Monday, November 26, 2012


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 Guilt (Delacorte, 1996).

John Lescroart's Guilt opens with two longtime friends, attorneys Wes Farrell and Mark Dooher, ogling a cute girl, as longtime friends might be expected to in any bar as the night grows long. Dooher intends to have her. He'll be successful, and, a few years later, they'll be wed and she'll be expecting his child, but only after Dooher has killed two people, one of whom is his current wife. This isn't spoiling much; the man is clearly shown off as guilty throughout the book, which first asks how the police will catch him, and then how his old pal Farrell will get him acquitted.

It's also not much of a spoiler to say that he will. Farrell had been introduced as a supporting player in Lescroart's previous novel A Certain Justice as a deeply depressed attorney who had lost faith in the law as a result of a really disheartening miscarriage of justice. This is, in part, that story: how Farrell got his old friend off a murder charge, knowing deep down that he had killed at least two people, but never understanding how. That's most of the book; the events of A Certain Justice actually happen, chronologically, about three-quarters of the way through this text. The final act asks whether the restored Farrell, allied with one of the author's regular players, Lieutenant Abe Glitsky, can do anything about it.

I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed this as much as I did, as so much of it is a foregone conclusion. Dooher is a fantastic opponent, one who hides his villainy extremely well, and never, ever feels that he's doing the wrong thing. It's a complex and complicated world, and he proves to be an excellent master villain to Abe Glitsky. I enjoy Lescroart for many reasons, but one of the best is the way that he populates such a busy world, full of characters, any of whom can take the spotlight for novels or portions of novels. As this book progresses, both Glitsky and Dooher become widowers. Lescroart doesn't make the resulting symmetry too obvious, but it links them, and the interaction this sparks is fabulous. Recommended, especially in tandem with the earlier book.

Friday, November 23, 2012

LSH Reread, part six

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 1-5, vol. 2 Annual # 3 and # 316, 1984)

Major developments:

*A very large group of the Legion's enemies forms. They call themselves the Legion of Super-Villains and each must swear a blood oath to kill one of the heroes or die themselves.
*While that calamity is getting started, some sorcerers decide to resurrect Mordru, but are stopped in time.
*Garth and Imra's baby is born. They are surprised that the boy is an only child, as Winathian men almost always father twins, and Imra swore that she felt the thoughts of a second child. Unbeknownst to them, Darkseid had used the universe-wide darkness of Mordru's attempted resurrection to steal the baby. He sends it back in time where the baby will grow into the powerful monster Validus, the member of the Fatal Five who had slain Lyle Norg.
*The villains teleport the planet Orando into a between-universes limbo.
*Karate Kid dies in combat with his old foe Nemesis Kid who is, in turn, executed by Projectra. The villains scattered, she decrees that it was wrong to try and modernize Orando, and leaves her friends to return to our universe, while they travel on, planning to never be seen again.
*Element Lad, Cham, Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl and Violet are trapped in limbo, trying to get home.
*Ayla Ranzz loses her gravity-nullifying powers and regains her lightning powers.
*Speaking of Lyle Norg, he's alive again and wants to return to the weird world where he had briefly been seen in # 299. Jacques Foccart agrees to take him.

This is a much better group of comics than LSH had seen for several months. It handles the split between the new volume and the old really gracelessly and awkwardly, and making room for a new annual certainly doesn't help, but these seven issues just about pull off the transition and tell a really epic adventure pretty well.

In their favor, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen have clearly been reading Marvel's Uncanny X-Men and learned, from Chris Claremont, how to write villains. The clumsy moniker "Legion of Super-Villains" makes more sense to the readers than to many of these characters. Some of these old faces have only survived, awkwardly, into the 1980s because of the old fan demand to see recurring baddies. Radiation Roy, the most obvious example, is lost among them. He's a relic of the silly 1960s, when the Legion was called in by the police to stop space bank robberies, basically. This sort of "crooks do rotten things, by golly" perspective was long buried, and it looks like Levitz just doesn't want to use old characters like Roy, or Saturn Queen, or Cosmic King, all of whom have little to do in this adventure.

