Monday, April 29, 2013

The Final Solution

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 Final Solution (Harper, 2004).

Of course, we all know that Sherlock Holmes did not have a particularly long career. We are told that he retired early, to Sussex, and spent the many remaining days of a long life raising bees. Those decades have of course provided many writers with inspiration for many stories and pastiches, just as the missing years between Reichenbach Falls and "The Empty House" have done. I'm a great fan, for example, of Laurie R. King's stories, most of which are set between 1915 and the late 1920s, and recently began rereading those.

I honestly had no idea, when I began reading Michael Chabon at roughly the same time I began picking and choosing a few revisionist Holmes tales, that Chabon had written one as well. So I was exceptionally delighted to stumble into this oddball novella about an 89 year-old beekeeper - the old man is never named - who crosses paths with a mute nine year-old German boy in 1944. The boy's parrot is constantly repeating long series of numbers, leading some in the community to wonder whether these are not critical codes being chirped along, or perhaps the location to hidden Nazi treasure.

Soon, the parrot goes missing, and a local man is jailed for murder, and the local police ask the old man whether he can assist with their inquiries. With the game afoot once more, albeit moving somewhat more slowly than the man moved earlier in his life, the trail takes him back to the great city where he once worked, with several clues to follow, and hidden meanings to deduce.

A book this short - just 130 pages and hardly dense with text - is difficult to stay with long enough to embrace. However, I can't imagine anybody reading it and not finding it a completely charming little distraction. It is a clever and very well-crafted tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle, with a small, realistic, and interesting cast of characters, not least of whom is the parrot. Chabon's typically thick scene-setting and description is mostly tabled here in favor of quicker and lighter character sketches, which is what the light little plot needs. It's an absolutely perfect aperitif before diving into something like one of Carole Nelson Douglas's dense epics, and comes recommended with a smile.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

LSH 2010 Reread, part four

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 6 # 11-13, Legion of Super-Villains # 1 and Adventure Comics # 525-527, 2011)

Major developments:

*Saturn Queen arranges for her removal from prison and surrounds herself with new allies. Her previously nebulous goal is clarified: the villain now worships anarchy and chaos and plans to destroy civilization. She has a particular hatred for the "false dharma" preached by planets of immortals, such as Oa and the Rock of Eternity, which the villains destroy. One of the original LSVers, Micro Lad of the planet Imsk, is murdered by a newcomer called Akka for questioning Saturn Queen.
*Star Boy has been in the 21st Century, driven somewhat insane by way of his... well, Brainy "explains" that his uniform is connected to the multiverse, or something.
*Cosmic Boy concludes that the Legion Academy's "seniors," Lamprey and Power Boy, are not Legion material. Coulda told him that thirty years ago and spent pages and time on characters we cared about, really.

I'm going to tell myself that, no matter what happened to end this title prior to the "New 52" launch - about which, more next time - Paul Levitz at least began plotting this run of stories before the word came down that DC management was about to do something dumb again. I believe this is true because the new LSV story just starts out awesome. It starts like Levitz had a big and wonderful, fantastic plan for an epic adventure.

Now, speaking of adventure, the set-concurrently stories in Adventure Comics remain just as inessential as ever, but they do reveal that Rokk and Lydda split up at some point during the "Wilderness Years." Also, the character of XS, from the 1994-2004 iteration of the Legion, finally shows up. Levitz seems as baffled as I am as to why in the world anybody would leave her entire universe and go move into some parallel world and has had no idea what to do with her. The team doesn't seem to need her - they have super-speedsters already. So, rather than finding a way to incorporate her into a group that's got too many characters anyway, he's just had her hang out, in costume, on some nice island somewhere, making mosaic artwork and thinking about her future. At least the artwork by Jeffrey Moy, who had drawn the character many times in the 1994-04 period, is really good.

As for Star Boy, I don't know how to explain this. I understand from Wikipedia that... actually, no, I read the Wikipedia entry about Thom and did not understand more than about six words of it. Basically, I guess, since we last saw him, he's been in the 21st Century doing secret weird stuff on behalf of the Brainiac Fives of three universes, who made him a suit that's a map of the multiverse, and he's the reincarnation of Scalphunter who was in the Kingdom Come story and got stuck in the Source Wall and was in the Justice Society and some other nonsense. Jesus wept.

