Sunday, June 30, 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand

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 Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand (Panini, 2012).

Credit Where It's Due Dept: The last two Panini collections of Doctor Who comics got some pretty well-deserved raspberries from me, because the publisher solicited them at a price of about $24, and then when they showed up, they cost $32. Well, I no longer care to read advance solicitations for comics, but I do note that when The Crimson Hand finally showed up, as explained below, it came with a price printed on the back cover of the book itself of $31.95, covered up by a large sticker that corrected it to $24.99. Thank you, gentlemen, that's the way that it should be done.

Having said that, it's possible that when The Crimson Hand was originally solicited, it might have been so long ago that I actually was still paying attention to these things. The book was caught up in a sad and lengthy tug of war between various branches of the BBC's licensing and marketing departments. Apparently somebody started thinking about things too deeply and wondered whether Panini's license to print comics extends to giving them the right to collect these comics in a book form, and whether they might need a different license for that, because some other department has that license. And then there's the issue of the logo. Brands being all-important, it wouldn't do to have the David Tennant logo on new merchandise, because since Matt Smith became the star, there's a different logo... good grief, did anybody dare dream that when Doctor Who came back in '05 that things would get so silly?

The comic has always had a silly streak, but it's also played fairly within the rules of the continuity since the TV show returned. This left the comic's creators with a really great opportunity. They would have something like eighteen months between the end of series four and the debut of Matt Smith's Doctor to do whatever the heck they wanted. If the comic had become a little straitjacketed by the show continuity, this was a rare and happy opportunity to revisit the freewheeling anything goes decade of the Eighth Doctor, with long and involved subplots and lots of recurring characters.

Orchestrated by Dan McDaid, who wrote most of the resulting stories, the free-from-teevee-rules final run of the Tenth Doctor - you can slot this entire book in between the TV episodes "Planet of the Dead" and "The Waters of Mars" - sees the Doctor crossing paths with a ruthless green-skinned businesswoman called Majenta Pryce and, much to his surprise, traveling with her for a time. To his even bigger surprise, she has very mysterious origins of her own and is being pursued through time and space by four incredibly ruthless and powerful beings.

This collection is a great big satisfying chunk of story, realistically more than can be absorbed in a single sitting. Artwork is provided by the reliable Mike Collins, Martin Geraghty, and Paul Grist, and I really enjoyed Geraghty's Kirby-esque designs for the Crimson Hand. It's fun and surprising, and while the Doctor himself is probably not in any real danger, it's a book where everybody else is. Recommended.

Monday, June 24, 2013

LSH 1994 Reread, part six

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 # 79-81 and Legionnaires# 35-38, 1996)

Major developments:

*The Fatal Five takes the Legion down and they take them down hard. It is an amazing beat-down.
*The eleven heroes who fell - Cos, Imra, Triad, Lyle, Gim, Cham, Brainy, Spark, Vi, Thom and Gates - get one heck of a rescue from Live Wire, XS, Valor, Ultra Boy, Jan Arrah, and - surprising everybody who thought she was dead - Andromeda. Kinetix also finally shows up, having no idea what kind of crisis is going on, having been teleported to the action by the sorceress Mysa in search of the Emerald Eye.
*The Fatal Five - who are in communication with an unseen ally directing them - teleport away to the planet Drak IV on the Braalian frontier. Some foe is orchestrating a war between Titan and Braal, as if our heroes didn't have enough to handle.
*It turns out that Cos has been handling it quite well for quite some time! Some months previously, the Titanian healer Aven had told Cos of his suspicions that the first Titan-Braal war had been manipulated by President Chu. It was her - not Wazzo - who had been behind all of the recent escalations. The Legion Espionage Squad - including Cham posing as Wazzo - trick Chu into revealing everything on camera. The other Legionnaires handle the Fatal Five, a task made easier when Mano turns on Tharok.
*RJ Brande is drafted as president of the UP. He pardons Andromeda and Brainy and abolishes the Legion draft, letting the heroes be a volunteer unit and pick their own teammates. Valor takes the name M'Onel so that he can operate without religious fervor.
*The basic creative team is Roger Stern, Tom McCraw, and Tom Peyer writing, with Lee Moder and Jeffrey Moy the principal artists. Stern, who, at this time was also among the rotating writers across the five Superman titles, steps in to replace Mark Waid and will remain part of the LSH's writing team for more than three years.