Now, Levitz and Giffen had already, in issue # 301, rehabilitated Lightning Lord from a bank robber who fires zap blasts, into something much more chilling and forceful. Here, he resembles Marvel's Magneto more than anybody else. He's lost in his rhetoric, brutal and hateful toward his sister Ayla, and believes that nature itself is speaking to him, reassuring him, via communication only he can hear. He's insane, but he's believably and coldly insane. Unfortunately, the LSV is so large, and features so many promising, newer characters like Zymyr, that the same rehabilitation can't be undertaken for all of the oldies with the space available. Hence, Roy doesn't get a personality upgrade; he's just the butt of a couple of jokes. Zymyr, incidentally, is a big purple tapeworm in a floating bubble. He's from a race with the quite ridiculous name of the Gil'Dishpan.

Structurally, though, this story barely hangs together. Because DC Comics, experimenting with this new shipping cycle of a direct market volume 3 and a newsstand market volume 2, can't be assured that everybody will be able to read all seven parts of this story, the annual and # 316 have to reference the big action in # 1-5 without relying upon them. These are side stories to the main action, and don't slot in as, say, "episode four of seven" like they might. There was one fumble that showed that I did not read them in the correct order. # 4 opens with a reference to Wildfire vanishing, which I thought the story would explain in a few pages. No, it happened toward the end of # 316, which I read after # 5. Not that it mattered much.

Okay, so it's not so much a seven-episode story as it is a five-episode story with two awkward additions bolted on. Even accepting that, it's still weird, because the villains' plot abruptly changes after issue # 2. It begins all dark and ominous about every member swearing a blood oath to kill a Legionnaire. This is mostly abandoned. Their real plot turns out to be to teleport the pain in the ass backwards planet Orando through limbo and to another universe, so all the baddies can be space bank robbers again, basically.

But I think that "Once a Villain..." - to give this story a name - has so many key moments of greatness that it's really easy to overlook the patchy overall plot. First up just has to be the arrival of Steve Lightle on art duties. Holy anna, is this guy ever a find. He takes over from Giffen after # 2 and the book instantly looks so much better. Giffen hit his absolute nadir in my book - even worse than the awful job on "Omen and the Prophet" - with the cover of # 2. This awkwardly-posed cover shows several of the villains attempting to look menacing, but since Giffen drew them with floppy circles on their shoulders instead of skulls with facial musculature, they look like a bunch of balloons on scarecrow bodies. The interior work is not much better. Lightle kicks things back the way LSH should look. He's a terrific artist who's never received his credit from fandom, frankly one of the best artists to ever work in the superhero genre. There are still some production problems, however. Colorist Carl Gafford's effects and things certainly look better on the whiter Baxter paper than on newsprint, but the downside is that the process shows off the flaws whenever a colored element is placed over otherwise black on the page. It's sort of like watching a super-hi-def digital remaster of Thunderbirds and wondering when they replaced those thin silver strings that hold up the puppets with big black cords.

And then things go completely wild when we get to Orando - poor, stupid, King Arthur Orando - and Nemesis Kid lays down the smack. Comics foretell heroes' deaths all the time, but what happens really is stunning. Back in the late 1960s, writer Jim Shooter had introduced four new Legionnaires in a very celebrated series of stories. Nemesis Kid, with his adaptation power to defeat any single opponent, was almost immediately outed as a traitor, and Ferro Lad died after seven issues. Karate Kid and Princess Projectra remained close while their fellow newcomers were lost. Karate Kid left the team for a solo series, set in the weird wild world of contemporary Earth during the days when Bruce Lee kung fu movies were all the rage, and Projectra, even when most of the guys and ladies in the team were showing off all that skin, was prancing around in a Frederick's of Hollywood outfit. Frankly, both characters were due for retirement. They didn't feel natural; they felt dated and ridiculous, so their happy ending and royal wedding should have been a sweet finale for them.

One year later, the planet is devastated by the villains and millions killed, and Karate Kid, beaten to the last inch of his life by Nemesis Kid, turns and dies heroically shutting down one of the engines that is driving Orando through limbo in a huge explosion. Projectra kills Nemesis Kid by breaking his neck. The villain's corpse is unburied and left to be kicked around by soldiers. What's left of Karate Kid's body is ceremoniously burnt on a funeral pyre, and Projectra gives a final farewell to her friends; Orando will remain in limbo or beyond. She had failed her people, and they want nothing to do with the United Planets or any outside world. Well, to put it mildly, holy shit.

