Sunday, January 30, 2011

Questionable Content, 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 Questionable Content Volume One (TopatoCo, 2010).

So I've looked at an awful lot of webcomics, and a lot of awful webcomics, and the one that I consistently enjoy the most and look forward to new installments has, for years, been Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques, and that's despite a pretty tame initial premise and the genuinely awful art of the first hundred or so installments. It's a simple relationship comedy with a constantly-growing cast, nearly now of Doonesbury proportions, but it's set in a world where the technology is a little more advanced, and the technology is also a good deal saucier, than ours.

In fact, it's downright easy to dislike the first several months of the strip, because Jacques really did set his sights awfully low at first. The main protagonist is a skinny indie rock fan who's got a crush on the sassy new girl in town, but he's incredibly shy and passive and just hopes that his innate sweetness will carry him through and find him love. Neither Marten nor Faye have much character at first, but the learning curve on this strip is, frankly, amazing. Jacques' art improves massively over a very short time, and the characters become believably real and fleshed out in a way that virtually none of his peers have managed. I happily remember breezing through the first 500 strips across a week at my last job, and have been following it daily ever since. It's always been a little risque, and sometimes downright filthy, in its dialogue, but never in its visuals. It's work safe, but I'm still going to hope my son doesn't find it until he's in college.

Jacques has been merchandising his strip for a good while. With a remarkable ear for catchphrases, he's been selling slogan-emblazoned T-shirts and prints for some time, but has resisted a print collection. Perhaps having the entire series available for free online - more than 1800 strips and growing - there might have been some question as to whether anybody would want to have this for their bookshelves. I ordered mine shortly after it was announced. Cash might be very tight these days, but QC is, flatly, better than every single strip presently in newspapers other than Doonesbury, and I'm glad to have it on my shelves.

This oversized (too wide for my flatbed scanner!) 160-page collection is perhaps a little less comprehensive than I would have preferred, but it's still a reasonable chunk of very funny and very engaging comics. It's got the first 299 installments, minus the occasional out-of-continuity "guest strips" that appear in webcomics whenever the cartoonists take a week off. There's a running commentary from Jacques throughout, and several strips have, jarringly, been redrawn since the original files were lost. The difference between Jacques' contemporary artwork, confident and very attractive, and the blocky material from 2003, is like night and day.

While the artist's style has evolved, and the sense of heart and reality about his characters has grown, it is impressive just how much of modern QC was present in the earliest strips. When I compare this to IDW's recent first volume of Bloom County, it's especially amazing. The first year of that strip saw Berke Breathed throwing anything and everything on the page, with massive turnover in his cast and ideas, looking for anything that would stick. It isn't right to claim that QC arrived fully-formed, because Jacques still had some growing up in public to do, but the material in this book is, very definitely, the same strip that I love, just clunkier. By the time that Faye loosens up enough to drop her speaking affectations and use contractions, it will have won your heart. About the first third of the book is weak, but interesting, and the rest is really good. Certainly recommended for older readers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Justice League of America: Breakdowns

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 Justice League of America: Breakdowns (DC, 1991-92).

I'm not sure whether it's the book or the story that hasn't aged very well, but wow, this was an incredibly rotten read. DC has been repackaging and finally collecting Keith Giffen's five-year tenure as head writer of their Justice League franchise. These were mostly books that I didn't care to read at the time, having long abandoned DC for Marvel and, finally, 2000 AD, but I went back and bought all the run in the mid-nineties, mostly from quarter bins or three-for-a-dollar boxes. The final storyline of Geffen's run was "Breakdowns," which ran for fifteen twice-monthly issues, and I temporarily rescued it from the soon-to-be-donated-to-Egleston pile to give it a reread.

By this point in its history, JLA was plotted by Giffen and scripted by J.M. DeMatteis and Gerard Jones. There were actually two separate titles at this point, Justice League America and Justice League Europe, with art chores ranging from Darick Robertson to Bart Sears. The book was still printed on ink-absorbent newsprint.

I have no idea what could have been the reasoning behind this storyline. It looks like the creators wanted to give return matches to every one of their major recurring foes, one right after another, to give the League a series of big bangs with which to go out. There's the sudden revocation of the heroes' United Nations charter, a plot by the villainous Queen Bee, a two-part interlude where they make fun, very clumsily, of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, then their old enemy Despero, who was once a skinny mad scientist with a shellfish head but who now is the Incredible, red, Hulk, shows up, followed by a villain called Dreamslayer.

