Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Father Hunt

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 Father Hunt (Viking, 1968).

There's a really tricky and bothersome challenge for Wolfe in 1968's The Father Hunt. This time, the great detective must determine the identity of a man who emphatically does not want to be named, who has left about a quarter of a million dollars for Wolfe's client amid a possibility that he might be her father, and who might have been behind the client's mother's recent death.

The focus of the book shifts somewhat when Wolfe decides to look into that hit-and-run death. He reasons that a three month-old murder will be easier to solve than a twenty-two year-old question of paternity, but this just makes elements of the business even less pleasant for everyone.

I really enjoyed this one, especially the greater emphasis paid to Archie's relationship with Lily Rowan. This had seemed to me in many earlier novels to be unimportant to Rex Stout, but by the time of this book, he really wanted to flesh out the supporting cast more. It's in this book that Saul, Fred and Orrie get their nickname "The 'teers," even though they only have two more New York-based novels left until the end of the series. This and the previous adventure, Death of a Doxy, really made the trio shine terrifically. I was very happy with it, and sorry to see the pile of books in the series left to read shrinking away.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Showcase Presents The Flash 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 Showcase Presents The Flash Volume One (DC, 2007).

So 150 pages in this book, something remarkable happens. Barry Allen, a police scientist who pretends to be slow and methodical, is actually the superhero the Flash, fastest man alive. His best friend - in a fashion that would be common to episodic fiction through at least the late '70s - has never been mentioned before and would never be mentioned again. He's an actor who has spent the last three years playing to sellout crowds in bustling Central City in the headlining role of an ape in the dramatic tragedy The Great Gorilla. There's not a town in America outside New York for the last fifty years that hasn't had every culture writer decrying the dearth of theater audiences, and Central City's sold out three years of a one-man show with a guy in a gorilla costume stomping around a living room grunting.

This is all important because, in what might be the most convoluted story that I have ever read in my entire life, the actor had lost consciousness one night and Grodd, a super-intelligent mind-controlling gorilla from a secret, unknown African city of super-apes, did the show in his place. It is never explained precisely why it's necessary for Grodd to take the stage, but somehow it is part of a plan that also involves a third ape, Solivar, who surrendered to big game zookeepers in Africa and, now caged in Central City Zoo, has been playing dumb ever since, lest humanity learn the secret of their hidden city. Half a million people bought this comic every month.

In the book's defense, it was drawn very well by Carmine Infantino and featured an amusing cast of colorful super-villains. In every issue, one of the baddies comes up with the most astonishingly complicated super-scientific (well, not really, but we'll pretend) way to either rob a bank or get rid of the Flash. The villain will spend several pages narrating to himself before springing his ridiculous trap, which he'll also talk through, and the Flash will do something outlandish and absurd and mention "air currents," "reflections" or "gravity" to con young readers into thinking there's any evidence that this would actually work somewhere in his forest of thought balloons, before punching the baddie's lights out. Barry Allen has no friends other than the ones who pop up to somehow get a plot started, except a girlfriend named Iris who is the most insufferably unlikeable person in fiction.

At one point, we meet a villain called Mr. Element who has a gun that can transmute elements from one to another. In jail, and with his gun confiscated, he somehow manages to meet a guy who has hidden away the legendary Philosopher's Stone, a magic item that accomplishes the same thing, so in his second appearance, he attacks the Flash again with the rock and a new identity of Dr. Alchemy. Two things strike me. First, man, what are the odds?! And second, about fifty years ago, DC Comics were confident that young readers were literate enough to understand what the hell a Philosopher's Stone was. Many years later, the American publishers of the Harry Potter books had no such conviction.

Actually, a third thing strikes me. For some damn reason, I fooled myself into thinking that I needed all three books in this idiot series. Not recommended for anybody.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

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 Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Here's an example of a book that never felt at all tedious, although the lead character certainly did. Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For ran weekly or twice-monthly for the better part of twenty-five years before she put it on hiatus in 2008. As I only saw it once in a while, I never got to know the cast and their ins-and-outs. This impressive hardcover collection compiles about three-quarters of the strip. Aggravatingly, if you're a completist like me, the omissions will drive you mad. Since the strips are numbered, I could confirm what the sometimes patchy and hopscotching flow of the episodes made me feel, that there are occasional gaps of three or four episodes. That's the horrible downside to collections like this; no matter how entertaining the work is, incomplete reprints bother me enormously.

