Friday, January 29, 2010

The Cure: Ten Imaginary 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 The Cure: Ten Imaginary Years (Zomba, 1988).

I remember when this book was first released, such a long time ago. It was 1988 and there were two copies at the legendary Atlanta record store Wax n' Facts, and I could never quite justify the $25 they wanted for it. Even if I could drum up that much money in one go, that was six or seven used LPs! I liked the Cure enormously - still do - but eventually I just made do with JoAnn Greene's little $8 60-page mini-bio with all the easily-detached pinup pages. They detached really easily when the binding disintegrated after about three months.

More than twenty years (Jesus!) later, I found a copy of this book, priced the same $8 as the little JoAnn Greene one that I bought back when I was in high school, at Eagle Eye Book Store on a day where I told myself repeatedly not to spend any money. Yet nostalgia for That Teenage Feeling is sometimes strong enough to overpower the budget, I've found.

I really missed out waiting so long to read this book. A collaboration between Robert Smith, Melody Maker's Steve Sutherland and a fanzine editor who'd saved as many print reviews of the band as could be found, it's a warts-and-all look at the Cure's first decade, told with unflattering honesty and candor that you rarely find in officially-endorsed product.

It's so detailed in its honesty that some of what happened to the group in later years makes a good bit more sense. It was released shortly after the release of the 1987 single "Why Can't I Be You?" and just before a world tour that had fans questioning why the Cure suddenly needed two keyboardists. The reality was that, as early as 1980, Lol Tolhurst had drank more liquor than everybody who'll ever read this, combined. I've done some amazingly stupid crap when drunk, but I was still pretty shocked by the stories of Tolhurst's spectacular speed-of-sound descent into alcoholism. Put it this way: I've never, ever been so drunk that taking a leak on Billy Idol was ever an option.

It's a perfect capsule of the Cure at a perfect moment in their story. Their greatest period - Disintegration and its tour - was just ahead of them, and my personal favorite - the Hyaena / Top / Blue Sunshine / Head on the Door days of 1984-85 - just behind them, so I found this a very fun read, the story of a band which was conquering Britain and poised on the brink of unlikely worldwide stardom. It wouldn't be so compelling if it wasn't so honest, but it's a good pop music success story regardless. I'd love to see a revised and expanded edition released in the near future. I promise I won't wait 22 years to buy such a thing. Recommended for any popular music library.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fagin the Jew

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 Fagin the Jew (Doubleday, 2003)

I struggled with a way to start a writeup about this book. Since I'm not as familiar with Will Eisner as I should be, I tend to fall back on hyperbole and hobby-approved nicknames and sound bites while introducing this book to an audience which may not know him. The truth is, reviews read best when the writer is speaking from the heart, and while much of Eisner's work, most especially his layouts and structure, intrigues me, his character work is so idiosyncratic, and so based on caricature, that I find it hard to embrace.

That said, there's nothing technically wrong with Fagin the Jew, a 2003 "biography" of one of the sympathetic villains from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and a great deal that's interesting. I think it's fascinating to see fictional characters make such a cultural impact that other commentators, whether we're talking about Eisner or William Baring-Gould, wish to create a detailed life story behind them. The story is framed as an interview that Fagin gives to Dickens while he's awaiting the hangman's noose.

Eisner was attracted to this story because it gave him a chance to address our culture's long-standing anti-Semitism, and how stereotypes like Fagin have done so much over the centuries to reinforce it. It's really interesting seeing Fagin plead for a little more fairness from Dickens and his audience. The story within the frame is a good one, too. I haven't read Oliver Twist in many, many years, but I recall enough to be impressed by Eisner's skill at crossing Fagin's paths with that young hero, and doing it in a casual way that never feels forced or fake.

My problem is that Eisner's art keeps me at arm's length. I can't quite define exactly what it is, and so this paragraph might baffle you, but I'm reminded of classic Walt Disney cartoons in the way that the characters' body language is slightly exaggerated. His characters move with an unreal sense of proportion to the action, as if they're reminding readers that they're still moving. If you'll recall, there's a hilarious moment in an episode of D.R. and Quinch by Alan Moore and Alan Davis where a much-loved A-list actor reads a piece of a screenplay, and Davis gives him a full page to emote with the dials turned up to eleven, his body raging, fists pounding and teeth clenched. I didn't realize until I read this book just how damn clever that page is, because the actor, Marlon, is only like that when the audience is watching him on that page, and is otherwise a slow, brooding, natural figure in the comic. When I read Fagin the Jew, I saw everybody on the page performing for an audience, and even small, private business is conducted with unreal gesticulation and posing. Coupled with Eisner's heavily stylized characters - I see a lot of similarities with Jack Davis and wonder how much each influenced the other in the 1950s and 1960s - I found it impossible to be absorbed by the story. It can never be the life of Fagin, because every page reminds me that it is a comic book adaptation of the life of Fagin.