This is so epic, and so amazing, that the dismissive problem of Lyle Norg still hanging around being ignored by everybody for seven months seems extremely weird. That, at least, will get addressed in the next batch of issues. Otherwise, "Once a Villain..." is certainly flawed but still really memorable, a powerful and gut-punching story full of excellent character moments and unexpected, jawdropping results. Most of the baddies get away, and five of our heroes look to be lost forever between dimensions. Especially with Lightle at work, it leaves me really anxious for what comes next.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Princess Knight vol. 1

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 Princess Knight volume one (Vertical, 2011).

I haven't had the opportunity to pick up any new domestic releases from the great Osamu Tezuka for quite some time, but a really wonderful reader sent me an Amazon gift card, and I figured the least I could do was pick up something from my wish list that I wanted to read and share with y'all.

Princess Knight, a comic that originally ran over three years in the mid-1950s, surprised me somewhat. I knew that it was a lighthearted adventure series for girls - Japanese publishers categorize it and like-minded comics as "shōjo," although the insistence among American fans of Japanese comics to use the same terminology remains baffling to me - but I had no idea just how whimsically it begins, and how dark and mean it becomes. I was expecting a medieval fantasy, but not really a fairy tale. Frankly, it's probably not possible to read it and not find it charming.

Tezuka's habit was to rewrite and recreate his comics after their original publication, and I understand that Vertical's release of Princess Knight, across two volumes, comes from a 1963-66 version for Nakayoshi magazine. It's the story of Sapphire, the only heir to the throne of Silverland, who must masquerade as a boy to inherit. Complicating matters is that she was born with both a "boy heart" and a "girl heart." Her boy heart gives her the talent to master swordfighting. When her girl heart unexpectedly dominates her, usually as a result of evil, magical intervention, she swoons and goes "ohhhhhh" and has to drop her sword. Not, perhaps, a comic for readers who study contemporary gender politics with great intensity.

It begins as light as gossamer and half as deep, but Princess Knight is a pleasant diversion with real surprises. It's dated, certainly, but the fairy tale mice and angels don't detract from the downbeat avenues that the plot takes. When Sapphire and her mother are imprisoned - Sapphire's deception is exposed quite early on thanks to villains getting the queen drunk, although her dual life continues by posing as two different people - it really does look bleak. The artwork is consistently amazing and, honestly, I enjoyed this even more than I thought I might. Recommended for all ages.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Vig

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 Vig (Donald I. Fine, 1991).

Since I enjoyed one of John Lescroart's "son of Holmes" novels featuring a young, and never formally identified, Nero Wolfe, I figured that I owed it to the writer to try some of his other stories. In 1990, he began a long-running series of legal thrillers and detective fiction that feature a pair of protagonists who share friendships and a big pile of recurring characters. Dismas Hardy is a former cop who sometimes works as an attorney and sometimes as a bartender, and Abe Glitsky is a homicide detective in San Francisco.

The 13th Juror and A Certain Justice were both very good books. They were dense and unpredictable and very well written, but each was a little hampered by my personal biases. The woman in Juror who has hired Hardy to get her off a murder rap was so colossally disagreeable and annoying that I stopped caring what would happen to her, and the poor fellow at the center of Justice was caught in such an incredibly horrible situation, much of it, involving the politics down at the DA's office, he's completely ignorant, that I found the experience of reading it really depressing. It has one hell of an ending, mind.

Much more entertaining was The Vig, which preceded those two books and featured Hardy keeping a low profile and serving black-and-tans from the Irish-themed bar that he co-owns with his future brother-in-law. In this one, Rusty Ingraham, an old colleague from the DA's office, stops by to let him know that a killer they'd put away years before and who swore vengeance is out. They plan to arm up and keep an eye out for each other, but Ingraham vanishes almost immediately, his ladyfriend is found dead, and the ex-con, immediately in trouble with the dealers who've moved into his neighborhood, is on the run after one of those thugs gets shot. And then, somehow, the mob gets involved.

