Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LSH Reread, part thirteen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 37-40 and Annual # 3, Superman vol. 2 # 8, and Action Comics # 591, 1987)

Major developments:

*Cosmic Boy and Night Girl have returned from a vacation in the 20th Century, only to find it radically altered from the history that they have known, without the Superboy of Smallville who inspired the formation of the LSH, and who later grew up to be Superman. In this iteration, Superman made his first public appearance in 1986, and was never active as a "Boy of Steel." They confronted an old and powerful enemy, the immortal and entropic Time Trapper, who warned them to never attempt to travel in time again.
*Ignoring this, Brainiac 5 leads a team that includes himself, Cos, Night Girl, Ultra Boy, Blok, Invisible Kid, Sun Boy and Mon-El back to Superboy's time of the 1960s. But their old friend betrays them, trapping Mon-El, Ultra Boy, Cos and Night Girl in stasis. The others use the time bubble to move forward in time...
*Brainy and the others find Superman in the late 1980s, but he has no memory of the LSH, and while he finds their story about his history and recent events intriguing - "like some crazy Twilight Zone version of my life" - they are all frozen in time by Superboy and his stasis ray.
*Superman breaks free from Superboy's stasis ray and pursues him back to the 1960s, while the Time Trapper explains to the audience what the heck is going on: he has taken advantage of a temporal anomaly - the LSH interacting with a universe that never existed - to create that universe itself from a sliver of time, one million years old. This "pocket universe" included a Superboy who donned a costume at the age of eight, inspired and later joined the LSH of the 30th Century. Each time the LSH, who are really from the future of the new-to-us Superman's universe (the "real one"), traveled back to visit Superboy, they were actually passing from our universe into this "pocket."
*The two Kryptonians fight. Superboy is actually a hell of a lot more powerful than the new-to-us Superman, but the older man's got the moral strength, and knows that whatever has gone on to make the Boy of Steel betray the Legion, his heart isn't in it. Superboy concedes; he's learned about the Time Trapper, after the incidents of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Trapper has demanded that the Legion be destroyed for his "pocket universe" to survive, and desperately hoped that Superman could find an answer. The Legion insists, however, that Superman remain in 1987. If he were to die in battle with the Trapper at the end of time, it really could unravel all of history.
*But the casualty of the battle is actually Superboy, who is mortally wounded while heroically powering one of the Trapper's devices and sending his adopted homeworld into safety somewhere else, ripping the pocket universe away from the Trapper's control and also away from the Crisis on Infinite Earths. His last feat of strength is flying the Legionnaires' bubble back through time to the correct 2987, and he dies in Mon-El's arms after asking his old "brother": "Take care of Earth for me... it -- it was the nicest home a boy could want..."
*SP Officer Gigi Cusimano spends an evening reminiscing about the days when she dated Colossal Boy before she accepts a promotion and commission to be chief of the SP attachment on Mars, which will probably make her unavailable for many more evenings with Sun Boy.
*Cos and Night Girl retire to her home planet of Kathoon. Finding evidence of a plot by the alien Dominators, they call for backup. With the LSH unavailable, Bouncing Boy, Comet Queen, and Myg - the new Karate Kid - come to assist. They decide to form a new group of Substitute Heroes.
*The criminal kingpin Starfinger finds a couple more of his extortion schemes halted by the Legion, and he has a great big temper tantrum.

I'll come back to Starfinger, who really is proving to be a disappointment, in the next chapter of this reread. This time out, we'll talk about Superboy.

DC Comics has stopped and restarted their continuity heaven knows how many times in the last thirty years, and never understood the lesson that writer and artist John Byrne taught them in 1986: you have to do a full, line-wide reboot for anything to make sense and not have huge plot holes. Byrne, along with George Perez, who rebooted Wonder Woman around the same time, were probably the only DC creators who did it right. They certainly didn't do it very well (coughByrneBigBardaSleezcough), but that's a separate argument.

Byrne perceived that one of the problems with Superman in the early 1980s was his enormous supporting cast of fellow Kryptonians and hangers-on. He was far too powerful, and in the unlikely event he did meet too great a challenge, he had a mob of cousins and parallel universe "brothers" and the entire city of Kandor to call for help - hardly the life of the "Last Son of Krypton." Byrne also dumped most of the dumber aspects of the character, apparently asking the very sensible question, "When was Superman ever stupid enough to tell people that he had a secret identity?" This new, streamlined Man of Steel made his public, costumed debut as an adult in 1986, after Clark Kent had a successful athletic and college career, arriving at the Daily Planet as a seasoned reporter with experience covering war zones for the wire services and only using his super powers, secretly, in emergencies. In short, Byrne made Superman readable for the first time in ages, and consigned the bumbling, foolish, No-Friends Clark to history.

