whole book turns into less of a novel and more like the big, annual TV movie on CBS with a host of celebrity guest stars in the whodunit. There's even a part here for Stephanie Beacham, generously. That's honestly what reading this book felt like. You remember when Raymond Burr returned to all those Perry Mason TV movies on NBC in the late eighties? I'm going to hope this effort was an aberration, because while Goldsborough's first two novels were reasonably good, this one fell down a crevice steeper than the one that killed the professor. Not recommended.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 16

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 Volume 16 (Rebellion, 2010).

The last time that I reviewed a Judge Dredd Case File, I said that we were rapidly approaching the point where recommending these comics isn't just a given anymore. These days, Judge Dredd is terrific, even better than it was in its celebrated mid-80s heyday. The recently-completed "Tour of Duty" storyline makes a strong case for being the best Dredd serial ever, and a highlight of any comic serial over the last decade. But in 1991-92, Dredd was a surly teenager of a comic, all mouth and no soul.

Writer Garth Ennis, responsible for the bulk of the stories here, ran out of ideas very quickly during his tenure on the title. The book is incredibly tedious, with overlong chapters of tough-guy nonsense going nowhere fast. Sadly, a lot of the fault is down to artist Simon Coleby, who we must agree has developed amazingly and has, over the last few years, contributed several great-looking pages to the various series that run in the weekly 2000 AD anthology. In 1991-92, however, his work was awkward, blocky, stilted and he was assigned to all of Ennis's worst stories. "The Flabfighters," "A Clockwork Pineapple," "School Bully" and the risible "Koole Killers," a dull one-parter bloated to an agonizing three, would have been awful stories in anybody's hands, but giving them to Coleby was a facepalm of a mistake.

"Justice One" is the longest Ennis story in the book. Painted in various shades of brown mud by Peter Doherty, another talent who has improved tremendously over the years, this murder-in-space mini-epic promises on the opening page that what will happen onboard Justice Department's flagship starliner will be unimaginable. It isn't. After a promising first episode, this story reveals itself as just another "judges in love and trying to flee" mess, the sort of thing John Wagner was doing in his sleep six years previously, albeit with a laughably absurd getaway plan.

It's not all this awful, but enough of it is. Ennis did contribute a couple of amusing one-offs before mediocrity completely overwhelmed him. There's a clever Twin Peaks parody, and a Cliff Robinson-illustrated story about the first guy that Dredd ever arrested making an unwelcome comeback to say hello closes his portion of the book. You can occasionally see Ennis's love of the character shine through, but weekly deadlines on this strip just weren't for him. But at least he liked Dredd. What's coming up when we hit the 1993-95 run really will be tough to get through.

While Ennis was the main writer on the weekly comic, Alan Grant took over writing duties on the strip in the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. This book collects another clutch of ten installments. Some of these episodes are pretty good, but it really looks like somebody was saving money by just letting anybody draw it. "Raptaur" is a long epic that could have been a good read - there's actually a funny little bit about an eloping couple on gliders - but the artwork by Dean Ormston is just horrible. Same with a one-off drawn by Charlie Adlard - another who'd improve massively over time - and one drawn by American artist Sam Kieth in, apparently, twenty minutes. The policy of putting untried artists on Dredd really was one of the editorial team's worst blunders. Occasionally, some good pages by Robinson, Colin MacNeil or John Burns make it through, but for the most part this is an ugly, ugly book.

Well, that's not completely true. The interiors are mostly garish and undercooked, but the book itself is another example of Rebellion's very classy work with reprints, which puts damn near everybody else in the field to shame. In all, it collects fifty episodes in color on nice paper. The reproduction is very good and if you must have ten months' worth of Dredd from this period, it might as well be in a package that looks as good as this. Recommended for completists, but not with any real enthusiasm.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Phonogram: Rue Britannia

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 Phonogram: Rue Britannia (Image, 2006).

I think the problem with this book is that David Kohl is full of (a) himself and (b) shit. It's not an insurmountable problem, mind you. Originally published about five years ago, I believe it was the first professional work for an American publisher by its creators, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It's the story of a "phonomancer" named David Kohl who gets... umm... magical powers by tapping into the totemic possibilities of pop music, or something. It's really vague. Anyway, one particular musical goddess, Britannia, who was at the peak of her powers in the mid-nineties is pissed off at David because he... well, I think he misused his magical powers by pretending to like a band that he really didn't in order to get into some bird's knickers, as they say. It's a very London comic. And very vague.

Yet it works, for me, because after my initial, positive reaction to the plot and the art wore away in return for some dissatisfaction with its vagueness, I started reading it as actually being about a lonely, sad man's nostalgia. There's no "magic" here. What we see of it on the page is David just letting wish-fulfillment and imagination run riot. He's just a schlub in his thirties whose existence is as dreary and gray as McKelvie's attractive but stuff designs, and takes the music of his nineteenth and twentieth years far too seriously. Like lots of us.

I think a key giveaway is an incident in the second chapter where David, busy expounding on how a certain club used to be filled with the magic of a contemporary scene, allowing phonomancers like himself to gain power from the spark of the moment, starts sneering at the DJ. This guy's a retromancer; he's getting people to dance from the power of "That's the Way I Like It." He's likened to a vulture, and a date rapist, outing David as a pretenious snob who can't stand the way that kids - today's damn kids - have let his beloved Melody Maker and Select die.

Put another way, just reading this on the surface is bound to disappoint. There isn't anything magical about Britpop; there isn't now and there never was. And I say that as somebody who heard "The Universal" for the first time only about four months ago and has had it stuck in his head, happily, about twice a week since. There was some damn great music out of that scene, but lots of people have scenes - I guess that mine must have been whatever you wanna call the Post Modern MTV / Disintegration / R.E.M. signs to Warners and the Replacements sign to Sire period - and then they grow up and they wish that today's damn kids would listen to music half as good. And then they, like David, do stupid things like look up an old almost-a-girlfriend who used to like the Manic Street Preachers a whole lot and learn that she moved on and he didn't and he justifies it to himself by calling it magic.

