Monday, March 25, 2013

Wonder Boys

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 Wonder Boys (Villard, 1995).

My wife does not like stories with irresponsible or unsympathetic protagonists. Now, we all are going to have different opinions as to what those adjectives mean to each of us - madly, she stopped reading the magnificent Gone Girl about a third of the way through - but I am fairly certain that the self-destructive Grady Tripp would not get any approval whatever from her. With a twinkle in my eye, however, I sort of liked how his world fell apart in one unbelievable weekend.

I came to Wonder Boys with a little apprehension. I had really enjoyed Michael Chabon's recent novel Telegraph Avenue, and started back at the beginning of his professional career and his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I don't know when the last time I read something I hated so much was. You want to talk about unsympathetic protagonists? While I thought that I don't share the visceral reaction to such characters that my wife displays, that guy I wanted to pull out of the pages so I could bloody his nose. Maybe I just got too smitten with the female lead, but good grief, I've got no time or patience whatever for somebody's meaningful coming out story when it means the senseless destruction of a relationship I was enjoying. What an asshole.

So Wonder Boys is the story of a college professor pothead who's been working on a novel, called Wonder Boys, for many, many years and many, many revisions. His oldest friend, and editor, arrives on campus at the same time that an absurd raft of subplots are just about to collide. It is the weekend from hell. Over the course of eighty hours, Grady's marriage falls apart, his lover tells him that she's pregnant with his baby, one of his students attempts suicide, there's a writers' conference in town, a dog gets shot, one of Marilyn Monroe's sweaters gets stolen, as does Grady's car, and then another pet gets killed... and this damn novel of his, a manuscript a couple of thousand pages long, needs to be finished immediately.

I'm not saying it's in any way easy to sympathize with Grady - far from it, man alive, does this guy ever get what he's got coming - or see his comeuppance as unfortunate. But, as longtime readers of this blog know, I have a great love for situations spiraling out of control. That's why John Wagner and Ian Gibson's Robo-Hunter is my all-time favorite comic, and how nothing in the medium comes close to touching it. Like TV's Maverick, I enjoy situations that are "never serious, but always hopeless." It might have been an uncomfortable and unhappy read watching Grady's selfish and thoughtless decisions get him into this mess. Starting the action with him already over his head and things getting worse and worse is a terrific idea, and I loved watching the escalation.

It's definitely not a plot for everybody, then, but I loved the way that Chabon juggled it. I love his style and gift for language. I even love how a few happy endings somehow emerge from this catastrophe, even as the mess gets bigger and bigger. Recommended with reservations.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

LSH 2010 Reread, part one

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 6 # 1-4 and Adventure Comics # 515-517, 2010)

Since we last saw our heroes in "The Magic Wars":

*It has been a couple of eventful years. At some point after Jeckie's time as team leader, there was another massive wave of time distortion, and the whole bit with Superboy dying is erased from history.
*A human-supremacist called Kirt Niedrigh, with powers similar to Lallor's Duplicate Boy except he needs a superpowered being close by to absorb and reproduce, has led a failed coup and attempt to get all aliens off Earth. In the wake of the disaster, the Time Institute has relocated to Saturn's moon, Titan. Earthgov was ready to kick the LSH offworld as well.
*The team met up with parallel universe versions of themselves. Apparently, the characters of Gates and XS from the 1994-2004 incarnation of the Legion decided that they liked this universe better than theirs, and stuck around here.
*Tyroc has returned to the team after several years away and a haircut. Quislet either also found a new ship and came back, or the late-in-the-series destruction of his little ship was retconned away.
*Polar Boy lost a hand.
*Mon-El recovered from his injuries, but he and Shady have ended their relationship.
*Blok and Mysa are on an extended leave of absence together, I think. Mysa is no longer practicing white magic, and is now the Black Witch.
*Everybody's costumes have been redesigned. For the ladies, 1970s boob windows are back in a big way and Shady's wearing her underwear in public again. Jeckie has gone from one of the best costumes in all of comics to what might well be the worst. Artist Yildiray Cinar really, really likes drawing boobies. Dawnstar's are unbelievable.