If that sounds unduly harsh and critical, it's not meant to be, it's just that I ramble on when I'm looking for the right words. Eisner's research and recreation is amazing, and I do love the detail in the period costume and architecture. It is, truly, a fascinating little story, and this may be a case where my personal preferences in art are overwhelming an honest, objective approach to recommendations.

Fagin the Jew is out of print currently. My copy was a Christmas gift from my awesome brother-in-law, and I would recommend that Dickens fans track down a copy, just as I feel Sherlock Holmes fans would enjoy William Baring-Gould's biography. I'm not familiar enough with Eisner's work to know how it relates to the whole, but my feeling is that it's not quite as essential as A Contract With God or Last Day in Vietnam.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spider-Man Newspaper Strips Volume One

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 Spider-Man Newspaper Strips volume one (Marvel, 2009)

When it comes to reviewing books and records and movies, I'd like to think that I got all the nasty negativity out of my system when I was in college, writing for the newspaper as a rawk critic and wishing I was Steve Sutherland or Nick Kent or Swells, somebody like that. Not Bangs, he wasn't British. Those were the days I could legitimately spend a full calendar year wishing that chowderhead Daniel Ash would release just one more record so that I could savage it so well that word'd later get back to me that Professor Fink in the j-school had held my piece up as an example of how to write.

These days, though, I just try to quit reading something I'm not enjoying, and I'd really, really rather not engage in ugly vitriol. Plus, nobody pays me for this. Well, I might try and make a joke every once in a while, but instead of uncapping a poison pen, I'd rather consider what sort of compromises were necessary to get something so completely misguided and ugly as the first volume of Spider-Man Newspaper Strips in print in the first place.

I find it curious that the comic blogsophere has had so little to say about this book. If Marvel Comics promotes a new release on the back of somebody else's promotion, the circles I read explode for two weeks. Similarly, everybody is very keen to hear what IDW and Fantagraphics have to say about their archival reprints of classic newspaper strips, and anything from those companies along those lines is guaranteed to be discussed and debated. Yet when Marvel released a collection last year of their 1970s Spider-Man strip, giving it the full hardcover treatment, with restored artwork by the mighty John Romita (or was he "Jazzy"...?) and some supplemental material, the internet discussion sites were surprisingly muted. Was everybody just being inordinately polite?

I don't know whether the design or the actual strip is the main problem, but the coin came up heads, so here you go: this is one butt-ugly book. It's printed sideways.

The best I can figure is that Marvel uses one printing company for their hardcovers, and they can only do a single trim size, and printing three strips per page would have required that the art be shrunk at least 10%, and the designer didn't want to do that to Jazzy John. That's just a guess, and it's the best I've got. Seriously, nobody planned to come up with something this stupid, did they? Perhaps the designer was told that the book would be in the wide format similar to what IDW and Fantagraphics have popularized and laid out the strips accordingly, and somebody else later decided they wanted to rack it next to the Marvel Masterworks?

That said, it's more than just the stupidly awkward format. The tan background is perhaps a nice notion, to make the art stand out more, but it doesn't really work for me. Adding fussy little spiderwebs and red explosions around the page numbers distracts readers, and makes the product look like a third-party coloring book, even more juvenile than the strip itself. And that's saying something. This strip was for dimwits.

When I was in elementary school, I liked Spider-Man just fine, but I never read this strip, which appeared locally in the evening paper, The Atlanta Journal. The morning Atlanta Constitution ran the competing World's Greatest Superheroes featuring the DC characters. That was a pretty ridiculous guilty pleasure, beloved today by pretty much only me, but even at the age of eight, I knew that goofball mess was miles better than the Marvel offering.