At no point is it in any way engaging. Perhaps the most interesting character is Captain Atom, who gets steamed over the UN ordering the JLA out of the Queen Bee's nation and goes off anyway. Amazingly, he is killed off between episodes, thanks to some idiotic crossover event that happens when the readers are blinking. At another stage, it is mentioned that Guy Gardner and Ice are dating. This is never shown, just mentioned.

I dunno... parts of it were not bad, and some of the artwork - principally Sears' - was pretty good, but reading this from the present perspective, it's amazing to think that once upon a time, it was ever considered important. Times Square is demolished during the fight with Despero, and several heroes are killed off, but it's all done very dispassionately on the page, and time would later prove that what wanted to be an epic was deeply unimportant in the eyes of the creators that would follow Giffen. It's barely competent, as superhero funnybooks go, but not very important to even the medium's fans. Not recommended.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney

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 Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney (Da Capo, 2010).

Howard Sounes' mammoth (600 page!) biography of Paul McCartney is, easily, the best ever written about the guy who wrote such critically adored tunes as "Bogey Music" and that one on Press to Play about the cavemen. I've never enjoyed reading about Macca nearly so much as the fun I had with this book. It is, however, far from perfect, and an aggravating shift in tone made the experience less pleasant than I had hoped.

To his considerable credit, Sounes really does his job as biographer very well. For years, the only McCartney bios available have been far too biased towards the sixties, with Paul's now forty-year solo career dismissed in short chapters towards the end. This is the first book that I know of that really does it right, and gives Paul's post-Beatles years the bulk of the narrative.

The problem, sadly, is that the author doesn't really like Paul's post-Beatles years.

There's so much to enjoy about the way that Sounes tells his story, and in the amazing amount of research that he completed. He conducted more interviews that would have been strictly necessary, even nailing down freaking Imelda Marcos to talk about the time that the Beatles were thought to have offended the presidential family of the Philippines. He gets several of Paul's musical collaborators on the record, and they help illustrate a really fascinating story. Eric Stewart, a friend of McCartney's for years who co-wrote much of Press to Play along with some other, mostly abandoned mid-eighties material (some of which surfaced as a bootleg "lost album" called Return to Pepperland), has a lot to say, some of it quite juicy to fans. Much of Soanes' story is new to me; I had paid just a little attention to Paul's tempestuous marriage to Heather Mills and none at all to their fractious divorce, so this material was quite striking and occasionally wild.

But while I appreciated the attention to detail and Soanes' more generous focus on what Paul's been doing since 1970, the author's editorializing, frequently negative, just becomes wearying. He has an obnoxious habit of confusing fact with opinion, stating boldly, for example, about the song "Live and Let Die," "It is in fact one of the best half-dozen songs of his post-Beatles career." No, Mr. Soanes, that is not a fact. We all learned the distinction when we were nine. He goes on to dismiss the delightful, entirely hummable "Magneto and Titanium Man" from Venus and Mars as "virtually unlistenable," when it's really no different from the earlier, silly kids' song "Yellow Submarine," which he'd praised in a previous chapter. (No. It isn't. Think about it.)

I enjoyed the work, but I certainly would have enjoyed it more had Soanes saved the record reviews for the critics. I think that it's the job of the biographer to assemble that part of the story by quoting from period sources, and Soanes did the work a disservice by principally using only Melody Maker and Rolling Stone, but not even those as fully as he should. Never mind that the Maker had at least three rival weekly music papers from which he might have drawn stories, the one biographical flaw in this story is that I don't believe readers will get any sense of just how loathed Paul was in the eighties by music journos.

When the Maker reviewed Paul's album Pipes of Peace in 1983, whatever hack writer was assigned the LP took Paul to task for the possibility of the title track eventually being released as a single, speculating that the 45 might come with a sticker on the front announcing that half the profits would go to charity, and then attacking Paul for having the audacity to keep half the profits for an as-yet unscheduled single release for himself. That's just one example of the sort of petty, small-minded insanity that McCartney had to - well, McCartney's publicist; I doubt that he cared much - see in print about him for ages, but I never got that sense from this book.