How this becomes a compelling read, I've no idea. But I've also got no real impression of Britpop either; I think that half the bands namechecked in this book never had a distribution deal in the US. When I did find Suede and Pulp and Blur, and loved them all, I found them late, after the moment. I should neither like this, nor its past-obsessed ass of a protagonist, at all. But I can sympathize with him just enough to make the story compelling. Change the city to Athens and change Beth to Victoria and drop "Race for the Prize" by the Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers, 1999) in there somewhere and David's not entirely unlike me, and, really, we all feel better knowing that we're not the only asses around. Recommended.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Strange Tales II # 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 Strange Tales II # 2 (Marvel, 2010).

I've been a little in love with the idea of this comic since Marvel first released the cover as a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come. Their first Strange Tales miniseries in 2008 was occasionally amusing and consistently eyebrow-raising. In it, they gave a pile of comic creators not generally known for superhero properties four to six pages each to produce their own takes on the company's iconic characters. I wouldn't call it consistent - I thought the unauthorized Coober Skeeber anthology from the late '90s was funnier - but it was nice to see Marvel let their hair down in this way.

In issue two of the second miniseries, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez take center stage for a pair of very, very fun six-page stories. As with many issues of the creators' Love & Rockets over the years, they each bring such verve to the project that I'm hard-pressed to decide which I like the best. Certainly Jaime, whose wonderful cover illustration has been making everybody who sees it giggle, is getting all the attention, but I'm not sure that Gilbert didn't one-up him here.

Going completely against my personal expectations - I'd have bet on either Nameless Ones or Emma Frost, knowing his tropes - his six-page story sees Iron Man teaming up with Toro, the flame-powered sidekick of the original 1940s Human Torch, for a scrap against the Hulk's big-headed nemesis the Leader, who apparently thinks both heroes are robots. Seriously. Most of the pieces in Strange Tales seem to start with a scrap of memory of the old stories these creators once read, but don't any longer. This one just somehow connects three random points of oddball continuity and expertly tells a story in a world that we can see is much larger than what Hernandez depicts. I was reminded of a bizarre and disturbing story that the artist did for L&R a few years ago in which avatars of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis go into outer space to fight aliens. This story is similarly confident in its ability to give readers an entertaining peak at its weirdness before closing the doors.

That said, I think that Jaime's story will prove the more popular, since it substitutes girly pictures for cerebral weirdness. That's fine; nobody in comics draws gorgeous women like Jaime. In this one, a body-swapping supervillain called the Space Phantom gets wind of several 1960s superheroines having a beach party and plans to crash it, with comical results. Over in L&R, Jaime had lost me a little with his critically-acclaimed "Ti-Girls" adventure, which evoked the worst of continuity-obsessed modern comics, just drawn really well. But this just as effortlessly evokes the best of Lee and Kirby's 1960s world, and does it with a "Beach Blanket Bingo" vibe. It's so damn cute and charming that you can't help but wish for a Marvel universe written and drawn by creators with this sense of fun.

And that's only twelve pages! There are several other really good stories inside. They may not appeal to everybody; I've personally never really enjoyed Jeffrey Brown or Tony Millionaire's styles, and their contributions here didn't sway me, although at least Millionaire starts with an unbeatably funny idea of having Thor lose his hammer and find work operating an old roller coaster at Coney Island. I was unfamiliar with Farel Dalrymple, but his four-page story of Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer meeting for the first time shows off some really neat artwork, and Jon Vermilyea has a gleefully sick four-pager about Ant-Man battling MODOK by shrinking and jumping up his nose. I felt bad about laughing so hard about that one, and retired with a collection of Punch to restore my inner snob.

It's tough to find a way to recommend one-off anthologies like this. I think that if you enjoy the creators, you might enjoy seeing them stretch their legs in this format, and if you've got a nostalgic sense of how fun this universe used to seem when you were younger, you might enjoy seeing that nostalgia filtered through talented artists who once read the same comics you did. Heck, even the ones that didn't really appeal to me seem more vibrant than Marvel's regular titles these days, which means this must count as a success worth applauding, right?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Death on Deadline

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 Death on Deadline (Bantam, 1987).

Fifty years in his New York City brownstone and apparently not having aged a day, Nero Wolfe confronted the late '80s trends of newspaper bias and international, jet-set media robber barons in Robert Goldsborough's second continuation novel with the character. This time out, Wolfe elects to stick his nose in when Ian MacLaren, a Maxwell / Murdoch type from Scotland, not content with ruining a dozen newspapers already, sets his sights on The New York Gazette, the paper that employs the detective firm's friend, Lon Cohen.

Certain tricks work within a series, and it's not surprising when, after Wolfe makes a big public stink about his loathing of this Scottish tycoon, somebody ends up dead and the police figure Wolfe either knows more about the situation than he's letting on, or he's interfering in hopes of a fat paycheck from somewhere. So without a client and without a retainer, Wolfe, determined that an alleged suicide is no such thing, digs further into the mess, driving Archie to distraction. Poor Archie is the definition of "long-suffering" in this one.

Very much a novel of its time, I was easily able to picture the entitled, spoiled heirs to the Gazette fortune looking just like the younger members of the Carrington clan from Dynasty, all shoulder pads and giant hair. I'd love to see a 1987-set television adaptation of it, actually! Entertaining and amusing, it probably has a tongue in cheek tone a little unlike Stout's work on the series, but it's a good follow-up all the same.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Jack Volume 12

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 Black Jack Volume 12 (Vertical, 2010).