This turned out just fine in the end, with the exception that I noted last time about the incredibly convenient - while simultaneously absurd - bit of evidence planted on the magic TV of Jan Arrah's memories that suggests a Sun-Eater is out there in space somewhere. Still, only one bit of unbelievable baloney over the course of forty-something issues is really a remarkable achievement.

And I'm certainly willing to overlook it, because McCraw, Peyer and Stern pull off a simply masterful bit of misdirection. It is actually Chu, and not Wazzo, who is the real mastermind behind all this. That doesn't mean that Wazzo is any less of a completely loathsome jerk - in fact, she is shown, at the end of # 80, to be every bit as resolved to see the Legion disbanded - but she isn't the Snidely-Whiplash baddie that had been implied. It's a very classy twist, done brilliantly.

As much as I enjoyed the climax of this first long (long!) story, it's the fight with the Fatal Five that really impressed me the most. The heroes just get their rears kicked. They don't take any of the bad guys down. Sure, the kids have some superpowers and some martial arts training, but not nearly enough to make a difference against these toughs. I honestly can't remember reading any superhero team fight scene where the good guys are so mercilessly and unflinchingly given such a remarkable beatdown. When the cavalry shows up, even the most jaded and seen-it-all of critics is certain to smile.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Star Wars Omnibus: Boba Fett

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 Star Wars Omnibus: Boba Fett (Dark Horse, 2010).

I don't envy anybody who's ever tried to collect Dark Horse's sixty-eleven different Star Wars titles. Even accepting that there's a fair stereotype that Star Wars fans are known for being very detail-oriented, the publisher has released such a bewildering array of different limited series, one-shots, special editions, and anthology / umbrella titles with so many creators that even the most ardent of the property's fans must find it daunting. I have only the mildest curiosity for Star Wars, but I really do like the work of four creators who have material in this Omnibus edition. The Dark Horse Omnibus line is a really great one. They're assembled with care, on good paper, slightly shrunk from the original comics, but 500 pages for $25 is a very good deal, especially since, unlike similar repackaging from Marvel and DC, these are in the original color.

It appears that since the editors of these zillion-odd comics never wanted to do a simple continuity, but rather commission writers and artists to tell various stories of the many characters of the Star Wars universe at random points in their lives, the only sensible way to collect them was to break them into Omnibus editions centered on specific characters. I saw this Boba Fett book on sale at Great Escape in Nashville, remembered reading that John Wagner and Cam Kennedy had worked on the character for Dark Horse, and flipped through it. What I found was a heck of a lot of Kennedy work, along with art by Ian Gibson and Carlos Ezquerra. Sold.

Even though these creators, combined, contributed only about half the pages in the book, it was still a steal because these are some tremendously good stories. The others were less important to me, but I enjoyed all of those but one. "The Yavin Vassilika" has a pretty fun "treasure hunt" story written by Mike Kennedy, but the artwork by Carlos Meglia was eyeball-punching. It's set before the first movie, and I'm not sure whether the "Young Kewl Anime Doodz" designs for Han, Lando and the bounty hunters just stank overall, or whether I was distracted by Young Han Solo's hairy chest drawn to look like it has spiky black bugs all over it, or whether the depiction of Young Greedo did me in. Greedo looks like a five year old kid in a Halloween costume.