But this new narrative sat awkwardly with most every other creator and editor in the comics. Historically, Superman always inspired all the other modern-day superheroes to get started, but, depending on who was writing what title, the Justice League and Batman might have been operating for years before his debut. Very little was making sense as, for example, the many Batman writers decided against restarting their character, because that would mean rebooting Robin back to a kid and forcing a reboot of DC's best-seller, Teen Titans, which featured Robin as a twenty-something hero named Nightwing.

And then there was Legion, which had about thirty years of history reliant on the idea that teenage Superboy had inspired the team and spent most of his teenage and - I guess - college days hanging out with them having adventures. As it had been DC's second-most popular title (sales had allegedly dropped by a fan-estimated third when it moved to the deluxe line with better paper, however, and Byrne's new Superman comics were outselling it by 1987), nobody wanted to reboot or restart LSH. The result was this phenomenally awkward four-part story, in which Levitz and his editorial team worked with John Byrne and his editorial team to explain the new, massive plot hole between the Superman comics published in 1987, which had no continuity or backstory, and the previous thirty years of Legion, which were choking in them.

I tried to explain the solution in the details above, and... it really is stupid. I'm not saying anybody could have done better, and certainly not me, and the presentation is marred by the Time Trapper's bizarre monologue, where he spends pages and pages explaining what the hell he had done to an audience consisting of the readers and nobody else, but this is the sort of inelegant and ridiculous solution to a problem that defines DC Comics in general. Later writers would keep grappling with this problem, leading to more and more continuity restarts, defining the comic, probably fairly, as the most overly complicated thing in funnybooks to follow.

Having said that... Levitz and artist Greg LaRocque do a pretty good job starting the four-part crossover, and John Byrne, accepting his tendency toward LOTS of monologue-choked thought balloons, actually does an exemplary job incorporating the characters into his middle episodes. It's so note-perfect - apart from the pages of the Time Trapper boasting about his plan - that it's completely remarkable, and not in a good way, that, one month later... well, just Google "john byrne big barda" and prepare for your mind to boggle. The offense is immortalized in an ad for that issue right at the end of episode three of this story.

But part four... well, this is something special. Tasked with saying farewell forever to the Boy of Steel, Levitz and LaRocque really rise to the occasion. Superboy's death really is just the saddest damn thing that ever happened in an American superhero funnybook, and if it doesn't bring a tear to your eye, something's downright wrong with you. Sure, he was the victim of some editorial or publisher's mandate, but that fabulous scene, our hero helpless in Mon-El's arms, is something else.

The funeral - the Legion has no way of returning their old friend's body to the Kents back in Smallville, who will never know what happened to their adoptive son, so they bury him with full honors on Shamballa - is kept to a single double-page splash, and there, almost small enough to miss, is a little clue as to what will happen soon. It's Duo Damsel, holding her husband and confiding that she really did love Superboy. Teamed with Polar Boy's resolve that one day soon, they'll see whether an immortal like the Time Trapper can die, it points the way to terrible decisions and real, ugly change.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free (but not this week), 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 Trifecta (Rebellion, 2012).

Many years ago, some 2000 AD readers were having a game of "what ifs" on one of the message boards or newsgroups, and talk got onto one of the occasional huge events in the pages of Judge Dredd. See, there are dozens of spin-off series that are set in the same world as the hero, and tell stories about other judges in other departments, or plainclothes detectives in other cities, or gay vampire occult investigators in the employ of the Vatican's black ops program, or what have you, but the cataclysmic events in one series are rarely ever referenced in the others. Wouldn't it be lovely if a major, world-shaking thing actually was shown to rock the protagonists of several series at once? The idea was cherished, nurtured, considered, and, as things happen on message boards, quietly filed away and forgotten in favor of new conversations.

The twist in "The Cold Deck" is integral to discussing what happens, so here goes: right under everybody's noses, after a few weeks of thinking three separate series were every bit as separate as 2000 AD series typically are, the three were all suddenly shown to be beautifully interlinked. The twist itself was cute, but the execution was more flawless than any ever seen in comics. Nearly forty years I've been readin' funnybooks, and I've never seen it bettered. The three writers, Al Ewing, Si Spurrier, and Rob Williams, have absolutely blown away every antecedent in the genre, from every time the Avengers have fought the X-Men, or DC's Superman learned that it was Marvel's Galactus that destroyed his home planet, of course it has taken the architects building the world's best comic book to show everybody else how to do it best and make it matter.

Here's the part that I liked the most: the story took advantage of last year's excellent Dredd movie to pull it off. As the film was released, the sister comic Judge Dredd Megazine devoted two of its three slots for new comics to a pair of Dredd episodes, and the other to the movie's co-star Anderson, leaving all the many other recurring Dredd-universe series temporarily homeless. For example, the Meg had been the traditional home of a series called The Simping Detective by Spurrier and, in this new story, artist Simon Coleby. At the same time, it also made sense for 2000 AD to beef up its Dreddworld content to take advantage of moviegoers' curiosity. At most, there might be a second story in any given issue set in Dredd's Mega-City One, such as the popular Low Life by Williams and artist Matt "D'Israeli" Booker.