I did like it, and a good deal, but not as much as I had hoped. There's only one aggravation for every five points to praise, it's just that the aggravations are really annoying. Perhaps that's the stickler in me talking, but while this biography is certainly the best yet, the definitive book on McCartney is still waiting to be written. Recommended, but with one or two reservations.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Invisibles: Counting to None

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: Counting to None (volume five) (DC/Vertigo, 1998).

Four volumes of pretty darn good, if sometimes flawed, comics build up to this one. Holy freaking anna, this is an amazing read, and it starts filling in the gaps left in the previous editions to turn those into something wild.

The action this time out - the book covers eight episodes of the original run - centers around a magical device called The Hand of Glory, which the Invisibles' various conspiratorial allies have been passing around for years until it lands in the company of our heroes. Finding out how to activate the device, and what its powers actually are, require King Mob to travel back to the 1920s, the last known time that any Invisible had seen the Hand at work.

It's not just that writer Grant Morrison uses time travel here so interestingly, stitching together incidents from previous volumes that have their origins in the 1920s adventure, it's that he's able to make the characters so achingly human that some of these revelations just pounded me in the chest like a hammer. There's an amazing bit where one of the characters looks to one side and notices an old man and a teenager on a swingset, tying back to an incident in one of the series' opening episodes. The whole scene where twentysomething Edith enjoys some private time with King Mob, away from the rest of her gang, is absolutely beautiful, especially when he realizes what is about to happen based on what the ninetysomething Edith of the present day had told him some years previously.

When everything is in sync between his ideas and his artists, and that doesn't happen nearly often enough, Morrison executes his ideas better than anybody else in the medium. There is a really stunning moment when the 1920s gang activates the Hand and there's a sudden cutaway from what the reader expects to see to what would become of these characters over the course of the next few years. Instead of showing us what happens next, Morrison shows us their fates. The effect is a jarring thwack, akin to that heartstopping thundercrack in the middle of St. Etienne's "Avenue."

And heck, that all's just the middle of the book. When King Mob awakens in the present, the Hand is gone again. One of his associates has stolen it, hoping to trade it with the conspiracy of the other side for information about a missing relative. At this point, the plot gets deliciously twisted, with counterbluffs and double agents and suddenly, one of the book's original sales lines, "Whose side are you on?" seems like a newly naive question every third page.

Most of the artwork in this volume is provided by Phil Jimenez, and it is completely terrific. Well, I suppose I could quibble that he seems to give King Mob unusually large ears to show off his piercings, which Chris Weston, in the next volume, would really make look ridiculous. But Jimenez is given one challenge after another to draw, from glimpses into other realities to nightclubs in the 1920s to a gunfight with the returning villains the Cyphermen, and he knocks them out of the park. Jimenez is one of my favorite of Morrison's many collaborators. I look at how gorgeous the artwork in this book is, and can't help wishing he could have drawn all those Morrison superhero books that ended up looking so awful.

Anyway, this book is the point where The Invisibles really starts paying off. As much as I enjoyed the first four books, and said when they were being released how great it was, this is the point where it goes from very good to amazing. It's absolutely wild and wonderful, and flatly the very best long-form work to ever be published under the Vertigo banner. Pricelessly good and absolutely recommended.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Staman Omnibus Volume Five

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 Staman Omnibus Volume Five (DC, 2010).

Well, I suppose that these had to hit a bump in the road eventually. As much as there is to love about James Robinson's Starman series, which originally ran from 1994 to 2002, there is the unfortunate, and very long, storyline "Stars My Destination," in which Jack Knight goes into outer space on a wild goose chase, hoping to find one of the previous, believed-deceased heroes to use the Starman name. This one, sad to say, gets a little tedious.

I'm not sure why this one never really worked for me, but it just feels endless. It's a series of episodic adventures on various planets, with Jack and his companions running into various other DC superheroes, but the journey never really engaged me as a reader. At the time, it felt like an agonizing wait, with the much more thrilling subplots back on Earth sidelined for far too long.

