Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Superman: Panic in the Sky

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 Superman: Panic in the Sky (DC, 1993).

A few months ago, I reread a collection of 1990s Batman comics and said that I owed it to myself to revisit some Superman comics of around the same period. The result was considerably more entertaining, but these are still flawed so badly, with lots of potential fun sucked out of them by a contemporary desire for realism and relevance, "updating" beloved characters into new versions that did not take. I can't imagine any reader in the present-day checking out this collection and not being utterly baffled by who everybody is.

For example, Lex Luthor is pretending to be dead, since his old, bald body was dying of radiation poisoning. So he had himself cloned into a younger body with a mane of red hair and is passing himself off as Luthor's good-natured son, on the side of the angels. Supergirl is not Superman's cousin from Krypton, but a shapeshifting alien called Matrix who just decides to look like a blonde in a miniskirt. Brainiac is not an android who shrinks people, but a Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirler with psychic powers. These aren't Superman comics from twenty years ago, they're Superman comics from a parallel universe where everything is even more stupid.

Okay, with those caveats in place, this book reprints an eight-part story in which Brainiac brings an artificial planet called Warworld into our solar system to invade Earth, and Superman rallies all of our planet's superheroes into a massive army to fight back. The book is still infected with comic book dumb - for example, with hundreds of aliens roaming the streets of Metropolis, the city is defended by about a dozen of the "street-level" heroes like Batman and Blue Beetle without actual powers jumping around and throwing karate chops, and not, you know, thousands of army troops with machine guns - but it's still a little entertaining if you put your brain in neutral. The ongoing gag that Guy Gardner, a boorish thug who is, nevertheless, fearless enough to be charged with a Green Lantern ring, gets burned by the verbal arrows of every other superhero gets old quickly, but it's funny, watching him ignore everybody else and flirt with the galactic sex goddess Maxima anyway.

I was most impressed by how well the Superman editorial office actually handled the crossover. The Batman book that I read, Contagion, didn't feel like it had any kind of guiding hand whatever, with artistic quirks and poor modeling changing the appearance of characters from one page to the next, and chapters that felt like they were flown in from another publisher entirely. Even with different writer and artist teams taking over every twenty-odd pages, this does feel cohesive and planned correctly. Plus, as a reprint, it's done right, with the original covers of the issues and both notes and behind-the-scenes details from the creators.

Honestly, I was no longer the target audience for this material when it was published, and it still has only minimal interest to me, but, when compared to the garbage from the Batman editorial team, it was certainly nice to see that the story was told as effectively as it was, and packaged as well as it was. If you don't have a taste for Superman stories, then this probably won't convince you, but if you like the DC Universe of the period, then this is recommended.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber, 2011).

The very best gifts are the things that you would have wanted had you known they existed. For my birthday last month, my friend David found me this remarkably dense look at the music of New York City from 1973-77. It attempts to touch on everything, and doesn't even really need to draw lines between the movements and the subcultures. Just laying out the facts and anecdotes chronologically pulls everything together. I knew that I wanted to read it immediately, and I knew that I needed to, quickly, as another friend, Ric, saw it and said to hurry up with it so that he could borrow it.

It's a dense book, and sometimes difficult to follow, since a reader has no idea whether the new players who appear in the narrative will be making any long-term impact. Philip Glass spends so long working on some composition that I started to wonder whether he'd already premiered it and I missed out, and there's some art chick who makes "music" by running her finger around a wine glass. She seems to show up for a page and then vanishes completely. The fellows from the terrific band Television are introduced by their real names and we follow them for a few pages before their stage names are revealed and I understood why I was reading about them.

I certainly brought a busload of my own bias to the book. I'd have been thrilled with a history of the CBGBs and Bottom Line groups; the diversions - and they're not diversions, but a vital and vibrant part of the story - into early hip-hop and salsa music left me skimming without reading at first. But everything in the area at that time gets equal coverage, and it's fascinating. I had never read the details of Patti Smith's horrible injury in 1977; I don't know whether anybody can without wincing. I also had no idea just how many boyfriends she had at the time. Gracious!

The history was certainly fascinating, but I really enjoyed the memoir that weaves through the narrative. The author was a teenager at the time, and not entirely able to enjoy the city's music scene to its full extent, but I do love memoirs of the 1970s. This one shows the New York music scene to be every bit as elitist and backstabbing as any college town's, with acts on the in and acts on the out, and a sense of confusion as to how any of these guys could get their shit together long enough to do anything on the national stage. It's great stuff, and while not at all a breezy read, it's certainly recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Love & Rockets: New Stories #4

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Love & Rockets: New Stories # 4 (Fantagraphics, 2011).