The story is about a community of lesbian friends in an upper midwest university town, and their interactions and relationships in the wake of topical news stories from the period. I found their friction with the Clinton-Bush years fairly similar to Doonesbury's in the 1970s. Actually, I wonder whether readers down the line will find this as enlightening an experience as I did when I discovered Trudeau and realized that the politics of the day made a lot more sense flitered through him.

Most of Bechdel's cast are completely charming. I got a hoot out of Lois, the bed-hopping merry prankster of the gang, but was most focused on Clarice and Toni and their long-term relationship and issues raising a son together. Seeing how depression over Dubya's time in office impacts their marriage is alternately sweet and painful. My favorite character of all is Jezanna, who runs the local indie bookstore and faces increasingly nasty competition from the huge chain bookstores that move into town, and from a slightly-veiled version of I actually feel a little wrong-headed offering a link to Amazon in the image above for a book like this, but I know that many of my site's readers no longer have a small indie bookstore in their towns. For what it's worth, I picked up this copy from A Capella Books here in Atlanta's Little 5 Points, and hope that if you can support a local bookstore with your purchase, you'll please do so.

The only thing I did not enjoy about the strip itself was the lead character in the cast. Mo, who looks like an odd cross between Where's Waldo and k.d. lang, rubbed both me and occasionally several of her friends the wrong way for most of the book, but I was still saddened when her relationship with Harriet ended. She eventually hooks up with a unbearably smug professor named Sydney who, from my perspective, treats her like dirt. Watching Mo's character arc go from strident activism to submissive acceptance that Sydney's never going to treat her with respect, really is painful. It's actually masterful writing on Bechdel's part, giving us a character whom we can read as suffering from such critically low self-esteem that she can't let go of the thing that's hurting her the most, but never using the other characters to drive this point home through individual judgments of Mo's actions. Put another way, I really don't like Mo as a person, and were she real, I'd chew her head off, but the writing is so good that I found her story captivating.

Like Doonesbury, the cast swells with new additions and formerly central characters leave the spotlight. Towards the end, our now middle-aged heroines are left completely bewildered by a College Republican who, despite her virginity pledge, is convinced that she's gay. As the established Toni and Clarice's problems get worse and Lois starts fading into the woodwork, the new character comes in like a bright bomb to detonate some needed levity to the storylines. I was left wondering what would happen in so many dangling plotlines, but Bechdel didn't really tie any of them up before concluding the strip. So no, whether you're hoping that Sydney will finally change and give Mo the love she deserves or you're hoping that Mo will kick the jerk to the gutter, you won't find the resolution that you want in any of the six or so character arcs. But I suppose that's fair; life doesn't give you happy endings in the way that we wish for stories to. I do recommend the book for older readers despite my reservations about the many omitted strips, and I'm not sure what I'd like more: for Dykes to return from hiatus or for a two-volume complete edition with the whole story so far.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death of a Doxy

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 of a Doxy (Viking, 1966).

Interesting how different readers can see a character so differently. This is apparently the Nero Wolfe adventure that my wife likes the least, because she finds one of the characters, a nightclub singer named Julie Jacquette, incredibly shrill and shallow. I thought she was a complete hoot instead, and I loved the way that she instantly took a needle to Wolfe's pomposity upon meeting him by bursting out into song. I was surprised, however, when I popped over to Amazon for the link above and saw a customer review that described Jacquette as a stripper. I didn't get that impression at all; I thought she was more of a Lanie Kazan type. Maybe the discretion of Rex Stout's prose in the sixties was obscuring what he intended.

I enjoy the stories where there's a more personal stake for our heroes. In this one, regular supporting player Orrie Cather asks Archie to break into one of his girlfriends' apartments. Orrie is fixing to settle down with a stewardess, but one of his ladyfriends objects and is threatening to bust up the nuptials with some proof that Orrie is a regular visitor to her little love nest, a place paid for by a wealthy banker named Ballou. But Archie breaks in to find the ladyfriend's corpse waiting for him. Orrie is arrested and the details of the lady's life come spiraling into the brownstone on West 35th Street. Ballou, the obvious suspect, isn't responsible - in fact, he becomes, unexpectedly, a recurring player in some of these last five novels - leading the team down very surprising avenues.

I thought this one was really fun, and it dug into the relationship between Wolfe and Archie and the three operatives whom they most frequently hire for surveillance and other jobs. (There had been four; an operative named Johnny Keems, seen in several of the earlier stories, quite surprisingly exited the series about halfway through it.) I'm actually writing this little review a few weeks after having read the book, so as to spread out the Nero Wolfe books' appearances on this blog. I actually finished the last of Stout's Wolfe novels two days ago, and I certainly would not have enjoyed it as much had I not read Death of a Doxy, where these characters open up and relate to each other better than in any previous book. Great stuff; I'd love to see the A&E adaptation sometime soon.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nikolai Dante: Amerika

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 Nikolai Dante: Amerika (volume nine) (Rebellion, 2009).