Once Jack does reach his destination, it really does feel like a mammoth cheat. There's a big battle in the company of some mostly forgotten characters, and Jack rises to the occasion beautifully, and there's a heck of a good twist just when things start looking good for our heroes, but the climax of the quest, which, eye-rollingly, involves four separate heroes who have called themselves Starman, doesn't see the triumphant return that readers will expect. It all ties together in a silly confluence of disparate trademarks, and while they do find the long-missing Will Payton and a happy ending is assured, it's almost like Robinson went out of his way to blow a raspberry at anybody waiting through all this business for the sake of funnybook continuity.

The storyline was the first without longtime artist Tony Harris, who co-created the series. After a few months of fill-ins, mostly by the terrific Steve Yeowell, a new artist, Peter Snejbjerg, takes over. To be fair, Snejbjerg's work is consistently very good and he hits the ground running with a lot of crazy demands from the scripts, but his episodes just aren't as vibrant to me as Yeowell's. Rereading this book, particularly a story where Jack and Mikaal run into Solomon Grundy, of all people, on a blue planet, just makes me wish that Yeowell had become the title's regular artist. Whatever your own preference, this is definitely a gorgeous book. I just can't help but wish Robinson had got to the point a little quicker.

The first four books in the series were all really great, and this one is merely pretty good, drawn well and with a wobbly ending. Still, with that business out of his system, the next thing Robinson would do with Starman would be the amazing "Grand Guignol" epic and the beautiful and tragic "1951" coda, available in the final book, which was released just this past week. Rereading all of "Stars My Destination" may occasionally be tiresome, but I'm reminded that the best Starman story was just a month or two away. Recommended for people who've made it this far, or for Steve Yeowell's fans.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Complete Al's Baby

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 Complete Al's Baby (Rebellion, 2010).

I can't tell you how pleased I am to have all of this ridiculous, violent and incredibly funny series collected at last. Al's Baby, originally developed for an anthology comic called Toxic and later to appear in three runs in the 1990s in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine and 2000 AD, is just hilarious, a great, big goofball saga about a situation that keeps getting, hilariously, worse on every other page. It's like the bonebreaking, criminal counterpart to John Wagner's wonderfully over-the-top work on my beloved Robo-Hunter.

In the near future, Al Bestardi is the number one enforcer for an aging, very cranky mobster who rules Chicago, and who gave Al permission to marry his daughter, Velma. But the old man is getting older, and Al has not given the godfather a grandson to carry on the family line. The remarkably violent Velma flat-out refuses - it would interfere with her career as the nation's worst torch singer - and so Al faces either concrete boots for letting down the godfather or the unappealing prospect of male pregnancy. Soon, he's hitting for two, much to the amusement of his peers and rivals in the business.

The series is just huge fun, and is nutty in the very best way. The second storyline, in which Al attempts to arrange the accidental death of a surprising family rival who just refuses to die, is probably my favorite. I used to think that the third and final story was comparatively a little weak, but it's revealed itself upon rereading to be another real blast, with Al hiding out as a deeply ugly woman who nevertheless attracts a scatterbrained suitor.

The artwork is provided by Carlos Ezquerra, and I think this is absolutely some of his best work. It's not merely the mix of truly ugly men with hilariously huge noses and ears and absurdly gorgeous women, but his pacing and his slow burns, reaching a pinnacle in the third story when Al spends the entire story getting progressively and hilariously furious and ready to snap. The third story also features some of the experimental computer coloring that Ezquerra was playing with in the mid-90s, and it's always really interesting to see this style from him.

Put another way, there's never been a time when the teamup of Wagner and Ezquerra didn't result in really great comics, and this terrific book is packed full of the proof. It's a riot, and it's really well presented. The reproduction, on very nice paper, is excellent, and having the complete series in one volume is really wonderful. This was absolutely one of the best collected editions released last year, and certainly comes highly recommended.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Riddle of the Third Mile

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 Riddle of the Third Mile (Macmillan, 1983).

I hate to say it, but this, Colin Dexter's sixth novel of Inspector Morse, is the first that I just can't recommend at all. I really was enjoying the daylights out of it, but it lost me, badly, towards the end.