I'll have to confess that either through a combination of the rapid release schedule or the identikit design of the books, the latest volume of Vertical's Black Jack library completely missed my attention. One hand evidently wasn't watching what the other was doing at Bizarro Wuxtry, the shop in Athens where I have a regular order for the series, and volume twelve didn't make it into my bag a few months. So it sat on the shelf until the next visit, when Devlin, the manager, asked whether I had it. Honestly, I was not sure. It was only because I remembered that I had the notion to do a little writeup here of every fourth volume in the series that I figured that I must have missed it. Who would have figured that my little conceit would make a difference?

Even paging through the first installment reprinted inside didn't help much; the patchy, mostly subplot-free nature of the episodes don't always make them extremely memorable for me. So it is that, twelve books in (of a projected seventeen), the small cracks in one of Osamu Tezuka's best-known series start to show. With so few recurring characters and only occasional hints of subplots, the art becomes the main thing that keeps me coming back to the comic.

Case in point, I finished this most recent volume a week ago, and this morning tried to remember which fourteen episodes appear in it. I failed. I can name fourteen Black Jack episodes easily, and when one of them features one of the most unusual examples of Tezuka's "star system" of rotating faces and characters from previous comics into his other series and lets Jungle Emperor Leo appear as a different lion cub, it's pretty simple to remember that one. It's in book twelve, and so is an interesting look back at the hero's youth and a classmate who will not stop laughing. Otherwise, this book is really more of the same. I certainly recommend that anybody who enjoys comics pick up a couple of Black Jack books, but twelve volumes in, I'm starting to wish that Vertical would release these a little more slowly and make them more special, and fill in the gaps in their schedule with some other Tezuka comics, like Princess Knight or Ambassador Magma.

Sorry to not sound as enthusiastic as I should - these are, despite my malaise, very good comics by one of the medium's masters - but if I understand correctly, with volume 12, we're fast approaching the point where Tezuka transitioned the series away from a regular, twice-monthly episode and only released a handful of installments a year. Black Jack is wonderful, and an occasionally sinful little treat, but even its creator seemed ready to move on to something new. Recommended with reservations.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Last Bus to Woodstock

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 Last Bus to Woodstock (MacMillan, 1975).

A few weeks ago, I was considering just how effective the final Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout had been, and considered that it was just about the best finale for a fictional detective in this genre that I'd read. The only other one to have such an entertaining gut punch was the last adventure of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. I read most, but not all, of those novels in the 1990s and decided I was due to revisit them.

In Last Bus to Woodstock, Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis - in the books, interestingly, the older of the two - look for the murderer of a young woman found in a pub's parking lot. She was seen hitchhiking with another girl earlier in the evening, and picked up by a driver in a red car. When this man is identified, he admits only that he was on his way to see a mistress, but will not talk further. Morse's theory is that he was actually already planning to meet one of the girls that he picked up, but even if that is true, was he planning to meet the dead girl, or her unidentified companion?

On one hand, I thought this book was a really entertaining tour through several dead ends and false trails, but on the other, it is also a very disagreeable product of its time and attitude. Simply put, the expressions made by the police and the community as to whether Sylvia Kaye "had it coming" or not will probably make your skin crawl. I mentioned several times during my reread of the Nero Wolfe series that one of the most fascinating aspects to following period fiction from a series was viewing the contemporary attitudes on display by the cast, from the casual approach to airline travel to race relations. Certainly, Last Bus to Woodstock is an honest reminder that in 1975, the British police were staffed, top to bottom, with sexist, misogynist assholes. Recommended if you can get past that point.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Murder in E Minor

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 Murder in E Minor (Bantam, 1985).

Now, Robert Goldsborough, for a while there, he was living the dream. Not very many people can claim that they've turned a fanfic hobby into the real thing. In 1977, a couple of years after Rex Stout had passed away, Goldsborough, then a Chicago Tribune staff journalist, wrote a Nero Wolfe novel for his mother, who loved the character and missed having any new adventures. In Sherlock Holmes fandom, this sort of writing is referred to as a pastiche; dozens, hundreds have written their own.

In 1985, Bantam Books and Stout's estate started looking around for an author to officially continue the Wolfe canon. (Actually, in Wolfe fandom, it's called the "corpus." Every fandom has its own quirks.) The character was then still quite well regarded and remembered by the general public, even if an early '80s TV adaptation on NBC failed after a half-season and was loathed by purists. I'd actually like to see that, despite its pedigree. William Conrad was possibly a pretty good choice to play Wolfe even if he refused to shave his beard - the fastidious Wolfe should always, always be clean-shaven - but Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin, now that was a genius move. He must have made a terrific Archie.

So, if I understand rightly, Bantam and Stout's biographer, the estimable John McAleer, cast around for a new chronicler and Goldsborough submitted his seven year-old fanfic. It's really not bad at all. I actually enjoyed it a good deal more than three or four of the original novels. It's set two years after the events of A Family Affair - the date, 1977, is given in the text - and Wolfe has been retired since things went to hell in that book. Cramer hasn't darkened the brownstone's door in all that time, and while Archie has been getting antsy and doing some freelance work to stay busy, it really looks like Wolfe's career is over.

Getting Wolfe to shift his seventh-of-a-ton back to work is going to take something huge and personal. Goldsborough's solution is to reunite Wolfe with one of the freedom fighters that he and the late Marko Vukcic had known in Montenegro years before. He had also made his way to New York after several decades, changed his name, and is now the director of the city's orchestra. There's a certain note of predictability that befalls this plot in fiction; the original Nero Wolfe stories helped cement it. Important, yet never-previously-mentioned faces from the past end up dead. Before long, the threats against Stevens' life which have brought him back in touch with Wolfe via his great-niece have been carried out and the police have arrested his great-niece's fiance, a violinist with the orchestra. Wolfe doesn't believe they have the right killer, and his renewed relationship with Cramer is off to as terrible a start as it ended.

