Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gone Fishing

I'll be taking a short break from posting, this time because I have run out of things to read. That's not completely true, but I'm about a third of the way through several different and quite long books, most of which I'm not rereading with the intent of writing about them afterward. (Howard the Duck, for example. It holds up brilliantly, but I've been saying the same things about it for twenty-odd years.)

But fishing has a dual meaning this time, because I am also in the market for review copies. If you'd like me to consider your work, PDFs or CBR files are fine, or post me a copy at 572 Hidden Hills Court, Mayyyyyyrietta Jeorgie three double-oh six-six. My focus, if you haven't guessed, is on action-adventure and humor comics and on detective fiction.

Posting will resume in two or three weeks. Y'all go look at Comics Worth Reading while I'm out taking walks around the park and figuring out the best place to buy cheap baby clothes in town. Credo!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman 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 Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman Volume One (IDW, 2011).

Okay, so I probably shouldn't have indulged in this book with cash being tight these days, but I just could not resist the package. I'd only read a little of David Boswell's Reid Fleming before - it's sort of a stream-of-consciousness, comically violent runaround with the sort of tone of the Three Stooges starring in The Big Sleep - but that package! IDW made it impossible for me to resist.

It's a gorgeous, oversized, 224-page hardcover. Really nice paper, excellent reproduction... this just leapt off the shelf at me. I was kind of kicking myself for the indulgence later, but the comics are really ridiculous and entertaining, and I sure did enjoy reading them. Reid is an unkempt bully who somehow maintains a job delivering milk - for a while, anyway - while terrorizing the city, getting into fights, wrecking trucks and stopping everything to watch his favorite TV show.

The series was originally released in annual 28-or-so-page comics, and you can occasionally detect a shift in what Boswell wanted to do between chapters. It's not miles removed from the wonderful Freak Brothers, and while I think it's a bit of a stretch to call Reid a "counterculture icon," there's certainly some similarity between what Boswell and Gilbert Shelton were doing. It's a malevolently playful comic and I had a ball reading it. Recommended for older readers.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wench is Dead

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 Wench is Dead (McMillan, 1989).

Many years ago, I tried reading Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, the book to which everybody compares this short Colin Dexter novel. I didn't enjoy it, and thought the plot, in which a modern detective in a hospital bed decides to solve the murders of Edward IV's two sons, popularly believed to be the work of Richard III, was just a really peculiar, contrived way to write a story.

Perhaps I should give it another try, because The Wench is Dead is more than a little similar to the Tey novel, and yet it's my favorite among the first eight Inspector Morse books. In this one, Morse is convalescing and reads a monograph about a murder a hundred years previously and figures that there must be more to it. He suspects that the two men hanged for a woman's murder must have been innocent, and sets about proving it, with nobody to interview. To accomplish this from his hospital bed, Morse charms a librarian into helping him, and bullies the long-suffering Sergeant Lewis to do the same.

Perhaps I really enjoyed this because, without any other characters hogging the spotlight, it really becomes much more of a study of Morse himself than any of the previous adventures. It's just a treat spending a couple of hundred pages watching Morse being alternately gracious and grouchy, without any high stakes. Plus, it's got me ready to reevaluate that Tey novel. Huge fun, and gladly recommended.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Archie: Complete Daily Newspaper Comics 1946-1948

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 Archie: Complete Daily Newspaper Comics 1946-1948 (IDW, 2010).

Friends and readers, the wallet's been getting tighter, and I genuinely didn't need to shell out for another forty buck hardcover, even with a nice discount from Bizarro Wuxtry, America's finest comic shop. And Archie, well, I could take or leave. But I do like newspaper comics, and I really love the excellent work that IDW puts into their collected editions. They're the only company I would rank as good as Rebellion in that regard, and I wish that I enjoyed more of their releases, because they are, across the board, a fantastic company doing a terrific job with reprints.

My daughter is a huge fan of Archie, though. More accurately, she's a huge fan of Betty and Veronica. I asked whether she had any interest in archival stuff like this and, in a pleasant surprise, she was, and asked me to please order it. I guess that I shouldn't have been too surprised; the little digest comics that she buys will often be stuffed full of reprints, and she is savvy enough to recognize that an old Dan DeCarlo story is superior to the book's lead feature (usually, these days, penciled by Stan Goldberg and inked by a high schooler with a box of Sharpies), and that a Joe Edwards Li'l Jinx is almost inevitably the high point of any package. My daughter is entering the age of middle school stupidity and cliques and mean girls; any chance we have to bond over classic Archie artwork is probably one of the few available, sadly.

Unfortunately, though, my daughter really didn't enjoy this very much. I thought it was pretty good fun and had a few good chuckles, but she couldn't get into it, and, with a grumble of disappointment and disinterest, gave it to me to read.