I enjoyed this one a lot for its spiraling sense of confusion and Hardy's inability to trust the word of anybody. Hardy believes that Ingraham was using him as an alibi to fake his death and get out of town, but can neither prove it nor find any reason why he would do that, particularly when the bodies keep piling up, and the only one we know for certain that the suspect didn't shoot is one of the dealers.

Overall, I really had fun meeting these characters and seeing Hardy driven to keep looking into a weird situation when it's not at all in his interest to keep digging. The storytelling is clear, even as the plot takes wild left turns, and I was left thinking that Hardy's bar would be a fine place to kick back. Next on my pile from Lescroart is Guilt, which is linked in some way to the characters in A Certain Justice. It's not a situation that I look forward to revisiting, but the characters and the storytelling are so very good that I'm happy to chance it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

LSH Reread, part five

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, # 310-315, 1984)

Major developments:

*Omen and the Prophet's battle against the LSH, on the sovereign planet of Khundia, has political ramifications. The Khunds fail to get them offworld before Omen's goal - an illegal and lethally dangerous Negaton bomb - is revealed. The bomb destroys Omen and the Prophet, and reveals, in the wreckage, the believed-deceased Legionnaire Lyle Norg.
*I say again, Lyle Norg comes back to life. You'd think that this would be huge.
*Computo is finally reprogrammed, Danielle Foccart is cured, and the team headquarters is rebuilt.
*Dawnstar returns to the team, accepting that Wildfire is, despite his lack of a human body, her soulmate.
*The book splits into two titles, one for the growing "direct market" of comic shops.

This will be a weird entry to write, as I'm certain to be channeling my inner 13 year-old, who turned on these funnybooks with a mercurial and hateful vengeance when they were published. Parenting a 13 year-old girl with wild mood swings and very loud opinions who takes everything way too damn seriously, I can imagine that my views in 1984 must have been pretty intemperate, but you know, even with the sober, calmer opinions of fortysomethinghood, the writers and publishers really did make some extremely weird decisions at this time, and the resulting comics truly are not very good at all. I can see why the earlier material - just a few months earlier - thrilled me so much at the time, because they remain, demonstrably, very good comics. But man alive, did they ever hit a bad, and really strange patch in 1984. To do so when an impatient and demanding 13 year-old is risking one-fourth of his weekly allowance on them, well, that's a recipe for grudges.

In the previous installment, I explained that issues # 307-310 are a four-part story about two overpowered, deity-level villains causing all sorts of violence and volume in a big, stupid, outer space fight. One thing I'd forgotten until parenthood is that the perception of time is totally different when you're a kid. Four months is an eternity. And so # 310 had been another terrible issue of noise, no imagination, and really bad artwork as Keith Giffen continued his new and painful experimentation in swiping. And it ends with a really stunning revelation: when Omen/Prophet gets sucked into another dimension, the other dimension spits Lyle Norg back into ours.

Now about a year before, in # 299, we briefly saw Lyle, as his successor Jacques Foccart stumbles across him in some hallucinatory, weird otherworld, but we're never sure whether the incident is a dream or fantasy. But in terms of what this means, well, it's enormous. In the 1980s, superheroes simply didn't come back from the dead like they embarrassingly do today. Especially in LSH, when the three deaths - four, if you count Luorno's third body - of heroes was something that the survivors remembered and honored. So 13 year-old me was expecting this stunner of an ending to be followed in the next issue. And it wasn't.

# 311 was another split issue to help Giffen out with his deadlines - he was a new dad, that's understandable - with one 12-page story drawn by him and a second drawn by the late Gene Colan. It didn't take me long in life to appreciate Colan a lot. When I was in high school, I thrilled to his 1970s work for Marvel on Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula. He was one of the giants. But when I was in middle school, I couldn't stand him. I probably first saw his work in the February 1982 issue of Wonder Woman ( # 288) and hated it so much that I eventually stopped buying the comic, which had been one of my favorites since I was old enough to read on my own. Honestly, his 1980s DC work is not as strong as his 1970s Marvel work - and you sit down with Wonder Woman # 293 and tell me I'm wrong - but while it didn't deserve the teenage spitting and hate that I roared at it, the comic still isn't very good.