But setting aside that hiccup for a minute, the LSV story begins really well. The special, and issues # 11 and 12 are just terrific, and get the adventure off to a great start. Then something strange happens. Issue # 13 does not advance the plot at all. It's just a long fight scene with no character or plot development. It feels exactly like management and editorial told Levitz that he had to keep this story going an extra month, beyond what he planned, because issue # 16 would be the final issue of the title before another relaunch, and that the final episode of this storyline needed to be there.

I have a bad feeling that this will prove to be somewhat troublesome when we wrap up this reread, next time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

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 Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000).

When this book was first released a dozen years ago, the nascent funnybook media and press reacted with blinking surprise. There's this serious novelist, Michael Chabon, and he's written a 700-page epic about two young cousins who invent a wildly successful character during the height of comics' Golden Age? In time, it would win a Pulitzer for fiction and inspire the creation of an actual comic book series, published by Dark Horse, which (if I understand correctly) "reprinted" classic adventures of this character. That's every bit as wonderful an idea as those Radioactive Man comics that the creators of The Simpsons will periodically release.

The novel is a great big sprawling epic that reminded me of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, only set over the course of a couple of decades. Josef Kavalier, newly arrived in America after a perilous and wild escape from Nazi-controlled Prague (and a high concept one, involving as it does a detailed search for the city's legendary Golem, with amusing results), finds refuge with his cousin Sam Clay, a big dreamer who works for a novelty gag company, Empire. Clay recognizes his cousin's amazing artwork and pitches a wild idea to his boss: why not climb on the coattails of National Comics' Superman and create a superhero to star in an all-new anthology book? And with the release of Amazing Midget Radio Comics # 1 in 1939, a legend is born... the legend of... the Escapist!

So over the course of the next twenty years, this saga continues, incorporating another Empire character, Luna Moth, and the gorgeous woman who draws her. There are fragments of a romance while war breaks out, and hints of the big merchandising money that enrages the owners of the Superman trademark into legal action. This being a Chabon novel, odds are better than average that some fellow's going to figure out that he's gay, and much of the narrative's emotional heft is going to be successful, or not, depending on how much of the relevant real-world history the reader has already absorbed before beginning.

I was unhappy with Chabon's decision to spread so much of the narrative out, feeling like I was missing important character moments that I wished to see. The ending didn't satisfy me, although it wasn't as egregious and throw-at-the-wall infuriating as Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Getting there is occasionally very pleasing and has a good gut-punch or three, but it still felt like I only got to ride about three-quarters of a roller coaster, with some of the wildest dips, loops, and barrel rolls kept from me. Recommended with reservations.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Man With No Libido

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 Man With No Libido (Quiet Hell, 2013).

There was an occasion about a decade back, when I re-entered the dating pool after a marriage had kept me out of it for a long time, and I made the horrible one-time mistake of calling myself a nice guy. What a colossal error that was. I had no idea that in my absence, the term had been co-opted by... well, it's hard to say, really. Evidently, there might have been / might still be a faction that suggests that simple, respectful kindheartedness should find some kind of reward, and some other faction that suggests that point of view leads to entitlement and creepiness. It's such a heated and ugly debate that I found a simple answer: the next person who called me "nice," I bloodied his lip.

Mitch, the hero of the paperback graphic novel The Man With No Libido, has a slightly more extreme answer: he goes in for a scientific experiment, has his sex drive removed and loses any interest in either wooing or being wooed. He then becomes the poster boy for a new craze of fellows permanently removing themselves from the dating scene. Let those lousy dames suffer for overlooking them for so long!

The comic, written by Jason Browne and drawn with flair by Steve Kearney, suffers from taking just one side of the argument, and not taking it far enough, but what it does present is a very silly and very amusing romp. Their outfit, Quiet Hell, is very much a small press concern, and the unfortunate misspellings in the captions - "you're" and "completely" confound the letterer - serve as a reminder that the creators are not quite ready for prime time. But the witty story and Kearney's artwork, with evident inspiration from Phil Foglio, are entertaining and promise even better things the next time out.

I really enjoyed Mitch's parade of awful dates, and there's a great recurring gag with a friend named Al whose video gaming cannot be interrupted. The consequences of the sexless revolution are also unpredictable and very funny, but also a little shorter than I'd like, leaving me curious about what we didn't see. One of Mitch's friends is incensed by his surgery, with amusing results, and another takes advantage of so many other fellows jumping out of the pool, with even more amusing results, but I wanted to see more.