Major developments in the present:

*Earthgov has demanded the LSH accept Kirt as a member, to make a public example that Earthers can work smoothly with offworlders, and make peace stick. Brainy offers him a flight ring that also acts as a limiter, or leash.
*The Time Institute has developed a remote viewer, immediately tunes it in to the beginning of history, which, according to DC Universe lore, nobody's allowed to witness. (Levitz already covered this weird rule in the early days of his 1980s run.) This sparks a series of disasters on Titan, and wakes up the dead planet Oa to get another Green Lantern ring out there to deal with it. Oa generates a being called Dyogene to find a new Lantern. He chooses Kirt.
*Titan is destroyed in a huge explosion after most of the population is evacuated. Saturn Queen returns home to find the Legionnaires moving debris from the space lanes and seeing evacuation liners away. She takes over Ultra Boy's mind for no better reason than just to cause trouble, and is apprehended by a small group of heroes.
*Niedrigh only lasts a single mission as a Green Lantern before deciding that he doesn't wish to be a slave to a band of metal and long-dead aliens, especially when they're commanding him to fly across space to rescue mosquitos from a change in their atmosphere.
*Imra and Garth, joined by Ayla, fly to the planet Avalon after their children are abducted. They find that the medieval planet has elected to worship Darkseid, and rescue the kids from a new Servant of Darkness, who collapses into dust.

Well, these are... okay.

So, it's been twenty years and change since Paul Levitz wrote the Legion, and, honestly, you can tell that he's been away from comic book scripting. Over the years, he had been working in a management position for the company, and also providing extremely entertaining interview copy, and, occasionally, even kindly writing letters to aggravated customers of DC Comics who found the binding of some of their collected editions falling apart. Ahem. (Thanks, Paul.) On the one hand, he kept Warner Brothers from cynically exploiting Alan Moore's Watchmen for more than two decades, on the other, he joined the sixty-million other residents of Alan Moore's enemies' list when he vetoed a genuine period advertisement in the backmatter of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He created the Huntress back when there was a point to that character, and he wrote a hundred-odd really good issues of a really good comic. On the average, he's definitely one of the good guys.

That doesn't mean that he gets a free pass.

(Plus, now that he isn't protecting Watchmen any longer, we get the stupidity in 2011 that'll put the final nail in me buying anything new from that company.)

Look, a lot of this is not his fault. In between the end of "The Magic Wars" and "The Scream Heard 'Cross the Universe," an bonus-length 39-page opener, DC Comics was the home of more petty, stupid, greedy, selfish office politics than Initech on a good day. Only the prize wasn't TPS Reports, it was an ongoing continuity of beloved fictional characters being used in tugs-of-war between demented dorks insistent on using characters their way. Some of this turned out to be surprisingly good - James Robinson's Starman, Grant Morrison's JLA, the '94 LSH - but most of it was petty and silly.

Now, what arguably should have happened, once some sensible heads prevailed, was that somebody should have started up the story about one week after "The Magic Wars" and gone from that point. But the restart actually rolls back to the Time Trapper's creation of a pocket universe and its Superboy, and wipes that out, and rolls forward to incorporate characters from the 1994-2004 relaunch. These are explained as heroes from a parallel universe who, for reasons that only make sense to that story's writer (2008), decided that they liked this 31st Century better than the one they were in, and hopped over here. This is probably because that story's writer wanted to have a few more characters in the "real" Legion, or something, and Gates and XS were not invented until after the 1994 relaunch. (XS, however, does not appear in these, or the next several issues either. I only know from Wikipedia that she's supposed to be around somewhere.)

So we're, perhaps, a couple of years after "The Magic Wars" and Levitz is getting used to the particular and eccentric language of comic books again. It's clunky. You won't believe the three scientists from the Time Institute. Their names are, I believe, Dr. Exposition, Professor Exposition, and Research Assistant Exposition. And there's worse. Levitz has frequently shown trouble juggling parallel plots that seem to take place over different periods of time; read the collected edition of The Huntress and tell me how many days of work Helena Wayne misses over the course of that continuous run of eight-page episodes, or, better yet, read the 1986 LSH story "The Universo Project" and tell me how many weeks Wildfire and Tellus's group was underwater while Brainy and Saturn Girl's group was on that prison planet.