So everything was announced with the happy understanding that the extra Dredd-world content was scheduled because of the movie. Everybody likes Low Life, which features a somewhat deranged and hygiene-challenged undercover judge named Dirty Frank. And everybody likes The Simping Detective, back in action after a few years away, which features another undercover judge, Jack Point, who poses as a private eye. And everybody has been very pleased with the Dredd episodes by Al Ewing, who's frankly considered to be that strip's heir apparent to its main writer, John Wagner, when the day of his retirement comes, and especially when fan favorite Henry Flint is on art duties. There has never been a time when readers have been lulled into such a false state of security.

Here's the thing: Marvel and DC learned ages ago to hype and promote the bejesus out of their big events stories. They send out the press releases, they let everybody know that nothing will ever be the same again, they provide retailers with checklists to pass out to customers, because a new big event, usually built around the temporary "death" of a major character, will cross over from one main title into sixteen or more subordinate ones. I'd like to think that readers know it's a shell game and don't really appreciate it, but deal with it all the same. I suffered through the intrusion of heaven knows how many crossovers into the American titles that I wished to read, for decades, and enjoyed exactly one of them, One Million. That's not a good batting average. (As I'm writing this, incidentally, I'm enjoying a long reread of the 1980s Legion of Super-Heroes, and I'm right at the point between the last of several intrusions from Crisis on Infinite Earths and a two-part intrusion from Millennium. None were welcome.) The point is: the hype is the key. They start excited arguments at comic news and fan sites, even the good ones like The Beat, and they get the comment threads humming and the advertisement views rising, so the fan media keeps covering new hype projects, because - good Lord! - this time, when Professor X dies, he might stay dead for a whole seventeen issues instead of sixteen. This is serious business! Keep talking about it! Surely, if 2000 AD wanted to get more coverage, they'd announce a crossover and promote it, so everybody on every comic fan site can get excited and get the ad views and clicks, right?

No, they'll just print part two of a Dredd episode that ends with our hero kicking down the door of an apartment and then begin the very next page, starting part four of the Simping Detective story, with the occupants of that apartment seeing their door being kicked down by Dredd.

Wait, what?!

I don't know where to begin with it. The visual itself is amazing: it really looks like Judge Dredd has just broken into somebody else's strip. Of course Jack Point and the criminal that he's grafting are unhappy to see him: they're trying to have their own damn adventure.

In retrospect, there were lots of clues that Dredd and Point were actually working on the same case, but nobody noticed them because, over in Low Life, Dirty Frank had woken up a few issues previously with his memory wiped, and he's on the moonbase city Luna-1 and he's very deep undercover as a billionaire about to have an important board meeting with a half-man half-shark. All of the readers' investigation circuits were so engaged trying to puzzle out the tantalizing clues and hints in that strip that it just flat out did not occur to anybody that we should also be looking for anything unusual anywhere else. So when a transmission from Point is received by Dirty Frank on the moon later in the same issue, it's the second forehead-slapping jawdropper in one week. We've got an insanely large corporation led by a shark-dude on the moon, some sort of Maltese McGuffin business in Point's neck of the woods, and ugly politics within Justice Department with an attempted coup, and all these are the same case?!

This just made the next four issues completely wild and exciting, putting all these pieces together along with our heroes, finding connections and seeing a grandiose and huge conspiracy that somehow lives up to the attention. Put another way, two other very good series were running alongside these three in 2000 AD: Brass Sun, an extremely promising new series written by Ian Edginton, and a long-overdue ABC Warriors story in which Pat Mills, brilliantly and masterfully, starts tying together some thirty year-old loose ends, and "Trifecta" - to call this crossover by the name of the issue-length episode, co-scripted by all three writers and drawn by Carl Critchlow, that concluded it - outshined them both.

Everybody involved can take a bow. Between all this, and the conclusion of Nikolai Dante, and the amazing "Day of Chaos", and the Dredd movie, 2012 was simply one of the finest years in the Galaxy's Greatest Comic's 35-year history. If you read any other comic - any - last year, then you were reading second-rate material. The medium just doesn't get better than this.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

LSH Reread, part twelve

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 30-36, 1987)

Major developments:

*Universo's pawns manipulate the most powerful Legionnaires into off-world assignments. Some of those who remain on Earth round up some restless lightning monsters, mindless natives of the planet Korbal, who have been let loose at the Niagara nuclear power plant.
*Brainiac 5 receives word that his old friend, longtime supporting player Rond Vidar, has died in the hospital. Vidar is Universo's son.
*Everyone on Earth falls asleep, and wakes up under Universo's control. Some days later, Saturn Girl awakens on a strange planet, finding Brainy, Dream Girl and Cham also present along with several other heroes, but all are amnesiac and patiently doing manual labor together.
*Universo is eventually defeated; Saturn Girl rejoins the team on active duty while her hubby takes care of the twins.
*Polar Boy is elected Legion leader.
*Cosmic Boy and Night Girl return from a vacation in the 20th Century with incredibly troubling and ominous news...

