Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Century 21 Volume 4: Above and Beyond

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 4: Above and Beyond (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010)

Not the final cover.

This is the fourth and, for me, the last of Reynolds & Hearn's collections of old Gerry Anderson strips. Like its predecessors, it's a "greatest hits" compilation of assorted tie-ins to Anderson's fun old TV series of the sixties, with artwork by some of the best in the business. Seriously, you've got the likes of Frank Bellamy, Mike Noble and the great Ron Embleton tackling such fun concepts as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Stingray, so what's not to love?

The problem is a simple, but overwhelming one. Many of the strips were originally presented as double-page spreads. In a book, with a spine, printed traditionally, this means that artwork and lettering will disappear into what's called the gutter. That, sadly, is the case with many of the pages here.

I'd accept this as an insurmountable problem except the publishers have been ignoring the obvious solution since their series began. On each of these double-page spreads, there is an outer margin on each page of greater than an inch. All it would have taken to make all of the artwork and text legible is adjust the margins and print area, moving material out of the book's gutter. Because this would result in an interior margin where there was originally none, this is considered an inelegant solution.

But the question for readers is, which is preferable? To hold the spine closed a little and eliminate a white gutter bar separating the two pages, or force the spine open to read the text and damage the book? Despite multiple complaints about their production in the wake of the first two volumes, Reynolds & Hearn have chosen to continue forcing customers to have to damage their books in order to read them properly. If you think I'm going to recommend you pay $27 for a book like that, you're nuts. Avoid.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Among all seven gajillion or so of us who like reviewing "graaaaphic novels" and things on the internet, there's a subset who really enjoy the comic juxtaposition of elements that really occur best in the comic medium. Things like J. Jonah Jameson yelling at Godzilla, things like that. It still blows my mind that no publicist has sat these folks down, what with the big audience that they command, and shown them The ABC Warriors, a high-concept science fiction serial written by Pat Mills. It began in 1979 and new episodes have appeared every few years in the pages of 2000 AD. There's a bit in one of their earlier adventures, reprinted in this new American edition, in which war robots with bazookas ride around the deserts of Mars on the backs of tyrannosaurs.

Let me repeat that for the benefit of those not paying attention: ROBOTS WITH BAZOOKAS ON TYRANNOSAURS ON MARS. Drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. This is, in point of fact, the greatest thing to ever appear in fiction.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, the ABC Warriors are a motley squad of war robots assembled in the waning days of a global conflict against the Volgan Empire. They include a cowboy robot, a sniper who communicates in bursts of letters and numbers, a Volgan general reprogrammed to obey allied commands but who retains his two-timing, traitorous nature and a shrouded, grinning maniac who puts that whole "sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic" business to the test. They are the coolest team of backstabbing, squabbling characters to appear in comics, and if they don't hypercharge your inner ten year-old, then you were obviously never ten.

The artwork on this initial series of 21 episodes was mainly provided by Mike McMahon, with guest appearances by Ezquerra, Kevin O'Neill, Dave Gibbons, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy. About five years later, Alan Moore contributed the only episode of the long-running series that Mills did not write; it's illustrated by Steve Dillon and it makes its first appearance since its original outing in this new collection by Rebellion, distributed in the US by Simon & Schuster. The new book also includes a six-page framing story by Mills and O'Neill that originally appeared in Titan Books' old collection of this serial.

"The Meknificent Seven" has appeared in print many times before this, but the current edition is the first one aimed at mainstream bookstores, with the Alan Moore episode added as a sweetener for anybody wary about buying it again. It also includes a new foreword by Pat Mills and, as a supplement, five of the old "Fact Files" about the characters. These are really charming, and while the series has "grown up" along with its readers and more recent episodes are aimed more at adults, the "collect 'em all" nature of these pages reminds me that, once upon a time, this was the most awesome idea in kids' comics ever.