I shouldn't have been surprised. I'm interested in what small town life was like in this period, when my parents were teens and going to high school football games, and this, very much a book of its time, is a great look back at what life might have been like back then. I think that my daughter might have been discouraged by the treatment of Betty in its pages, though. Here, Archie only has eyes for Veronica. Betty is a sweet and innocent naif, not really Veronica's pal at all, who has to con and pester Archie to get any attention. In one eyebrow-raising strip, which really shows its age, she has to tell Archie that six other girls will be at her house to persuade him to visit. The girls are revealed to be the sort of mutant uglies that Brian Bolland would later draw in Judge Dredd's Cursed Earth.

Other strips show the quite remarkable evolution in American slang. In this example, I don't think the characters are talking about the sort of party that I am hearing them describe:

Honestly, it's a fascinating curiosity and museum piece, but it's not the sort of series that I can see myself continuing with without my daughter's interest. Recommended for fans with slightly deeper wallets than me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Day the Rabbi Resigned

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 Day the Rabbi Resigned (Fawcett, 1992).

I really, really hate to say it, but this book was damn difficult to finish. Actually, to be perfectly accurate, it was difficult to continue past around page 80, by which point Harry Kemelman had presented three of the most unrealistic, dated, braindead depictions of new marriages and burgeoning relationships of any book from its period. It felt an awful lot like Kemelman, who was in his early eighties when he wrote this one, hadn't been anywhere near any young couple in decades. The depictions of relationships presented here would have been a little aggravating in the 1950s, but in 1992, I was married and I never heard of anybody remotely like the newlyweds in this book.

As a parallel, consider a book that I keep using as a comparison point, the Rex Stout novel Too Many Cooks, which is dated, uncomfortably so, in its treatment of race in America. But that is a book from the late 1930s; it might make us uncomfortable to read that seventy-odd years ago, attitudes towards race were often repugnant, and that otherwise intelligent (white) detectives would be fooled by shoepolish blackface, but it was honest at the time. Had the same novel been written years later, it would have been utterly out of place and wrongheaded. So here, Kemelman presents a marriage which falls apart almost instantly because the husband actually wants to have sex. It's followed up by a relationship where a woman who enjoys sex is depicted as a malevolent harpy who cannot be trusted, and a relationship which is condemned by parents because it is "serious" without an engagement. This book was written when Bill Clinton, not Eisenhower, was winning primaries.

Readers who can suffer through the antediluvian attitudes of the book might find some pretty good stuff after it. Like the rest of the series, it's a Father Dowling / Murder, She Wrote cozy of a puzzle with no aspirations to anything other than a simple intellectual challenge. This time out, Rabbi David Small is getting ready to retire after 25 years and hopes to find a position on the faculty of an area university. The temple's board of directors, as ever, doesn't understand the rabbi's simple wishes, and one of the area universities that Rabbi Small is considering is having a problem with professors looking to find tenure at whatever cost.

As with most of the Kemelman novels, the actual construction is a treat; watching the author tie several apparently unrelated groups together into one story is fascinating and surprising. The temple and university and police politics are amusing, and the rabbi's humility in the face of people who want to give him unnecessary rewards results in a really funny meeting, so it's not completely awful. There's a murder somewhere in the middle of all this, but it's not very important. The book doesn't even feature the hallmark beats of Small breaking apart the problem and finding the killer by means of Talmudic arguments and reasoning. Even absent the dated look at sex in 1990s America, this would be one of the lesser books in the series. Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits

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 Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits (DC/Vertigo, 1996).

I've occasionally had discussions with people who just don't like black and white comics, and have spent their lives conditioned to think in terms of four-color spectacular super-fights. They don't like the look of color-stripped collections like Marvel's Essentials or DC's Showcases. The harsh reality of godawful, half-assed color comics like the old Marvel Further Adventures of Indiana Jones are lost on them. However, I'd read and reread the absurd, day-glow world of solid hot pink backgrounds and assorted flat yellow and green characters of those Indy books a dozen times before suffering through the eye-punching "Dangerous Habits," a pivotal, excellently-scripted storyline that saw writer Garth Ennis bring his mindset to the world of John Constantine for the first time. I received a copy from somebody on paperbackswap.com a couple of weeks ago, and my retinas are still hurting.

The real tragedy is that it looks like artist Will Simpson really did try his best on this book. The design and pacing are excellent, and it appears that Simpson and his inkers balanced the pages in anticipation of having them colored. Then colorist Tom Ziuko went to work on them and utterly, absolutely, ruined them. A random flip opens the book to page 82, where the entire page is purple. This is, from start to finish, the laziest coloring job that I've ever seen, with giant chunks of solid, dull colors dumped over Simpson's linework with no attention paid to what the hell is being colored. Simpson's a fine artist, and good Lord, this is an amazing script, but the book is absolutely ruined by the unbelievable hack job that Ziuko pulled.