When you publish as many fantastic comics as the 2000 AD group of titles have, it must be a real bear figuring out reprint plans. Just balancing the budget of keeping proven classics in print while collecting the new hits of the comic's current platinum age for new readers must be a bear on its own, and I'm sure the constant demands of yokels like me and the rest of the fans for personal favorites to make it to bookshelves is a considerable distraction. But I'll tell you, the best decision that anybody in charge of collected editions at 2000 AD ever made was to keep up with Nikolai Dante, the best comic of the last decade.

"Amerika," the ninth book in the soon-to-be-concluding series, collects the 27 episodes that appeared in 2008 and 2009. It was published just about a year ago and very neatly formed a nice recap before the series resumed this past January. Since then, a couple of dozen further episodes have run, and presumably these will all either be collected in a tenth book next spring before the final run of episodes, or else the tenth book will be a final, oversized volume wrapping up the series? The smart money's on Nikolai Dante concluding in 2011; it's just a question of how many episodes it will take to get to the end.

So around half of this book is taken up with the titular story, in which Dante, still working as "the sword of the tsar," is sent to New York to put down the smack on some uprising among the populace there. It turns out that our planet's alien enemy, the often-overlooked White Army, has been using the region as a bridgehead in their plans for conquest. Without giving too much away, the story ends with Dante leaving Vladimir the Conqueror and raising up that army of thieves and whores that he spent the eighth book secretly assembling, setting the stage for his big guerrilla war to begin.

Everything in here is just flatly amazing. The story is by Robbie Morrison, and he's just got this story twisting and turning into surprising and wild directions every time you blink. Artwork duties are shared between Simon Fraser and John Burns, with a special four-part contribution by Paul Marshall focusing on Nikolai's dangerous half-sister Lulu. Excellent work all around, especially by Fraser, who turns the climax of the main story from a stunner into something unforgettable, but everybody is bringing their best in these stories. If you've not read Dante before, then your library is nowhere close to complete. All nine books are highly recommended.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Love & Rockets: New Stories # 3

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 Love & Rockets: New Stories # 3 (Fantagraphics, 2010).

This is the living definition of "more like it." The previous two editions of the annual Love & Rockets book have been supremely competent but left me very cold and frustrated. That is to say, they were very good comics, but not the comics that I, maybe selfishly, wanted to read.

This time out, Gilbert Hernandez is still telling stories of his almost nothing of a character, the big-boobed "Killer." I still don't think anything of her, but at least the opening chapter of the book, a violent and graphic take on a '50s sci-fi melodrama, is a pretty surprising story. At some point, I'll have to reread the Killer installments of these three editions, because I have the feeling that I'm missing something that I'm supposed to be seeing about this otherwise dull character.

But Jaime Hernandez definitely comes to the rescue for the first new Maggie story in far too long. "Browntown," and the remarkable framing story that surrounds it, is a really harrowing look back at Maggie's childhood, and the abuse that her younger brother silently suffered. Good Jaime Hernandez comics are always just about the most satisfying books that money can buy, and I was so impressed with how the pleasure of seeing contemporary Maggie again for the first time in far too long gave way to the satisfaction of seeing another building block in her curious history, and then everything turned unpleasant in a way that was equally bleak and fascinating. Watching Jaime fit everything together the way he does is breathtaking. Recommended for adult readers.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Muppet Show Comic Book # 10

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 Muppet Show Comic Book # 10 (Boom, 2010).

You know, I've mentioned a couple of times lately that the only books that I pick up regularly anymore are 2000 AD and LSH and that's not true. I don't know why I forget that I also have a regular order for The Muppet Show Comic Book by Roger Langridge. It's certainly a better book than most, and, if you will, too cool to be forgotten.

This time out, the Muppets host musical guest Howlin' Jack Talbot in a Halloween-themed story. Talbot, composer of some familiar-sounding spooky novelty hits, is a big favorite of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but their numbers together keep falling apart as Talbot wanders offstage midway through each song. And then this great big dog starts showing up.