As I write this, the book has been out for about six weeks, and I'm a little concerned about the lack of publicity out there. I know that Mills was doing his usual awesome job of promotion in California last month, with signings at an area Barnes & Noble and an appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con, but somebody at Simon & Schuster really needs to start knocking down some doors to tell people that they're carrying these 2000 AD collections, and that they are fantastic. You can't rely on me; my audience is very small, and they almost never listen when I tell them to buy things. Get some review copies out, guys, because everybody in America needs to know that if they have a ten year-old boy in the house, or anybody else who remembers how hotdamned spectacular wild things like this were like when they were that age, then their house needs the ABC Warriors. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

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 Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (Dark Horse, 2010)

I've been enjoying Evan Dorkin's wild comedies for so long that I raised an eyebrow about his latest project, a supernatural horror story. It didn't help that it follows a gang of neighborhood dogs - sorry, but dogs are my least favorite animals - and that it was illustrated by Jill Thompson, whose previous pen-and-ink work I've never embraced. Turns out I was quite spectacularly wrong on every front.

As for the artwork, it turns out that whatever I thought of Thompson's linework, as a painter, she is quite superb. Not only is her comic storytelling very clear and well-designed, but she captures the emotions of her characters very well. These pages really look terrific, and leave me curious to see more from her in this style.

Her style is the perfect complement to a fascinating, really intelligent take on horror which could have been very silly - the premise is ridiculous - but, played straight, ends up being very dramatic and occasionally chilling. A group of neighborhood pets is charged with joining a wide-ranging animal defense of our world from supernatural threats. That Dorkin is able to rein in what could have been goofy and turn it into something frightening really impresses me.

The stories collected in this book originally appeared as one-offs in various anthologies released by Dark Horse Comics before it got its own four-issue miniseries. Each chapter is its own stand-alone short story with various subplot threads developing the background and increasing the tension as the book continues. Probably the most amazing is a chapter in which a new mother dog comes to our heroes for help finding her missing puppies. If the last page of that story doesn't chill you to your soul, you're lacking one.

Dark Horse has done a wonderful job packaging this collection in a reasonably-priced hardcover. It's fleshed out with sketchbook material from Thompson and notes from Dorkin and just oozes quality. I highly recommend this for all readers, and expect to reconsider it in December as a potential book of the year nominee. I was very, very satisfied and am sure you will be, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Vol. 2: 1982-1984

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 Collection, Vol. 2: 1982-1984 (IDW, 2010)

The first volume in IDW's excellent hardcover series showed Bloom County as a work-in-progress, with creator Berke Breathed throwing dozens of ideas at the wall, desperate for something - anything - to stick. It took a couple of years for the strip to settle down into something that the public would embrace and a small, core cast develop.

The bulk of this book should be familiar to anybody who has the old treasury edition Bloom County Babylon, although this is, of course, a far more comprehensive set. Bill the Cat, still dead at this point, is mostly absent from the shenanigans, but his hairball-hacking spirit lingers on. Binkley stays at war with his anxiety closet, Opus tries catching a freighter to Antarctica to see his mother, and Steve Dallas spends whatever time he's not spending in defense of hopeless clients mourning the end of the 1970s, especially once Time announces that relationships are back "in."

As with the first volume, there's a pile of supplemental material. This time around, there are fewer explanatory footnotes and fewer pages of unpublished art, but there are more annotations from Breathed, all of which should prompt a grin. The introduction is penned by newsman Ted Koppel, and it's worth a grin. I'm looking forward to the third book, and recommend this very highly to newcomers. If you already own Babylon, this might not be quite so tempting because of the amount of duplication, but I vote you buy this and give the paperback to your kids to enjoy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross

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 One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (William Morrow & Co, 1986)

How aggravating. I have run out of Harry Kemelman novels to read. And the last one on my pile was the first one that I didn't enjoy very much.

In One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross, Rabbi Small and his wife take another trip to Israel with their kids safely at summer camp and our hero manages to get involved in another murder. The temple politics and academia avenues are mostly sidelined in favor of very rote, by-the-numbers mystery writing. In the previous novels, Kemelman crafted a huge world of characters around the story and let the actual solution to the crime be plucked from around them. This, by contrast, is like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, where every scene is intricately related to the mystery. It becomes a game, not of spotting these clues, but questioning at what point they will reappear.

Put another way, I figured this one out. I figured it out very early. I never even attempt to figure them out, but this was so remarkably obvious that I couldn't avoid it. The characters, reduced from "character" to "humanoid-shaped item that advances plot," lost all my interest and I found myself, rather than reading the last forty pages, confirming my suspicions.