Admittedly, I am very, very far behind in covering some new releases, but one particular problem kept me from writing a few words about the most recent edition of the Hernandez Brothers' Love & Rockets anthology: everybody else beat me to it. I'd like to bring my readers something a little original or insightful when I have a new Bookshelf entry for you, but as the months wore on and the conclusion of "The Love Bunglers" was annotated and dissected by dozens more reviewers and critics than me, every darn time I tried to come up with something, it was nothing new.

Then the year-end "best of" lists started coming out. This comic sat atop every one of them worth a spit, giving more and more praise for it. I found it tougher and tougher to find something new to say. Then it hit me: yes, "The Love Bunglers" is certainly the best comic of the year, but Love & Rockets # 4, all hundred pages of it, is certainly not, because it also contains, alongside this masterpiece by Jaime Hernandez, about fifty pages by brother Gilbert, and they are horrible.

(Yeah, that's my big, insightful revelation. Go negative.)

No, seriously, Gilbert has been losing me for years, and this is despite the fact that, by and large, his "Palomar" stories were, once upon a time, more engaging to me than any of Jaime's concurrent Hopey and Maggie stories. Gilbert's still doing "adaptations" of sex-filled sci-fi B-movies. If these were real movies, nobody would watch them. They're dumb, grindcore garbage. There's about thirty pages of one of Luba's brain-dead movies, this one about vampires, and about fifteen pages of Killer - I think - talking and talking and talking with some guy. I find it interesting, the way reviewers are sort of glossing over just how bad Gilbert's writing has become, dismissing the work here as being just a mere distraction in as few sentences as possible, probably because reviewers, rightly, want everybody to stop what they're doing and read "The Love Bunglers," and don't want to suggest to any potential new readers that there may be some deeply subpar material in the book with it. For fifteen bucks, you don't want wasted pages.

When a collected edition of "The Love Bunglers" is eventually issued, it, on the other hand, will be worth every penny. It's a masterpiece, even if it doesn't end the way anybody really wanted it to. I'll agree with everybody else that if this is the conclusion of Maggie's story, then it reached a fine one. There's that double-page montage that everybody's talked about. My family is used to me laughing and occasionally exclaiming aloud when I read - awful habit, I know - but I apparently made such an unpleasant choke when I hit this thing that my wife rushed around the corner to see whether I was okay. It's that amazing. And this is after Jaime already smacked me upside the head with a baseball bat by filling in a much older plot and explaining, in an explanation as blunt and tragic and terse as comics can get, what happened to an old supporting player in his large cast.

I really, really like how Jaime chose to defy readers' desires for the characters. The last time that I dipped into their story, rereading the stories in the Penny Century volume, I was reminded of how Hopey, mostly loyal, just patiently waits for her flighty soulmate. I would expect that many, many readers have felt the same way that I have, that when Maggie finally did get her shit together and stopped letting her demons ruin her happiness, the series would naturally conclude with she and Hopey together. Not, I have to say, that anybody wanted this story to conclude. It's in part just how brilliantly Jaime uses the medium to jump from a moment of pointless violence and stupidity into that montage, and in part the sudden, emphatic upending of our expectations and wants. It is an argument-halt as firm as any I've ever seen, it definitively ends any debate, it breaks your heart and leaves you completely fulfilled. We were wrong. Hopey would have been settling. How the hell did that happen?

"The Love Bunglers" is amazing and magical and so incredibly sad. It's been one of the very best stories I've read in the comic medium in years. I wish I could recommend it without any reservation, but, in its present form, I can't. When it gets repackaged in some better format, I certainly will. As for this particular volume, approach with caution, and maybe you'll leave the Gilbert stories thinking that they're not that bad, and that I don't know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hey Look!

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 Hey Look! (Kitchen Sink, 1992).

When I was still writing Reprint This!, I learned about Harvey Kurtzman's very silly comic page from the late 1940s. It was called Hey Look! and it ran sporadically in whatever humor or romance or funny animal comic published by Timely that needed an additional page of story that month. Kurtzman just churned the heck out of these filler pages for about three years. There were a few sample strips included in the wonderful Art of Harvey Kurtzman (Abrams, 2009) and I found them silly and charming. I was all set to scan those pages and write up a feature about it, when I got bored with Reprint This! and I learned that Kitchen Sink had already compiled all the material anyway.

A few months ago, I found the Kitchen Sink book. You know why I love used bookstores? I paid two dollars for this. The cheapest copy on Amazon right now is going for $40. Sure, it's in demand and out of print from a defunct publisher, but there are limits, you know?