That's the main plot, but naturally there are other acts that get stage time, and Langridge has a blast with all of those. He's developed another recurring sketch for the cast of Pigs in Space, in which Link Hogthrob is a 1950s tweed-jacketed paranormal investigator, and these are huge fun. The high point, though, is the Muppet Labs segment, this time featuring a hair growth formula which, tested on Beaker, doesn't seem to do much of anything. Langridge's pacing and layouts are just perfect for gags like this, with every panel a chuckle-filled joy until the payoff.

Absolutely one of the best and most consistently funny books on the stands today, I can't recommend this highly enough. Seriously, start picking up this book if you're not already.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Doorbell Rang

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 Doorbell Rang (Viking, 1965).

I had been waiting for this novel since I sat down with the first, Fer-de-Lance, in August of last year, and it created one set of disappointments while really knocking me on my backside at the same time. This story was actually my first exposure to Nero Wolfe - my wife and I watched the A&E adaptation of this and a couple of other stories - I think just Champagne for One and Prisoner's Base - before she decided against the Netflix subscription and I started reading the books.

The problem - and I want to clarify up front that the book itself doesn't have a problem at all - is that the TV series is set in sort of a nebulous, nostalgic, bright n' shiny postwar period. It wasn't designed anywhere nearly as well as Mad Men; it just sort of evoked a sunny, Eisenhower America. But the book was written in a dark, LBJ period. I'd love to study more about the way that noir literature, as well as Kennedy's assassination, started influencing all of the popular media of the day. What's unshakable is this: The Doorbell Rang, with its paranoid, tense distrust of the FBI and the government, comes from the same place as television's Route 66 and The Fugitive, and the TV adaptation doesn't reflect that at all.

I think you can trace the way Stout was being influenced by the nation's darker tone throughout his books in this period. In the previous novel, Archie's visits to the much smaller towns of Racine and Evansville take the focus out of the shiny New York City and occasional jaunts to nearby, upstate communities, in much the same way that television, particularly those two shows above, started exploring the breadth of our country for the first time. When you add the darker mood of the period to stories that move a little more freely outside the confines of the series' traditional venues, and then mix in some much meaner and bleaker stories - the ongoing narrative and bodycount of The Mother Hunt, the unforgettable climax of Gambit - any adaptation just cries out for a black and white presentation and a CBS logo. This book is as 1964 as fiction gets.

When I did my customary, cursory "research" after finishing this novel, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Stout's anti-government, anti-FBI stance had cost him one celebrated reader. Actor John Wayne, a noted conservative, sent Stout a curt "goodbye" after reading an abridged version of the novel in the anthology magazine Argosy. Wayne should have stuck around another forty years. These days, the way the right pillories the government, Wayne would have renewed his Argosy subscription and sent Stout flowers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Invisibles: Apocalipstick

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: Apocalipstick (Volume Two) (Vertigo, 1995)

Oh, my. Is this ever more like it. Rereading the first collected edition of Grant Morrison's nineties series The Invisibles had been an exercise in frustration, with the writer assuring us that wonderful things were in store for us, but that we had to wait patiently while he set up a very complicated board game with way too many pieces first. I still think that he just plain did that badly, but after the spectacular mess that was "Arcadia," things improve greatly - exponentially - with the stories in this volume.

Having said that, DC's collected editions department, which seems to routinely manage twenty-nine belching mistakes for every moment of greatness, didn't win themselves any awards for the way that they collected The Invisibles. The first episode reprinted here ties up the loose ends and resolves the cliffhanger ending to the first book, and really should have been included there. Illustrated by Jill Thompson, it finally lets us watch the members of the team in their mystical, ass-kicking glory and it's a pleasure to read. Had it been included in Volume One, it would have ended things on a high note and left readers demanding more, rather than scratching their heads wondering what all that French Revolution time travel nonsense was.

Next, we've got the first moments of pure genius in the series, with three stand-alone episodes. These are illustrated by Chris Weston, Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgway, and flesh out the universe that we're seeing.

In any other book. Weston's and Ridgway's episodes would be duking it out for supremacy, but Parkhouse's is the runaway winner. It's called "Best Man Fall" and it's one of the best single issue comics ever printed. Period. Telling you why would ruin it. It's a tough guy lout's story, and it's completely captivating watching him try and hold a difficult life together, and if you're like me when I first read it - I was living in UGA's Family Housing at the time and for some reason, I felt like getting off the bus home and enjoying the sun and read this episode under a tree in the Myers quad - then it will be right at the point towards the end where it's revealed why you're following this character that you'll even start to wonder what his connection to the overall narrative is. It's so damn amazing that I clearly remember where I was when I read a funnybook almost fifteen years ago.