While I really can't recommend this novel to new readers, I am still looking forward to swinging through some bookstores in the city and finding the other four books in the series that I haven't read.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock

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 Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (US edition: Da Capo, 2004)

Is it possible to write a "review" about a book like this without injecting your own experiences and feelings about the subject into your article? No, probably not, and I'm not going to try. John Harris's Britpop is an incredibly fun book. I bought it when it was first released in the US and I finished my third reading of it last week, this time aided by YouTube clips to give me better understanding of the music that I missed at the time. I had a ball. This is a great story with a tremendously good soundtrack.

I came to a lot of the Britpop-era music (roughly 1992-97) late, because radio here played very little of it. I recall seeing "There's No Other Way" on 120 Minutes before I moved to Athens on a permanent basis, but by the time Suede and Blur went to war, the commercial radio here was stuck playing that hotdamned "Runaway Train" song every hour for something like 28 months, and the college radio in Athens was playing stuff I either never identified or later learned was early Elephant Six. I didn't discover Suede and Pulp until after each band had crested. I enjoy the heck out of each group, and now that I've finally seen the terrific video for "The Universal," as you should right now, I've started to really like Blur, but it would have been so much more fun to experience all this music, and all the bitter rivalries between the bands, when it was new.

Just as the popularity of these hitmakers ebbed and flowed in the early nineties, so does the focus of the book. It begins with Brett Anderson and Justine Frischmann starting their relationship and the formation of Suede. Before long, Justine has left him for Damon Albarn of Blur and started her own band, Elastica. Pulp makes the scene after a decade in obscurity, apparently just to steal Alex James's girlfriends, and then, just as Suede starts missing the top 20 under the weight of their pretentious second album, things go to hell when Oasis shows up to crash the party, all swagger and shouting.

Now, I was familiar with Oasis at the time, because commercial radio here did play some amazing songs from them. This gave people in the US some understanding that there was a rivalry going on between them and several other bands, but we never experienced it. The madness that surrounded the same-day release of Oasis's "Roll With It" and Blur's "Country House" sounds like the most fun media spectacle in the world. It's a shame that we missed it.

Harris's book is so darn good that I'd call it almost perfect. I do think he gives a little short shrift to Suede's roaring resurgence with the Coming Up album and all its hit singles, and Pulp's mammoth Different Class. Compared to the juicy detail in other areas, these seem sidelined in favor of spending a little more time on the party politics of the time and the rise of Tony Blair. That's the only quibble that I have. With a good mix of interviews and research, he really shows us the whole story of the period. Seriously, sit down with this book and let YouTube show you all those videos by Menswear and Sleeper that you missed and you're in for a fine, fine time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Howard the Duck

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 Howard the Duck (Marvel, 2003)

When the late Steve Gerber returned to Marvel for a final, six-issue run on his most celebrated property, Howard the Duck, I remember being incredibly excited. I've reread the series several times and smiled and laughed but nevertheless closed the book each time wishing things had worked out a little bit differently.

I believe that Howard was the best American comic book of the seventies, and it still holds up extremely well, despite the aggravating aftertaste of the many sad years that followed for Gerber fighting for his rights as a creator. He and Marvel Comics stayed at loggerheads for years. It looked for a few minutes in the mid-nineties like they'd buried the hatchet, but the circumstances behind a one-off issue of Marvel Team-Up produced then proved unsatisfying to Gerber, and the incident ended with Howard and his human steady, Bev, spirited out of the Marvel Universe and into a witness protection program at Image Comics under the names Leonard the Duck and Rhonda.

About seven years later, everybody was friendly again and Gerber returned to Marvel for what would be a final six-issue epilogue for his classic characters. Back in Cleveland and working as security guards at a junkyard, Howard and Bev are desperate and just barely scraping by, but before long, their lives are turned upside down again by the craziness of life in the 21st Century. Bev's ex-husband Dr. Bong is back in town, and his latest gene-splicing scheme not only sees Howard's body changed into a great big mouse, but getting to the bottom of things will send our heroes to find the truth about boy bands, feel-good talk shows, Vertigo Comics, Witchblade and why it is that the Father always leaves the Son and the Holy Ghost to pay for the drinks.