I found it to be a very good addition to the corpus. Certainly it has the feel of postscript or apocrypha to it, but having seven additional Wolfe novels of this quality available, if occasionally tricky to find, pleases me greatly. I'm glad to have the chance to read them and enjoy Wolfe and Archie's company a little longer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files 02

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 Restricted Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2010).

This is the second in a two-volume set that covers all of the various Judge Dredd episodes of the 1980s that did not originally appear in the weekly 2000 AD comic. The publishers, at the time IPC, used to release various annual hardbacks and special editions where additional adventures of the lawman of the future could be found, and these stories, long desired by fans to be collected alongside the weekly episodes, have finally found a home in these two books.

Honestly, there isn't anything in book two as wild and fantastic as the better moments in the first volume, but there isn't anything as dire as that book's first ninety-odd pages, either. As I mentioned in my review of that book, the first several annuals and specials for 2000 AD were compiled by various editorial staffers working anonymously, few of whom had a grasp on the still-developing character of Dredd and his growing world. Until John Wagner became interested and took control of those projects, they were patchy at best.

With Wagner, joined in 1983 by Alan Grant as co-writer, in charge and defining a clear world, and worldview, for Dredd, the one-shot episodes maintained a consistent tone. True, with only a handful of pages per story, they couldn't really dig into things with the detail afforded a multi-week serial in 2000 AD itself. In some cases, like a Mike Collins-illustrated episode about a heat wave, the plot is given over to fantasy. But with a consistent approach, a dry wit and a taciturn leading man, the stories are uniformly entertaining, with few or no fumbles across close to 400 pages.

As usual, there's a pile of really great art from many Dredd regulars. Cam Kennedy is well-represented with one of my favorites of his many times drawing Dredd, "I, Beast," and he's in good company with Carlos Ezquerra, Ian Gibson, Arthur Ranson and others. I think my favorite story in the book might be one of the longest, "Last of the Bad Guys," which was painted by John Higgins. Honestly, there's not a bad-looking page in this book, but I think that Higgins, one of the title's unsung heroes of the period, might have done the best work in the collection. Bryan Talbot illustrates a really funny story that shows what happens when Justice Department's undercover division can't rustle up enough female judges for a case, and Brendan McCarthy is psychedelic, wild and mind-blowing on a couple of very colorful episodes.

Again, nothing in these pages is as completely breathtaking as some of the Mike McMahon material in volume one, but that's not to say anything here is lacking. It's a really terrific reprint, full of clever, surprising plot twists and it's long overdue. It's presented on nice paper, chronologically, and very well designed. Darned if I can find a flaw in it at all, to be blunt. Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


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 Ragtime (Fawcett, 1974).

I don't remember when it was that I was assigned this book for school, but I've kept it ever since. Was I really a high school senior, and did my fondness for it prompt me to hold onto it for more than twenty years, long after my memories of the details had faded, replaced only by a feeling that "this was good, you liked it, hold onto it" without giving me specifics?

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is a really difficult novel to love; it details very passionate events in a deeply dispassionate way. There are no quotations in the book, just general recounting of dialogue. Some of the central characters are not even named. It's a sprawling novel set over several years in the early 20th century, and sees three families' lives intertwine and brush against the era's major celebrities, including J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini.

Doctorow's narration is really odd, and quite dry. It's an unusual choice, but very effective. There are points in the story where high-melodrama events play out breathlessly, but the narrator gives them no emotional heft whatsoever. He consciously chose to not let a voice interfere with the story. It works very well in places, but in the shorter sections, including one where Sigmund Freud tours America, the narrator doesn't linger on his characters long enough for the events to have impact.

In the longer sections, however, particularly when a nameless, well-to-do family finds themselves caught in a jazz pianist's quite justifiable war with a firehouse captain and the bigoted system that shields him, the story is completely captivating, and it's fascinating watching all the loose threads from the book's first 150 or so pages start tying together. Probably for older readers - it's not that the sex scene is very tawdry, but it ends awfully skeevy - but I'd recommend it. I wonder if I'll keep my copy another twenty years?

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Invisibles: Entropy in the UK

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 Invisibles: Entropy in the UK (Volume Three) (Vertigo, 1996)

So I've been rereading Grant Morrison's late-90s series The Invisibles and I had completely forgotten what a bear the third book in the series of seven is. It isn't at all bad, and compiled in one volume it's not too great a chore, but when this was first published, it really was an exercise in testing readers' loyalty.

At the end of the previous volume, two of our heroes had been wounded and captured by the enemy, a grand conspiracy of the British gentry with interdimensional beasties. Remembering that this was a monthly comic, there followed three issues where Sir Miles tries to break down the psychic defenses of his captive, King Mob, and get through an elaborate series of defensive fictions to find his identity and origin. Then there were two one-off chapters looking at the other characters before the protagonists and their allies reassembled to rescue King Mob. This took eight months in all. I really wanted to love this series, but this was a period where it was really trying my patience. It reads much, much better over the course of one week.

That said, the second half of the rescue story is really among the most challenging scribblings from Morrison's pen. Legend has it that the writer was suffering from a massive infection that nearly killed him at the time, and much of the narration reads like a fever dream. This is apparently one of several moments in the series where the fiction he was writing started influencing the reality of his life, and it's interesting to see how the story begins with Sir Miles and his associates injecting King Mob full of toxins to induce cellular breakdown and organ failure, and see how this creeping degeneration impacted Morrison himself.