That, I think, would be the only real downside to starting The Invisibles with this book over the first. The payoff-PUNCH-payoff-PUNCH-payoff-PUNCH ending to "Best Man Fall" loses one punch if you haven't read the first book. So there's your tradeoff: if you start with the second book, you'll be more patient and understanding of why you might have to struggle through the first, but if you start with the first, then you get one extra punch from "Best Man Fall."

So anyway, Thompson returns to art duties as Morrison returns the story to the lead characters, focusing on the magical transvestite Lord Fanny and the international ass-kicker King Mob (Gideon) as the protagonists all try to track down their errant new member. Dane, the not-likeable-at-all audience identification figure, is mostly absent from this book, having told these terrorists to leave him alone at the end of the first.

This three-part chunk is really entertaining, and Thompson's art is much better suited to it than her previous work on the series. Despite the powerhouse story, the first episode reprinted here is a notable art stumble, with a bullets-n-fast cars pace that leaves her looking out of place. Thompson's much better able to capture Lord Fanny's present in a drag club and past in rural Mexico, and she pulls this off right at the point that Morrison's theories of time travel start to make sense.

In The Invisibles, and here's where it gets tricky, past and future are much closer to any point in the present than just about any other fictional construction (or world). Just as Lord Fanny is flashing back (for the reader's benefit?) and, shockingly and just for one panel, forward (for her's?), there's a grand page with King Mob consulting his eighty-something friend, Edith, about finding Dane and she makes a curious comment about she and Gideon having been intimate once when she was 26, long before he could have been born. I've said before, and I'll keep saying, that Morrison uses both flashbacks and foreshadowing better than anybody else in comics. Under him, they're two sides of the same coin, and he knows exactly where to place it, every time. When Morrison reached the payoffs - there are two, unforgettable - of this comment, I was literally in tears. It's that damn good.

The other thing Morrison does better than anybody else is cliffhangers. Part two of this story ends with Lord Fanny on her knees in one hell of a mess, and I think, when it was originally published, that the next thirty days were just about the longest in my life.

The book ends with Lord Fanny's and King Mob's stories unresolved, and Paul Johnson on art chores for a curiously low-key episode. This one finds Dane learning more about his powers and purpose just as the series' principal baddie, an ass of a toff called Sir Miles, catches up with him. At this stage, from the snatches we've seen in other episodes, Sir Miles is a real cardboard villain, and one of the series' few misfires. A scene in Ridgway's episode that sees him and his fellows unconcerned about a servant's death doesn't come across as monstrous or sinister, but unbelievable and comic. There's better in store for this character, but at this point, Dane becomes more interesting and sympathetic at the expense of Sir Miles. Also notable here, Johnson uses a really neat art trick to show off the manifestation of Dane's powers as we learn why the Invisibles want him to be called Jack Frost.

Overall... maybe I was wrong last time and readers really should suffer and struggle through book one first, but I think that it's almost what-side-of-the-bed-is-this close as to how I feel now that I've read both. I absolutely think that anyone who likes comics should read The Invisibles. Toss a coin and pick up either the first or the second book. Watching it unfold in either direction is an absolute joy. With, you know, occasional rough bits.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Legion of Super-Heroes # 5

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 Legion of Super-Heroes # 5 (DC, 2010).

Paul Levitz's return to monthly comics, and the Legion of Super-Heroes that he made so memorable in the 1980s, continues. It's agreeable if not entirely satisfying. The dialogue is still a little clunky and while he's packing the episodes with unfolding subplots, he's still not using the pages available to him to their best advantage. There are thirty pages of story in each issue, but not one of them is used to capacity, with a ridiculous average of only 3.53 panels per page. That includes three splash pages and a double-page splash. I'll grant you one; it's conventional in American comics to open with a splash page, but there are just too many pages where nothing of consequence happens, including a dialogue-free page where Sun Boy defends himself, across three panels, from blaster fire while awaiting backup.

I'm not sure how much of this is Levitz, if he is specifying the breakdowns, giving his hard-worked artists a little less to draw and how much might be created by, if he's letting the artists take charge, the pencillers making the determination. Nevertheless, a $4 book with thirty pages should definitely present more than 105 panels. This is terrible value for money! Interestingly, DC announced this week that all of their $4 books, including LSH, will be dropping to 20 pages for $3 in January. I really hope this will mean, with ten fewer pages to draw a month, the artists can cram some more activity into them.