Then things got worse. Okay, so in # 312, we're bound to start dealing with Lyle Norg, right? No, he gets a sentence of backhanded acknowledgement. The story is dull and unimportant - it's a two-part "police procedural" about Colossal Boy and Element Lad going undercover in the Science Police to find a blackmailer - the artwork is terrible, and there's a special announcement about something infuriating. My friends and acquaintances who grew up with British comics remember the cold childhood fury of the "exciting news inside, chums!" announcement that your favorite comic was to be canceled and merged with another title. Here's my version of it.

See, comics at the time were mainly sold on the spinner racks in drug stores and Majik Markets, and, once in a great while, you'd find back issues at the Cumberland Mall antique shows. Or, you could go by Benny the Book Trader and maybe get a back issue with a little U penciled on the first page for ten cents under cover price. The Book Trader was - in the suburbs of Atlanta - among the first stores to form the "direct market." News vendors, Eckerd Drugs or convenience stores could return unsold comics for credit against the next batch to come in but had limited control over what they received. The direct market, which came to dominate comic book sales in North America for the next thirty years, paid up front for non-returnable stock, but ordered specific quantities of what they wanted and believed would sell through.

DC and Marvel reasoned, correctly, that the growing segment of older comics readers would pay a higher price for better quality comics, printed on better paper and with higher production values, allowing superior color and without the occasional problems of badly-registered color overlays. At the time, DC's two best-selling titles were Teen Titans and LSH, and so the company started a very weird new policy for them. After the July 1984 issue, the "main story" moved from the existing newsprint title and into the Baxter book, priced almost twice as much - a then whopping $1.25, which isn't what you want to spend when your parents, expecting you to save all three dollars of your allowance, are incapable of hearing any prices without reminding you that in the good old days, funnybooks was only a dime - and only available in the direct market, or, shops like the Book Trader, where I was not guaranteed the chance to visit very often.

The August 1984 issue was taken over by what even 13 year-old me recognized was going to be the B-Team. I don't remember how I came to understand this from house ads and letters page announcements, but while Levitz and Giffen would be plotting the stories, they would be executed by others. # 314, for example, had a main story, in which the traitor Ontiir, who'd been working for the Emerald Empress back in # 302, ran back to his bosses in the Dark Circle and got Sun Boy, Brainy and Supergirl into a fight, that was drawn by newcomers Terry Shoemaker & Karl Kesel. The 8-page backup, again inked by Kesel and drawn by veteran George Tuska, was dialogued by Mindy Newell from Levitz and Giffen's plot. The backup ran for three issues and told the story of Mysa the White Witch's origin.

The plan was for twelve months in this format: new stories in both the slightly retitled Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes (volume 2) # 314-325, and the Baxter paper, direct market Legion of Super-Heroes (Volume 3) # 1-12. After the first year, Tales would become a reprint book, and # 326 would reprint LSH (Volume 3) # 1. Does that make any sense? Believe it or not, it lasted for a good while, since so many people were still buying their comics from newsstands and quickie-marts. The reprints in Volume 2 continued until the end of 1987, and the final issue of Tales, # 354, reprinted LSH (Volume 3) # 29.

As an adult, organizing the comics into a reading order is slightly problematic, since the ongoing stories only wink and wave at each other while moving along. To be honest, I'm not as familiar with Tales as I am Volume 3, because when, years later, toward the end of high school, when I started going back to find all the books that I missed, I only wanted Volume 3. The twelve issues of Tales just didn't seem to count. I eventually bought most of them, but can't honestly claim that I ever really cared that much, even during those times when my passion for Legion resumed in a big way.

And Lyle? Dude comes back from the dead in # 310 and finally gets about three pages of acknowledgement across # 314 and # 315. He's mopey, wants to be left alone, and wishes that he was still resting in peace. What in the world was the point of bringing him back to life - if that's what's happened - if that's all that Levitz and Giffen wanted to do with him? It is really, really weird.

But I never saw it at the time. I was hating the artwork after seven months of lousy stories and pictures, and this instantly-abandoned (or so it seemed) subplot about Lyle offended the bejezus out of me as a kid, and now they were taking the REAL Legion to some stores where I couldn't always go and charging more for it and leaving me with leftovers from minor leaguers. I dropped the book in the blazing, eternal fury of a pissed-off eighth-grader.

Plus, I'd found Uncanny X-Men, which I liked better.