So yes, a full fifth of the book is unpleasant to look at, but the rest is a joy, and I say that as someone with very little interest in this property. Cam Kennedy just draws the absolute hell out of his stories, with perfectly balanced fight choreography and brilliant design work for all the weird technology. I love his Fett, dominating every scene with his unspeakable badassery even in long shot. Ian Gibson, whom I've been said to admire even more than Kennedy generally, can't hold a candle to Kennedy in the Star Wars universe. Gibson certainly does get things off to a good start with "Enemy of the Empire" before abandoning it before the climax (not the last time he'd pull that stunt), but he's not a patch on Cam here.

Throughout, all the creators, including Ezquerra, who draws a great little Wagner-scripted tale about a salvage job that goes bad, and Andy Mangels, who writes a terrific piece illustrated by John Nadeau, contribute top-of-the-class stories, inventive and original. However, they are all left in the dust by Wagner and Kennedy's "Death, Lies & Treachery." This thing is a masterclass in how to structure an over-the-top spectacle of melodrama and chaos.

There is a whole lot that goes on in "Death, Lies & Treachery," which is the longest story in the book at an expansive 140 pages, and it doesn't sum up very well. In it, Boba Fett allows himself to get caught in the middle of two feuding Hutts, one of whom is blinded by love for the other's hideous daughter, because the money for this mess is consistently good. Fett is the only character in the sprawling insanity who keeps his composure. All around him, it's utter lunacy involving betrayal, bounty hunters, space pirates eating people, loudmouths, pipsqueaks, and an uproarious loss of dignity for entire planets' worth of weirdoes. Like the very best of Maverick, or Wagner's own remarkable Robo-Hunter, it's a situation that starts bad and just keeps getting worse. I laughed like a hyena all through the great and wonderful thing. If the rest of Star Wars was half this good, everybody, everywhere would love it unreservedly.

Honestly, I don't know much about Star Wars. I speak from familiarity, but not love of the property. I doubt that buying this book will prompt many people to attempt to navigate the chaotic mess of Star Wars Omnibi that Dark Horse have released, and will probably allow to quietly go out of print now that the license is returning to Marvel Comics in the next few years. What I can tell you is that the Boba Fett book is four-fifths a completely satisfying gem of a book and darn well worth the money. But it makes sense to buy it now before the license slips away and it goes out of print. Recommended despite the other fifth of the anthology.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Wrinkle in Time

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 A Wrinkle in Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

The years have not been too kind to Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which is the sort of thing that happens to any book as influential as this was. It was first published in 1962 and it's been ripped off ever since. Sometimes, they're at least kind of quasi-original about what they're trying to accomplish - what are wormholes and stargates if not renamed tesseracts with extra rules and sounds-good-enough physics? - but other times, sci-fi melodrama has just pilfered L'Engle whole. When I reread Charles Wallace's takeover by IT, I was reminded of so many identical scenarios in so many places that the impact of the original was blunted. Only steal, they say, from the best.

Technically, I didn't reread L'Engle, but last year's comic adaptation of the novel by Hope Larson. Running to an expansive 392 pages, it seems to cover all of the book's events quite accurately. Larson updates the characters to modern design, which prompts the question in my mind anyway about how timeless this story really is. The children are incredibly naive, which, in 1962, they certainly would have been. The conformist world controlled by IT really was a strange and frightening place then, and our young heroes would have never seen anything like it. Characters sent there from the modern day, however, would have seen the same or weirder on the Simpsons' Halloween episodes. What is Ned-world from the time-traveling toaster installment if not this place? And, as such, modern kids would know darn well not to attempt what Charles Wallace does. That might have worked in '62, but no way does a contemporary kid do that; they've seen cartoons and know this won't end with anything but possession.

That's how innovative A Wrinkle in Time was. Everything from Doctor Who to Fairly Oddparents has this story in its DNA. My only complaint with Larson's adaptation, therefore, is the apparently modern setting. Otherwise, she does a really satisfying job with it, and even though time has dulled its impact, it's still a good read, whether in prose or panels. Recommended, especially if you can get it into a kid's hands before they absorb everything that came later.