Adventure strips have to use a curious pacing to keep casual readers interested, while not moving so quickly as to confuse people who only see it twice a week. Some writers can do it amazingly well, but Lee's constant rehashing of the same bored tics and tropes just grate, and you'll want to never again read about Peter Parker after the fourth or fifth time he refuses to defend himself out of costume, because he apparently cannot control his super strength and is afraid he'll punch somebody too hard. What the heck? Compilations like this sometimes chafe because older comics would restate certain character traits every month for newcomers, but I swear it seems like Lee was doing it twice every week, especially when the agonizing Aunt May spends day after day worrying about poor, poor, poor Peter. It's like trying to wring sympathy out of Gladys Kravitz; it can't be done.

I'd give Lee some leeway if the storylines were worth the boring, redundant character quirks, but apart from one interesting plot by the Kingpin to get Spidey to work as his lieutenant, they are never more than Spidey Super Stories-level. Doctor Doom somehow manages to be boring in a convoluted scheme to drive Spidey onto the couch of a psychiatrist who's actually a robot, and there's a deeply seventies tale about Flash and Harry Osborn opening a hot new nightclub which is even more ridiculously wish-fulfilling and G-rated than the plot of Xanadu.

But the booby prize has to go to the Mysterio story. In an apparent attempt to promote CBS's oddball Spider-Man TV series of the time, some Hollywood producer decides to make a Spider-Man movie, and Peter decides to go to California to "star" in it by doing the Spidey stunts, and J. Jonah Jameson decides to send Parker out there to cover it, and the special effects guy decides to kill the lead actor. I started counting the things wrong with that, and ran out of fingers.

Perhaps at a lower price, this might make for a cute little curiosity and period piece, the sort of thing that internet comedians like Chris Sims and Kevin Church would enjoy clowning. After all, as the duo behind the monthly Amazing Spider-Man comic in the late sixties, Lee and Romita spun some terrific yarns - I actually, heretically, prefer that period to the original days of Steve Ditko - and their reteaming should have been worth at least a look, even if it turned out so lousy. But to put such mediocre material out there and package it so badly and to charge forty bucks for it, well, I'm not sure who I'm angrier with, Marvel for releasing something so lousy or me for still not learning the expensive lesson to actually have a product in hand to look at before I ask Bizarro Wuxtry to order me a copy.

Oh, wait, this book arrived shrinkwrapped. It's like Marvel knew something we didn't. Not recommended. Avoid.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street

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 Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street (Viking, 1969).

Several years back, I read William Baring-Gould's delightful, winking little faux biography of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote a little about it at my LiveJournal. It's taken me a few years to get comfortable enough in the canon of Nero Wolfe to have a look at Baring-Gould's other pet obsession and the connections between them - I'm not spoiling anything by letting you know that the author works under the assumption that Wolfe is the son of Holmes and Irene Adler - and now that I've read it, I think of it a quaint little curiosity, nowhere as compelling as his Holmes book.

Part of it comes from Baring-Gould's odd insistence on treating the Wolfe canon - something like 76 stories - as a single narrative that unfolds in real, publication time. As far as I'm aware, the only real-world event that must punctuate the canon is World War Two, as Archie Goodwin spent two novellas working for army intelligence. Otherwise, a biography like this simply must compress the storyline into a series of stories set before the war and the remainder into a series of perhaps a decade or a dozen years afterward, but surely no more. The problem is that Rex Stout continued writing stories with the characters until his death in 1975, and the notion of a seventy year-old Archie still working as legman for a ninety year-old Wolfe, and still romancing Lily Rowan while they're both drawing social security, is pretty darn silly. Surely the canon must end in the mid-1950s to make sense, right?

But it's more than just the problem of affixing each adventure to its publication date. The Holmes book seemed to delight in the open spaces between the stories that Watson recorded, and consequently invented the modern notion of fanfic with its crossover plots between Doyle characters and speculation about the stories Doyle never wrote. The Wolfe book, by comparison, is incredibly narrow in its focus, speculating briefly on the characters' pasts before Archie came to work for Wolfe, but no further.