Now here's a weird period of the book. The Universo subplot has been building for about a year, and, in any other period, the resulting four-part story would be thought of as a real epic. It's helped by Greg LaRocque's artwork continuing to improve, visibly, with each month. After a rough start in 1985, he seemed to really work at it, and the results are often striking. Early in the story, Saturn Girl breaks one of her self-imposed rules and intrudes into Cham's, Brainy's, and Dream Girl's minds to break Universo's hypnotic control. Their mindscapes are brilliantly realized, and the story looks set to be a major game-changer.

And yet... it is wrapped up so quickly and so tidily that the whole story feels really forgettable. Perhaps this is not entirely Levitz's fault; as we'll see in the next recap, what happens next required a scheduling beast, since LSH was about to cross over into two other DC Universe titles, and since John Byrne, co-architect of those, was the big bear among DC's creators at the time.

It was a real interesting development to see Rond Vidar, one of the book's longest-serving supporting players, killed off. I don't suppose anybody was starting clubs or writing fanfic about the guy, but it really cements Universo as one of the most evil and awful enemies of the LSH, somebody who recognized that his own son, nice-guy that he is, was his Achilles heel, so he murders him.

Through this, and the months and months of planning and manipulation, Universo becomes one of the greatest threats in the history of the comic, and the villain who came closest to global domination - in fact, for a few weeks, he did control the Earth. It's a shame that the ending wraps everything up so incredibly quickly, especially after spending two issues breaking Saturn Girl and the other three out of his prison planet, and a shame that LaRocque didn't elect to update Universo's appearance to reflect his much more intriguing characterization. With his monocle, chrome dome, and Baddies-R-Us facial hair, he looks exactly like a kiddie TV version of a bad guy.

Another surprise here is how strange the pacing feels. A small team including Tellus, Quislet, Wildfire, and the White Witch is assigned to a mystery on Tellus's home world, another trap by Universo to get more of his enemies out of the way. It must be said that Levitz completely blows the timeline here. Saturn Girl's experiences (several days), Mon-El and Ultra Boy's experiences (maybe a day or two), and Tellus's team's experiences (maybe hours) simply do not line up, but the comic insists that they're happening simultaneously.

Element Lad resigns after blowing this case so badly, setting up another Legion election. In keeping with tradition, the readers have their say, and Polar Boy, of all people, is elected. This won't go well. Interestingly, a letter is printed suggesting that Levitz look into what became of the rest of Polar Boy's old Substitute Legion. It's neat and fun that the longtime C-lister is given the chance to shine, but I don't know that we ever did learn what became of the rest of the Subs, and whether they settled for being disbanded so abruptly. I guess we'll see over the next 27 or so issues whether that plot thread is mentioned.

But first, everything's got to fall completely and totally apart. I'm really looking forward to seeing this next story again.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Motive

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 Motive (Dutton, 2004).

While I have consistently enjoyed John Lescroart's novels about lawyer Dismas Hardy and cop Abe Glitzky and all their extended friends and families, they're rarely light reading. Lescroart piles so much detail atop complicated and twisting plots that I often need a break after one before starting the next. Sometimes, things get so dense, I take a breather about three-quarters of the way in. I put down The First Law, the one two before this, midway through a meal at a Hawaiian-themed restaurant a couple of months ago and just watched The Price is Right on TV instead. They can get heavy, in other words.

But man alive, The Motive is a stunner, and, if I may use a cliche, a real "page-turner." I really didn't want to put this down at all, since so blasted much was going on that had me completely baffled and enthralled. I loved this one without reservation.

This one begins with the discovery of two bodies in the fiery wreckage of a multi-million dollar San Francisco home, and winds its way through everything from parking-and-towing contracts for the city, an old girlfriend of Dismas', a new baby boy with a frightening birth defect for Abe, favors for the mayor, and deep cover CIA agents. There's a high profile murder case and a lousy cop who's sexually harassed a prime suspect, and one of the most stunning courtroom twists in a series that's full of them.

Speaking as a father of a boy who was born with a hole in his heart, by the way, that subplot for Abe had me absolutely choking for breath a couple of times. Mine turned out okay - well, mostly - but these aren't books where readers can take anything for granted. Previous stories have shown that anything can happen to our heroes, and that popular supporting characters die. I might have been turning the pages so desperately because if Baby Zachary wasn't going to make it, I needed to know right that minute. Whenever the real world did intrude and I did have to put down this novel, I was mighty perturbed. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Murder

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 It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Murder (Signet, 2005).