Regarding the artists, Yildiray Cinar and Francis Portela are credited with pencils, and Wayne Faucher and Portela with inks. Hi-Fi, which I imagine is a studio, is credited with colors. I'm honestly not certain who did what (perhaps Portela did the subplot back at headquarters with Cos, Brainy, Cham and Circadia Senius?), but the art, overall, is pretty basic modern superhero standard. There's nothing inspiring or very exciting here, but, apart from just putting too little material on the pages, nothing wrong either.

On a personal note, however, can I just state for the record how very, very much I hate Sensor Girl's current costume? It is the ugliest thing in the 31st Century. The original was a classic, and it's a shame that they've kept the mask and the color scheme for this hideous boob-window revamp of it. Okay, granted, Jeckie wore a boob-window before she picked the Sensor Girl costume, but seriously, you artists, more than half the ladies in the LSH are fit girls wearing boob-windows. I think we're all fine with Shady and Dawnstar spilling out; nobody's being a prude here, but can Jeckie put her cool, classic costume on again, please? Thank you.

If you're detecting some displeasure here, well, yes. It's an entertaining book for me, but it's clunky and disappointing in so many ways. I'm looking forward to rereading the stories so far - LSH, under Levitz, was always a very rereadable book - but what I'm really looking forward to is this series finally lifting off and giving me a fix that isn't fairly dependent on nostalgia. Not really recommended yet.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Right to Die

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 Right to Die (Viking, 1964).

You know, it took me a month of Sundays, but I finally found a Nero Wolfe novel that I just plain did not enjoy very much. There was definitely a suspension of disbelief issue with A Right to Die that I couldn't overcome. This is the book which quite unambiguously states that the novels and stories take place in real time, as it returns to the events of Too Many Cooks, written some twenty-six years previously, and reintroduces a supporting character from that book. He has aged 26 years and has an adult son who's now in trouble. For this to be true, Wolfe and the rest of the cast must also have aged, meaning that perenially mid-thirties gadfly Archie must now be on the AARP's contact list, yet they haven't.

Interestingly - well, to me, anyway - I sketch out what a notional proper TV series adaptation of all the Wolfe canon, in order, would look like, and Too Many Cooks, with its deeply dated view of race in the 1930s, was one that I would consider dropping from modern teevee. (A key point involves blackface, which certainly could not be done on television today!) Since A Right to Die calls back to it and puts the canon into some level of confusion, I'd be in favor of dropping both of them.

On the other hand, this does provide some amusements as Archie goes out into the field to find out what's there to dislike in a background check done as "an obligation" for their acquaintance from the earlier novel. He travels, separately, to Racine, Wisconsin and to Evansville, Indiana, two places that Wolfe knows nothing whatever about. I won't claim that the novel really goes into detail about life in either city in the early sixties, but there are tantalizing glimpses of contemporary life in the period. Just the way that Archie can take a phone call at 7.30 in the morning in Racine ordering him home on a change of plans, and then assure Wolfe that he'll be home around 1, and then go back to sleep, is fascinating. The very idea that people in the sixties could just drive to Chicago and hop a flight back to Idlewild with the same ease as hailing a cab is lovely. I like my toys and my cell phones, but we certainly gave up some freedom along the last fifty years, didn't we?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Harry 20 on the High 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 Harry 20 on the High Rock (Rebellion/Simon & Schuster, 2010).

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I had already purchased several collected editions of Rogue Trooper before the latest book to reprint a big chunk of them. Now here is Harry 20 on the High Rock, another strip I have at least three times already, in its original appearance, a colorized American reprint from the late '80s, and a magazine supplement from about ten years back. It has never been collected in book form before, however, and this is the sort of thing that my collector's urge and my otherwise naked shelves need.

The serial originally ran for five months across 1982-83 in the pages of 2000 AD and was written by Gerry Finley-Day and drawn by Alan Davis in one of his earliest professional jobs. For this new edition, Davis contributes a two-page foreword explaining that it was intended that he alternate the art chores with John Watkiss, but he had to bail out, leaving Davis with a heck of a lot of design work and catching up to do. It turns out that the third episode was actually drawn first, and it was interesting to compare the pages and see how the strip's look evolved as a consequence.

At any rate, the strip is the story of Harry Thompson, a political prisoner of a corrupt regime sent to spend a twenty-year sentence on an inescapable satellite prison. It's a little ridiculous and juvenile, and the constant use of pun names for characters will make anybody who found Finley-Day's similar affectations writing Rogue Trooper put this down with a grimace. The writing is dated, boys' adventure stuff, but the artwork is just terrific throughout. Davis has since become better known for his work on Marvel Comics' superhero titles, and his many fans will probably enjoy checking out this material.