For a good while, it really feels like it's going somewhere very new and interesting. It is the first Morse novel to really start playing with word puzzles and anagrams, with crosswords and a letter torn in half providing inspiration for Morse's little gray cells to start working overtime. A good bit of the story is really fascinating and fun, and I enjoyed looking for unexpected clues in the text for where the story would take me. There's a great bluff when what appears to have been an important anagram is revealed to be a letter shy, one of the most entertaining red herrings I've stumbled upon during the last couple of years reading detective fiction.

For what it's worth, the story concerns a missing Oxford don named Browne-Smith and the discovery of a badly dismembered body dragged from the river, and a curious witness with a suspiciously unusual name who reports it before vanishing. Morse initially thinks that he's found the missing man - who, decades previously, had tutored the future policeman during his failed college experience - and an ugly conspiracy to conceal his identity via the mutilation of the body. However, a letter from Browne-Smith arrives at the Thames Valley police department a couple of days later, throwing Morse's conjectured reconstruction into disarray.

But in the end, Dexter piles up the weirdness, the confusion and the questions of just who, from Oxford, went to London and why. By the book's climax, many more bodies have been found, including what should have been a pretty shocking murder-suicide, but Dexter's first mistake was killing off far more people than was necessary, leaving Morse no choice but to solve the mystery via more conjectured reconstruction. As we've seen in previous novels, Morse is frequently as wrong as a protagonist can get and not be viewed as incompetent by the reader, so it's just an act of good faith that we're willing to take a sudden authorial conclusion as what actually happened. Nobody in the text is left alive to confirm it.

There's also the twin problems of the crime itself being amazingly convoluted, even for a Dexter novel, and the author's very rushed and confusing prose as the body count piles up. There were quite a few sequences in the book's last quarter where I was forced to go back and reread what the heck just happened, and, now that I think about it, I'm still not certain who was posing as the witness to the discovery of the second corpse. It's unfortunate that a book that promised so much failed so miserably, but it's certainly one that I wouldn't recommend anybody attempt, unless they insist on reading all of Colin Dexter.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

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 Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham, 2006).

Lynne Truss makes an interesting observation in her peculiar little book about punctuation: "The reason it's worth standing up for punctuation is not that it's an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied." She goes on to explain what that reason is, but she does so, at length, in the language of an over-sensitive elite recovering on a fainting couch from those very attacks of vapours. The existence of an apostrophe-free film entitled Two Weeks Notice has sent her into paroxysms of grief.

This is the silliest, fussiest book that I've nevertheless ever found sympathetic. I have an eye for public misspelling, but it delights me. When Coors started marketing a beer called "Artic Ice," I was in seventh heaven. So I understand where Truss is coming from, but I don't understand where she goes. True, there is some interesting research and background to the stories of apostrophes, commas, and Oxford commas, but it's all done in such a genuinely priggish way that her book feels exactly like the work of fiction's greatest handwringing, worrywart of a fussbudget, Hercule Poirot. I don't like Poirot.

Well, I mock, but there are occasional funny moments scattered throughout. I did love the story of a bedraggled teacher who came to a book signing despairing that she would like to learn punctuation, having studied it at school and forgotten it. I understand being a stickler. I was among the crowd that was once so concerned that, having taken over the production of graphic novels from DC, Rebellion might change the design of the book series' spines in any fashion, never considering that the new designer might improve upon them, that writer Gordon Rennie mocked the group in an episode of Judge Dredd. What I don't understand is letting stickler behavior turn you into an aged schoolmarm instead of a fired-up fun-lover. Sadly, not recommended.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Clyde Fans Book 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 Clyde Fans Book One (Drawn & Quarterly, 2004).

Interestingly, this was not a book that I intended to buy just yet. I really like the great cartooning work of Seth, but I wasn't aware of Clyde Fans, the story of a long-closed seller of electrical appliances in yet another timelost Canadian town, until I actually saw a copy in the sadly now-closed Toronto bookseller Pages in the summer of '09. Since it is the first half of a story that Seth hasn't quite got around to finishing yet, I figured that I would wait until both volumes were available, eventually, and buy them both together. Then I found a used hardcover edition at McKay Books in Nashville for four bucks and went ahead.

It's written in a style that I'm not entirely used to from Seth. Rather than the fragmented storytelling that made Wimbledon Green and George Sprott so entertaining, the first half of this book - seventy pages! - are devoted to an old man in 1997 telling readers about the history of his old, long-closed business. It's an extended and, bizarrely, compelling story. I was just sucked right in.