And this is a huge shame, because "Dangerous Habits" turned out to be one of the best Hellblazer stories that I've ever read. It's a tossup between this, "Rake at the Gates of Hell" (also by Ennis) and that unbelievable one-off that John Smith and Sean Phillips did about the laundromat. I've always enjoyed John Constantine in theory, but the unreliable artwork and DC/Vertigo's unbelievably dopey job of collecting the series in book form - mercifully and at long last on its way to being corrected with the forthcoming reissue of Original Sins - has had me loathe to really dig into it. This, artwork aside, was definitely worth the wait.

This story opens with Constantine coughing up chunks of his lungs and seeing a doctor, who confirms that he's got terminal lung cancer and only a few weeks to live. Seeing the rogue trying to make amends with old friends and family while desperately looking for a way out of this mess, and really, really pissing off the devil along the way is amazing. Cheating death is Constantine's specialty, but the way he manages to step out of this nightmare - for now - really is a treat.

Obviously it's not spoiling anything to note that he doesn't die here - the comic has continued for about another hundred monthly issues since this story - but the resolution to this is just about the most audacious and beautiful idea that Ennis has ever come up with. I'd recommend this wholeheartedly and loudly, if only it didn't look so hotdamned horrible.

DC's mature readers line, which evolved into Vertigo, was always marked by bad coloring. The Jamie Delano/Steve Pugh run on Animal Man was similarly hideous, and a flip through this own book's odds-n-sods Rare Cuts collection shows many more poorly-executed color choices, including some more of Ziuko's wince-inducing work. The other day I was talking about how the filthy rich me of a parallel Earth has been hiring better artists to redraw Grant Morrison's comics. In that same alternate reality, Simpson drew "Dangerous Habits" balanced for black and white, nobody ruined his linework with this garish, dimwit color, and it's the best horror comic book that money can buy. So, recommended, but with reservations.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

At Wolfe's Door

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 At Wolfe's Door (James A. Rock, 2003).

Before I said goodbye to Nero Wolfe in these reviews, I did want to let any of my readers who are following my detective fiction reviews or are curious about the character know about this neat little book. Written by J. Kenneth van Dover, a professor of English at Lincoln University and published by a small company in Maryland, it's a guidebook to the series, with spoiler-free synopses, details and analysis of all the Wolfe novels and short stories, and handier, to my mind, than using Wikipedia to track down information. It also contains material about Rex Stout's other detective characters and critical essays, including a really fascinating piece looking at connections between Stout's corpus and that of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason.

While it doesn't touch on ancillary material like the A&E series or the Robert Goldsborough novels beyond quickie lists in an appendix, it accomplishes its modest goals very well and is penned in a light, engaging tone that's perfect for either study or briefly finding facts. If you enjoy Rex Stout's world, I'd certainly recommend you give this a look. I just wish Wolfe was more popular with a modern audience to warrant a more intensive study guide.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


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 Leviathan (Rebellion, 2010).

Leviathan was a surprisingly short serial - only 55 pages - that ran in 2000 AD some eight years ago, but it was such an extraordinary and outre work that it has resonated with the readership ever since, and is often hailed as one of writer Ian Edginton's best stories. It concerns what happens a couple of decades after a city-sized ocean liner leaves England in 1928 and vanishes without trace. At least, that's how the outside world sees it.

From the perspective of the tens of thousands of souls lost on the enormous ship, it's the rest of the planet that has vanished, and Leviathan drifts in an endless ocean with no wind and no land. Years pass, and the toffs in first class think that they have a handle on things by keeping the anarchy contained to the hellhole of the steerage class, but a rash of gruesome and unnatural murders finally forces them to ask a detective sergeant named Lament in the second class to investigate.

There's a lot more that I could say about the plot of Leviathan, and there's plenty of it out there, spoiled, if you want to go and look for it. Knowing more than the basics, though, ruins a remarkably unpredictable and brilliantly constructed story. DS Lament is one of my favorites of Edginton's many wonderful characters, an intelligent career copper whose mind may be the only thing on the ship that has not deteriorated over the last twenty years adrift. Even his personal life has fallen apart, thanks to the incompetence of the first class and the ship's staff. I will say that getting to the bottom of the hideous murders does reveal the mystery of what has happened to Leviathan, and it's a lot more than DS Lament was ready to learn.

Leviathan is gorgeously illustrated by Matt Brooker ("D'Israeli"), who uses a remarkable stylistic choice to convey the harsh and clinical world of the first class. There's a sense of gritty reality to the sequences outdoors and in the overwhelming world of steerage, but an unreal, angular sense of artifice to the dark interiors of the first class world that leaves the characters almost popping out of the page as though desperate to escape it. Edginton and D'Israeli have collaborated on many really excellent comics, but I don't know that any of them have required quite the commitment as the climax of this story does. Frankly, what D'Israeli has to draw at the end of this story, with no room for shortcuts, is the sort of thing that would have me running screaming from the studio, and it's one of the most amazing art sequences that I've ever seen.