I'm a very poor reader of cozy mysteries. I keep letting the plot get in the way.

The cover design sold this book to me. It's the first in a short series of three lighter-than-air murder mysteries written by Rosemary Harris under the pen name Martin. They feature a young super-secretary, Bebe Bennett, formerly of Richmond, Virginia and now at work in the wild, swinging world of New York City in 1965. The Beatles have blown the lid off pop culture, and record companies are falling over themselves to find the next music stars, but nobody anticipated that the next one to cross the pond, Philip Royal and the Beefeaters, would be caught in a heavy police investigation after Bebe and her roommate - a stewardess, naturally - find Philip dead in his hotel room.

But that's all right, because there isn't a heavy police investigation. Seriously, police show up, tell the stewardess that they suspect her of the murder, and then kindly exit the narrative entirely, leaving the ladies to clear their names. This involves the girls repeatedly chatting up the other band members, manager, British journalists and the like, all of whom are completely and totally happy to remain in the hotel indefinitely and assist these two with their inquiries.

Put another way, the plot conspires to have the girls in disguise as French maids in the hotel about three days after the murder, where they somehow gain access to the crime scene and find additional clues that the police somehow missed. Now, I'm understanding of the reality that forensics weren't quite what they are today in the 1960s, but when the story goes about puncturing any suspicion of disbelief in as cavalier a manner as this, you're just going to have to try and accept things and enjoy the scenery. Or, you know, read something that acts like it was the product of some consideration about how this premise might actually have played out. Not recommended.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

LSH Reread, part eleven

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 24-29, Annual # 2, 1986)

Major developments:

*Suspicion over Sensor Girl's identity, and how the Empress had approached her, sets just about everybody on the team into arguments against each other.
*Quislet, probably out to cause trouble in the first place, finds Dream Girl out dancing with somebody who isn't her longtime boyfriend Thom.
*The Emerald Empress and the Persuader recruit criminals named Flare and Caress to join their new Fatal Five. Writer Paul Levitz plays up the possibility that Sensor Girl is the fifth member, but it surprisingly turns out to be Mentalla, a character whose membership bid was declined and who briefly joined the Legion Academy before vanishing.
*Sensor Girl turns out to be Projectra. Well, I was surprised as heck anyway. She concluded that her home planet of Orando's disasters were not due to the tradition vs. technology gap, but her own poor decisions, and... comic book hocus-pocus explanations, augmented powers, returned to our dimension, redemption, that sorta thing.
*Mentalla betrays the Fatal Five. The Empress kills her, and the heroes win out.
*The rulers of the Sorceror's World awaken Mordru, depower him, and give him the mind of a child so that he may have a second chance.
*Speaking of "mind of a child," Darkseid... for some reason... relents and un-curses Garth and Imra, and returns Validus to his correct point in time and form, as their baby, Graym's twin. This has got to be the least satisfying curse ever.
*Star Boy's home planet of Xanthu asks him to return home and help look for Atmos, the only other superhero from their planet, who has vanished. Science Police Chief Zendak adds that quite a few heroes and police officers, system-wide, are missing. Atmos can't be found; the Xanthu tribune asks Star Boy to stay. He abruptly resigns from the LSH and doesn't even bother telling Dream Girl. Their relationship has been falling apart for years anyway, but the speed at which she propositions Element Lad is still surprising.
*A new gangster called Starfinger shows up with a surprisingly large criminal extortion business, and, also, the silliest costume in space.

Paul Levitz, more than once in the 1980s, admitted in the letters column that he was not the best at creating villains, but even with that caveat, the unbelievably ridiculous Starfinger is a mess. He'll improve later on, but his first appearance - as a "Kingpin of Space" - is idiotic. It's impossible to believe anybody who so quickly kills his reliable operatives over imagined slights could ever build up such a large criminal empire. His outlandish and bizarre appearance doesn't help. Greg LaRocque has been improving massively on art chores during this period, and he's found quite a knack for drawing Dream Girl as sinfully curvy, but his design skills are still a little behind the curve. We only catch glimpses of the missing hero Atmos in issue # 28; when we meet him properly in the next batch, it'll look as though the artist forgot to draw parts of him.

Much more entertaining is the resolution to the Sensor Girl story. Levitz has obviously been having a ball leaving one obscure clue after another for several months as to her identity. The smackdown with the new Fatal Five is really entertaining, with our five heroes - Sensor Girl, Dream Girl, Colossal Boy, Tellus, and Polar Boy - really looking like they're not getting out of this one alive. Mentalla's betrayal seems like something straight out of an earlier, shallower, time, but her double-agent turn goes over really well. When she's killed, it's a real surprise.