Next time, again, the reading order is tricky and fumbling, but I think it works best if I look at the first five issues of the Baxter book, the third Annual, and Tales # 316.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Black Tower

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 Black Tower (Faber & Faber, 1975).

I have always felt that Unnatural Death was the first of P.D. James' detective novels to really nail it for me, but the fifth book, The Black Tower, had, for some reason, always left me cold. I wonder why that was. Rereading James, I came to this book again for probably the fourth time, and this reading had me completely captivated. Just goes to show you that when an author whom you enjoy so much seems to fumble, it might be worth another try. Or four.

The story begins with Dalgliesh recovering from a life-threatening bout of what the doctors thought might have been leukemia, but he lucked out. He's told to spend several weeks recuperating, and he gets a letter from a very old acquaintance, a priest who has been working as the chaplain at an eccentric nursing home for the disabled way out on some isolated coast, asking for him to visit and give some confidential advice. But Dalgliesh is some days in visiting, and arrives to find his old friend dead and himself the owner of a great theological library, left in Father Badderley's will.

Despite himself, Dalgliesh starts looking into this odd little community, with its robed attendants and vow-of-silence shared meals, because this is one of two recent deaths which, while apparently natural, seem too coincidental. There is, of course, a killer at large in the small group, and the murders are not going to stop just because a Scotland Yard commander on convalescent leave is residing in one of the cottages.

I guess this book did not appeal to me because the killer's plot really is convoluted and requires some handwaving to accept the lack of reason paired with such meticulous planning. This will never be my favorite Dalgliesh story for that alone. But the prose is so much better than I ever credited it. I had been skimming the surface, and was missing just how creepy and oppressive this tale is. Some of the sequences are really horrific, and, focused on the detail, I found power that I didn't know this book possessed.

James is a challenging writer, piling on the detail of her characters' psychology and backstory. This much more complex approach, when compared with other writers I've sampled recently, results in books that take a little longer to get through. I can usually finish a Robert B. Parker in a day, but James takes me a week. It's almost always a very pleasant experience. Recommended.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beyond the Bulldog: Jack Davis

Today, a slight change-up here at the old Bookshelf blog. Regular readers know that I'm a huge fan of Mad and its classic artists. Jack Davis is certainly one of the greats, and a Georgia boy and UGA alumnus besides. There are a few collections of Davis's artwork available, and, if you love me, I have a birthday in about twenty days, you know. But even if you're not in the market for buying big expensive books from Fantagraphics for some guy whose work you sometimes read on the Internet, you should definitely be making plans to fly, drive, or hitchhike to Athens to check out this amazing exhibit of some of his work.

This exhibit is on display through January 6 2013 and features a couple of dozen original pages by Davis, among them the cover to Mad # 27, along with some quite rare memorabilia. These include some of his LP record sleeves and comics, including an issue of Humbug and the first of two issues of Yak Yak, a much sought-after humor book published by Dell, which features both scripts and artwork by Davis.

Mr. Davis explained to an enthralled audience that he did not much care for writing, preferring to illustrate scripts and ideas that others, particularly the great Harvey Kurtzman, brought to him. He was present for the opening of the exhibit, which is curated by my old friend, the excellent cartoonist Patrick Dean, one week ago. At 88 and a little hard of hearing, Davis has lost a spring or two in his step, but he's the epitome of the southern gentleman, absolutely gracious and kind and free in his compliments to the many creators with whom he has worked over the years.

The exhibit is entitled "Beyond the Bulldog" in part because, in Athens, Davis is probably better known for all of his iconic paintings and illustrations of UGA's Hairy Dawg - many hundreds of 'em - than he is for his movie posters, Time or TV Guide covers. Now, Patrick gave a very good speech before the large crowd at the Georgia Museum of Art, and one of his points got me thinking. He noted that Davis gave more character to Hairy Dawg than just about any other mascot in sports, and that's certainly true. You know more about Hairy's "personality" - such as it is - from any two drawings of the big bulldog than any representations of other college's little stars. But that got me thinking that one of the real signs of genius to Davis is that he gave character and life to everybody else's mascots as well. Sure, they're almost always twisted and mangled and crushed underneath Hairy's huge, mud-covered cleats, but if you want to know who Vanderbilt's Wacky Mr. Commodore is - I have no idea what the character's really called; we just named him that after suffering through that school's sub-minor league baseball pregame shenanigans one warm October evening in Nashville - he's present in Davis's drawings of him, and not from anything that Vanderbilt University has ever commissioned. I don't know whether it even ever occurred to Davis that he was defining Florida's gator as an overweight blob with halitosis as he drew Hairy stepping on him, but for untold thousands of UGA faithful, that's all that gator is. Now that's genius.