The artwork on five of the six issues was provided by Phil Winslade, who had earlier collaborated with Gerber on the delightful Nevada. That character makes a brief, silly cameo in these pages. On one issue, Glenn Fabry, who painted the covers of the original issues steps in. I greatly enjoy each of their work a lot, and like how they pepper the pages with in-jokes and detail.

And yet... it feels bittersweet and incomplete. I really got the feeling that Gerber had so much say to say through and about Howard, even after the final chapter, which sees Howard grilling the Almighty about the purpose of existence. In a perfect world, Marvel would have greenlit a full series that would have ran for years, until we lost Gerber in 2008. Then again, in a perfect world, we wouldn't have lost Gerber in 2008. Recommended.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kane: Greetings from New Eden

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 Kane: Greetings from New Eden (Image, 2004)

Paul Grist's police procedural Kane has been one of those books that I've told myself repeatedly to sample, but I never got around to trying it until this summer. The good folk at the suburban Titan Games & Comics marked a box of trades and graphic novels down to 75% off at one of their locations a couple of months ago, and so I stopped in and found this.

Kane is a loner detective in a big town called New Eden. Wikipedia tells me nothing that I couldn't glean from the issues here, that Kane has rejoined the force after a lengthy suspension and some unpleasantness with his former partner. He's a reckless, incredibly effective cop whom nobody with a badge wants to trust anymore. Conceptually, there's little of note here.

Honestly, Grist has done much, much better work since these chapters, which I believe were originally published in the late 1990s. I quite like his series Jack Staff, which is an homage to classic British adventure comics, and Kane features many of the same storytelling quirks, such as starting a new scene by way of a dramatic, portrait-and-caption introduction to the characters within it. Something about that bag of tricks just doesn't work as well for me here. Grist made the same mistake that many newly-published writer/artists stumble in their early work (guilty as charged, myself) and assumes that the reader can follow similarly-drawn characters into and out of scenes and flashbacks without using captions to guide the flow.

There are also far too many characters, honestly, for something with such a similar-looking cast presented in monochrome. Somebody like Gene Ha could certainly manage a Hill Street Blues-sized cast of cops in his Alan Moore collaboration Top 10, but working in color with radically different character designs. Here, with all the males looking almost exactly the same and the lone character with a distinctive wardrobe the only female, I found it unpleasantly difficult to follow. Four issues were reprinted in this book, and I genuinely couldn't tell you what happens in the second and the third, because I couldn't tell the difference between the mayor, the detectives or the guy who was sometimes wearing a bunny suit. Sadly, not recommended.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Slaine: Demon Killer

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 Slaine: Demon Killer (Rebellion, 2010)

With their fifth volume in the collected adventures of Slaine, Rebellion has entered the long-running strip's somewhat questionable period. There's usually something worth looking at in the series, and happily, "Demon Killer" and its assorted stories have aged much better than I remember them. It helps that Pat Mills' scripts were tackled by some tremendously good artists, but this is still the period where the rot began, and it's hard to approach them without knowing that subsequent episodes would be notably poorer.

The previous four volumes saw Slaine as a wandering hero, returning to his tribe in time to become its leader, and unite all of the Celtic tribes as their High King in opposition to an army of demons and beasts. The fourth book, "The Horned God," could well have been an excellent finale, but Mills found many more stories to tell and Slaine returned after about two years' break.

In "Demon Killer," a storyline painted by Glenn Fabry (42 pages) and by Dermot Power (54), Slaine reaches the end of his seven-year reign as High King and is ceremonially put to death, only to have the Earth's goddess Danu resurrect him for a mission in her land's future, defending Britain from Roman invaders. The story's peppered with very memorable moments, most stunningly its bleak tone towards the end when Slaine realizes he has underestimated the sort of atrocities that Romans would be willing to exact upon the native Britons.

The artwork is gorgeous, and the story in which Slaine and his wife Niamh are forced to find some compromise in their squabbling marriage by being tied to a tree is really funny. Best of all is a terrific scene in which Slaine first arrives in Roman-occupied Britain and is racking up a body count within sixty seconds.