Monday, June 17, 2013

LSH 1994 Reread, part five

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 # 75-78 and Legionnaires# 32-34, 1995-96)

Major developments:

*The Legion battles the 20th Century villain Chronos, whose powers have recently been augmented via a big crossover event called "Underworld Unleashed." In the wake of the fight, the Science Police arrest Brainiac 5 for unlicensed experiments in time travel.
*Gates and Star Boy are the newest Legionnaires. Gates is an insectoid alien who resents being drafted by forces he sees as political oppressors, and Star Boy, sent by Xanthu to replace the late Kid Quantum, is still recovering from an injury. Both of his arms are broken.
*Kinetix finally awakens on the Sorceror's World. An aging magician named Mysa tasks her with retrieving a magical talisman called the Emerald Eye of Ekron.
*The team is attacked by a brainwashed enemy in an armored suit. Vi finally knocks him cold and they learn it is Jan Arrah, the sole survivor of the planet Trom. They learn that it was Ambassador Wazzo - Tinya's mother - who sent Jan to kill the Legion as vengeance for her daughter's death.
*While showing their evidence against the ambassador, there's an interruption: a cloud-creature called the Sun Eater that last appeared in the Milky Way a thousand years ago, has been seen again in space between Earth and Trom.
*The UP president explains "With so little data available, many worlds live in fear of this creature through their mythologies. Five of these cultures have engineered genetically-enhanced living weapons to use against it." These are the team's old foe Mano, Tharok of Zadron, Validus of Pasnic, the Persuader, and the Empress of Venegar: the Fatal Five.
*The basic creative team is Tom McCraw, and Tom Peyer writing, with Lee Moder and Jeffrey Moy the principal artists.

This is the second time that the Legion has crossed over with the mainstream, contemporary DC Universe, and the second time that the creators confounded my fears. The premise behind "Underworld Unleashed" is that a bunch of C-list costumed bad guys make a deal with a devil to get their powers amped up so they can defeat their superhero opponents. Naturally, they all get betrayed in ironic ways, because that's what happens when you make deals with devils. The bad guy in this case was a fellow named Chronos, who uses time travel powers, and who'd been around since the 1960s, but for the purposes of this adventure, he might as well be anybody - a brand new character, even. The flashbacks explaining the deal with the devil are done quickly and are unobtrusive, allowing the writers to try and tell a story that is happening in two time periods a thousand years apart at the same instance. It's tricky, but clever.

What's not clever, however, is Ambassador Wazzo. Grief-stricken over the death of her daughter, she's turned into a predictable comic book supervillain. This leads, unbelievably awkwardly, into the simply unreal and silly Sun-Eater and Fatal Five plot. Now, I'm all in favor of the Fatal Five conceptually, and this story does a great job convincing me that they really are the Legion's biggest challenge yet. What I don't buy is this "genetically enhanced living weapon" malarkey. I also have a big problem with the magic TV set that turns memories into video images, and the amazing coincidence of a Sun-Eater just happening to show up on a video screen in the background of the magic TV set's picture.

Perhaps we're not getting the whole story, but this is the first time since the reboot that I've put the book down and said "that is kind of stupid." That said, the artwork is certainly consistent and excellent, and the new Eye-less Empress reminds us that what we're reading isn't quite like what came before. This time out, there's not even a Ferro Lad to throw at the Sun-Eater. Yet.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Nikolai Dante: Sympathy for the Devil

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 Nikolai Dante: Sympathy for the Devil (volume 11, Rebellion, 2012).

A few people, not least a couple of the good people employed by 2000 AD's publisher, Rebellion, have expressed a little disappointment that the conclusion of Nikolai Dante after fifteen years did not attract a little more comment from the comic-book-world media. Rereading his final adventures, collected here in the eleventh and last volume in the series, I can't honestly claim to be surprised myself. The American-led funnybook press is built around the world of endless continuity. The notion of a story ending is not just anathema to most of their writers; they don't quite understand what it means for a "continuing" character to reach the end of his journey.