This new edition is a pretty nice collection of the comic. Along with the original adventure, there's an eight-page sketchbook section full of interesting notes by Davis about the characters' appearance, and three of the covers from its original appearance in 2000 AD. One of these, incidentally, spoils a pretty critical plot twist, so don't flip towards the back for the bonus stuff until you've read the story! For now, it's a North American exclusive, part of Simon & Schuster's line of reprints from Rebellion, and not available in England. Certainly recommended, although, considering the silly and dated story, perhaps not as loudly as some other material from the period.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Devil's Panties 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 The Devil's Panties Volume One (self-published, 2010).

Hmmm. Here's the second time in thirty days that an autobiographical comic shows up on the Bookshelf. Unlike Emitown, however, The Devil's Panties by Jennie Breeden is done as a daily gag strip. My wife visited Breeden's table at Dragon*Con and thought that I might enjoy one of her books and she was right. This is a pretty funny strip, and I like the way that the artist is willing to bang something out for her page using whatever tools are available. One or two of these strips look like they were done using a single thick-lined pen for both the art and lettering, enhancing the fun, anything-goes DIY feel. It's not exceptional, but it's amusing.

I like Breeden's character designs and the "Jennie" stand-in for herself, a short and incredibly silly girl who works at a comic shop in Atlanta and hangs out at a fetish club. Her moral quandaries are debated with little angel and devil girls on either shoulder.

It's a funny strip but, by its nature, very full of inside jokes that Breeden's friends and buddies are going to get and enjoy more than the rest of us. There are also strips that recount an amusing incident but can't pay it off with a fourth-panel punch line. There's a memorable strip where a mom brings her sons and daughter into the comic book store where "Jennie" works, sends the boys off to pick books and tells the girl that she can't have any, because comics are for boys. There's a meter and beat that four-panel gag strips should have, and that usually ends with a punch line payoff in panel four that completes the story or sets up the next series of four. If "Wow, your customer sure was dumb" is all the payoff you can offer, your strip is short a panel.

Put another way, I have no doubt that the real-world Breeden has more fun than any twelve people you know. If the infectious, carefree, chocolate-loving Jennie of the comic is a fair representation of her, then we could all stand to have more people this vibrant and funny in our lives, but the best character in the world in the most entertaining settings doesn't necessarily translate into a series of good stories. As a life, The Devil's Panties is a blast, but as a strip, it could use some editing. It's periodically baffling, too. I have no idea what is happening in the strip on the top of page 55.

Production of the book is very nice. It's a chunky 280 pages, with some very amusing "activity book"-styled supplements and commentary. It's not a strip that I can embrace completely, but I admire it for what it is and will read more of it. Recommended if you like Girls With Slingshots or Sinfest.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace

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: Enemy Ace (DC, 2007).

I read this book a couple of years ago and remember being quite taken with it, but a reread over the last three weeks was considerably more difficult. It's a collection of as many adventures of Enemy Ace that DC could cram between the covers of one of their nice Showcase Presents volumes: 500-odd pages, mostly illustrated by Joe Kubert, with additional contributions by Howard Chaykin, Russ Heath, Frank Thorne and others.

Visually, therefore, this is one hell of a good book. Kubert occasionally had a habit of letting anatomy get away from him, but the man could layout incredibly well, and he just drew the hell out of these biplanes in the air. It's very imaginative work, with his "camera" at constantly surprising places capturing the airplanes twisting and turning, the ground at wild and unexpected angles behind the dogfighting participants. There were many pages where I just blanked out the words and looked at how clever the pages were.

Letting my eyes glaze over the words was no great challenge. The career of a stoic, honor-obsessed German pilot called Hans von Hammer was certainly an interesting premise for a 1960s DC Comic, but writer Robert Kanigher was absolutely lost in how to turn this into a continuing adventure serial. Enemy Ace was never a hit title of its own; a few new installments appeared every few years in the pages of DC's many and varied anthology war comics. They are very repetitive, even for a Robert Kanigher comic. His standard "three-beat" plots are punctuated by the same character moments again and again. When you start figuring ahead - and it won't take you long - that his airplane's propeller will sound like it's saying "KILLER - KILLER" when he lands and next his orderly will be a toady and next he'll go hunting in the forest and meet up with that wolf that kind of befriends him, it's time to look at the pretty pictures of airplanes and quit reading.