Perhaps some of the problem stems from the difference in the characters' popularity. Holmes is universally known and regularly reinvented for other media treatments, and the Doyle canon of sixty stories is known by tens of millions of readers worldwide. Wolfe's popularity has ebbed a great deal since the character's peak in the 1950s and 1960s. The recent-ish TV series, while pretty darn good, was apparently done in by a combination of a high cost and A&E's desire to turn into another reality channel, and was never the crossover hit that, say, the 1980s Granada Holmes series with Jeremy Brett was. So while the Holmes book has broad and amusing appeal to even casual readers, this is something that really could only appeal to Wolfe's devoted fan base, and with so little here beyond recapping the known narrative, it would just as easily be supplanted by an annotated guide to the short stories and novels, without the labored attempts to form it into a biography. It's an amusing diversion, but not one I can really recommend.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, Health Inspected Cartoons by Roz Chast

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 Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, Health Inspected Cartoons by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Here's a book that I was actually going to write about a week ago, but I felt that was too close to the Jack Ziegler piece I did for my Reprint This! blog, and figured I could wait a few days before I went gaga over another New Yorker cartoonist. Heaven knows I wouldn't want people to think that the Hipster Dad family of blogs were all obsessed with a single topic or anything; that just wouldn't do!

This may seem like the strangest thing to say about an artist whose work you love, but I really enjoy the way that Roz Chast's work just slips completely under everybody's radar, even my own. I don't remember whether I first saw one of her cartoons in the New Yorker or in some other magazine, but I recall being really surprised by it. Her art just wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before, and whatever the piece was, it wasn't overtly funny. I remember just looking at the page and wondering whether it was supposed to be there at all. Was this intended as a cartoon, or was it some strange 1980s ad or something.

Clearly, I don't give Chast the credit that she's due. If I had any sense, then when I went to the humor section of any good bookstore, I'd be hoping to find something specific by her. Instead, I simply stumbled across this mammoth, wonderful hardcover collection at Eagle Eye a few months ago and was every bit as pleased at my find as I was to learn such a great-looking book existed at all. This is a genuinely terrific collection, meeting most of my obsessive-compulsive desires for size and weight. I don't like skimpy 120-page paperbacks which fit in your coat pocket; I like a big, satisfying chunk of comics and cartoons, and this 400-page doorstop is exactly what this customer would have ordered, had he the brains to put such a request together in the first place. This is a book that I should have demanded many years ago, except that my demand would probably come with page numbers. Their omission here is genuinely odd.

If you're not familiar with Chast, you really are missing out. I think she's one of the most mercurial cartoonists working today, since her work can vary so wildly in tone. Normally, she has a playful, winking sensibility, and enjoys tweaking stereotypes. I've only had the great pleasure of driving between Burlington and Middlebury just once, but that was enough to tell me that Chast's cartoon about the shops in New York's newest neighborhood, Little Vermont, is absolutely true. There's so much truth behind the cartoons, however, that there must be some delightful (to the reader, anyway) neurosis driving her humor. How else to describe the contents of "Bad Mom" magazine, if not the sort of thing that the artist secretly dreads people might be thinking about her?

While her panels are really entertaining on their own, it's in the occasional, far-too-infrequent strip work where Chast really excels. There are some great pages of marital arguments and nagging mothers that spiral absurdly out of control, but I think the standout might be a four page strip investigating the airlines' unclaimed baggage depot in Scottsdale, Alabama. It's a surreal, intelligent and occasionally macabre set of terrific cartoons, and certainly a welcome addition to anybody's New Yorker library. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Lady in the Lake

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 Lady in the Lake (Knopf, 1946).

You sort of expect, with a book entitled The Lady in the Lake and a case where Philip Marlowe is hired to find a missing woman, and the knowledge that there's a big lake on some property owned by the rich husband, that this isn't going to end well. But Raymond Chandler threw one fantastic curve ball in his fourth novel when Marlowe goes to meet up with a fellow who manages the properties far from the heat of Los Angeles and learns that this guy's wife is also missing.

This one's a slow-burning masterpiece, one that really gets into police corruption and public ugliness. It's a cool study in contrasts, with the getaway mountain community protected by a constable who selflessly serves, and the suburban town of Bay City protected by unrepentant thugs with badges who will gladly shove a drink down your throat in order to book you for drunk driving.

All of Chandler's novels are essential reading, but I think this one might be the best of the first four. Highly recommended!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bloom County: The Complete Library volume one

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 Bloom County: The Complete Library volume one (IDW, 2009)

I listen through my CD collection in an obsessive-compulsive manner that nobody would understand, and one morning this week, an ABC compilation called Absolutely came up in the rotation. You remember ABC, right? British new-wavers led by Martin Fry, best known for their top 5 hit "When Smokey Sings," remember? Well, they had another song, which just dented the Billboard chart at # 89, called "That was Then But This is Now," and it's the most Reaganesque song you ever heard. I recalled that there was a lot of British pop music that explored life in the ugly end of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear missiles ready to scream overhead as Reagan stared down Brezhnev / Andropov / Chernenko / Gorbachev, the best of it done by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And it is all so incredibly dated. Yet a sequence in this first nice collection of Berke Breathed's Bloom County has Milo and Binkley wandering into the Oval Office on a 1981 school tour of the White House, prank calling the USSR and nearly starting the Third World War, and it's positively timeless. How the heck did that happen?