As finales go, not very many come grander than this. Over the course of the previous installments, compiled in Book Ten, we learned that the Romanov patriarch, Dimitri, was still alive, very active, very powerful, and ideally poised to take advantage of the power vacuum at the heart of far-future Russia. As Book Eleven opens, Nikolai and his allies are ready to strike back, rescue Jena Romanov, and finally bring some conclusion to a war-weary world. But things get off to a terrible start when one of the allies pulls a not-entirely-unexpected betrayal and our hero is captured.

The amazing thing about this book is that by this time, Robbie Morrison's story should by rights have been at least a little patience-exhausting, with two twist endings, if not more, too many. As the series continued, it built up a gigantic cast of recurring players, and while its reputation among fans and readers was almost always a good one, it did get occasional teasing for suggesting that quite a few of these characters were dead only to have them resurface, often switching sides. One of the really great twists comes when one of the principal villains, Vladimir, is shown here to escape captivity. There's a sense of "you have got to be kidding; our heroes have to beat him and his loyal forces again?", but what actually happens is wildly unpredictable.

The entire series is completely terrific, of course, but I really enjoyed the pacing and setup of the final stories. The major climax to all of the action comes about two-thirds of the way through this book, leaving plenty of space to say farewells to the characters who made it so far. Katarina Dante and Viktor Romanov each get just about the best send-offs of anybody in the comic medium, and the final fate of the recurring cowards Flintlock and Spatchcock is terrific fun. I love the balancing act of humor and knife-in-your-heart tragedy in these stories, with moments that are completely unforgettable.

Dante was co-created by Morrison and artist Simon Fraser, who handles most of the artwork in this collection. John Burns, who became a principal artistic collaborator as the series continued, got to make his farewells in the six episodes that precede the six-part finale. Both artists are on the top of their game and their work is wonderful throughout. Nikolai Dante has been one of my favorite comic characters since his debut in 1997, and while I will certainly miss the guy, I am very pleased that this epic can honestly be said to have a beginning, middle, and, that rarest of things in the comic world, an end. Highest recommendation.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book

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 Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1959, reissue by Kitchen Sink, 1987).

Let's set the wayback machine for the 1950s. Ballantine Books was doing very well selling a series of pocket-sized reprints from the pages of Mad magazine. Harvey Kurtzman, who'd created that title, had left after a couple of years and set up a pair of rival humor publications with help from that usual gang of idiots. Trump folded almost instantly; Humbug lasted about a year and also resulted in a moderately successful Ballantine reprint. But then Mad's publisher took a look around at their options and contracted with Signet to handle their reprints, and Ballantine asked Kurtzman whether he had anything else that they could sell.

Harvey Kurtzman is one of my favorite American comic creators, but almost all of his work was in collaboration with others. Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, which appeared to no applause and immediately sank without a trace, is the only long-form work by Kurtzman flying solo. It's very good and it's absolutely fascinating, if not particularly funny any more. Time has blunted Jungle Book's impact. You might, with a little help, be able to recognize that the first and third of these four stories are parodies of TV's Peter Gunn and Gunsmoke, but when was the last time that you let the cultural impact of either show wash over you so much that you can recognize the actual beats and tropes of each production as things ready for satire?

The second story, however, has a lot more life in it. "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" is set in the cut-throat world of publishing, and a wide-eyed, blank-eyed innocent new junior editor called Goodman Beaver comes in with big ideas and big dreams and finds the business much more depraved and mean-spirited than he could have imagined. It is completely terrific. Goodman Beaver was resurrected as a recurring character in Kurtzman's next project, the magazine Help!, which ran for six years, appearing in five comics by Kurtzman and Will Elder. Goodman later received a sex change and morphed into Little Annie Fanny, who appeared for decades in Playboy in similar "innocent fish in troubled waters" stories, albeit with lots of nudity. Whether as Annie or as Goodman, the template is a terrific one, but I don't know that the character ever had a better outing than the first one. "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" is not just brilliantly observed and paced, the loose and frantic artwork helps this story's sense of things spiralling out of control.