The series, which spawned three one-off "prequel" episodes set before DS Lament's case, had previously been collected in a hardcover edition with a substantial bonus section that featured some of D'Israeli's sketches. Newly reissued in paperback to match the rest of Rebellion's line, the collection now includes a further six-page feature, not quite a comic, but an interesting additional look at the puzzle. It is a thin book, still under 100 pages, but a very entertaining one. I have enjoyed dipping back into the hardcover edition many times before, and while I don't know that anybody who owns that version really needs the paperback for its six new pages, anybody who doesn't have Leviathan at all certainly needs to order a copy. Recommended.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Invisibles: The Invisible Kingdom

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: The Invisible Kingdom (volume six) (DC, 2000).

This book remains a massive disappointment to me. About two-thirds of it are absolutely blinding, some of Grant Morrison's very best work. And then we reach the climax and it is a complete mess. Most of the time, Morrison handles his finales incredibly well. This is one of those rare instances where he fumbles at about the two.

This last book of The Invisibles is the longest, reprinting the series' final twelve issues. It's set a year after the events of volume six, and starts with the three operatives of Division X, last seen in book three, finally making a break in their investigation of Sir Miles and the royal conspiracy. However, what these super-agents don't know is that Mr. Six is in league with the opposing, Invisibles conspiracy. Things spiral crazily out of control as King Mob, Jack Frost and Lord Fanny return to England and one member of Division X - the one who bases his persona on John Thaw's character from The Sweeney - is kidnapped and wakes up in a burning wicker man...

Actually, that this incident is set almost two and a half years after the last Division X episode just drives home what an amazing, parallel, series we missed while the focus was on the main characters. If Grant Morrison and Philip Bond, who illustrated these four episodes, would reteam for a good twenty issue run with Division X, I would buy the hell out of that series. Forget the conspiracy and the metanarrative, I just want to see these guys busting heads and having weird adventures.

So the first third of the book, drawn by Bond, is amazing, and the middle third, drawn by Sean Phillips and centered on 99 year-old Edith Manning, is transcendent. The installment where Edith, having come to India to die, spends her final hours with King Mob, is one of the most brilliant things that Morrison has ever written. Reading it again brought new tears. It's absolutely heart-hammering work, and the tiny flashes from ten years previous, with a younger, twentysomething King Mob looking for some kind of meaning, looking at the river with The Smiths on his walkman, about to have his life upended by an eighty-nine year-old lady who met his future self in the 1920s, suggest just how wild and amazing Doctor Who could be in Morrison's hands. (You think time is wibbly-wobbly when Moffat writes it?)

And then things fall apart.

A big part of the problem is Morrison's decision to let a freaking pile of artists jam on the climactic issues, resulting in a schizophrenic mess, and key, critical moments undermined by huge shifts in style. The absolute worst moment comes when King Mob phones the old girlfriend that we met briefly in book five. She gradually realizes that he's been very badly injured as, going into shock, he starts reliving a childhood memory of the last episode of a kiddie puppet show. Steve Yeowell draws the sequence, and does it brilliantly. I'm a huge fan of Yeowell's, and this might be one of the best things he's ever done. But then it's completely ruined by giving the climactic page of the sequence to Rian Hughes. Normally, I'm a big fan of Hughes, but this splash page is so jarring a shift in style that it doesn't look like it belongs in the same comic at all. It looks like an ad for British Telecom.

This keeps happening, with key moments either interrupted by a change in artist, or assigned to artists who make a complete hash out of things. Characters change their appearance every few pages, even in the middle of scenes. Yeowell and John Ridgway are the only participants in these pages who seem like they have a handle on even how to stage some of the action. There are others who don't look like they should have been let near a mainstream adventure comic at all, let alone one as challenging as this. There's a parallel universe where I'm filthy, stinking rich, and in that reality, I've commissioned Yeowell to redraw everybody else's bungled work and make it look consistent and good. (Parallel-me has also hired Cameron Stewart to redraw all the godawful art of Morrison's JLA, and hired Tony Harris to do the same to Morrison's run on Batman. Don't you wish we could have those comics?)

But while the art jam is a big problem, the script really is a bigger one. On the textual level, the villains' plans have completely stopped making sense - it all seems to be built around coronating a squishy tentacle monster as the new King of England, for some reason - and the Invisibles are going to stop it by doing something, and Sir Miles has been disavowed but suddenly he's back at the reins of things. Divorced from the subtext, it's just a rotten piece of drama, with confused motivations, and once a reader puts the fractured narrative into a linear sequence to understand it, it still doesn't resonate because it's incomprehensible sludge with too many characters.

But the subtext, the suggestion that there's much more to this work of fiction than we can see, completely overwhelms what's going on, and that's why The Invisibles fails right at the end. It's been previously hinted that the events of books one through six were the events that Ragged Robin wrote in a book, and then, rather than traveling back in time to experience as we were told, she actually entered her own fiction and interacted with her characters. By the end, we've added another layer of metatext and pseudoscience, that even Robin's participation was just part of a larger game, that basically people ten or twelve years in the future who read New Scientist every month have built a video game called The Invisibles which features a character who thinks that she wrote The Invisibles, who participates in the events described in her fiction, and, through the use of fiction suits (which people used to just call "writing yourself into your story," and sneered at), other... people... do... too?