I mention this because the destruction of Titan, and its aftermath, makes no sense whatever. This is apparently an instantaneous, galaxy-wide refugee crisis, but so many things are happening at once that the ramifications and the resettling on Earth and on Naltor, which feel, from the resentment and response of Earth's xenophobic minority, to be taking place over the course of weeks, versus the day or so that Kirt Niedrich spends as Green Lantern, versus the short period of time that Garth and Imra are chasing their stolen children. It all feels very rushed and very much like a first draft pressed into quick service. And what the heck does Saturn Queen want?

Honestly, these are okay, but far too much is happening, most of it of little consequence, without any time to slow down and focus on anybody's characters or their relationships. In fact, the principal character in this story seems to be the one that nobody, anywhere, likes: Kirt. I guess I see the motive: our heroes, whether you're a returning reader or a brand new one, have a lot of history and background, and, thanks to all those office politics and stops and restarts and rewriting, we're never going to get to know all of it. So Kirt, unlikeable and obnoxious, becomes the audience identification character.

But let's talk about the artwork. It is competent. It's arguably better than Greg LaRocque's was when he started, and he improved radically and quickly into one of LSH's very best. But there's no flair and no oomph. Cinar - assisted by Francis Portela on subsequent issues in a really close match for his style - does have a few solid tricks, like using hair and facial structure in such a good way that, even without the costumes, it is easy to tell the characters apart. A recent DC Comics innovation is the use of subtitling captions whenever each new character shows up. It works really well, and only the deliberately obtuse would have trouble following the action. But still, I don't like the reliance on splash pages instead of dense and meticulously laid-out action scenes. It looks for all the world like much more could be happening in each issue, but only the minimum is being depicted. Very few pages use a denser grid of six or more panels, and the result, after the comparatively expansive, extra-sized opening issue, is that too much flies by too quickly. The read isn't very satisfying. It leaves me intrigued but hungry.

As for the costumes, I am not sure whether Cinar is to blame for all the new designs, or whether one of the previous "wilderness years" artists like Gary Frank or George Perez inflicted them on us, but the women's costumes are a horrifying, retrograde step back. Admittedly, Dawnstar was almost always about ready to flop out of her top, and her new Power Girl boob window is not that much of a change, but now that just about every lady in the Legion is back to looking like the Frederick's catalogs in the 1970s, you've got to wonder when all the fellows are going to start wearing Magic Mike gear as well. Good grief.

Monday, March 18, 2013

LSH Reread, Intermission

I'll be skipping ahead twenty-plus years when my LSH Reread resumes on Saturday. Why such a gap? Well, because I feel like sharing, here's my take on the long, strange recent history of Legion of-Super Heroes and how I've occasionally interacted with it. The book's classic period (as I define it, written by Paul Levitz) ended in 1989, and there was a three month gap in publishing. When it resumed, things were very, very different.

Late 1989: Legion of-Super Heroes Vol. 4 # 1 is released. The story is set five years after the previous issue, with the team disbanded and the United Planets disintegrating under the weight of a galactic recession. Renewed hostilities from alien races and supervillains prompt some members of the team to reassemble without funding or government authorization.

Meanwhile, in the 20th Century, interoffice politics at DC Comics has a lot of pipsqueaks acting like they're all blood and thunder, and middle management fiefdoms are carved out under the guise of "creative freedom." The Superman editorial office is having an ongoing conniption fit about anybody else using their character, possibly because there's a horrible live-action Saturday morning Superboy TV show on the air, which everybody reading this blog post either never heard of before or had forgotten, and the comic book people are embarrassed that such a dumb show is being watched by twenty or thirty times as many people as buy their funnybooks. Despite the fact that Legion of-Super Heroes is a spin-off from Superboy, it's decreed that something has to be done to completely separate LSH from Superman, because that's THEIR character and NOBODY ELSE CAN SHARE HIM.

So, within six months of launching this book and confusing the daylights out of everybody reading it as to what the heck is happening and where did the bright, shiny, optimistic and colorful future go, there's suddenly a massive time paradox and history is rewritten and there never was a Superboy and that guy who hung out with our heroes all that time was some other superhero that you never heard of.