While the main story in the comic is exciting and incredibly fun, especially Brainiac 5's latest turn as team detective, thinking on a higher plane than everyone else, the annual is a complete disaster. The only good thing about it is that Keith Giffen returns to provide artwork for the opening and closing segments. This gives it some artistic continuity with "The Great Darkness Saga" and the earlier "The Curse."

Sadly, Darkseid's big, evil curse turns out to be a completely damp and dull disappointment. Only a year after we learned that Validus was the twisted and weird monster formed, by his black Apokolips science-magic, from Garth and Imra's missing child, the big baddie... sort of changes his mind, kills his servant Ol-Vir instead, and returns Validus to humanoid childhood. I guess it explains why Validus was weird and uncontrollable - he was only ever about eight months old - but the baffling way Darkseid returns him to normality is crushingly dumb. Even Imra is confused and unhappy about it. A big BAH to that. Now let's see what Universo has been doing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bringing Up Bébé

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 Bringing Up Bébé (Penguin, 2012).

I have the habit of reading the one-star reviews at Amazon for any book that I'd like to mention here. Usually, you can set your watch by them. A book by Al Franken will be given one-star reviews by Rush Limbaugh fans who don't like Franken's politics, and a book by Limbaugh will be given one-star reviews by Franken followers who don't like Limbaugh's politics. And so the merry dance goes on. This tendency doesn't actually tell me anything whatever about the book; I just enjoy having my suspicions about people's motives confirmed.

Bringing Up Bébé is the American edition of a book by Pamela Druckerman that was released as French Children Don't Throw Food in Europe. A journalist who has lived for many years in Paris with a British-born husband, Druckerman is raising three children and, as parents of a twenty month-old, my wife and I are happy to read well-written stories about parenting, particularly from new perspectives.

It's Druckerman's position that, in France, parents are not in the service of their children, and kids know this. Because, in my real-world job, I regularly observe kids who are completely in charge, and I notice the "don't touch anything" admonitions peter out and fizzle after mere minutes since the kids are going to do whatever they wish, I wondered how it is possible that parents in France set these expectations and enforce them. The result, according to Druckerman, is a culture where kids are just plain better behaved.

Certainly, a radically different approach to child care is part of it. There, parents compete for daycare spots as soon as they learn they're pregnant, whereas here, parents like me who desire the socialization and group learning in daycare - we call it school - seem to be outnumbered by people - usually ones without kids - who've decided that the practice is unsafe or downright dangerous. But it's more than that. There's a mindset that parents are in charge, and need to communicate that to their children from a very early age. Getting into that mindset, enforcing it, and not spending every minute on the playground "narrating" a child's exploration of it (guilty) as though "playing" (from an entirely different position) is what might work.

So I have been completely sold on the book, am rereading it, and trying to rework some of our home life, naps, meals, and solo time for the baby. I wondered what the one-star reviews on Amazon might say. I envisioned patriotic screeds against day care, but what I found instead were baseless attacks on the author for her sometimes outre sex life and previous books, as though anybody who writes about parenting is obliged to maintain a lifestyle compatible with every other parent on the planet, especially the 2point5 kids ones who do everything for the kid, with murky results that usually end in excuses and outright calamity. This is the sort of complaint that, as with the Franken-Limbaugh reviewer wars, leads me to think that people just don't read. Defining yourself exclusively as a parent and shutting down anything you were before or ever will be again, that's kind of the problem. They don't, after all, have helicopter parents in France. And their schoolkids are doing fine. Recommended.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Savage: The Guv'nor

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 Savage: The Guv'nor (volume two, Rebellion, 2012).

Before we get started: not one word of the following review of Savage, a mean action thriller written by Pat Mills, is a complaint. Well, apart from noting the difficulty in comprehending the climax of Book Four when it was first serialized, anyway. The second volume of Savage is completely and utterly terrific. Compared to the awesomeness of the first volume, there's no drop in quality at all, but it is indisputably a very, very different set of stories than what we'd seen before. I hope that it's possible to note how things changed, and speculate on how things might have continued, without damning even a single page of what came next with faint praise. While a large part of me still wonders what a robot- and teleportation-free Savage might have been like, I am completely and totally thrilled with what we got instead.

This is an interesting case where I found elements of the original serialization in 2000 AD bewildering and weird, but everything clicked when I read it in collected form. Each Savage story, typically sixty pages and labeled a "book," first appears across ten or so weeks in 2000 AD, usually once a year. The first three Savage books, illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were collected in the volume Taking Liberties. Patrick Goddard became the artist with Book Four, which is when the series started feeling quite different.