The narrative is lost in this. Fiction, even complicated fiction, is most effective when the reader can enjoy the narrative at one level without being sledgehammered by the complex ideas of the other levels. The big climax here is one where both the structure and the meaning are intentionally obscured by the subtext, by the fractured style of storytelling, and by the poor mix of artists, who mishandle the material. It is a massive disappointment as well as a breathtaking experiment, and honestly, while having the whole thing drawn by Yeowell would improve things, as long as we're fantasizing, I think I'd still rather see a Philip Bond-drawn Division X series than bother. Recommended, but only because the first two-thirds are completely amazing, and readers can stop reading when the Sean Phillips artwork wraps up and have a fine experience.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Secret of Annexe 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 The Secret of Annexe 3 (St. Martin's, 1987).

This is very interesting. If I'm reading things correctly, The Secret of Annexe 3 was the only one of Colin Dexter's thirteen Inspector Morse novels that was not adapted for television. Noting this going in, I kept wondering what it was about the novel that prevented Central TV from commissioning a version of it. Perhaps they didn't want to suffer the trouble of filming in the snow for a festive New Year's Eve bash at an upscale hotel, or maybe the evidence that an unidentified man was killed after attending a costume party in blackface as a Rastafarian was felt to be just a little dodgy.

This book felt really strange to me, like I was reading the series out of order. The previous novel, Riddle of the Third Mile, was dense with cryptic clues and textual allusions, and the overall feel of the series to that point had been an increasing movement towards more cerebral detective fiction. This one, however, is an oddball throwback to 1930s plots and tropes, with a distinct Agatha Christie feel. Even the confusion about whose body has been discovered, with manufactured alibis and fancy dress, is something from the Poirot playbook.

I always enjoy the little glimpses at other cultures that you get reading books from other countries. This one's central location, a hotel, is just so strange and odd to me. All the business of writing for a room reservation and the prissiness of the management in confirming exactly who the guests are and what sort of hanky-panky that they think they'll be up to is just so amazingly alien to me. Even before I started using Travelocity, I don't know that I ran across any motels that were so uptight about this. Even odder, my son rented a DVD of Fawlty Towers around the time I was reading this. I can't recommend this book very highly, but I certainly don't recommend that anybody read it with Basil Fawlty in mind.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Captain America: Bicentennial Battles

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 Captain America: Bicentennial Battles (volume two of Jack Kirby's 1970s run on the title) (Marvel, 2005).

When I was a kid, I got one of those three-packs of Marvel Comics, and I got it many times. Some company would occasionally repackage some returned comics in a little bag together and you would see it at KMart or someplace where you didn't normally see comics. It would be three for 79 cents or something, and between my mother and well-meaning relations, I got this same package four times over the course of a year. It had an issue of Spider-Man where his car - yes, once, he had a dune buggy - tried to kill him, and an issue of Red Sonja with some crocodile men in a sewer, and Captain America & the Falcon # 201, in which the heroes exclaimed, breathlessly, on the cover, "It's them, Cap - The Night People!" "And if we don't stop them, they'll destroy the world!" I was very, very much a DC reader in the late seventies when I received this treasure - four times - and had not yet "got" Kirby, and for a good while there, unable then to throw anything away, I was completely convinced that this was the worst comic book in the world. And I had four damn copies of it.

It is reprinted in this collection. I was mistaken. But it's still nowhere near Kirby's best work. Taken as a whole as the middle chunk between the wild, fun lunacy of the Madbomb storyline of the first volume, and the ongoing, breathlessly insane fight with Arnim Zola and the Red Skull in the third, this stuff can't help but feel a little bit ordinary in comparison, yet it is still entertaining.

The issue that caused me such consternation when I was small remains a little baffling and odd, but also really mundane. It concerns a really big gang of homeless weirdos who have a teleportation device and access to other bizarre technology, but they just don't seem like a credible threat to anybody this side of the Three Stooges. Finishing up that episode, it's easy to be charmed by Kirby's pacing and amazing storytelling, but impossible to find it really compelling. Nine year-old me wasn't interested in it, and I doubt any adult would be, either, if we're completely honest.

The remainder of the storyline does ramp things up and makes it all pretty worthwhile in the end, thankfully. It turns out that the eccentric oddballs are all the former residents of an insane asylum who built a device to send their hospital into another dimension, where it's under constant attack from weird, silent monsters. Okay, now that should get your attention.

Apart from the five issues of the series reprinted here, there's also an oversized, "tabloid edition" 72-page story that Kirby somehow also found time to write and draw while doing the regular book. It's also pretty ordinary, and kind of typical of a particular 1970s Marvel trope that you sometimes saw in books like Man-Thing, where some cosmic powerhouse insists on making the hero live and relive some wild and unimaginable experience for some nebulous reason, to teach him some kind of lesson or other.