What I liked most, however, was the very subtle touch behind the script. If the book disappoints by not finding room to explore the funny ramifications of its setup, it's assured and confident in not hammering quiet points. Mitch, at the close of the first disastrous date, displays exactly the same type of entitlement that critics of "Nice Guys" claim that people like him always do. This girl is a riot, the most emotionally horrifying person ever, and Mitch just doesn't see or understand that. You look at this setup just a little more closely and learn that the experiment doesn't really remove anything. Rather, the machine inserts a backbone. It's a very cute twist, and cleverly underplayed beneath the veneer of slapstick comedy.

In short, it's good fun that leaves me curious what the creators will try next, and don't anybody mistake my sweetness for being nice. Certainly worth a look, and recommended for older readers.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

LSH 2010 Reread, part three

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 6 # 8-10, Annual # 1 and Adventure Comics # 522-524, 2011)

Major developments:

*The Legionnaires capture three of the Durlan conspirators.
*Mon-El is elected team leader. Before anybody gets word to him, he defeats the murderous Sun Killer, who attempts to rescue Saturn Queen on her way to prison.
*The planet Orando has returned to our universe. There, the Emerald Eye of Ekron takes a new Empress, an insane girl named Falyce who was fleeing from one of the planet's criminal feudal lords. A small team of Legionnaires defeats Falyce, and Jeckie remains behind on Orando again.
*Blok and Mysa Nal, who has become the Black Witch, have been training a teen magician named Glorith on the Sorceror's World. They enroll her in the Legion Academy, where several familiar faces (Power Boy, Comet Queen, Lamprey) and some new kids (Dragonwing, Chemical Kid, Gravity Kid, Variable Lad) are learning their powers.
*Wait... Gim's wife Yera is in the Legion now? When the heck did that happen? Anyway, she's on board when the last of the Durlan conspirators is apprehended.
*The underclassmen at the Academy join Chemical Kid in swiping a training cruiser and returning to his homeworld, where his trillionaire father had been abducted by the supervillain Black Mace.

I suppose that in the first of these Reread chapters, I should have clarified that RJ Brande, the super-rich Durlan industrialist who decided to shape-change into the body of an ageing and overweight human and got stuck, memorized as many Yiddish-American words as possible, fathered Chameleon Boy, financed and bankrolled the Legion, and basically spent about a decade as one of the book's regular players, got himself killed sometime in the Wilderness Years. The Durlan terrorists who venerate his name took their anger out on another regular player, Science Police Chief Zendak, before their gang is finally captured by the Legionnaires.

So, with two of the supporting cast gone, Levitz apparently decided that many more were needed. Now, I honestly never cared all that much for the old visits to the Legion Academy, and didn't care for those characters. It seems like a badly broken concept anyway. How many years in comic time have passed since we first met Power Boy, Nightwind and Lamprey? Six or seven? They've been running drills under Bouncing Boy's tutelage for an awfully long time. And yet here they still are, doing training exercises in the Danger Room - er, that is, the gym - their underdeveloped selves still hoping to be called up to the majors.

Phil Jimenez is the new artist for Adventure Comics as the Legion Academy becomes that book's main feature. I think he's a completely terrific artist - I've enjoyed him since volume two of The Invisibles - and he really nails all the characters who make it into this book. (Speaking of which, here's another Wilderness Years change: Last I saw Luorno, she was down from three bodies to one. Now she can split into limitless duplicates. Wikipedia informs me that this was revealed in the final issue of the forgettable Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds miniseries, which makes sense. I can just imagine writer Geoff "All the action figures in the bathtub" Johns screaming "She can make a MILLION BILLION duplicates of herself!!") Anyway, while the art is completely wonderful, the story is as unnecessary as can be. Ten issues in and the title is still surprising and baffling readers - Where is Thom? What's happened to Mysa? Why is Yera a Legionnaire now? - and badly needing some kind of supplements to provide some background to help things out. I suggest that Adventure should have continued with flashback adventures, but "Wilderness Years" flashbacks rather than "early days of the team" stories. Alternately, simple spotlight issues like Levitz and Giffen used to do in the 1980s would have been terrific. Dumping another half-dozen new characters on us - and making them the leads! - was not the right answer.