1990-1993: Worse, the creators of this dreary, unhappy fiction - principally Keith Giffen, Al Gordon, and Tom & Mary Bierbaum - decide that the rewritten history has given them the opportunity to make striking, often very unpopular, and, from my perspective, unbelievably stupid retcons to the old history. Since I wasn't reading the book at this time, I had no specific take on it, but remember the general feeling among comic fans that it had become a dark, depressing and generally tedious sci-fi soap opera. When I did start acquiring back issues, this proved to be true. It's just an awful, awful book.

1993: Among the new retcons, however, is the revelation that a couple of decades previously, the entire team had briefly been captured by aliens, cloned, and stuck in cryogenic sleep. Suddenly there are two versions of the team: the grim-n-gritty squinty old bunch, and the costumed, bright-eyed teenagers. The teens get their own spin-off book, Legionnaires, which is, sensibly, cut off from the main title, and tells its own stories without making readers pick up both books. Promotion for it brings me back in to buy the new book regularly, enjoying the terrific art and designs by Chris Sprouse. What happened to my once-beloved Legion of-Super Heroes looks ugly and stupid, but for about a year and a month, I am enjoying Legionnaires a heck of a lot.

1994: I get bored and, around issue # 14, quit paying attention to Legionnaires. Issues keep piling up on my to-read stack.

Meanwhile, in the 20th Century, DC Comics decided to fiddle and fumble with their continuity again. This time, it was called Zero Hour, and its architect, writer-artist Dan Jurgens, wanted to revise and revamp all the backstory and history of all the characters again. Since, in 1993-94, I was pretty much only buying Legionnaires and 2000 AD and about six comics published by Vertigo, I had no idea what was going to happen in Legion of-Super Heroes and Legionnaires, and missed it completely.

See, what they decided to do was a six-part crossover between those two titles and a third, Valor. These concluded with the - holy shit - destruction of their entire timeline and replacement with a brand-spanking new one, overwriting EVERYTHING that came before. So, in early 1995, here's what I finally read when I sat down to my ignored pile of about eight issues of Legionnaires: two parts of a crossover (parts 1 and 4 of 6) that doesn't include the finale, a "# 0" relaunch issue which is part two of a two-parter set in a brand-spanking new continuity, and then every other issue of an ongoing storyline.

Prior to the relaunch, Legion of-Super Heroes and Legionnaires were kept as separate as possible. Now, it was effectively one long story being published twice a month, with different art teams. Honestly, if you're going to revamp, start completely from scratch and relaunch, that's probably the sensible way to do it. If, on the other hand, you had become bored with the book, thought that relaunches were silly, and no longer wished to pay for every other episode of a story, it's a good time to drop the book.

1994-2000: The relaunch, refered to on Wikipedia as the Post-Zero Hour Reboot, is pretty successful. It runs across two titles for something like 130 issues before pausing for a retool.

1997: I get really nostalgic and homesick for my Legion and give it another try. I like it a lot!! I collect most of the run as back issues and place regular orders for both titles. I checked the other day and I'm missing just one of these issues - Legionnaires # 37. I'm going to stop by a few comic shops that still sell back issues and see whether they have a copy of it, and start rereading them in the spring. Fans of this era take heart: I'm looking forward to it.

2000: The real world gets really heavy on me and I move to Atlanta. I stop buying many of my regular titles, and take the cancellation of both Legion of-Super Heroes and Legionnaires with issue # 125 and # 81 as call to jump off those. The art on the books has, for years, been entertaining and fun, with Jason Armstrong, Scott Kolins, and especially Jeffrey Moy turning out some fantastic work. Toward the end, however, some guy named Oliver Coipel has been drawing the book with broken pens and spilled ink and it looks completely hideous anyway.

2000-2004: Now with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning as writers, DC publishes a 12-issue series called Legion Lost, followed by a six-issue series called Legion Worlds, and finaly a 38-issue monthly series called The Legion that continue the story from where I left off. Part of me is intrigued that there are 56 episodes of this Legion that I never read.