All in all, it's quite a good package of twenty episodes, plus some pin-ups and a very neat bonus: a David Lloyd-illustrated role-playing game strip from the pages of Diceman. Sadly, the reprint of this game is missing a page, making it a little difficult to play, but I think of it as just a bonus and not essential. That's a good way to think of the book, really. It's good, but not outstanding, and the series' new time-traveling format really robbed Slaine of its charm. Recommended for completists, only.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out

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 Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (William Morrow & Co, 1978)

After seven books, I think that Kemelman could well have retired Rabbi David Small, and Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out has the feel of something working towards a conclusion. As it turned out, the author would write another four or five stories after this one, but the always entertaining Temple politics and arguments get pretty crazy this time out, and the question of whether David will still have a job at the end of the book - usually a foregone conclusion - is just as critical as who murdered the town miser, a grouchy anti-Semite who will be mourned by nobody.

I enjoyed this story as much as the first in the series, and despite a pile of hiding-in-plain-sight clues, had no idea who was behind the killing. I honestly don't know that a crime like this would fool an investigator from TV's CSI for a second, however. After I thought about it for a while, I found myself starting to question whether the faked evidence would have fooled the police even in a small, sleepy town in the mid-seventies. Either police methods have improved massively over the years, or the real cops in the seventies were content to let the decade's quirky detectives take all the glory in order to surprise real killers with the knowledge that actually, quirky TV detectives really aren't necessary when they have evidence teams who can see right through these carefully-orchestrated killings. It's the same way that there are at least three episodes of the original run of Columbo in which suspension of belief is similarly damaged by knowing that all the fun cat-and-mouse would have, in the real world, been busted by simple crime scene evidence.

Taken on its own terms, the story remains very fun, and I love the way that Kemelman is able to reflect the business of the Temple into the action, leaving Rabbi Small juggling so many different things. His inflexible position on matters related to Judaism sometimes seems a little baffling to me. I'm really uncertain why he refuses to perform Bar Mitzvah for an elderly man who was unable to have the ceremony at age thirteen. Saying that the ceremony is irrelevant, that the man is Bar Mitzvah regardless, makes sense, but is it that big a deal to him? Well, it's not like I've got any training in Talmudic reasoning. I'll take his word on it. Recommended.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gone Pogo

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 Gone Pogo (Simon & Schuster, 1961)

Now that Fantagraphics has finally announced the release of the first in their series of Pogo collections - would you believe it's said to be out next month? - I think my fellow hobbyists are about to have an autumn full of tributes to Walt Kelly's old strip. I'm curious to read it from the beginning, and get to know the characters better. I imagine that in 1961, when this collection was published, they were a bit more well-known among the public. To be honest - and I know that sounding wishy-washy about Kelly doesn't get you much agreement - not knowing who the heck these characters are helped to make Gone Pogo a surprising chore to read.

The price of these classic editions varies pretty wildly. I've always wanted to read Pogo, but I've turned down $20 and $40 copies of this collection. Clicking the image above takes you to Stuart Ng Books, whom I recommend very highly, and they have two copies priced at $30 and $60. I found this copy in terrific shape for only $13 at Bookman Bookwoman in Nashville. I'm honestly, however, more impressed by the find and the uniqueness of the book than its contents.

On the one hand, it's a fascinating look at how comic strip collections used to be handled. Kelly apparently is quite notorious for the way he would juggle strips and rearrange panels when these books were compiled. A strip, for example, would often be four panels wide in newspapers, but only three in the book, with the fourth moved down to a second tier, followed by a spot illustration and then the first panel of the next four. I was really distracted by it. You know when you go to a show and spot somebody taping it, you're taken out of the moment and can't concentrate on the performance because you're curious how it will look on their bootleg? It was like that; the production was so curious that I found myself not reading the comic, but grouping panels and questioning the production. At one point, I came out of a trance and realized I had no idea what I had been reading for the last ten minutes.

Rereading it, I was oddly disappointed because I didn't know who any of the characters were. Most of them, I can't name. I'm sure that Kelly's legion of fans can tell you the cast in their sleep, just like my kids know everybody who made a one-panel cameo in Fox Trot. A huge number of characters make their way through this narrative, most amusingly a pair of bickering communist crows, but I didn't get to know any of them, and I'm pretty sure this bespectacled owl is never named in the book. Can you imagine reading an old Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperback from the decade and wondering what that bossy dark-haired girl is called? It's that weird.