Compounding this problem, the head boy of this new gang is Chemical Kid, who has similar powers to the long dead, and rarely used, Legionnaire Condo Arlik, Chemical King. I admit that I always liked that character, but I'm not sure why. He had the interesting power of Element Lad-lite. He could not transmute elements, but he could change chemical reactions, causing metals to rust or power pack energy to deplete. So apparently Chemical Kid's rich dad also thought that was a neat power and paid scientists to screw with his son's genetics so that he could do it, too. Of course. Never mind his eyebrow-raising origin, the character is a complete jerk and a blowhard, and it's just not entertaining watching him. Brainiac 5 had the sense to be written sympathetically for decades before writers started making him amusingly sarcastic and nasty. You've got to earn reader loyalty.

Lastly, a few words about the annual, which sees Levitz reteamed with Keith Giffen. I've said before that I really admire Giffen for his ability to keep changing his style, and this work is incredibly interesting. It is very, very Jack Kirby. The planet Orando and its inhabitants look just like some minor fiefdom on Apokalips, with big hats and strange beasts of burden and ruined castles. Vi, as befits somebody who decided years ago that nobody was going to imprison her again, has been working out and now has the muscle mass of Big Barda. It's a fascinating evolution in his style. The story's really good, too.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ampney Crucis Investigates... The Entropy Tango

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 latest Ampney Crucis Investigates story (Rebellion, 2012-13).

In 2008, Ian Edginton and Simon Davis launched a very promising-sounding series in the pages of 2000 AD. Ampney Crucis Investigates is easiest described as "Lord Peter Wimsey versus Cthulu." It's about a between-the-wars toff whose grievous wounds on the Western Front left him able to see hideous interdimensional beasts, and now he spends his time assisting police with their inquiries when their investigations lead them down occult, SF, and paranormal avenues.

It has never quite worked as well as it should, and never lived up to its promise. It's come achingly close on a couple of occasions, but Lord Crucis was poorly served by a couple of adventures that forced him, awkwardly, into the role of an action hero. Now, the lead in a detective thriller should certainly be the hero - Raymond Chandler may have disapproved strongly of the genre that spawned and inspired Lord Crucis, but he was quite correct that our protagonist should be in charge of his destiny - but there's a limit to this hero's powers and abilities. The stories thus far have not quite served those limitations well, whether by the artificial limits of a story that was much shorter than it should have been, or going the 2000 AD way of two-fisted adrenaline melodrama for a premise that does not warrant it.

But with the fifth story, "The Entropy Tango," Edginton and Davis have got it closer to perfect than ever before. It began in December's extra-length "Prog 2013" and continued for the next eleven issues and was far and away the best thing in the comic. This was a very good and very invigorating blend of action and baffling mystery, the stakes very high and the situation truly outre. Within the first few weeks, we had dead pleisosaurs in a field, woolly mammoths in a barn, Martian ambassadors targeted for assassination by disciples of Charles Babbage, and Alan Turing working on a top secret computer project for the British government.

This is the sort of wild kitchen sink approach to storytelling that has typified Pat Mills' work in recent years, but it works much better the way that Edginton employs it here. While Mills throws a hundred crazy concepts at the wall at once and leaves readers thunderstruck by all the madness, Edginton slowly builds to each bizarre reveal, using each as a part of a huge and complex puzzle for Lord Crucis and his manservant Cromwell to untangle. While I doubt anybody ever expected a revelation like a mammoth working as a beast of burden on a rural farm to ever come across as a natural part of storytelling, it's actually done so simply and effectively that "natural" is the only way to describe it. It's an exceptionally well-constructed puzzle, only let down, sadly, by the rushed ending.

2000 AD typically schedules "launch progs" into their lineup, where each issue features the start of all-new stories or serials. I'm afraid that "The Entropy Tango" fell afoul of the most recent one, and what could have continued unfolding naturally and in an exciting way over a few more chapters was quickly - far too quickly - tidied up. I'm not only saying that just because I was enjoying the bejezus out of this story as it continued, but I really feel that this series, more than any other in 2000 AD's lineup, would really benefit from long runs of seventeen or more weeks. There is a flow to the discovery that should not be dictated by the artificial structure of week-to-week scheduling. If that means that a launch prog has four "episode one"s and one "episode fourteen," so be it. The story itself is certain to be served better.

With the caveat that the rushed ending won't please anybody, getting there was a huge pleasure. I am looking forward to Lord Crucis's next adventure and hope that the Mighty One won't make us wait too long. This is his best and most satisfying case so far, and comes strongly recommended.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse

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 Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse (Rebellion, 2013).