Proving that I just plain don't pay attention like I should, I missed the fact that the first three books take place over a comparatively short period: just about four months. The time was 2004, five years after Britain had been invaded by the eastern European Volgan Empire. After about a year fighting a brutal guerrilla war in the company of some of the entrenched resistance, Bill Savage, a former truck driver, escaped to Canada while escorting an heir to the throne to safety. There, he worked behind the scenes, providing intelligence and directing resistance operations before returning in '04 to turn things upside down. It's all amazing, and Book Two's climax and coda rank among the most startling, unpredictable, and thrill-packed things that Mills has ever written.

Book Three ended with the Volgans in retreat and beginning their withdrawals. What Mills did next was actually pretty confusing, but also amazingly clever. When that first collected volume ended with the British beginning to take back their nation, that appeared to be the end of the story. Book Four - which is where this second collected volume starts - sees the Volgans in charge again. It's set in 2007, after the Volgans reoccupied Britain, ostensibly because their withdrawal had left a massive economic and defense vacuum. And Book Five is set two years later, by which time the Americans are finally ready to enter the conflict, because they've found a way to do so without risking public morale over the loss of life: they've designed robots called ABC Warriors to do the fighting that soldiers once did.

I love this to pieces. It's long been 2000 AD lore that the long-running series The ABC Warriors was borne of the very same conflict with the Volgans that began in the comic's very first issue, when Volgan paratroopers dropped down onto central London in the far-flung future of 1999. A flashback episode that saw print in 1987 explained the development of the war droids, and Book Five of this story ends with the first deployment of the Mark Ones on the beaches of England, coming ashore triumphantly like the Allies at Normandy.

Of course, readers also know that the Mark Ones will be a failure and that the escalating robot war will span decades and devastate Europe. There's still a lot to do behind the scenes, and a lot of intelligence work that requires snap decisions and out-thinking the enemy. Savage, under the cover of a taciturn bar owner named William Carter, is quietly manipulating events from his "manor" while popping out to lead commando raids, even after American E-bombs have knocked out the last several decades of technology - an attempt to deaden the Volgan troops' ability to effectively communicate that also inconveniences the civilian population of London.

Honestly, I might not like the Goddard-drawn Savage quite as much as I like the Adlard-drawn stories, but good heaven, I like it a lot. It's a thrilling series, full of memorable characters and episodes, and great moments. There's a terrific part in Book Five when Savage, having made it to Allied command in Ireland with critical information, is reluctant to share it in front of a civilian: a still-human Howard Quartz. It's not just the tremendous fun of dotting decades-old points of continuity; it's a deeply satisfying and slow-burning scene in its own right. The eighth book of Savage is running in 2000 AD even as we speak; the whole thing is absolutely recommended.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life

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 Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (PublicAffairs, 2009).

I really, really enjoyed what little of Molly Ivins' writing and hellraising that I got to experience when she was still living. She wrote in a wonderful, larger-than-life style, taking no prisoners and suffering no fools. She was a fantastic person, a tough, progressive champion who skewered the pretentious and the status quo. Heaven knows we would have been better off to have her with us during that "too big to fail" malarkey about big business.

Molly Ivins deserved a better biography than this. It's entertaining, to a degree, and I learned a lot about what she did and where she worked, but I didn't learn much of anything about her. Presumably for rights issues or an assumption that readers already have her books on the shelf, very little of her writing made it into this story. It's a violation of "Show, don't tell." The authors tell us that she was a witty and wonderful raconteur, but there's not nearly enough of her prowess on display.

It's a deadly dry story that tells you that hers was a life full of fun, but effectively refers the reader to other sources to experience it. I had hoped for considerably more, and retired it glumly, without much of a reason to recommend anybody read it when most of Ivins' own work is still in print.

Friday, January 4, 2013

LSH Reread, part ten

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 17-23, 1985-1986)

Major developments:

*One of RJ Brande's business rivals, the jealous Leland McAuley, attempts to have Brande killed. The Legion foils the attempt, but Brande not only doesn't press charges, he laughs it off and tells the team he's going off on one of his oddball voyages of discovery again.
*The Crisis on Infinite Earths that's happening in the 20th Century starts screwing with the Legion's memories and history. A huge team apparently travels back in time to fight the Anti-Monitor, and the long-forgotten supporting character Kid Psycho is killed, but nobody can remember this after sending his remains to rest at Shamballa.
*Trying to figure out what the heck happened in the 20th Century, Brainiac 5 and the scientists at the Time Institute unwittingly release the old villain Infinite Man from his strange prison between times and universes.
*The Controller who had been growing a Sun-Eater back in #7-8 abducts the Legionnaires who had destroyed it to finish the task for which he had been growing it: destroy an artificial war-world called Tyrraz.
*Invisible Kid has his dangerous and unpredictable "teleportation" side effect power nullified.
*Brainiac 5 convinces himself that Sensor Girl is, somehow, his old flame Supergirl. The Emerald Empress, who arranges a prison break to headhunt some new blood for the Fatal Five, offers Sensor Girl a place in her team. In a calmly emphatic "no," Sensor Girl somehow shuts down the Emerald Eye of Ekron, which nobody's seen happen before.
*Gigi confirms that she's heard that Sun Boy and Salu are an item. Salu is still very hot-tempered when it comes to Durlans, prompting Cham to ask her to be a little more sensitive.
*Shady confides to Tinya that the serum that protects Mon-El from lead poisoning is becoming much less effective, requiring more frequent dosing. Mon-El nearly dies two issues later before Brainy finds a permanent immunity.
*In Really-Long-Game subplot news, the team's old enemy Universo is masquerading as Earth's vice president Vid-Gupta.
*Greg Larocque becomes the regular penciler. He's pretty good, but he's no Steve Lightle.