Speaking of limits, despite only having a page for each feature, Kurtzman didn't seem to feel that he had any. This is only rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the humor having been blunted by time and by imitation, but it is wildly clever and inventive. As early as February 1948, Kurtzman was having his characters - principally a nameless "big guy" and "little guy" who dress in plain white T-shirts and suspenders - acknowledge their medium, break the fourth wall, and, in one really memorable gag, end a strip by ripping the final panel away. There are meta-gags that reference Charles Addams and incredibly novel panel layouts. Even if readers don't find this funny, they're certain to be surprised by the command that Kurtzman has over his medium.

Kitchen Sink's reprint, in black and white, starts with an unbelievably hyperbolic introduction by John Benson that, sensibly, references Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg as peers who were, similarly, stretching the boundaries of comedy. Some of these strips really did remind me of Kovacs' weird and surreal humor in the best way. By the time it wrapped up, it didn't feel tired or exhausted yet, but very fresh and promising.

The book concludes with a selection of other material that Kurtzman was also prepping as fillers for Timely from 1950-52. These include the single-page features Genius and Egghead Doodle, which star little kid protagonists, and the longer Pot-Shot Pete, a character that reappeared in an early issue of Mad. The little kid strips are more conventional than anything that happened with the big guy and the little guy, but one particular Genius, in which the little menace, Sheldon, safely bullies an older kid only to have his backup plan falter at a critical moment, really is hilarious.

The material is great, and I love the way that Kitchen Sink compiled it, with full credits and unobtrusive notations. It is apparently all of the original work, and certainly worth hunting down until some other publisher dusts off these pages and gives them another airing. That said, considering how many times Dark Horse has delayed and delayed their proposed collection of Kurtzman's Trump, that could certainly be a while. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 13, 2012

James Bond: Nightbird

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 James Bond: Nightbird (Titan, 2010).

The James Bond newspaper strip is unique among the many classic reprints that Titan has released, in that it's the only one that's been collected in book form out of order. This is a little confusing, but, even though they lack volume numbers, the seventeen books do, in the end, reprint the entire run of the strip and in order, but they were not published in a beginning-to-end sequence. In perhaps the weirdest moment, the effective "book thirteen" of the run was published last. This is Nightbird, a book that contains three stories from 1976-77: "Nightbird," "Hot Shot" and "Ape of Diamonds."

It's possible that Titan skipped around sometimes in the hopes of finding the best quality material possible, and did not wish to publish before firmly knowing that they'd done their very best. After all, there are several strips in "Ape of Diamonds" which really do suffer from quite poor reproduction. This is the tradeoff for having these strips reprinted at all, in any format. Searching through newspaper archives looking for the original masters did, in many cases, turn up some incredibly neat gems, such as the Ron Embleton samples seen in another volume, and this one collects a never completed, and never printed, series of twelve strips of an abandoned strip from the early 1980s. If a few rough panels of a subpar story were the tradeoff to find that kind of rarity, then I'll take it.

On the other hand, maybe this book was published last because the stories are, and let's be charitable, pretty horrible? The 1970s Bond stories by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav Horak - assisted in the final story by Modesty Blaise's Neville Colvin, who ghosts several strips in a quite remarkable pastiche of Horak - have a tendency towards grandiose plots that are just about this side of believable, but only if you're willing to believe the comic book supervillain trappings. "Nightbird" could have been a decent enough story about high-profile kidnappings, but with a criminal gang that uses "alien" costumes and a getaway ship shaped like a gigantic bird, it gets sillier by the panel. And by the time the trained super-gorilla shows up and Dr. No returns from the dead, you're waiting for Bond to don a cape and mask himself. Not recommended.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Book of Human Insects

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 Book of Human Insects (Vertical, 2011).

The household budget crunch of 2011 meant that I had to curtail my purchases of Vertical's growing library of Osamu Tezuka comics, but that publisher sent a representative to Anime Weekend Atlanta, and I'd have been remiss in leaving without a copy of their most recent release at the time: a hardcover collection of the quite obscure Book of Human Insects. Originally serialized in 1970-71 in the pages of Play, this story didn't even merit a mention in Helen McCarthy's delightful The Art of Osamu Tezuka, which helps shine a light on how badly a complete, extensive and annotated English language resource and bibliography is needed.

So I had the pleasure of reading this story without any background whatever, not knowing what to expect. Sadly, I can't provide even one of my half-baked reviews without giving you good readers at least a hint of what you might find in this volume. The story begins with a young writer, Toshiko Tomura, enjoying the accolades and awards for her debut novel, The Book of Human Insects, following very short and very successful careers as a designer and an actress, leaving behind a wake of very bitter and angry men toasting her celebrity from the depths of their obscurity or ruin. But the suicide of another young, hopeful writer suggests that there might be more to Tomura than anyone suspects, one of bold, superhuman plagiarism and predatory, bizarre sexuality, including a deeply strange relationship with a statue...