John Smith wrote the last episode of an occasionally-appearing, and very weird, series called Indigo Prime way back in 1991. Mostly, in the years since it finished, he worked on long-form serials for 2000 AD, such as Firekind or Leatherjack or Cradlegrave. Many of these were highly regarded, and occasionally amazing, but there were always a few readers, myself included, who couldn't help but feel that no matter how interesting these stories were, a return to the bizarre multiverse of Indigo Prime could be even greater.

Somewhere around 2003, on some other website, I once speculated: "On the other hand, all times and places are relative to Indigo Prime; they could end up returning for a 13-week run when nobody suspects." That was kind of the feeling behind the groundwork of the series. It concerns a very strange organization of interdimensional troubleshooters who work as contract agents for the manipulation of empty universes and also police breakdowns of the barriers between worlds. They rewrite space, time, and dreams to keep reality in one piece. It's the best concept for a comic ever, and if it owes an obvious debt to TV's Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel - repaid with overt mentions at last in these new stories - it also builds on them with a huge cast of intriguing and fun characters.

About five years after I wrote that, Smith was wrapping up a serial called Dead Eyes, drawn by Lee Carter. It's pretty heady stuff, mixing ley lines, ancient mystical sites, stone circles, Agharta, ESP, and neanderthals into a modern military thriller. It starts to reach a very messy, inevitable, and blood-spattered climax when the protagonist, a soldier on the run named Danny, is abruptly removed from his reality - from the very comic serial in which he was starring - by two agents of Indigo Prime. For anybody unfamiliar with what was, then, a concept left unused since its last appearance seventeen years before, that was perhaps a weird and unsatisfying ending. For the rest of us, it was triumphant.

Danny and the two agents next appeared three years later, with Indigo Prime at last resurrected as a feature of its own. 2000 AD presented two short stories by Smith and artist Edmund Bagwell in 2011; these and Dead Eyes are all collected in the new book "Anthropocalypse." A further story, "Perfect Day," with art again by Carter, has since been announced as coming soon. We're all very pleased to see that, because as enjoyable and as entertaining as the stories in this book are, there's something about both the promise and the execution of Indigo Prime that leaves audiences desperately wanting to see more.

So, for those of you coming in blind, this is a dense, dense, dense series. It's beautifully drawn by Bagwell, who gives the technology and the phantasmagoria of the wild destruction of universes the sort of fired, imaginative sheen that was the hallmark of Jack Kirby in the 1960s and 1970s. His storytelling, layout, and character design are clear and straightforward, which is what this previously headache-inducing and complicated concept badly needed for its relaunch. The new Indigo Prime, at last introduced formally through an audience identification figure, is a giant assemblage of scrubs, spies, and super-agents. We meet a heck of a lot of new characters, and, strangely, the best-known pair from the original run only make a very brief appearance. Smith has evidently moved on, and he's interested in playing with concepts like agents operating in very deep cover, hidden away in strange realities for decades. Other new characters, surprisingly, have analogues in "our" reality: William S. Burroughs and Hawley Crippen are agents of Indigo Prime.

Apart from introducing readers to the weird world, there are a couple of big actions for the agency to take. There's the struggle to capture a dimension-jumping bewilderbeast, and the extraction/rescue of an agent from a universe that has reverse-engineered his time travel tech. If there's a legitimate complaint to be made, it's that perhaps a little more time might have been spent on character development than on fantastica; the agency's director Major Arcana, sort of a Kirby/Steranko-age Nick Fury, dominates the proceedings, and an imagineer named Mariah Kiss is instantly memorable, but the series would definitely benefit, going forward, from more one-offs and short tales letting us know more about the players before things get too weird and ragnarok starts thundering down again.

What we've got, though, accepting the minor quibbles of wanting to know more, is extremely good. The artwork is sublime throughout, and the concept and realization of such incredibly wild sci-fi ideas is peerless. If you've not sampled Indigo Prime before - an earlier book that collects most of their late 80s/early 90s appearances is also available - then this is a fine introduction, and it sets up some new plots that promise to resurface in future stories. About which, John Smith and 2000 AD's editor need to agree to produce at least 39 episodes every year. We have to make up for the two decades that the series was mothballed, you see. Very highly recommended and with wildest hopes for the future.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

Monday, April 8, 2013

All-Consuming Fire

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of All-Consuming Fire (Virgin, 1994).