The day before, UGA had treated its fans to a predictably poor first quarter against Ole Miss before we woke up and remembered that we were meant to win the game. It was a big win, and a great second half, but the scare wasn't appreciated in the Davis household. "They shouldn't do that to an old man," he said with a smile.

Well, okay, I've possibly undermined the intent of the exhibit by talking so much about Hairy Dawg here, but when you look at the mud on the soldiers' boots in original Frontline Combat pages, or see those incredibly detailed mobs of people that he draws like nobody else, you'll see all this incredible work coming from the same perspective. Whatever he draws, be it a mascot, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, Gerald Ford, or Alfred E. Neuman, it's inspiring and amazing.

This exhibit is appearing at the Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, through January 6. Admission is free, although a small donation is requested. Copies of Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture are available in the museum gift shop.

(And, of course, while you're in Athens, you'll need something to eat! Stop by our food blog to get some recommendations about good meals in the Classic City.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

LSH Reread, part four

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, Annual # 2 and 304-309, 1983-84)

Major developments:

*Projectra and Karate Kid get hitched. They're the third pair of Legionnaires to marry, we're told, and they formally resign from the team to rule the planet Orando as Queen and Prince Consort.
*Shvaughn Erin and Element Lad have deduced that the Shrinking Violet we've been watching for months is an impostor. The real Salu Digby has been abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk. The "Vi" who has - in an almost big a surprise as the abduction - married Colossal Boy is a Durlan actress named Yera. The biggest surprise comes with the revelation that Colossal Boy intends to stay married to her, and, sorry, Queen Projectra, but it turns out y'all're the fourth Legionnaire wedding after all.
*Dawnstar breaks things off with Wildfire and takes a leave of absence from the team.
*Element Lad is elected team leader.
*Garth and Imra announce that they're going to have a baby.
*Two ultra-powerful beings, The Prophet and Omen, show up and start yelling at everybody.
*Keith Giffen buys a bunch of José Muñoz comics and studies them very, very closely.

This run of LSH is one that I'll always remember, because it goes from a huge high, and the peak of my teenage fandom, to the first of the three really big stumbling blocks that had me walking away from the comic. It's amazing, in retrospect, how quickly this happened, but that's teenagers for you. Within ten months of deciding I would be a fan for life, the quality of the book fell off a cliff between issues # 306 and # 307. It would recover, but only after I abandoned it.

But first up, there's Dave Gibbons. He illustrated the second annual, which is really a silly story in which five Legionnaires get lost in time and get into a scrap with Durlans posing as Greek gods, and I had not loved artwork so much since the passing of Dick Dillin, who had illustrated all those wonderful Justice League of America comics that I enjoyed as a child. Soon, I would find Gibbons' artwork in Marvel's American-sized reprints of the very fun Doctor Who comic, and then Watchmen, and then all of the stories that he'd done for 2000 AD. This was my introduction to his work, and I was amazed by it.

But the big deal here is the story about Vi. In the three previous chapters of this reread, I've made sure not to refer to Violet as Salu Digby, because she was abducted by terrorists from her home planet of Imsk, and a Durlan actress named Yera was sent to impersonate her in the Legion. She fell in love with Colossal Boy, which was a dream come true for him, as he'd been crushing on Salu for a few years and was pleased that she finally reciprocated. Now, it must be said that Yera agreeing to marry Gim in the first place is just about the height of thoughtlessness and crappy behavior, but I think it's really interesting that creators Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen decided to keep them together. Gim, heart-on-his-sleeve sensitive guy that he is, forgives Yera for the deception, accepting that she personally had nothing to do with Salu's kidnapping and was oblivious to her incarceration. Yera offers to annul the marriage since she came into it with false pretenses, but he accepts her as she is.