The second half, set in 1957, sees the old man's incompetent brother Simon trying to fashion himself as a salesman, offering Clyde Fans products in the small town of Dominion. It's absolutely lovely cartooning used to illustrate a poignant and fascinating story. Simon's failures kept me completely hooked and Seth created a town so real that it only seems about ninety miles from anywhere. I'd love to see the remainder of this story one day soon. Recommended.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Essential Godzilla

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 Essential Godzilla (Marvel, 2006).

Every couple of years, I find myself returning to this flatly ridiculous comic book and willfully overlooking the giant stack of problems with it. Overwritten narration, utterly terrible art, laughably poor designs, the inclusion of a little Johnny Sokko-wannabe screaming "no, don't hurt Godzilla!" every eighth page, the entire last third of the book, wherein, at one point, a shrunken Godzilla is spirited around Manhattan in a coat and hat... as really dumb comic books go, Marvel's mid-seventies Godzilla title is in a class by itself.

The original seventies Godzilla film series had already concluded when Marvel licensed the property for a two-year run written by Doug Moench. It's mostly drawn, badly, by Herb Trimpe, except when he was not available and some even worse artwork by Tom Sutton was provided. In it, Godzilla attacks America, only it's not so much an "attack" as a curious day outing. Every so often, Godzilla saves Salt Lake City or someplace from space monsters and then wanders off into the sunset, leaving the hapless stooges from SHIELD to hope that the next time he shows up, he doesn't blow up any oil refineries again. Nobody seems to want to actually follow Godzilla anywhere.

I enjoy this collection in part because of the nice nostalgia factor - naturally, I loved this funnybook when I was nine - and in part because of just how amazingly idiotic it all is. You'll really have to work hard to overlook that stupid, whiny kid who seems to have security clearance to everywhere and ends up, inevitably, piloting a giant robot for about seven episodes, but given a remit to entertain nine year-olds, Doug Moench did a serviceable job. It will make you wish that he'd been teamed with a better artist, though. Not recommended, unless you were nine in 1979.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Dead of Jericho

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 Dead of Jericho (Macmillan, 1981).

Sometime in the mid-nineties, a few months before I first read this novel, the fifth in Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series, I saw the adaptation starring John Thaw repeated on A&E. I was already a little familiar with the character from a couple of the TV episodes; PBS's Mystery! broke the movie-length stories into two parts and I started with one of the made-for-TV stories from series four. At any rate, I would have been happy to have kept Morse as just a TV-only affair - who had time to do all that reading? - but the TV version of The Dead of Jericho was so darn good that I wanted to come back to it.

The episode, incidentally, featured the great Patrick Troughton in one of his last roles as a bitter old peeping tom who is implicated in the death of a woman who lives across the road, and who saw Morse enter the woman's flat several hours before her body was found, an apparent suicide. But if this is a suicide, there's a strange matter of a missing key, and a very curious blackmail attempt made on a publisher friend of the deceased. But the most likely suspect of this attempt is illiterate, so who wrote the demand?

This was a really fun read, full of false starts and scenes of Morse being cranky and breaking the law to get around little obstacles. The really nice thing is that it's been so long since I've seen that TV version that I'd forgotten about the really neat trick to create an alibi for a character. The same thing that must have had me once wanting to read a book version to see how Dexter originally did it now has me wanting to track the television adaptation down to see it on screen again. Obviously recommended.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silver Spire

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 Silver Spire (Bantam, 1992).

I think that if I had been following Nero Wolfe in the 1980s and 1990s, I would have, then, been a lot less forgiving of this novel, Goldsborough's sixth, than I am today. In a way, it's almost charming the way that most of his books come across as period pieces, with cultural touchstones that are straight from that debased era. Just as the previous Fade to Black somehow managed to make the '80s cola wars, of all things, into a compelling and fun backdrop for a novel, this one, if you can believe it, manages to make the televangelist scandals of the day into something almost worth reading. Goldsborough even manages to take a Swaggart / Bakker figure and make him sympathetic, albeit a little obnoxious.