Fans of Bloom County - they are legion, and Breathed jokes that they camp on his lawn - have been clamoring for a complete collection of the Reagan-era strip ever since it ended. And it was a very Reagan-era strip. John Lennon was murdered on the night that Bloom County debuted, and it ended about seven months after George Bush was inaugurated. Prince Charles and Diana were regular characters for a time, as was a caricature of Ted Turner, under the name Ashley Dashley, who was then making waves with his ahead-of-the-curve Superstation TBS. The Moral Majority, endlessly tiresome even to me as a middle schooler, is represented by Otis Oracle, who yearns for the days of Ozzie and Harriet, and if the belicose antics of the modern Tea Party movement sound familiar, it's because Major Bloom was spewing all that vitriol at his grandson Milo on the funny pages about thirty years ago. Yet it all seems incredibly fresh and exciting, and, more often than not, completely hilarious.

Bloom County has been collected before, of course, but never properly. Perhaps a quarter of these strips made it into a book called Loose Tails which sold by the truckload in 1983; a later book called Babylon found space for another hundred or so from this era. This scattershot approach gave readers glances about the odd, unfocussed early days of the strip, but hardly a chance to see it develop, as we now can.

It's really fascinating to see so many now-forgotten characters thrown into the mix in the hopes that some of them might stick. Breathed, who contributes several dozen footnotes throughout the book, is quite honest that he had no clue what his strip was actually going to be about. Until the cast that became the regulars coalesced, it went off into wild directions and dozens of characters drifted through, including a basset hound named Rabies and a pretty shameless ripoff of Doonesbury's Uncle Duke called Limekiller.

In fact, there's quite a lot that's pretty shamelessly ripped off from Doonesbury, enough to earn Breathed some long-lasting enmity from that strip's creator, Garry Trudeau. The most egregious is a recurring gag with Milo's bathroom mirror talking back to him about his self-doubts, which came straight from Mike's dorm room in 1970-72, but it's more than that; the pacing, the timing and the tone itself come from Doonesbury. Happily, Breathed has never made a secret of his admiration for Trudeau's strip, and has apologized, quite charitably and humbly, for his excesses. I can name a half-dozen people who work in the arts who could learn a good deal from Breathed's behavior.

Anyway, as imitations of Doonesbury go, Bloom County was by far the best of them even before Breathed found his own voice, by which time it was essential reading. Even though that time is towards the end of this book, around the point where Ashley Dashley is phased out and Opus phased in, it's still a very nice collection, which IDW has done a fantastic job producing. It's an oversized hardcover, the first of a planned five, which reprints every single daily and Sunday strip in order, along with annotations, footnotes and supplementary features. The retail price is a little high at $40, but it's a terrific book, on very nice paper, and everybody involved did a standup job. It's definitely one of the highlights of recent collected editions, and anybody who likes comics should find a place for it in their library.

Hmmm. I wonder how well Spitting Image holds up...

(Excerpted from Reprint This!)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Original Sin

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 Original Sin (Faber & Faber, 1994).

If I ever had the opportunity to talk with PD James, I'd ask her about her habit of creating a setting, backstory and supporting cast for her characters and then upending them with almost every new novel. Consider, in the first six Adam Dalgliesh books, we already had two set when he's meant to be on leave from work, and the character had three different assistants in the other four. In the seventh book, we see him given a new task force and two assistant detective inspectors. The eighth is yet another murders-on-holiday story, and while the ninth, Original Sin, again uses the task force and DI Kate Miskin, the third member of the team is replaced and, without giving too much away, it's very unlikely that we'll see DI Aaron back for book ten. Anybody looking for the security of Watson and 221B Baker Street is looking in the wrong place with PD James.

This time, Dalgliesh is sent out to investigate the murder of Gerard Etienne, the managing director of Peverell Press, an old and prestigious publisher who've been dealing with a series of ugly office pranks. When one of these results in the cancellation of a book signing by a cantankerous writer, whose latest mystery novel has just been rejected by the Press, Dalgliesh has found an interesting motive, but the novelist is just one of several suspects with ironclad alibis...