Since I've been reading or rereading some revisionist Sherlock Holmes stories, it's only natural that I'd want to dust off what I remembered as one of my favorite Doctor Who stories from Virgin's seven-year line of novels. Andy Lane's All-Consuming Fire sees the Doctor teaming up with Holmes and Watson, or, rather, the "real" people whose adventures were published under the pseudonyms of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. This concept is a recurring one in revisionist Holmes literature, and one that honestly doesn't stand up to very much scrutiny. However, this concept was nevertheless gleefully embraced by Who fandom, which is why some of us old-timers are a little aggravated with one aspect of the last couple of years of the TV series. We've lately been informed that the fictional Sherlock Holmes was actually based on Madame Vastra, a heavily veiled lizard woman who assisted police with their inquiries. I actually kind of liked Madame Vastra just fine until that insistence*. It messed with a perfectly good novel that had a much, much more sensible take on how the Doctor could team up with Holmes.

Well, I say "perfectly good," but it's actually very flawed in one respect: one of the Doctor's companions is utterly unlikeable. Having been away from the New Adventures series for so long, I had forgotten how unpleasant and downright awful Ace had become. The writers had played a pretty neat trick with the character, who had been depicted in the last two years of the TV series as an Earth girl in her late teens. After nine books, she left the Doctor in the far distant future, only to call for his help and rejoin the Time Lord three books, and three years, later. In the meantime, she'd joined the army (space marines, actually) and become much more jaded and surly. The writers of the books greatly enjoyed playing with the characters of the manipulative Doctor, his broken friend Ace, and the third part of the triangle, a fantastic and fun archaeologist named Bernice, who's one of Doctor Who's all-time best companions. The interplay between the three is almost always engaging and fascinating.

But Andy Lane, writer of this novel, makes the awful mistake of putting Ace and Watson together. This does not do Ace any favors, and it took me completely out of the story.

Lane does an incredible job capturing the feel of Holmes, and much of this book should be praised as one of the very best of all the countless Holmes pastiches. It is structured as a Holmes story into which the Doctor keeps interfering, rather than the other way around as Who readers might expect, and Lane nails the tropes and the characterization. He also proves that he's also very familiar with the tropes of the pastiches that have preceded him. So Lane becomes the latest in a long line of writers to speculate about a certain giant rat of Sumatra and the inner workings of the Diogenes Club - naturally, the third Doctor is a member, despite really being a much more clubbable sort of chap than their usual roster - and he follows William S. Baring-Gould's theories and provides Sherlock and Mycroft with an older brother. In fact, it's such an entertaining Holmes story that the more it blazes off into science fiction, the less I enjoyed it. It's not even simplistic alien invasion stuff, but body horrors and Lovecraftian old gods and sickening metamorphoses, not the sort of sci-fi that I like to read in the first place, and it feels like the whole novel, and not just members of the supporting cast, loses humanity as the book itself transforms from proper Victoriana into something hideous and modern.

Nowhere does this transformation hit home harder than in the Watson-Ace dynamic. I think that Lane made a bad miscalculation here. Watson is one of fiction's most beloved characters. To love Holmes fiction, even the stories written from alternative points of view or set, like Laurie King's often wonderful novels, after the conclusion of their partnership, is to love John Watson, for all his bad luck, quiet dignity, and loyalty. Now, I understand that he's the guest star and Ace is one of the heroes of the show, but to have Ace constantly belittle Watson and yell at him just drives home how horrible she's become. (And what a poor host, to be so disrespectful to a famous guest!) I've read all the New Adventures, some of them many times, and I thought that I was used to "New Ace" and all her unhappy, brittle points, but either I had forgotten how shrill she is in the years since I last read one of these books, or Lane drove her to extreme behavior in this one, or I've become much, much more of fan of Watson without realizing it. Ace doesn't enter the narrative for 200 of the book's 300 pages, meaning I spent a hundred pages waiting for her to get a comeuppance for being so nasty to Watson. If this is the modern world, give me Baker Street.

I know that I had read All-Consuming Fire at least twice before, and I enjoyed the London-set material so much that, during this reread, it was like reacquainting myself with a beloved old friend. I found myself very surprised to have so much more of the book left to read once the disturbingly alien elements appeared, suggesting that I've always found the events on the planet Ry'leh to be disappointing by comparison; I'd remembered the book as having much more happening in England and in India than in space. Maybe that's just the book that I would rather remember, because what happens in space isn't happy and is downright nasty to Holmes and Watson, and what happens on our planet is a blast and very respectful to those characters, firmly one of the best of all the pastiches until things get dark. Recommended for Holmes fans with very strong reservations.