In addition to the truncated and rearranged strips, there's plenty of additional material that makes this a very fun curiosity, and I can see how these books will remain in demand even once the complete archive becomes available. There's music and lyrics for a song called "Deck us All with Boston Charlie" and a long-form ten-page strip called "A Visit from St. Nicholas (to the Moon)" along with an illustrated text story called "Way Out in the Land of the Calabash." Each chapter - there are 21 - is preceded by its own little verse and the back cover's amusingly clever as well, using old-fashioned traveling showman-styled script to announce the book's content.

It's definitely a book that Kelly aficionados will enjoy more than newcomers. Honestly, I think that I will get more out of Fantagraphics' treatment of the property than Kelly's own efforts. I certainly wasn't expecting to have my enjoyment of the art obscured by the production, but I imagine that in 1961, this would have been a much-beloved gift for families, and that kids familiar with the characters would have left most copies of this book beat up and in tatters, much the way my kids' Fox Trot collections have been read to death. Reckon it was worth $13 to find a good condition survivor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero

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 Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero (DC, 2010)

Here's a book that I was not intending to buy. The old funnybook budget's been a little tighter lately, plus I decided in May to quit spending money on books and music unless I knew full well that I was going to love and revisit them. (It's high time I got an occasional comp copy to review, don't you think?) So, since I had not read Dial H for Hero, I did not order this recent collection. Then I took a pile of old textbooks to Once & Again and found a copy of this for four bucks. This will be going back to Once & Again this week.

One of my favorite fun comic book websites is Dial B for Blog, a tribute to books from the 1950s through the 1970s that was in equal parts witty, well researched and lavishly illustrated. Its owner, "Robby Reed," wrapped up the blog after 500 fun entries, but it remains online for everybody to enjoy. You should check it out, pronto.

I mention this because inspiring that blog was the only good thing that Dial H for Hero ever did. This was an incredibly dopey comic that started in 1966 in the pages of DC's horror book House of Mystery, an example of DC rushing out more superhero books in the wake of Batman's TV success. It was written by Dave Wood and illustrated, competently but without enthusiasm, by Jim Mooney.

I've got a lot of patience for silly old comics, but this thing really is past me. Conceptually, it's an okay Silver Age concept. Some brainiac kid finds an ancient dial, translates it, and when he uses it, he transforms into one of several different spandex-clad superheroes. Each sixteen-page story usually finds room for three new heroes to foil the latest outlandish and implausible supervillain scheme. These are the sort of things where some baddie must spend millions of dollars buying submarines and giant robots and hiring a dozen black-clad hoodlums to rob the Littleville minor league ballpark of its gate receipts.

I could possibly enjoy the silly wish-fulfillment of its premise if it wasn't so incredibly stupid. Robby Reed himself is the first problem. Like TV's Joe 90, it's kind of difficult to root for some kid you'd rather bang against the floor for lunch money. He transforms into utterly retarded heroes, reaching, I think, a nadir with a toddler who runs around with a bottle that squirts shrinking juice. This is played straight. The heroes, each of whom pretends to be unique and not Robby's alter ego, are instantly treated with awe and respect by the police, who give them access to confidential files. Even the toddler. The high school boys of Littleville collect pin-ups of the battalion of do-gooders who show up in their town. Even the toddler. If you think about it, these pin-ups themselves are almost as improbable as the notion of high school boys in 1966 collecting pin-ups of anybody not named Deanna Lund or Donna Michelle. Oh, and Robby has a catchphrase which he finds a chance to shout at least seven times in each sixteen-page episode.

It's not just that it was hopelessly square and dated when it originally ran in 1966. Seriously, compare the simplistic plotlines and stilted fifties dialogue to what Lee and Kirby were doing at Marvel. (That's stilted sixties dialogue, man!) These are comics for very small, very unsophisticated children. If your six year-old has seen a single episode of that new Batman cartoon, he won't sit still for this. And as for Jim Mooney, well, I've seen some very good pages of his art over the years. Not one of them is present in this book, which is full of dull, uninspiring, bare-minimum designs and layouts, the sort of thing Curt Swan would have knocked off in his sleep. And I find Swan pretty dishwater dull myself.