As tough as some of that is to swallow, I'm glad that Levitz and Giffen stuck with it, because it allowed them to explore some new character quirks. He therefore becomes half of the third Legionnaire marriage, and the only one to a spouse who isn't also a superhero. Also, since his mother is Earth's president, and since there are considerable biases among humanity against Durlans, that opens some interesting political avenues. There will also be the business of how Salu, once she recovers and rejoins the team, feels about Yera and her old buddy Colossal Boy.

Issue # 306 is a flashback-filled story looking at Star Boy's history. The flashbacks are drawn, with reliable energy, by old hand Curt Swan, while the framing is drawn by Giffen and Mahlstedt in what would be the last example of the style for which Giffen was known. It's a great story, too. Basically, it's Star Boy kicking back with Wildfire to watch the election returns come in, and hoping that Dream Girl will lose so that she'll have time to pay attention to him again. (This issue was mentioned by comedian John Hodgman in a USA Today interview just last week. Thanks to Matt for the heads-up!)

Everything changed, and, to my mind, in a terrible way, with # 307. Thirteen year-olds aren't known for being able to express much in the way of art criticism - in fact, forty year-olds are pretty often awful with it, too - but all I knew then was that, suddenly, Giffen's art looked like it fell off a cliff. There are, certainly, interesting panel layouts, but faces became elongated and sloppy, anatomy was all over the map, the camera angles were utterly bizarre, and there's a sense of energy and movement that, combined with how weird everybody looks and how incredibly thick the inking is - surely Mahlstedt wasn't responsible for these figures?! - gives the whole comic a sense of being rushed, wildly.

It doesn't help that the four-part story, "Omen and the Prophet," suffers for two big reasons. First, episodes two and three are shorter than usual. Part two is 14 pages, with George Tuska doing a much more competent job with a nine-page story in which Gim and Yera meet his mother, and part three is 13 pages, with Pat Broderick again turning in a much more professional looking job with ten pages about Projectra and Karate Kid. It really, really feels like Giffen was falling over deadlines and not leaving Mahlstedt time to ink anything. To be fair, Giffen had been extraordinarily busy, what with his LSH commitments and also launching another DC title, The Omega Men, and his son being born, which can be a huge crunch. But this is nevertheless really slapdash work, and the story is a complete bore as well, with a barely-coherent plot about overpowered loudmouths yelling a lot.

As if Giffen's work was not aggravating enough on its own, it soon transpired that the artist had been appropriating and swiping the comics of an Argentinian cartoonist named José Muñoz. The Comics Journal, in its February 1986 issue, called Giffen out on how flagrantly he was pilfering from Muñoz, doing much to derail his previously fan-favorite career, and giving his reputation a black eye that took decades to recover.

By that time, I'd already dropped LSH. I remember looking over some recent back issues in 1986 and a friend told me about the swiping. I shrugged it off, but was a little pleased to understand just why the artwork in my previously-favorite comic had turned so awful. More on the story behind that in our next installment.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crogan's Loyalty

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 Crogan's Loyalty (Oni, 2012).

I'll tell you what I don't like about Chris Schweizer's series of Crogan comics: they come out far too infrequently. Don't get me wrong; they're worth the wait, probably take this side of forever to research, write and draw, and each is huge fun. The third, Crogan's Loyalty, was released earlier this year, but since I have not gone out comic shopping for quite some time, it remained something to purchase some other day. Happily, my wife surprised me by picking up a copy from Schweizer when she saw him at Dragon*Con.

This time out, the heroes are the squabbling brothers William and Charles, who find themselves on opposite sides of the American Revolution. They are the grandchildren of the pirate character from the first book, back in 2008. This time out, the characters are set in the tough wilderness of the colonies. William has found himself a sweetheart who lives with her family deep in the forest near Indian land, and Charles has sworn loyalty to the crown and works as a guide for Hessian troops.

As with the previous stories, this is a fantastic, unpredictable adventure with high stakes and a degree of attention that few of Schweizer's peers come close to meeting. I love his artwork, and that deep, dark curve to his lines, and I love how incredibly well he lays out the action scenes. It's an amazingly fun story, certainly worth spending a couple of days with. If you've not read the previous stories, you will certainly want to track them down afterward, and then join me in impatiently waiting for the next one.