Some of the visuals in the second half are a little disappointing. No matter how much I typically enjoy Steve Yeowell's artwork, there's no denying that he really was up against one of his biggest artistic challenges with some of the lost-in-a-void magic business of the story. Sad to say the result looks pretty flat and dull, particularly when weighed against the vibrant opening chapters by Phil Jimenez, the breaks by Tommy Lee Edwards and Paul Johnson, and a really terrific epilogue by Mark Buckingham.

This last chapter really renewed my interest after the previous challenging months had sapped it somewhat. It's a one-off which reveals that the schoolteacher from the series' first episode, who was later revealed to be a deep-cover Invisible with the code name Mr. Six, has a triple-identity as a government agent. He's one of three paranormal investigators in a recently-reactivated team called Division X. Continuing the Invisibles' theme of tapping into British media as visual inspirations, Mr. Six dresses like the '70s TV detective Jason King, and his colleagues resemble Regan and Carter from The Sweeney. They have a weird and wild case which visits a casino and uncovers a pornography ring for fetishes involving aliens and royals, and meet a very curious dwarf called Quimper.

I remember loving this episode so much that, when the monthly series took a brief hiatus before relaunching as a second volume, I would have been perfectly happy to see the back of the difficult-to-love Invisibles in favor of an ongoing Division X series. Fortunately, the more straightforward scripting and wild surface action of this episode would point the way to how The Invisibles would be handled in the future, and the Division X characters would be seen again. It's a good set of stories, albeit quite dense in places, and it just left me hungry to start volume four soon. Just, you know, after a short break.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Death Times Three

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 Death Times Three (Bantam, 1985).

Here's the Rex Stout apocrypha; three short stories which, for varying reasons, didn't make it into the Nero Wolfe canon. Actually, there's a single, and very good, reason: they aren't particularly good.

"Bitter End" is the least of the three. It started life as a novel featuring a minor recurring Stout character named Tecumseh Fox and was rewritten for a magazine as a Wolfe and Archie story. The characterization and the style seem notably, and jarringly, different from what I came to know as Archie's voice. This feels like a second-rate imitation of Stout, with a flow so hesitant that I couldn't enjoy the story, which was about some quinine-tainted food.

"Frame-Up for Murder" is an expanded version of the short story "Murder is No Joke," but is not radically different from the prior version. If John McAleer's lengthy introduction did not expound upon the differences between the stories, I doubt that I would trust myself to detect them. Much more interesting is "Assault on a Brownstone," an earlier draft of what would become the terrific short story "Counterfeit for Murder." It's notably inferior to the final version, as Stout elected to swap murder victims, but fascinating to see how the events played out differently between the two stories. In the original, a really fun supporting character gets knocked off. In "Counterfeit," she sensibly lives long enough to aggravate and annoy Nero Wolfe. You can almost see the gears in Stout's head click into position as he realized what an opportunity he missed.

I found that last story quite fun from an "academic" viewpoint, but the honest reality is that "Assault" really is the poorer cousin to its final version, "Frame-Up" is, like "No Joke," Stout by-the-numbers, and "Bitter End" is just plain awful. I'm glad that these stories are out there for fans to study, but reading them as a coda to the canon is bound to disappoint. I really wish that I had read them before I read Stout's amazing final novel, A Family Affair.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Murder on the Orient Express

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 Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime, 1934).

A couple of years ago, the BBC made a Doctor Who installment about Agatha Christie that I should have enjoyed a lot, but they botched the core out of it and so I only sort of liked it. The problem is that the episode's writer, Gareth Roberts, somehow concluded that the special "oomph" that made Christie such a terrific writer was that she understood human nature, pain and suffering so well.

I've read a couple of dozen Christie novels - they're low-key diversions, intermittently amusing - and I've never seen a lick of understanding about anything of the sort. Admittedly, modern Doctor Who goes so absurdly overboard with the "Gosh-wow! A historical celebrity! Brilliant!" gushing that it frequently stops feeling like Doctor Who and more like something brain-dead and American like The Time Tunnel, but praising Agatha Christie for insight into the human condition is just plain idiotic. If that is what the plot required, then the Doctor should have rustled up Carson McCullers or William Faulkner to solve the mystery. What Christie could have contributed to the fictional adventure was an understanding of plot contrivances and structure, and the Doctor should have asked for her assistance because nobody could get to the bottom of a bunch of carefully constructed hoo-ha better than her character, Hercule Poirot.

So Murder on the Orient Express was written in 1933 and instantly became the template for countless parodies and pastiches. This is a story where darn near everything that Poirot is told by his dozen suspects turns out to be carefully constructed hoo-ha. The polite little Belgian detective is more a bundle of identifiable character traits than a human being, and it all leads to a denouement so ridiculous that I didn't get a second's worth of "Aha!" before I pictured Raymond Chandler throwing the book against a wall.

I've always enjoyed Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence a little, but Poirot's ongoing popularity has always baffled me. Can you believe David Suchet is only seven away from a complete set of adaptations of all sixty-eleven of these stories? Yet I can see how stories like this were so successful. There's nothing in them about the human condition, and they feature no human beings within their pages, but they're undeniably clever. So are crossword puzzles. In the end, this is much more of a brain teaser than a book, and Poirot's priggishness makes him a far less amusing protagonist than Christie's other characters. I don't know that I'll return to her work any time soon.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz

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 Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010)

I really, really didn't intend to buy this book.