*A second aggravation is that I'm very pleased that Vastra and Jenny are happy together, and, were they residing on contemporary Earth, I'd wish them a long and happy legal marriage. Since they're in 1880-something, however, I think that their public claims of a happy marriage are just this side of completely idiotic. And she's not Holmes, either. The fellow in this book [and the following year's Happy Endings] is Holmes, and Vastra is a Silurian in a veil. Steven Moffat really has done a thorough job in letting us all down.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judge Anderson: The Psi Files Vol. 3

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Anderson: The Psi Files Vol. 3 (Rebellion, 2012).

The complete reprinting of Anderson: Psi Division, the longest-running of all the sixty-thousand spinoffs from Judge Dredd, enters its difficult middle period with this volume. It's still very good, and has moments of sheer brilliance, but it raises a lot of awkward and huge questions about Dredd's world that have not really been addressed.

This edition, a big, beautiful 300 pages long, collects twelve stories from 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and their related special and annual editions, almost all of it scripted by Alan Grant. The bulk of the stories are from the 1995-98 period and reflect a troubled time for the comics. "Something Wicked," a story in which a cult leader dooms his followers onto an exodus from the city, was originally published toward the end of the Megazine's second volume. At the time, the first feature film about Judge Dredd was nearing release, and the publishers, then Fleetway, did that silly thing that magazine publishers do and did a big relaunch and renumbering for its third volume to accompany the major, and well-remembered story, "Satan." But sales of the Meg tanked after the movie's failure, leading Judge Anderson's stories to be rested for a year and a half before resurfacing in 2000 AD itself. During that troubled time, space in the thinner, cut-to-monthly Megazine was needed for reprints.

Starting from "Something Wicked," much of the artwork for Anderson during this period was provided by Steve Sampson, a really interesting painter who has not worked much in the medium, and who occasionally attracted discussion about his modeling. Occasionally, his photo referencing is a little too obvious, and the star of our story is quite clearly Madonna. I really like his very bright colors and composition, however, and, tasked with the amazing job of setting a story around an exodus of children fifteen million strong, he somehow comes up with some amazing imagery.

So... about those children. "Crusade" is one of the most remarkable and controversial stories from its day, and it still attracts discussion today. The conventional wisdom tends to be negative, but I think it's worth looking at a little more closely. This is a story where some force - an eternally-young psychic child whom Anderson had met in a previous adventure might be either its conduit or its architect - persuades the children of Mega-City One to leave, like a future Pied Piper luring kids onto a Children's Crusade. The judges eventually decide that taking out the leaders of this exodus, to a strange and secret city deep underground in the Cursed Earth, is the best solution. (They do not, firmly, "nuke" them, as horrified critics often repeat - that is a misreading of the situation completely contradicted by the actual incident, where several dozen people are shown to be killed by a missile from a shoulder-mounted launcher, with millions of survivors left to kill the judges in the strike force and enter the city, never to be seen again.)

Pause for a second. That's not just a loss, it's a resounding loss. And in one of the weirdest turnarounds in all of Dredd and Anderson's continuity, it is never referred to again. The story even sees the death of a longtime supporting character, and neither she nor her twin sister are ever again mentioned in the series. The loss of fifteen million children - an astonishing number by even Mega-City One's standards, ranking this among the city's most horrifying disasters - has gone unmentioned in the last sixteen years of stories. What happened to them? Their city is the third-largest in North America, and the judges just let it happen?

I think that the story is really fascinating, and I love Sampson's decisions and use of color, but it really is an amazing missed opportunity. It's also very surprising, since many newer Dreddworld writers like Al Ewing and Si Spurrier have found such success in finding old, throwaway concepts in earlier stories and making them into something wild and new, that nobody has touched on that underground city of 15,000,000 teens, tweens, and toddlers, all now sixteen years older, or the impact on all those poor parents whose kids abandoned them.

Elsewhere in the book, there's the frequently-reprinted "Satan," with lovely art by Arthur Ranson. He's often mentioned as the best of Anderson's artists, but this book covers a period where he didn't work on the series very much; "Satan" is his only story. This story looks so completely amazing that you'll not only overlook the nebulous and slightly confusing climax, but you'll be gritting your teeth in anticipation of a fourth book in this series, which should reprint Ranson's epic two-year "Half-Life / Lucid" arc - 208 pages from 2004-06. Get that on the calendar, Tharg!