Meanwhile, in the 20th Century, Geoff Johns ruins everything that he touches. I honestly don't know what is with this writer, but there isn't anybody whose comics I'd rather read less than his. He's bloodthirsty, needlessly brutal, and beholden to some idealized view of the funnybooks of his youth, and his stuff just isn't worth my time to read. Evidently, he got enough pull at DC to spearhead an end to the 1994-2004 Legion, and wrapped up their story in the pages of his Teen Titans book. I think that's the book that got Young Justice, which my young son was enjoying, canceled. Then I started reading him Teen Titans and had to stop because it was too bloodthirsty and needlessly violent for elementary schoolage kids to read. That ass.

ANYWAY, in 2005, they rang the gong and started again and there was a new, THIRD Legion of-Super Heroes written by Mark Waid and drawn by Barry Kitson and what the hell do they expect out of people who were trying to follow characters that they loved?

2007: DC introduces a fourth Legion of-Super Heroes. This one is a lot like the one that we remembered, except their history only goes up to the election of Polar Boy as leader of the team in vol. 3 # 36, and then it does not have the Death of Superboy and crossover with Action Comics and Superman, because there was no "Crisis on Infinite Earths" in this version. Most of what followed in the last two years of the title, and was covered in my Reread, still mostly happened. Mon-El was very badly injured, Quislet's ship was destroyed, the Empress and Magnetic Kid died, and then there are some mysterious wilderness months. Then there's this strange story called "The Lightning Saga," a five-parter co-written by Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer that ran in both Justice League of America and Justice Society of America. I have read this, but only once, and no longer have the issues nor the desire to see them.

2008: The fourth LSH appears next in a six-part story in Action Comics, again written by Johns, entitled "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes." This introduces a new villain, Kirt Niedrich, who is devoted to racial purity and insists that the claim that good ol' American Kansas-born Superman is actually some sorta last son of Krypton is a dirty alien lie. I glimpsed at a collected edition of this in a comic shop a couple of months ago and decided against giving DC any of my money. Nice artwork by Gary Frank, though.

2008: Johns writes the ultimate "all the action figures in one bathtub" story. It's called "Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds" and features the 1994-2004 LSH (version 2) along with the 2005-2008 LSH (version 3) and the 1958-1994 / 2007-2008 LSH (version 1/4) all teaming up to fight every supervillain ever. This I've read. It's like watching every single car on the highway all crashing into each other and everybody dying while some kid next to you is all wide-eyed hopping from foot to foot shouting "It's totally bitchin', man!!" It is horrible.

2008-2009: Veteran writer Jim Shooter, who began his career forty years earlier writing these comics, comes back to write the last thirteen issues of the 2005 series and the final appearances of the third LSH. These I've read. They're actually pretty good.

2009-2010: Starting in the May issue of the resurrected Adventure Comics (numbered both # 1 and, reflecting its original history, # 504), there's a 22-page story of the most recent dude who is called Superboy (he's Conner Kent, the black T-shirt guy who was usually having fun in Young Justice) and an eight-page Legion of-Super Heroes backup. This is written by Johns and drawn by Clayton Henry and continues for four issues. In Adventure # 8 / 511 through # 11 / 514, there's another, longer storyline called "Last Stand on New Krypton" written by Sterling Gates and James Robinson. I haven't read these.

2010: Our long national nightmare has finally ended. Starting with Legion of-Super Heroes volume SIX # 1 and Adventure # 515, Paul Levitz returns to put a stop to all this nonsense and start telling the first consistently readable Legion stories in many years. These are set after "The Magic Wars." In the intermission, our heroes experienced "The Lightning Saga," the Kirt Niedrich story, then "3 Worlds," then the backups in Adventure, then "Last Stand on New Krypton." And what happens next is...

Back in a few days.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Good Night, Mister Holmes

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 Good Night, Mister Holmes (Tor, 1990).

I decided to sample a few other alternate Holmes novels while I am between series rereads, and Carole Nelson Douglas's run of eight books, published between 1990 and 2004, that feature Irene Adler as the protagonist, sounded promising. The first one is astonishingly busy, but it ends quite satisfactorily and has me looking forward to the others in the line.