Some reviewers have compared this to Tezuka's 1968 serial Swallowing the Earth, which is also available in English through the publisher DMP. There are certainly some similarities. Both serials are set in the present day and are political-minded thrillers with only elements of fantasy grounding their character-driven plots. Tezuka, throughout most of the 1960s, had masterminded several family-friendly, plot-driven series with television or film adaptations in mind, and one reason that most of his 1970s work is comparatively obscure to American readers is that he made a deliberate effort to engage with older audiences through work that is, on the one hand more challenging and more adult, but also much shorter and never intended to provide the fodder for TV cartoon series and merchandising. American audiences, who came to know Tezuka via his TV cartoon series and merchandising, were unfamiliar with works like Swallowing, and the earlier Vertical releases Apollo's Song and MW until very recently.

The investigation into Tomura's past, and focus about what she will do next, takes a remarkable detour in the third chapter, when she finds herself involved in a world of high-finance boardroom intrigue. Shortly after her new position, one of the men from her past resurfaces and things take a really weird turn. Her actions don't leave the character in any way sympathetic, but it remains a tight and fascinating read because her game is so astonishing. My questions about how she's able to pull off her plotting are not really answered as fully as I thought Tezuka was going for, but they don't really need to be, either. It's not that sort of story.

The artwork is, as ever, utterly amazing, with one very curious exception. Tezuka and his studio used his distinctive character styles to create a realistic, solid world. There are no artistic shortcuts or cheats, and the places in his stories look real, and lived-in, and breathe like no other environment in comics. Rugs, pillows, jail cells, tower blocks, everything feels solid, with an attention to detail that nobody else in the medium ever quite matched. The characters stay on-model, without the frequent trope in Japanese comics of changing shape or form to indicate high emotion. But then Tomura disrobes - the script finds reason for her to on several occasions - and she turns into the least erotic being in comics. She is wildly off-model, all graceless, soaring curves, with hips like a horse and a torso six feet long. I thought this a very neat touch, Tezuka drawing attention to the character's nudity by making her, naked, every bit as inhuman and alien as her actions. I never claimed that this was a beautiful or life-affirming story; there's far too great a body count for that.

I wish that I was better able, financially, to support Vertical's commitment to releasing Tezuka in English. I know that there's more coming; the first of two volumes of his popular 1960s Princess Knight is out now, and the early '80s Adolf is coming in two volumes later this year. Still no news about the much-requested Ambassador Magma, Barbara or Vampire, but maybe if all you good readers go order The Book of Human Insects, they'll reward us with some good news for 2013. How about it, guys? This book is recommended for older readers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Some Buried Caesar

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 Some Buried Caesar (Farrar & Rhinehart, 1939).

I began rereading Rex Stout in early November, and while I don't intend to regularly feature (or, in many cases, re-feature) these books on this blog, I thought that I'd like to have the chance for a note or two when I stumble upon a neat trick or two that surprised me the second time around. Frequently, you find things that you missed the first time through.

In Some Buried Caesar, the sixth Nero Wolfe novel, the normally house-bound eccentric is in upstate New York to exhibit orchids at a county fair to show up a rival, and circumstances have led him and Archie Goodwin to a large farmhouse, where they are enjoying the hospitality of the wealthy owner of a chain of inexpensive restaurants. He has purchased Caesar, a prized Guernsey bull, for $45,000 and intends to have the bull butchered and served to a hundred guests at a barbecue for the publicity, outraging a cattlemen's association that wants to continue Caesar's bloodline.

So Wolfe is on Pratt's back patio and Pratt introduces a nephew, almost with the words "This is my nephew, WHO HAS A MOTIVE TO KILL ME." Almost immediately, furious representatives of the cattlemen's association show up and express their displeasure with his publicity stunt, pretty much saying "WE'VE GOT MOTIVES TO KILL YOU." Then Pratt's neighbor's son stops by with a friend, for not much other reason than to tell Pratt "I'VE GOT A MOTIVE TO KILL YOU." It's contrived and, had Pratt ended up the corpse, it would have felt as artificial as Agatha Christie. Pratt doesn't die. The neighbor's son does.

It's also interesting to see Archie's long-running flame, Lily Rowan, in her first appearance. She's introduced through the eyes of other characters and not at all flattered by their descriptions. As she develops into a sympathetic recurring character, the judgments expressed about her here seem very harsh and very strange.

The book is just great fun from start to finish, with Wolfe finding something to appreciate in the chicken fricassee at the Methodist tent to Archie-the-Agitator starting a labor movement in the county jail. That there's a murder to solve is just frosting on a very entertaining cake. Highly recommended.