Maybe I need to reread this one, because in between all the business of Cap fighting with General Washington's army and against the Red Skull and Hitler, if I'm picking up castoff Steve Gerber vibes, either the King was desperately trying to maintain an air of relevance in the face of a younger, weirder Marvel bullpen, or I wasn't paying all that close attention. Not really recommended in the face of the two other, far superior books in the series, but a reasonable purchase for Kirby devotees.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

True Believers

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 True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans (Picador, 2004).

My mother got me a pair of Joe Queenan books for Christmas. The first of them, If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble, I did not enjoy very much, because I have little interest in mediocre films starring the sorts of mediocre talents that Queenan spotlighted in it. He went on for twenty pages about Melanie Griffith, and all I could find to note was that, yes, I had seen her in Something Wild and certainly agree with the author that she possessed a remarkably fine rear end at that point in her career. He later made a similar point about Susan Sarandon's rack. Other than Rocky Horror, which I don't really remember, and Thelma & Louise, I have never seen any of Susan Sarandon's movies. I'm sure you're pleased that I did not try and review this book. Not without illustrations anyway.

True Believers, on the other hand, I really enjoyed reading, because I know much of what Queenan speaks. He grew up in Philly, and still supports the four major professional home teams despite what he perceives as their poor performance. Actually, strike that, I live in Atlanta and Queenan's a whiny bitch. I just looked up his teams on Wikipedia, and at the time he wrote this book, those four teams had one World Series win, two Stanley Cups and three NBA championships. What the hell is he complaining about? We've got one World Series and a championship by the Atlanta Xplosion in whatever the heck league they play in. Look them up and then whine about poor Philly and see what a chump you look.

He does raise some interesting questions, and while it's fun to consider them, I don't know that he answers them. Why do people support the San Diego Padres, who never win anything? Well, probably the same reason why I like the Hawks and the Thrashers: because this is where I live and these are the teams for whom I can cheer and these are the teams that I can take my children to see. It's a little amazing that Queenan could write a book as long as this and not really get the point of that idiotic "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" song. As much as I enjoy the spirit of competition, and the occasional burst of amazing athleticism, and the always soul-filling burst of schadenfreude when some overhyped celebrity like Dwight Howard or a turncoat punk like Ilya Kovalchuk comes to town and gets whipped, I genuinely love the sense of community pride and a little bit of local history. I like seeing Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby playing in Dominique Wilkins' house. (Well, okay, they don't, because Wilkins played in the long-demolished Omni, but you know what I mean.)

This is a great book for anybody interested in fandom. Sports fans aren't that much different from any others; boorish idiots are common in any crowd and so are the people who will live and die based on what happens in what they are observing. There are people who take the Celtics too damn seriously and people who take Harry Potter too damn seriously. It's much more fun to just like the game and pretend to take it too damn seriously. Unless you're a Gators fan. You, I can't stand.

Now, I did have one objection to Queenan's observations. While witty and amusing throughout, I just can't agree with his grumbling about people having loyalty to teams not naturally theirs by either geography or inheritance via a father. I like the Toledo Mud Hens quite a lot. I don't know why I still do; I picked a team to have an amusing, safe point of argument with my first wife after she moved to Louisville and some outlet for good-natured trash-talking around the children was thought a good idea. Yet my first wife can, now, fall through a hole in the earth's crust and that'd suit me just fine, but I still adore the Mud Hens. I think they're silly and ridiculous, but they've got a better ball park than darn near any in Major League Baseball and the one time (so far) I've had the chance to see them at home, I had a terrific time. I enjoy the simplicity and the relaxation of minor league baseball - and the prices - wherever I go and whichever league I am watching, and Toledo exemplifies everything I love about the fun distraction of sports. Bafflingly, while I have no real business being a Mud Hens fan, according to Queenan, it's okay for my son to be one. Good. Just so long as he hates the Louisville Bats, right?

On the other hand, people who bandwagon-jump for the Lakers or the Yankees just because of their records, those guys and fair weather fans both, they can both get out of sight. You're not a true believer unless you really know about the agony of defeat. This is a sparkling, hilarious book, and absolutely recommended.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Invisibles: Kissing Mister Quimper

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: Kissing Mister Quimper (volume six) (DC/Vertigo, 1999).

So the sixth book in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles wrapped up the series' second "volume" of publication. This was a twenty-issue run that saw King Mob and his cell in the United States, working both with and against the hierarchy of their conspiracy and in opposition to the American military and a, frankly, dull as dishwater shouty general. He had employed a small man named Mr. Quimper - unlike the general, a fascinating villain - and Quimper had been slowly performing psychic manipulation on the protagonists, twisting the team leader, Ragged Robin, and influencing her behavior.