The book covers the first several years of Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh's association with Adler, a rising star of the opera and a trusted, discreet agent who the rich, the powerful, and the literary-minded can call upon for delicate investigations. Adler and Huxleigh are shown to join forces at the same time that Holmes and Watson meet in A Study in Scarlet, and their adventures progress over a period of a few years, climaxing with the famous events from the classic Scandal in Bohemia, here shown from Adler's perspective.

The slow, deliberate pace of the book, along with the way it covers several years, took a little getting used to, but I enjoyed the whole, sprawling epic. It takes in cameos by the likes of Oscar Wilde, office politics in a barrister's chambers, cross-dressing, and a thrilling escape by train across Europe, setting the stage for one of the most well-remembered encounters of Sherlock Holmes' career. It left me looking forward to what Douglas had planned for her characters next. Recommended.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

LSH Reread, part seventeen

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 3 # 60-63, 1989)

Major developments:

*After ten months of beautiful artwork, Keith Giffen begins the experimentation that would typify the next volume of LSH comics. These final four issues of volume three are mostly divided into nine-panel grids, with the "camera" often giving us extreme close-ups of faces or random background objects. More on this below.
*Jeckie and Timber Wolf are elected leader and deputy leader. Polar Boy takes this as a vote of no confidence in his abilities and is pretty upset about it.
*A hydra attacks the Aegean Sea, the weather goes completely wild, fire and water elementals are seen everywhere, and the laws of physics keep changing.
*An emissary from the Sorceror's World warns Projectra: "After millennia of trusting science, it may turn on you. Magic's day of return may not be far off... if come, all laws of your science failing shall be."
*For several panicked hours, Earth is in pretty bad shape as technology fails a populace that cannot survive without it. Jeckie uses her skills, and the visitors from the Sorceror's World, to pull information about the laws of physics from Sun Boy's mind and restore power to the planet.
*As Earth recovers, the disintegration of science spreads into space. Shady and Mon-El's ship loses power, and with it goes the life support that is keeping him alive...
*Some big angry bruiser, revealed as The Archmage, who's been chained up for centuries underground is freed from bondage. He seals the Sorceror's World behind a spellbound barrier that requires a life to open. It cannot be unlocked without a willing sacrifice. Magnetic Kid gives his life to unlock the planet and start the final battle.
*Dream Girl and Brainiac 5 join their friends while the galaxy's other heroes try and save their planets from destruction as technology continues failing. The only heroes whose powers have much effect on the Archmage are Sun Boy and Wildfire.
*The White Witch - who has not forgiven Brainy for taking Jaxon Rugarth's life - tries to stand ground and defend the Sorceror's World from the Archmage while her colleagues in magic escape to another plane of existence. All of this has been building to the Archmage getting enough power and energy to destroy the planet, eon-old punishment for imprisoning him millenniums before. The White Witch resists until a spirit - possibly Amethyst of Gemworld? - convinces her to stand down. The heroes escape and the Sorceror's World is blasted into dust, and the Archmage realizes, too late, that he was bound to this world as well and fades from existence.
*Mon-El's fate is left unrevealed.

Before I get too backhanded about Keith Giffen's artwork, let me praise him, however faintly this sounds, for his willingness to experiment and mix up his style. As far as I'm concerned, he's right up there with Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, and Kev Walker for simply being unpredictable and regularly, radically, confounding our expectations. Plus, when Giffen's on fire, as he especially was when inked by Mahlstedt around the time of "The Great Darkness Saga," and with his latest look over the course of issues # 50 -59, he's just about the best artist working in American comics in the 1980s.

But then there's this shit.

The nine-panel grid, as inked by Al Gordon, is ugly and confining, and I cannot stand to look at it. Things improve massively when Mike DeCarlo takes over finishing work in the final two issues, as DeCarlo has a much looser hand. That said, he still can't salvage the layouts. For example, Rokk's reaction, in the final issue, to hearing of his brother's death just flops on the page, although the space considerations - far too much happens in these last 27 pages, especially on Xanthu - and Paul Levitz's leaden dialogue in this critical scene doesn't help it.