Around the time that Batman was on ABC and hugely influencing the way DC made all its comics, the Enemy Ace installments in Star-Spangled War got slightly ridiculous, and these are compelling more from an archaeological standpoint than anything else. Von Hammer picks up a rogue's gallery and an arch-enemy in the form of a French pilot called The Hangman, and a completely bugnuts British pilot who must be seen to be believed. This guy had become psychotically obsessed with the story of St. George and the Dragon as a young boy, and now this fruitbat goes into aerial combat dressed in full plate mail armor. That is one incredibly dumb comic book.

As Enemy Ace made additional appearances into the 1970s and 1980s, other artists got a crack at him. Shorter episodes helped, but Chaykin's really interesting artwork and thick, blotchy inking breathed more life into the feature than any new plots. Enemy Ace was really a title that is not well-served by the all-inclusive Showcase collection. There's certainly material to like here, but the good stuff is buried under the weight of the monotonous Kanigher plotting. Reading it again made me feel that readers might be better served with a thinner, 200-page "best of" collection than this big book. Recommended with reservations.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Mother Hunt

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 Mother Hunt (Viking, 1963).

Wow, this one was a mean, mean book. This time, and presumably knowing that the celebrated Nero Wolfe only gets hired for cases that will end up with somebody getting killed along the way, a young widow hires Wolfe and his indefatigable man-at-arms Archie to find out who left a toddler on her doorstep with the note "A BOY SHOULD LIVE IN HIS FATHERS HOUSE." It's the sort of story that should not result in a body count, but Archie's not able to question anybody about this without them ending up in somebody's crosshairs.

The books in this series are the most entertaining when circumstances throw Wolfe out of his comfort zone and agitate him to fury, and I don't think any yet have done it as well as this one. I mean, this one's a pretty bleak and heavy story and unlike anything Stout had tried in the canon before. On the other hand, I've grown depressingly tired of the trope of Inspector Cramer throwing his weight around and arresting Archie, pointlessly, as a material witness in the hopes of getting him to cough up something that Cramer is certain that he knows but, honestly, doesn't. Yet.

Apologies if anybody's actually following along my Rex Stout label at this blog looking for something more insightful and deep in the form of review, but this are as much notes to myself to help me recall the adventure down the line as anything else, and it's awfully difficult to pick out a story for really detailed analysis when each story in the canon has so much in common with the others. Highlighting the differences seems to work for casual browsing, anyway.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Bunny Years

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 Bunny Years (Pomegranate, 1999).

I still think there was an effortless, white-hot coolness about Playboy in the 1960s, and few things sum up the great sense of overall design about that magazine's package quite as well as the Playboy Clubs and that iconic cocktail waitress costume. Back in 1999, by which time the last memorable Playmate had long since posed*, former New York club Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott, later a successful actress best known for her role in Dark Shadows, penned this look back at the history of the clubs.

The book, while technically unauthorized, still seems to have been done with the magazine's blessing. There's very little of an unflattering nature here, but honestly, and no disrespect to Scott, the pictures are worth thousands of words. There's an early sixties picture of patrons in a candid shot underneath a Leroy Neiman painting that's Mad Men-cool, and a too-small shot of the Walter Holmes-costumed DC-9 Big Bunny flight attendants, the only ones in the industry more amazing than TWA's, and a famous, oft-seen shot of future Bryan Ferry girlfriend Marilyn Cole that sums up all that was good - and there wasn't much - about the early seventies.

But the last page of the color photos tell you how this memoir is going to end up, with a 1980 shot of Hef, wearing an eye-shutting leisure suit and the worst haircut of our times, posing with some ill-advised cabaret-styled redesigns, and the text just confirms it. As the hangover of the 1970s continued, the comparatively innocent Playboy Clubs couldn't be more than dated throwbacks to an era that the seventies wanted to trample through and forget. Scott deftly avoids letting the book turn into a bummer by letting recollections and memoirs by dozens of the women who took turns waiting tables and wearing the collars, cuffs and ears form the bulk of the text. This way, while the decline and fall remains an inescapable part of the background, the celebration carries on to the end, and the closure of the Lansing club in 1986.

Most importantly, by letting dozens of women without axes to grind speak their peace, the book thoroughly debunks the mythology that Gloria Steinem crafted in her "expose" of the clubs. Never have preconceived notions and eleven days of "research" created a career quite in the way her article did, much to the detriment of people who turned the job into a family, for decades. I think it was a fascinating book, but, I'm biased, liking design and the sixties and cute girls the way that I do. Your mileage may vary.

*Well, okay, it was Angel Boris and it was just three years previously, but Playboy might as well have closed shop after her.