Many months ago, Reynolds & Hearn released the first two editions in a planned ongoing series of reprints from the pages of the '60s British weekly TV Century 21 and its follow-up comics. These were tremendously successful comics for a few years - at the height of Thunderbirds-mania, the title was said to be selling a third of a million a week - but after a while, interest in Gerry Anderson's loosely-linked series ebbed. TV 21, as it was called after 1968, was canceled and merged with Valiant in 1970, having already absorbed its own two or three sister spinoffs. The last of the period Anderson strips, based on the live-action UFO, ran in the comparatively short-lived Countdown. Strips were later created for subsequent Anderson series like Space: 1999 and Terrahawks for the comic Look-In, but these are outside these reprints' purview, which ends with UFO in 1970-71.

What I said about the first two volumes was that they were interesting but deeply flawed. Certainly they're great reproductions of the original comics, on terrific paper, but I don't like the patchy, "best-of" way that the series are presented. For example, here in volume three, there are two Stingray storylines (21 episodes by Alan Fennell and Ron Embleton) from 1965-66, two Fireball XL-5 storylines (10 episodes by Fennell, Mike Noble and Frank Hampson) from 1965, three Thunderbirds storylines (15 episodes by Scott Goodall and Frank Bellamy) from 1968 and much later in 1969, a Captain Scarlet one-off story by Howard Elson and Ron Turner from a TV21 Annual and a later two-part story by Goodall and Noble, plus a couple of Zero X stories and a single UFO done-in-one.

This is completely maddening. It's like trying to listen to the Beatles catalog by way of a bunch of high-schoolers' randomly-assembled mix tapes. The publisher should have either reprinted all the comic content of each issue chronologically, which would have preserved the occasional crossover episodes, or presented each series on its own - volumes of the complete Thunderbirds, the complete Stingray, the complete Lady Penelope and so on.

But the real bugbear is trying to read the episodes and dealing with the damn issue of the gutter. These Stingray episodes originally ran as a two-page splash across TV21's centerspread, and somehow, despite an exterior margin in this book of two inches, the production department couldn't find the space on the insides of the pages to create a reasonable interior break. Some cavemen in the book trade think that having the negative space caused by interior margins an inelegant and ugly solution. You know what's worse? Being unable to read what you've paid for because word balloons and artwork has disappeared into a gutter.

You've heard this; I said so when I reviewed the fourth volume. But see, the thing is, Diamond, the incompetent distributor who services comic shops, let this copy of volume three fall into a black hole, as they do, and I wasn't planning to see it. It was obnoxious enough when volume four showed up and neither of my major complaints about the series had been addressed over the many months between the first two volumes and it.

(And my blog is that damn important, by cracky, that Reynolds & Hearn should have been paying attention. Yes, I'm joking, but I also resent paying for substandard merchandise in a system where you have to pre-order a book and cross your fingers for fear of the American distributor, Diamond, canceling the order. This has happened more than makes any sense, and yet we wonder why the direct market is falling apart. [Also, where the hell are those Johnny Red reprints that you solicited through Diamond a year ago, Titan?] I prefer pre-ordering a book through a local shop. The system doesn't reward customers like me.)

So anyway, after the fourth book arrived, I told my local shop, the excellent Bizarro Wuxtry in Athens, that I was done with this series, and no matter how much I like the comics, I would not be paying for a volume five, so please don't order one. About two weeks later, the long-missing third volume showed up, and I felt obliged to shell out for it. (Direct market comic shops enjoy the discounts that they do because the books are non-returnable.) We've since got the word that the planned fifth volume has been canceled as the publisher has gone under, but rumors have been circulating that Marcus Hearn, who is, genuinely, a real champion of sixties teevee and for whom I have the greatest respect, hopes to revive the reprints at another company.

I hate that these great comics have been handled this way. There's surely an opportunity to do a proper, complete, warts-and-all reprint, either with or without the original behind-the-scenes "news" articles about the crazy plot machinations from the 21st century, and that's the book I want to buy. I won't be purchasing any other books in this particular series unless they fix the gutter issue and, honestly, since I don't have any confidence that they will, hope to see a proper, complete TV21 archive start up in 2020 or so.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Family Affair

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of A Family Affair (Viking, 1975).

This was Rex Stout's final adventure of Nero Wolfe, and I think it was obvious to him upon writing it that he was getting pretty old and the saga would need concluding, and that, honestly, he was no longer at the height of his powers. I didn't mention the previous two books. Well, I didn't mention lots of books as I've done these quasi-articles, but I specifically declined writing anything about Death of a Dude and Please Pass the Guilt because those were the first, and only, books in the series that really disappointed me. Well, Too Many Cooks had disappointed me for having the audacity to be written back in a period of disagreeable views about race in America. Just because one can't legitimately fault a book for being a product of its time doesn't make the experience of reading the dated thing necessarily any more pleasurable.

But 1969's Death of a Dude and 1973's Please Pass the Guilt felt tired and rote to me. Perhaps that's because I rampaged through the last ten or so books in the series rather than breaking the flow with other novels, but not even changing the setting of one to rural Wyoming or someplace didn't spark any new electricity in the format.

One thing I did note was that as the sixties wore on, Stout's apparent contempt for the police seemed to escalate into downright ugliness on the page. Inspector Cramer had always maintained a friction with Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but surely seventy-odd examples of Wolfe being fair and mostly honest with the character of Cramer should have resulted in more patience between the two. By Please Pass the Guilt, this friction, previously amusing and witty, had erupted into outright hostility and their conflict stopped being funny. It simply wasn't pleasurable watching the police abuse their authority in these books, particularly when corruption and incompetence among their ranks comes to light under Cramer's nose. It's as though all the series' previous platitudes about Cramer being a good cop were nothing more than lip service. These seeds were certainly sown in the FBI-baiting The Doorbell Rang in 1965, but I never dreamed it would get that unpleasant.