The artwork for this last run of eight installments was provided by Chris Weston, and while I normally really enjoy his work without reservation, this is not quite his best material. While it is certainly terrific, I found myself really disliking his depiction of King Mob, who wears such giant earrings that it actively distracted me! Otherwise, the work is just amazing, with wild dreamscapes and excellent figure work. I especially found myself liking the realistic way that he draws the characters to not look like standard comic book supermodels.

Overall, it's more wild, brilliantly constructed material, full of twists and turns and amazing surprises. Unfortunately for readers of the collected edition, a thoughtless bit of layout editing leaves a whacking huge and pivotal moment splash-paged on the right side of the book, instead of on the left so readers could turn the page and be shocked by it. Every so often, I'd like to have a word or two with DC Comics' collected edition department. Spoiling that twist by laying out that way, well, that's just criminal. Recommended, of course.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Missing Chapter

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 Missing Chapter (Bantam, 1994).

I briefly had a Wikipedia username and was interested in contributing edits to that worthwhile project. I soon learned that the overwhelming majority of Wikipedia editors are self-obsessed lunatics, not worth association, and consequently almost never edit or update Wikipedia pages any longer. I made an exception with Robert Goldsborough's The Missing Chapter, which some wag had previously claimed on the Nero Wolfe page had been the last "and least" of the author's seven novels. I spent the whole book waiting for some evidence that would back that claim, but, happily, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Then I went and edited the Wikipedia page. If you're going to make an NPOV claim, you'd better be able to back it.

This book is about the definition of "meta." In it, Wolfe is hired to find out who killed a grouchy novelist with an impossibly high opinion of himself and his hackwork. He'd been hired to write continuation novels in the successful series of "Orville Barnstable" mysteries. These have been much loved by millions of readers, including a fan group called PROBE, the Passionate Roster of Orville Barnstable Enthusiasts. Perhaps the wag on Wikipedia who didn't like this book was a member of "The Wolfe Pack" and thought the comparison was unflattering. Anyway, after the original author passed away, Charles Childress took the reins, and made a few enemies, but enough people think that there is more to his apparent suicide for Nero Wolfe to be hired.

It did feel a little different from the rest of Goldsborough's novels. There's an obvious, twinkling affirmation of the author's own tropes and interests, but it never really feels like he is saying goodbye to the characters, not in the same, torch-it-all-down way that Rex Stout bid them farewell in A Family Affair almost twenty years previously. It felt more like he was saying goodbye to the readers, and Nero Wolfe's many fans, leaving the brownstone intact for the next continuator hired to work on the series. Actually, Goldsborough left the brownstone somewhat improved. In a series that was punctuated most amusingly by heaping aggravations upon Nero Wolfe, the installation of a new elevator, and the attendant demands on Wolfe's patience while the crew disrupts his schedule, is one of the funniest.

It's a shame that there has been nothing since. Strangely, despite the evident success of Bantam's series, no new novels have emerged since 1994. As for that Wikipedia editor's thoughtless commentary, The Missing Chapter is certainly not the least of Goldsborough's books - that would be either The Bloodied Ivy, or, possibly, Silver Spire - and while it was not his best, it was a good enough capper for the author's time in charge. I was glad to have had the extra few weeks with Archie and Wolfe, and look forward to rereading the corpus in a couple of years' time. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meltdown Man

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 Meltdown Man (Rebellion, 2010).

You want proof that we live in a platinum age of comics? Freaking Meltdown Man is available in a single, big edition. If you told me, five years back, that such a thing would exist outside of privately-licensed small press editions, I'd have said you were nuts. Then again, I'd have said the same thing about Rip Kirby, and what are IDW up to now? Four hardcover $50 volumes of that? Heaven.

Odds are, casual readers have never heard of this series, which originally appeared in a record-setting, unbroken fifty-week run throughout 1980 and 1981 in the pages of 2000 AD. It's a collaboration between writer Alan Hebden, who did not work often for the comic, and the late, great Italian artist Massimo Belardinelli, whose work is still mostly unknown to the American comic media. He was overlooked at the time in favor of better-known, frequently-reprinted, fan-favorite artists like Bolland and Gibbons and only came up for a long-overdue reappraisal from fandom long after he'd retired.

Anyway, like a lot of 2000 AD series from the period, it starts with a really convoluted premise and then goes to work with a magical, wild touch. This time out, an ex-SAS officer named Nick Stone is blasted into a bizarre world after a nuclear explosion, where he finds a few pockets of lazy, bored humans who have created gigantic populations of anthropomorphic animal-people called "Yujees" to do all the work. Stone is instantly outraged by the backhanded cruelty displayed by these idiots and resolves to topple the order of things here. He's allied with a catgirl called Liana and a wolfman named Gruff in his battle with the corrupt human Leeshar, who commands an army of predators, weird technology, and a psychic, mind-controlling cobra in his bid for control of the planet, and steps up his scheming once Stone looks like he's going to be a problem.