Well, if anybody was wondering where fandom got the idea that Salu and Ayla would end up the team's first lesbian couple, it's in this run of comics. There are more shared glances and heavy discussions about friendship than in a whole season of Rizzoli & Isles. Nothing's confirmed and nothing's formally stated - in fact, Salu's being seen in public with Sun Boy a whole lot, putting the team's resident playboy in the quite unexpected position of being her beard, I suppose - but the subtext is impossible to ignore.

And this is one of the reasons that fans love this era of comics, because the characterization is so very good. Salu is not the same "Shrinking Violet" that she was before she was abducted by the Imskian terrorists. She's cynical, she's mean, and she's really quick to jump in fists first. Of course, the standards of the day didn't allow Paul Levitz to be very overt with much of anything, but there's just enough here, particularly in her question, “I changed my whole life, Ayla. What about you?”, to launch a hundred fanfics.

Interestingly, I have never actually read an interview with Levitz where he was asked about his intentions here, but it's evident that some subsequent writers chose to follow in his footprints, regardless of whether he intended this to be text or subtext. I think that some of the later continuities and reboots kept them as a couple and some didn't, but gay fandom has claimed them regardless of what later writers and editors might have had in mind with "NEW" Violet/Atom Girl or "NEW" Ayla. When Levitz returned to LSH in 2010 and rebuilt something close to this original continuity, he resumed their relationship, and might have even finally made them an official-in-canon couple, although I don't recall whether he made it a centerpoint of any of his stories. (I dropped the book when "The New 52" launched, so I'm not sure what happened after that.)

In previous editions of this Reread, I'd explained that I dropped the book when it split in two and started Volume Three. Issue 21 was the first time I'd looked at the Legion for a very long time; I found this as a back issue in April 1987, a year after it was published, at a convention called, I think, PhoenixCon. That was a remarkable weekend; I went to the con with $40 and came home with more than $100 since sixteen year-old me spent the evenings mixing drinks and tending bar at the consuite. I remain amazed that I got away with the stuff that I did at that age. Anyway, I spent all of one dollar in the dealer's room. I had given up on LSH for the X-Men, and gave up on the X-Men for 2000 AD, and I've stuck with it ever since. I could only find three issues of those crummy Files Magazines about Doctor Who by John Peel - remember those awful things? - in a four-for-a-dollar bin, and picked up this one lone issue of LSH to make up the dollar. I read it, I liked it, but I didn't come back to it. Not for a long time.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Murder Room

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 Murder Room (Faber & Faber, 2003).

Rereading P.D. James with fresh eyes, I was surprised to notice that there's another trope at work among some of her later novels. Death in Holy Orders, The Murder Room and The Lighthouse each feature a series of short chapters building up to the inescapable death where, one after another, motives upon motives are stacked up. I think that this is an old Agatha Christie trope, but somehow I missed it the last time that I read James.

Where James succeeds is with her slowly ratcheting up the inevitability and hatred - this time out, even the suspect with the least likely reason to kill is every bit as resolved to do something about the problem, which might mean killing - so that when it finally happens, absolutely everything breaks down. All of those motives, and all of that anger, lead to desperation and terrible decisions. It's really fun watching Dalgliesh calmly instigate such squirming.

Unfortunately, The Murder Room features one of the most unbelievable and ridiculous coincidences I've ever seen in detective fiction. I really enjoyed the great red herring about the nature of the murders - they appear to be "copycat" or, at least, themed recreations of famous killings from the 1930s as celebrated in the "murder room" of an eccentric museum devoted to the period - and Dalgliesh's team is soon hunting for a witness who has evoked one such crime with passing words to the woman who finds the first victim's body. His haste in leaving the scene has an altogether more prosaic, albeit tawdry, explanation, but it's how the man is identified that beggars belief.

Fortunately, not every twist is that mundane. The business of the third victim is handled extremely well, and I really enjoyed the sinking feeling of realizing exactly what happened that delayed the emergency services. When James is on fire, she's untouchable. Sadly, she's not completely on fire throughout this novel, but enough that it doesn't always matter. Recommended with reservations.