I wonder whether Stout recognized this? When you also consider the identically obnoxious rural cops in Death of a Dude and the uncharacteristic four-year gap between it and Please Pass the Guilt, it looks like Stout was, apart from simply and understandably slowing down, reevaluating a lot about society and how his fictional characters related to it. At any rate, both a little bored and disappointed with the trends and tropes over the last couple of books, I was completely unprepared for how violent and wild and downright eye-popping the final book was.

A Family Affair begins with Wolfe's favorite waiter from Rusterman's knocking on the brownstone door late at night. He tells Archie that somebody is trying to kill him, and Archie lets him take the guest room so that he may speak to Wolfe in the morning. He doesn't make it that long; someone has secreted a small bomb into his pocket.

I haven't read his biography, but I feel that Stout must have known that he was finishing up the series, because the waiter's not the only thing that gets blown up in this story. It's tough and it's mean and it dives right into the paranoid heart of Richard Nixon's corrupt administration, making absolutely clear that distrust of both the presidency and the police was, in the early seventies, understandable and essential. Whatever remained of Wolfe and Cramer's relationship in the wake of Please Pass the Guilt is completely gone by the end of it, and other relationships are similarly wrecked. (On that note, although Wikipedia's editors did not totally spoil the plot, they left enough obnoxious clues in the writeup there that anybody who reads the article there will have far too clear an idea where this book is going. So don't look up this book on Wikipedia. I'm serious.)

There is one last collection of Rex Stout's stories, published posthumously, available which I'll come back to later in the month. I'm absolutely convinced that readers should read that before A Family Affair. I'm just about to start Robert Goldsborough's continuation novels after a short break from Wolfe and Archie, and I'm sure they're okay, but A Family Affair is as grand a finale as anybody in fiction has enjoyed. As far as detective fiction goes, Stout's farewell to the characters is probably only equaled by Colin Dexter's last Inspector Morse novel. Really, it's that good, and definitely one of the series' many highlights. I'm really going to enjoy rereading Stout in a couple of years, but darned if I'm not in a mood to reread Dexter after this.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02

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 Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2010).

Back in June, I mentioned that I reread a series called Robo-Hunter every couple of years. It ran in 2000 AD periodically from 1978 to 1986. Written by John Wagner and Alan Grant and drawn by Ian Gibson, it's the absolute best example in comics of what I was mentioning in my article about Chew the other day, how the type of plotting in fiction that appeals the most to me is the type that has to run all over the map of wild possibilities to get from points A to B. I like stories where the protagonist doesn't just have to overcome great obstacles, but mundane, ridiculous, unexpected, downright weird and lunatic ones as well. Throw a kitchen sink at our hero, literally, and I'm in heaven. There's a bit in the very first Robo-Hunter serial where our hero is held hostage in a sewer until he completes a rigged game of Monopoly. That's what I'm talking about.

Our hero in Robo-Hunter is a hard-boiled PI named Sam Slade who cannot catch anything like a break. Unfairly unable to thrive in a world where he might do well (as though 1940s Los Angeles would be much of an improvement for him), Slade works in a far-flung future where a lazy, indolent, soaps-and-sports-obsessed humanity has let lunatic robots take over their lives for them. The human population in Pixar's Wall-E, and the nutty personalities of its robot cast, is not that far removed from what Wagner, Grant and Gibson had come up with for this comic. It's a world where any human with a job is pretty odd; jobs are what people built robots for! They built them to be their prime ministers and their soccer stars, and now the population of future Britain is content to collect welfare checks, visit historical castles and watch the World Cup. From this premise, the creators come up with some of the funniest and most ridiculous comics ever made. It's an absolute gem.

The first of Rebellion's two phone book-sized omnibus editions reprinted a little more than half of these creators' original run. In the second, you get more tomfoolery with Jim Kidd, a character from the first series who had been de-aged to a baby and briefly starred as the hero of a TV series before his own poor fortunes see him setting up shop as a competing robo-hunter. Slade and Kidd are hired in one of the series' most infamous installments, "Football Crazy," which sees some wildly stereotyped comedy. Having already established that future Britain was nothing to be proud of, and giving their own culture both barrels, Wagner and Grant took a few unbelievable potshots at the Italians and the Japanese in this story, which is guaranteed to make the more politically correct members of a contemporary audience wince. I've always figured it's fair for a writer to mock other cultures, provided the writer isn't simultaneously claiming that his own culture is superior. That clearly doesn't happen here.

After that, Slade's story continued through a pair of much longer adventures before the creators completely surprised readers by giving Sam a happy ending. After all these episodes of Sam overcoming unbelievable and ridiculous odds and never getting his reward, he got it. In a just world, the epic "The Slaying of Slade" would have been Sam's deserved finale, but of course, Sam Slade's world isn't "just." The very next episode, set a few years later (most cruelly, it originally ran in the following issue), sees Sam's two idiot assistants ruining everything yet again and giving Sam new problems to fight. Ian Gibson's redesign for the character - he had to come up with two! - is just hilarious.

"Sam Slade's Last Case" and "Farewell, My Billions" are often overlooked by fans, but they're every bit as ridiculous and convoluted and beautifully drawn as the earlier, better-known stories. In fact, as much as I admire the brilliant plotting and sparkling dialogue of the epic "Day of the Droids" (reprinted in volume one), Gibson's artwork towards the end of the run is leagues superior. "Farewell, My Billions" was drawn between the second and third series of Halo Jones, Gibson's celebrated collaboration with Alan Moore, and his linework, design and inking were at a career high. The decayed, decrepit look of future Harlem is just completely lovely, and the hospital scenes with the strangely familiar Dr. Goyah have an absolutely perfect balance to them. I would love to own some of the original artwork from this story.