Actually, a lot of the characters in this book are pretty darned obnoxious, which is the biggest strike against actually sitting down and reading the novel. Not one of them wants to assist Archie with his investigation, each of them is hyper-defensive, reluctant to give an alibi, and is convinced that the guilty party has already been arrested. There's a usual scene where, once everybody has been gathered, Wolfe reminds the group that this will go quicker without interruption. This time out, Wolfe gives up reminding them. It's an agonizing scene, so full of interruptions as it is. That's a real shame, as Goldsborough turned the structure of this scene completely on its head, and it should have been a winner.

Upon reflection, though, the really contrived nature of the killing really makes this book a much less satisfying read than I hoped. Sadly, it opens very well, only to have my high hopes dashed. Archie cannot convince Wolfe to take a case involving anonymous threats dropped in a Staten Island megachurch's collection plates, and so he recommends the church hire their frequent associate Fred Durkin. Fred is written as somewhat more of a "dese, dem, dose" boor than usually, but it's an interesting angle, ruined by the silly and contrived business that leads him to become a murder suspect. There were some good ideas at work here, but it looks very sadly like my feeling that Goldsborough's tenure on the series was going to end with a bang will be proved mistaken. There's a good notion for a book here, and clever elements to it, but it is executed quite badly. Not recommended.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Complete Harlem Heroes

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 Complete Harlem Heroes (Rebellion, 2010).

With The Complete Harlem Heroes, Rebellion continues the gold standard they've been setting with really comprehensive reprints of archival material. This is a series that ran in 2000 AD's first 27 issues in 1977 before taking a short break and resurfacing, two months later, as Inferno, where it continued for a further 40 episodes. Of principal interest to American readers, the first 24 installments were drawn by Dave Gibbons before he stepped down to take over art duties on Dan Dare, whose artist at the time, the late Massimo Bellardinelli, switched over to this series. So this is a big thick doorstop of a book, one-third of which is drawn by Gibbons.

This is a genre of story mostly unseen in American comics: sports adventure. It's set in 2050 and concerns a sport called aeroball, which is played by teams of seven wearing jetpacks. It's sort of an amped-up version of basketball, and the Harlem Heroes are among the best in the league and headed for the postseason when the team's "roadliner" crashes, killing half the team. Throughout the series, the focus shifts from building a new squad, playing new matches, and solving the mystery of who's got it in for them. After the pilot script by Pat Mills, the series was written by Tom Tully, who specialized in these sorts of stories - he would later write a virtual clone of this series, Mean Arena, for 2000 AD from 1980-1982, in between writing one of Britain's best-loved sports comics, the long-running Roy of the Rovers - and who had an amazing ability to keep the action moving and recap all the offstage subterfuge and make threats out of menacing, shadowy conspiracies who want to murder our protagonists.

It's all amazingly ridiculous, of course. If you can imagine a series where Payton and Eli Manning get their old man out of retirement to (a) play football again and (b) solve crimes with him, then you're probably visualizing the greatest Saturday morning cartoon ever, and that's what this feels like, only with the violence ramped up to eleven. The climactic episode of the first Harlem Heroes story even sees half the cast killed off, suddenly and unmourned, to clear the decks for the rethink.

In Inferno, it's revealed that actually, aeroball was a dying sport anyway, only cared about by hopeless obsessives. The real sports action is in Inferno, a game which is something like ice hockey played with jet packs, motorcycles and harpoon guns, and so the Heroes - the ones who made it through the carnage of the last episode - switch sports, with slightly more success than when Michael Jordan decided that he was done with hoops and wanted to go play baseball with the Birmingham Barons. But, wouldn't you know it, somebody else has got it in for the new Harlem Hellcats, and so they've got to investigate mysterious clues and nonsense again! It's just as ridiculous, with its inclusion of brains-in-tanks, androids and cyborgs, and just as bloody. One amazing incident, in which a villain pours gasoline all over one of our helpless heroes, intending to set him on fire, came within a hair's breadth of getting 2000 AD canceled for going too far.