Back in the eighties, when 2000 AD's publisher licensed its reprints out to third parties, Meltdown Man never resurfaced. Belardinelli was not a favorite of Titan Books' Nick Landau, and while a series that ran this long could have filled four of those skinny, black-spined albums that Titan used to release, neither Titan nor Eagle / Quality Comics wanted to reprint it. Of course, at the time, the perception of 2000 AD that other marketers wanted to emphasize was that the comic was the home of weird, freaky heroes unlike anything else in comics, and Nick Stone himself is a square-jawed, inventive hero of the classic tradition, despite the trappings of his wild world.

Actually, wild doesn't even begin to cover it. As I slowly amassed a piecemeal collection of back issues, Meltdown Man was the one strip, dipping into at random order, that I could not follow at all. That's because the serial is one of the most entertaining roller coasters in comics, with several parallel-running plotlines and a host of recurring characters who show up after weeks away. The story doesn't reach any natural breaks, and it isn't a collection of several short adventures, and it doesn't fall into any kind of predictable structure like comics of this sort do, where you know that, for example, at some point, the Harlem Heroes will get back into an arena to play another game. I finally read the thing start to finish across my back issues some years ago and was really stunned by how brilliantly constructed it is. A reread of this volume confirms it: this is a terrific, badly underrated comic. It's the sort of anything-goes, surprising adventure that the more recent The Red Seas feels like, but with a straight run of fifty weeks, Hebden and Belardinelli were able to accomplish so much more than The Red Seas' creators can, with so many aggravating breaks of so many months in their narrative.

As for the art, Belardinelli had drawn some pretty great pages before, for plenty of strips, and his greatest triumph, Ace Trucking Company, was yet to come, but I think that this was the point where he really nailed damn near everything. About the only grumble I have with the art is that Leeshar doesn't look like much of a threat with his ridiculously obvious costume, complete with "baddie cape" like a faux Germanic count or something. Other than that, this is a gorgeous, over-the-top book, full of gigantic waterfalls, massive explosions, armies of animal-people armed with freaky guns and lavishly illustrated extreme violence, and Belardinelli's pacing is just amazing. As events rush to a climax and Stone, in an uneasy alliance with a villain who's switched sides for his own interest, is caught on a frozen lake with a barrage of explosives around him, I don't think a reader's eye can keep from rushing from panel to panel, and the inevitable, grisly end to that turncoat villain is guaranteed to leave that reader punching the air. Plus, Belardinelli drew himself into the action in cameo appearances at least three times, which is always funny.

And as for the reprint itself, Rebellion have done another splendid job. I think I'd quibble about the cover, which is a recolored take on an old Dave Gibbons pin-up from the period. While I'd agree that there were no better images from the period to sell this book, there's a stodgy, macho, po-faced feel to that image that totally belies how weird and exciting the story actually is. That said, this is clearly a barely-known property and sales are going to be pretty low, so I can understand why the publishers went with this, rather than bend the budget to buy a new, better representative image from somebody like Boo Cook, who, it's been observed, has a style clearly influenced by Belardinelli. It really is a shame that this is going to be a low-selling book, because it's really fun and unpredictable and needs to be seen. I had a blast with it, and certainly recommend it highly.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


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 Roadstrips: A Graphic Journey Across America (Chronicle, 2005).

This was a curious book that purports to have a focus but it really takes a lot of hammering to get all of the stories within it to reveal that focus. I found a used copy for three bucks at McKay Books in Nashville and was very surprised to see the original retail price was an oddly high $23. For three bucks, I'll happily buy a book with original work from Gilbert Hernandez, Pete Bagge, Peter Kuper and Jessica Abel.

I usually have trouble figuring out a way to review anthology books and this is no exception. Like many similar projects, some work here is going to be more appealing than others, but what disappointed me about the whole project was that many of the contributors didn't really sell me on the ostensible thread that tied it all together. If you can bear this pompous product description from Amazon, the book sets out to explore "identity on both a micro and a macro level, [illustrating] today's post-modern patchwork with bilious narratives, thoughtful tales, and hilarious memoirs. Taken together, their powerful and thoughtful stories create a composite national portrait like few others." But I didn't get a sense of any regional identity or character from most of these stories. Megan Kelso's story about life in the time of the Green River Killer didn't really tell me anything about living in the Pacific Northwest, though it was very well drawn. Matt Kindt's entertaining contribution was a good story about family vacations, but didn't fit that description either.

Since my wife and I love road tripping, this seemed like it would be an exciting and fun read, but I was left feeling a little confused by the whole thing, and jarred by the massive differences in the contributions. I'm not talking just about different styles, but the feeling that each of the 22 artists was given a different set of instructions regarding what the editor was hoping from them. It also appears that the editor was either confused as to what constitutes "the south" (it ain't Arizona, friend) or he did not feel like contacting anybody from this region. True, the best stories in this book were worth reading, but they were not very long. Recommended if you like any of these artists, but for a lot less than the retail price.