"Farewell, My Billions" proved to be a finale that Wagner and Grant didn't believe that they could top, and the series was retired. About six years later, however, there had been some editorial changes at 2000 AD and the strip was resurrected. It was given to Mark Millar, then a promising newcomer, and a rotating bank of artists. Enough has been written already about why these failed; no more needs to be said. Suffice it to say that Millar's lengthy run is not included in this collection, however, an episode by John Smith and Chris Weston, set in the same continuity and using Millar's take on the character, is, probably on the strength of the artwork.

The third iteration of Robo-Hunter followed right on the heels of Millar's. In fact, there was some actual overlap in 1994, with one Millar story drawn by Simon Jacob appearing in print after the first by the new team of Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes. I have also written at length about how wonderful the all-too-brief Hogan and Hughes run was, and encourage visitors unfamiliar with it to see what I have written previously at my currently dormant blogs Thrillpowered Thursday (June 2007) and Reprint This! (April 2009 and April 2010). If you'd rather not click, suffice it to say that these are extremely clever and witty and wonderful in every way. This volume, happily, reprints all of Peter Hogan's episodes. The reproduction is not quite ideal - most of them originally appeared in color, and the grayscale versions here don't do Rian Hughes' thick, solid primary colors justice - but just having them all in one place is a dream come true. Well, my dream, at least.

There has also been a fourth iteration of the series. From 2004-2007, Grant and Gibson reunited to tell the story of Slade's granddaughter Samantha, who followed her predecessor into the robo-hunting business and picked up his two idiot assistants. Criminally, these six stories were not as popular with the fan base as they were with me, and even I'll admit that the second story really does take a lot of defending. Sadly, the series was one where the writer was enjoying the experience more than the artist, and it seemed to end, behind the scenes, acrimoniously. Three or four of us are still hoping for a return and greater things. These episodes are also not included; they should appear, in color, in their own volume, shortly after Samantha makes her triumphant return to the comic. Any day now.

Summing up, across the two volumes, you get the entirety of the original Wagner-Grant-Gibson run, one episode by Smith and Weston, and the full Hogan-scripted apocrypha. They're completely terrific comics. Knock down traffic cones and drive across people's yards to get them. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chew: Taster's Choice

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, if you can call it that, of Chew: Taster's Choice (Volume One) (Image, 2009)

A few weeks ago, I suggested that John Layman and Rob Guillory, the writer and artist of Image Comics' remarkably odd Chew, were due a slightly more balanced review than what I felt like delivering at the time. Well, every once in a while, I like to try and come through with one of my notions.

In the first issue of Chew, which I bought for a buck at a previously unknown comic shop in Sandy Springs, the duo presented one of the neatest examples of world-building that I can recall in a funnybook. Expertly, they created a world where, thanks to a bird flu epidemic (or so they say), chickens are illegal and the FDA has become the most powerful police force on the planet. Newly drafted into their arcane and mysterious ranks is Tony Chu, a "cibopathic" detective with the ability to pick up powerful psychic impressions from anything that he eats.

I was impressed enough with how densely the creators packed the opening chapters, and the first collected edition shows how well they've repeated that success. Taster's Choice compiles the first five issues of the series for only $10 and it is a doozy. So much goes on in this book that my head was swimming by the end of it.

Guillory's style remains a little unpalatable (sorry) for me, but he and Layman work out some really impressive tricks with pacing and storytelling. While I don't care for the character designs - Savoy, in particular, looks less like a really big guy and more like a John Kricfalusi cartoon bear - the way that he depicts action is constantly surprising and funny. There's a scene where characters open a cremation urn in front of a desk fan, and I can think of a dozen ways to lay out and illustrate that scene, all of them miles inferior to the way Guillory does it.

But I think what impresses me most is the way that the creators balance episodic, high-concept adventures with a larger, even-more-high-concept series of overarching subplots. Each individual story is immensely satisfying on its own, with bizarre incidents and black comedy, and each makes it clear that there is a very large, thunderously weird story at play behind Chu's casebook. The fourth chapter, in which the FDA investigates an unbelievable misappropriation of tax dollars at an observatory, and by the end of this mess, Layman and Guillory have thrown three gigantic new blocks atop the misshapen pile that forms the plot.

In case it's unclear, I'm of the opinion that, when done well, the most entertaining stories fiction are the ones where the plot goes from A to B by way of every other letter in the alphabet. The plot in Chew seems to be taking in a few numbers and pictograms along the way. This book is gross, sick, nauseating, thoroughly batty and recommended wholeheartedly.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon and Balsamic Dreams

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 Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon and Balsamic Dreams.

I really have enjoyed what I've read of Joe Queenan, but I end up feeling a little guilty for a few seconds. Not long, just enough to say "He's so mean..."

I first read Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon in 2004 and loved it absolutely. A self-aware culture snob who boasts of seeing Arthur Rubinstein in hallowed New York music halls, Queenan decided to spend a year indulging in the worst of contemporary popular culture: Billy Joel, John Tesh, Joan Collins' novels, a trip to Branson, Missouri and worse. It's incredibly entertaining, but I couldn't help but feel like he was shooting at pretty stationary targets. The John Tesh concert was pretty darned amusing, though. Actually, all of his prose is very entertaining, although he falls back on one or two reliable gags, like giving a big list of cultural vomit and intentionally listing the same target, like Yanni, multiple times. That joke wasn't that funny the first time.

Well, if Red Lobster... feels a little unfair with its pretentious tone, Balsamic Dreams is a much more honest and reasonable book. In this one, he targets his own generation of Baby Boomers and finds everybody wanting. He carpet-bombs his peers, accusing them, broadly, of short-sighted self-importance. It's very funny, caustic and really iconoclastic stuff, although I can't agree with keeping the emergence of ponytails in the list of ten areas where the Boomers went awry, when he makes a much better case for the emergence of Asylum Records as an apocryphal aside. Both are recommended for readers with a sense of humor.