So all in all, no, it's really not very good, but it's incredibly entertaining and over the top. I especially love the constant reuse of the idea that neither the Heroes nor the Hellcats have ever even seen film of the opponents of their next match, who are invariably revealed to take whatever nickname that team came up with far too seriously. There's never an aeroball-standard uniform at play here. The Montezuma Mashers dress like Aztec warriors and there's a team that dresses like oil riggers and a team that dresses like Cossacks and as for the Long Island Sharks... Before I die, I want to see the Vikings and the Panthers play a game like that. It's elevated by the artwork. Gibbons' pages are just beautiful, and I think that Belardinelli was initially rushing to keep up, but the more far-out and downright weird setting of the Inferno storyline is more his speed. At one point towards the end, Belardinelli drew himself as a spectator egging on the mayhem, which is just beautiful.

There's probably good reason they don't make 'em like this anymore, but Harlem Heroes retains a lot of its dated charm in its insensible presentation and wild artwork. Rebellion's collection includes all 67 episodes, along with some good bonus features. These include four pages of unlettered artwork by Carlos Trigo from one of 2000 AD's inhouse ashcan editions, which is the sort of neat extra that all books like this should seek to include. I think that younger and newer readers will find this even more stilted and contrived than the 1960s DC books that get collected in the Showcase series, so I can't really recommend this wholeheartedly, but it's certainly worth a look for the curious or the nostalgic, and absolutely for the art.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Young Heroes in Love # 1-17

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 Young Heroes in Love # 1-17 (DC, 1997-98).

Clearing out boxes of comics that I have not read in many years, I came across the seventeen-issue run of Young Heroes in Love, a book that I enjoyed during a period where I was a little more patient and willing to try DC books than I am today. At least back in the late nineties, people say, it was possible to read a run of funnybooks without constant references to other funnybooks. Oh, nostalgia. If only that was true.

To be fair, YHIL holds up, not very dated, and those references to other DC books are not very intrusive. There are guest appearances from the likes of Superman and the Scarecrow, and one of the characters is a wealth of DC trivia and can tell you the order of the known Green Lanterns, but this should all basic, entry-level stuff. At least it would be, if DC didn't insist on the Superman who hangs out with the Young Heroes being the one from that frankly ridiculous period where Superman was blue and had electrical powers. It briefly flirts with a line-wide crossover event called Genesis for some insane reason that didn't work. Put another way, rereading YHIL from the otherwise safe distance of twelve years reminds me of everything there is to hate about DC Comics.

And it certainly shouldn't be that way, because if it wasn't for the "shared universe!" idiocy, this is a pretty good comic book and it has aged surprisingly well. It helps that the main cast are all new characters - if I understand the book's indicia, they remain the copyright of the book's creators, Dan Raspler and Dev Madan - a small group of newly-emerged superheroes who have assembled at the behest of the charming, blond, best-and-brightest Hard Drive, sort of the Ken Jennings of the caped crowd. As soon as this group of costumed twentysomethings get together, certain members of their gang start eying each other and considering their bedroom prospects. It's probably a much more honest look at how this sort of thing really would work in the comic book universe, but it's not like DC Comics wants everybody at the Hall of Justice portrayed that way.

Over the course of the book's year and a half run, there are all sorts of fun subplots that develop, because it's made immediately apparent that some of the characters have their own agendas. About the only character who isn't letting bad ideas or bad boyfriends influence his decision is the group's resident tough guy, presented as an innocent who regrets gaining additional mass and super strength, as it means he can no longer play guitar to relax. Everybody else is up to something. Honestly, the day-to-day plot beats and superhero tropes feel less important almost instantly than the interaction, which feels like a backstabbing, albeit still mostly good-natured, take on NBC's Friends than the Justice League.

Cancellation was a sure bet for the title very early on. Despite some notable promotion from the publisher, DC released it during a period where several new titles, all operating on the fringes of the existing DC Universe, were all competing for attention. Books like Aztek and Chase proved equally tough sells in a market where the A-list characters already had several books each demanding readers' money. Launching new, hit properties in such circumstances is practically impossible, but DC gave this book a few more months than many others that they had tried.

I do wish that Raspler had seen the writing on the wall sooner and started wrapping up subplots earlier than he did. Instead, most of them reach very rapid, rushed conclusions in the book's final issue. I was reminded of the way that a later DC title, Jamie Delano's Outlaw Nation for Vertigo, similarly had to swiftly conclude its "long game"-styled subplots in an unsatisfactory rush. So it doesn't end well, and you can see the effect of the last-minute cancellation from a mile away, but it was, genuinely, a pretty fun ride getting to the end. Recommended.