I've mentioned before that DC has created a very welcome sub-line to their Showcase Presents series, giving shorter run series a new outing in 300-page books with a ten-buck price tag. I like the format, and I really, really liked that terrific Bat Lash collection that they chose to launch it last year, and I hate the possibility that airing complaints like this might impact potential sales, and see the sub-line shelved before we get to rare gems like Rose and the Thorn or Inferior 5. I guess DC must have a new Dial H for Hero series on the shelves or something to justify this book, because there's no other excuse for dusting this off when Sugar and Spike and The Monster Society of Evil are still in the vaults. Not at all recommended.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bart Simpson # 54

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 Bart Simpson # 54 (Bongo, 2010)

Sad to say that we're coming to an end of the big stacks of Simpsons comics that have been teetering around this house for years; only medium-sized stacks await us in the future. I told my son to make some changes in the various subscriptions that I finance and to have his mother pick up some slack from stores in Louisville - she won't, of course - and so he has elected to scale back to just one monthly title from Bongo's line. The bimonthly Bart Simpson got the axe and so we picked up our last issue, for now, from Bizarro Wuxtry in Athens. Not that Louisville's lacking a good funnybook store - their Great Escape branch is terrific - but I don't think there's any way in hell we can get his mother to send money to Athens for Bart Simpson comics.

I think it's pretty bad timing on everybody's part. Not only has the Simpsons' publisher, Bongo, finally got a website up and running, but the Bart title has gotten stronger with each issue thanks to regular contributions from cartoonists and creators not normally seen on licensed properties. I was unfamiliar with Carol Lay and Peter Kuper despite extensive credits in comics, but they both contributed really funny stuff in Bart Simpson # 54. Kuper's story, in which a firecracker explosion leaves Bart deaf, mute, color blind and an easy target for the unscrupulous Mr. Burns, is a real scream.

I'm more familiar with Sergio Aragon├ęs, of course, and he has his standard single page comic in each issue that's always worth seeing. Evan Dorkin, best known for Milk & Cheese and his never-published-frequently-enough Dork!, also has a few pages, and, oddly, the only thing that I didn't like about them is the lettering. Something had struck me as "off" about the pages, and when Dorkin mentioned on his blog last week that deadline doom had forced him to turn in a comic recently for somebody else to letter, that's when it clicked. This is a really funny little story, but the trademark Simpsons lettering, oddly, just doesn't do the mayhem justice.

I think Bongo's line is a no-brainer. Three bucks gets you some clever little comics packed with in-jokes and silliness suitable for everybody with a funny bone. Happily recommended.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

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 Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (Fawcett, 1964)

I read the first of Harry Kemelman's series of novels about amateur sleuth Rabbi David Small after finishing four others in the series. I've really enjoyed reading them out of sequence, although I've had to force my system to allow me to do it that way. It's just not in my nature to read series out of order!

I really like the way that Kemelman started Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by establishing David as a character who simply isn't going to do what audiences will expect. He agrees to mediate a dispute about car damages between two members of his temple, and I would bet that almost every person reading this book would come to the same conclusion that I did as to who should pay for the repairs, but the character's fascinating use of logic and reasoning turns things completely on their heads. That's not the first time in this book that things don't go the way they're planned.

Interestingly, Barnard's Crossing's police chief Hugh Lanigan comes across as very much an equal character in this book, which is as much focused on him as the rabbi. They get to meet at cross purposes, as the rabbi is a suspect in a girl's death. I used to wonder whether NBC had screwed with the premise when they did their TV adaptation in the '70s and called it Lanigan's Rabbi, but they were really following the template of the original novel. While later books would use Lanigan as a supporting character, the first time out, the story's as much his as it is Small's.

I enjoy this series more with each one I read, and happily recommend them to anybody who likes detective fiction, on the understanding that they're probably more for the Columbo and Murder, She Wrote fans than any other school. Why the heck hasn't the USA Network started a new adaptation of these? There's no character they could welcome more than the rabbi!