Pulling things in my head together, then, this is an uneven collection. At its best, it looks remarkable and reads extremely well, and at its worst, it's still better than most rivals, even with the huge questions that some of the stories leave unanswered. I really enjoy the interaction between Anderson and Dredd, who's a major guest star in the first couple of stories, and the quiet words that they share in the aftermath of "Satan" make for a truly amazing and human moment amid all the supernatural and sci-fi events. The collection also contains a couple of bonus stories with artwork by greats like Mick Austin and Ian Gibson. So it's uneven, but still recommended. You could do a lot worse.

Monday, April 1, 2013

LSH 2010 Reread, part two

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 6 # 5-7 and Adventure Comics # 518-521, 2010)

Major developments:

*Dyogene attempts to make Professor Exposition, one of the three who caused the Titan-destroying disaster at the Time Institute, the new Green Lantern, but she turns it down.
*On Earth, a xenophobe militia group attacks the Titan refugees and overwhelms the Legionnaires assisting them. The team is saved by Kirt, who leads most of the rest of the team into action.
*In a very surprising development, Science Police Chief Zendak, a very old supporting player, is assassinated by a cell of Durlan insurgents.
*In an even more surprising development, Kirt gives up his xeno principles to bed Shady.
*The Durlan terrorists begin assassinating United Planets councilors, but their species is quickly deduced by a small team of Legionnaires: Cos, Timber Wolf, Ultra Boy and Tyroc capture one of them.
*Mon asks Kirt what the devil he's doing in bed with his ex. Kirt threatens him and Mon throws him into outer space. When he returns, Shady lets Kirt know that Mon may have won the fight, but Kirt has won the prize.
*Dyogene offers the Green Lantern ring to Mon-El, who accepts it. He takes a uniform and begins new duties which will restrict his Legion activities, and has a short goodbye with Shady, where it's revealed that he had spent some additional time in the Phantom Zone.
*Adventure Comics # 515-520 had told flashback tales of the younger Legion; from # 521, the book continues the present-day story, effectively providing a new episode every second week.

If Paul Levitz's first few issues back on Legion felt like he was juggling far too many things - Saturn Queen? Servants of Darkness? Wha? - then, four months in, things have settled down comfortably. The heroes are still spread out and dealing with things, but the focus is narrowing and the storylines are folding back into something more interesting and coherent. That's not to say that they're completely successful, but at least, with the conclusion of the xenophobia story, there is less happening to fewer people, and it resonates a little bit more.

But the big problem that I have with some of this run is that less is happening in each individual issue. # 5 is a remarkable example. If I may be allowed a moment of intense cynicism, I have occasionally heard that comic book artists enjoy drawing splash pages, as they can make better money selling their original artwork. With that in mind, I'm forced to wonder whether the creators agreed to make things easier on the financial front, because the fight scenes in this book between some of the heroes and the xenophobe Earth army are ridiculous. There's an entire page, just three panels, of Sun Boy fighting back against a huge energy wave. Another page is a splash of Sensor Girl observing the army entering the refugee camp. Suddenly, the reason for the character's new boob window in her new costume is obvious: her cleavage is right in the center of the page.

Adventure # 521 is drawn by new artist Geraldo Borges, who takes over from Kevin Sharpe, who'd been handling that title's flashback stories. This issue features the first real emotional gut punch of the series, as Mon-El and Shadow Lass finally talk, all too briefly, about their breakup and the future. She tells him that he had grown emotionally cold, and "left her" after he returned from the Phantom Zone. I suspect this is how they handled the problem of his grievous injury at the hands of the Time Trapper, leaving him safely in limbo in the Zone for several months until somebody figured out a way to heal him. It probably would have been better had Shady accompanied him into the Zone... but then again, we see very clearly in LSH # 7 that she still has all her fingers. Back in vol. 3, we had the huge and shocking surprise that Shady had forced a marriage on the helpless Mon-El using her race's tradition of "binding," which includes self-mutilation. It is possible that this was one of the changes undone by the continuity revision. Or, heck, maybe not, this is 31st century sci-fi, and maybe she grew a new finger from a vat or something.

I love the twist of Mon-El, possibly already the most powerful humanoid in the galaxy, suddenly getting a power ring. It does mean, madly, that he retires his classic and brilliantly designed costume for some ugly black and green thing, but man, that opens up all kinds of story possibilities.