For what it's worth, Gordon is more in sync with Giffen's sensibilities, and, to be fair, Giffen had been leaning toward angular and blocky for some months anyway. The Emerald Empress, for example, was downright criminally sexy apart from these strange, gigantic, tire-like lips that have been showing up on everybody's faces lately, while their chins begin to firm and calcify. Gordon's incredibly rigid line, when compared to DeCarlo's, is a better match for this, but I simply can't stand the result. Everybody is ugly, and there are at least three panels per issue where I simply have no idea what I'm supposed to be looking at.

At this stage, the nine-panel grid, which would dominate the look of the book in volume four, is still in its infancy. In principle, at least, I kind of like how it's used here. The scenes with our heroes (the world of science) are shown with nine-panel grids and white borders, and the cutaway scenes with the Archmage nearing his breakout (the world of magic) are shown in six-panel grids with black borders. It's very clever despite being ugly, and as the scale and the scope of the story grows - billions are trying to evacuate stricken worlds - the tiny little panel isn't enough, and the merciless, immovable, impassionate grid hems in the scale to the point that we're left with passing dialogue to tell us how bad things are, because there is no room in the artwork to show us.

I hate this art so much.

And speaking of no room, Dream Girl suddenly realizes, at the bottom of page six of issue # 63, that she's been living on Xanthu and sleeping with Atmos because he's been using a will-controlling power that we did not know of before this to dominate her own will. She correctly recognizes, in thought, "He raped my mind" (for starters), but there's just no space in the story to consider the ramifications of this. It's settled at the bottom of page seven with a sock to the jaw. And now, that's enough of the subplots, back to the action!

In other words, none of this is the epic that it should have been. It just needs a little more room to breathe - a double-sized final issue might possibly have done it - and to consider what it presents. So many vital subplots are briefly acknowledged, and old faces like a couple of the Subs and the Heroes of Lallor get a little more screen time, but it feels like lip service. Mon-El's injury is left completely unresolved, Dreamy and Thom don't share a word, the White Witch and Brainy don't actually discuss the decision that destroyed their friendship, and so on. All of these lingering plotlines are left to Giffen and his new collaborators to handle. And how they did those is another story, and one that I'll only briefly acknowledge in the next installment.

As for the glory days of Levitz's work in the 1980s, this is where it ends. It was worse than I remembered it in places, and a good deal better than I remembered it in others, which was always a pleasant surprise. It didn't end well, but it was a magnificent ride getting there. I don't have any hesitation in calling it one of the very best superhero comics of its decade. Long live the Legion!

Sorta makes me wonder how well things went when Levitz returned to the book, actually...

Monday, March 4, 2013

The House of Silk

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 House of Silk (Orion, 2011).

I am a sucker for Sherlock Holmes stories. I am incredibly happy to try anybody's fiction set in 221B Baker Street and give it a few hours. Anthony Horowitz, best known as a writer of British TV drama - notably the series Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders - obtained Arthur Conan Doyle's estate's authorization and approval to write this novel. He didn't need it, of course, as the character is in the public domain, but it lends the story a whisper of authenticity.

Holmes fanfic typically begins with a cute series of explanations as to why this story has had to be suppressed until now. This time out, Watson did not even write the events down until quite late in his life, after Holmes had passed away, and provided explicit instructions that they were not to be published for decades. Of course. That's all part of The Game.

Anyway, Watson recounts an occasion where Holmes' use of his Baker Street Irregulars gets one of the kids killed. It's a much more convoluted and involved story than any that Doyle had ever penned, taking in ruined paintings in America, criminal gangs, mysterious and malicious strangers, and an orphanage for wayward boys before reaching one of the lowest points of Holmes' career: his arrest for murder under the influence of narcotics.

One little quirk that I have about reading detective fiction is that I do not try to speculate ahead, and yet sometimes there's no getting around it. I don't want to figure things out before the protagonists do, but I suspect that the great secret at the heart of The House of Silk will be readily apparent to jaded 21st-century eyes, even if the prim and correct Dr. Watson would never imagine such horrors. As such, I found myself impatient with the narrative, urging it to move on. Horowitz does a good job capturing Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and Mycroft, and his construction is solid, but it would take a Victorian to be very surprised by what's going on in this book. Recommended with reservations.