Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Jack Volume 12

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Black Jack Volume 12 (Vertical, 2010).

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Last Bus to Woodstock

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

Murder in E Minor

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Murder in E Minor (Bantam, 1985).

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files 02

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2010).

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Ragtime (Fawcett, 1974).

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Invisibles: Entropy in the UK

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Invisibles: Entropy in the UK (Volume Three) (Vertigo, 1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Death Times Three

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Death Times Three (Bantam, 1985).

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Murder on the Orient Express

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime, 1934).

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Family Affair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2010).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chew: Taster's Choice

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review, if you can call it that, of Chew: Taster's Choice (Volume One) (Image, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

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

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon and Balsamic Dreams.

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

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

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