Honestly, this one left me a little unsatisfied. Perhaps James was too successful in crafting a character, Etienne's control freak of a sister, who is so unpleasant that I was hoping unnaturally that the killer would strike again, or perhaps there were hints that she was repeating herself. Miskin's and Aaron's interaction, and their thoughts about their intensely private boss, was reminiscent of Miskin's and DCI Massingham's interplay in the superior A Taste for Death. There's no whopper of a twist like I enjoyed in Devices and Desires, although the insights into the very different corporate culture are completely fascinating to me. Americans just talk about our kids all the time; I can't imagine not knowing that a co-worker that I've known for many years has a grown daughter, yet it's vital to the plot that absolutely nobody at Peverell Press ever really gotten to know one man to learn this point.

It's really not fair to James to compare everything to A Taste for Death, but indeed I dropped this series in the mid-nineties because I did not believe the two that followed it ever measured up. Time proved me completely and totally wrong with Devices, which is a corker, but this one really must be considered a lesser entry in her canon. James creates a world that's very vivid and honest, particularly the realistic, sympathetic depiction of a nineteen year-old biker who, while efficient and praiseworthy, aspires to nothing in life more than office temp work, but the mystery seems humdrum and, frankly, the sort of thing Dalgliesh should have been able to solve with a lot less work. Not recommended.

Monday, January 4, 2010


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 Eternals (Marvel, 2007).

Well, here's a curiosity. My wife likes Neil Gaiman more than I do, and I like Jack Kirby more than she does, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before one of us picked up this book. Actually, she bought it from Comic Envy in Asheville several months ago, but it took some time to work its way up each of our reading piles for me to tell you about it.

Kirby created The Eternals in the mid-70s after reading those Chariots of the Gods books that were popular back then and figuring those'd make a good comic book. It's a big, weird epic starring super-powered folks with mythological names, scheming among the backdrop of giant space deities called The Celestials influencing human behavior for centuries. Honestly, they were a rung or two down from his very best work, and like a lot of good '70s work by many different creators for Marvel Comics, didn't fit quite so well jerry-rigged into the existing, broader Marvel Universe, but they're still quite good stuff.

After several years of inactivity, Marvel decided to revamp and revisit the characters, and so turned to Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr. for a seven-part series. It's available in a nice hardcover edition, and it's... okay. Just as awkwardly jerry-rigged into the contemporary superhero world, this, bafflingly, features an Iron Man who's nothing like the devil-may-care playboy iconoclast from the movies, but some boring establishment heel who keeps telling these newly-emergent superpeople that they need to get registered with the government for some bound-to-be-forgotten reason that future generations of Neil Gaiman fans will never understand.

If you can get past the unwelcome intrusions by the ongoing Marvel soap opera, this is a pretty good distraction, although rarely compelling. Gaiman does a better job building the events than just about anybody else in comics, and, working outside his comfort zone in the world of super powers, he comes up with some very neat variations on established tropes. One character realizes that he has super speed when the power kicks in during a crisis, and he finds himself among a crowd being fired on by a gang of armed gunmen, having to quickly figure out what to do about hundreds of bullets slowly moving towards the people. On the other hand, Gaiman still has the same problem with climaxes that he did back during The Sandman. I finished this less than a week ago, and I have already forgotten exactly what the protagonists did to save humanity from the sleeping Celestial god.

I found the artwork particularly dull. I didn't like Romita Jr. when I was in high school and he replaced Paul Smith on Uncanny X-Men and I don't like him now. He does nothing at all wrong, but his work looks overly fussy and scratchy to me. For a middle-of-the-road superhero melodrama, I'm sure it's fine, but for something meant to be as epic and mythological as this, I never got that sense of great, cosmic importance the work is asking for.

This sounds like damning with faint praise, and perhaps it is. In much the same way that a Holiday Inn cover band might pull off a performance of "This Old Heart of Mine" that's leagues better than anything on the Q100 pop charts these days, I'm sure this is far superior to the modern comics where Iron Man started acting like such a government stooge. Yet with Kirby's original run of Eternals in print and available from all good shops, there's no more a need to need to read Gaiman's take than to rush down to the Holiday Inn. Recommended for Gaiman completists only.