From what I understand, this book originally appeared as just about the most bottom-rung production that could be imagined, with the cheapest paper and virtually no promotion and distribution. Good condition copies are worth a small fortune. Even a new copy of the 1987 reprint often commands a high price. While it was originally printed as a pocket-sized paperback, Kitchen Sink's edition was considerably larger, allowing the artwork to appear at its original dimensions. The book was issued in hardcover and paperback, with additional material by Art Spieglman. I was thrilled to land an inexpensive copy and recommend that anybody with an interest in Kurtzman track one down as well. You probably won't laugh out loud much, but you'll find much to study and find it marvelous.

Now, when the heck is somebody going to reissue complete collections of Trump and Help!, I ask you? When?!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

LSH 1994 Reread, part four

(Covering Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4 # 72-74, Legionnaires# 29-31, and Superboy vol.3 (?) # 21, 1995)

Major developments:

*Ohhhhhkay, so a million things to cover. In Legionnaires Annual # 2, the Daxamites of the White Triangle were soundly defeated, but at the apparent cost of both Andromeda and Apparition, believed to have died in action, and nobody knows where Kinetix is, leaving Aleph's representative to the United Planets very aggravated. Earth President Chu has sworn Cos to secrecy about Andromeda, who is alive and under arrest by Earthgov, but something of a PR nightmare. Apparition will resurface in time.
*Tensions completely explode at the memorial service. Cos is just barely keeping things together, and he doesn't stand up for his friends under pressure to disband the team before any more kids are killed.
*The president of Morgna Industries fires a scientist, Dr. Regulus, who murders two employees and steals an armored suit, swearing vengeance. Regulus doesn't come out well after his fight with the Legion, but neither does Morgna's son Dirk, who is transformed and given powers to control fire.
*Garth finally tracks down his brother Mekt, who is revealed to be an unhinged, murderous lunatic. The fight robs Mekt of his lightning powers, but he disintegrates Garth's right arm.
*A thousand years previously, a hero called Superboy helped save the life of the legendary Daxamite hero Valor, but at a cost. Lead poisoning was killing Valor, and Superboy sent him into a "stasis zone" where he has waited, alive, seeing, but unable to interact with the material world. Since Brainiac 5 created a cure for lead poisoning, Valor has used all his energy to create power surges to give him the chance to communicate with the material world and explain his plight. Brainiac 5, however, can find no way to enter this stasis zone, and so they must travel back to the 20th Century and consult Superboy.
*Sounds promising, right? Unfortunately, "Superboy" is not the teenage Kal-El, survivor of the planet Krypton. He's a loudmouthed clone of human DNA given powers that approximate the Man of Steel's. He has the specs for the stasis ray in his subconscious. He returns with the team to the 30th Century, but Brainiac 5 cannot duplicate the thousand year-old parts for the machine. A technological archive on the planet Korr should have what they need, but the parts have been stolen by an ancient enemy of Superboy called Scavenger.
*Valor had, in the 20th Century, found homes on new planets for thousands of refugees who had been experimented upon by the alien Dominators. Over a thousand years later, Valor is worshipped on many of these planets, including Luorno's home of Carggg, as "the world-seeder." Superboy's big mouth lets the word spread that the Legion is attempting to rescue Valor from stasis, resulting in a crush of religious lunatics on Earth. They free him instead on a remote planet, where, waiting with an injection of the anti-lead serum and a gun that fires red sun radiation to nullify his invunerability, they finally save his life. Valor agrees, with reluctance, to hide out in LSH headquarters until the furor dies down. Cos makes Superboy an honorary member of the team.
*The basic creative team is Tom McCraw, and Tom Peyer writing, with Lee Moder and Jeffrey Moy the principal artists. Mark Waid moved on from the book following Legionnaires Annual # 2. The Superboy issue is by its creative team, Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett.

Well! The Legion's first crossover with the contemporary DC Universe is much neater and much better than I had anticipated. Since I typically loathe crossovers, and have no real connection with the '90s Superboy, I was afraid that the three-part "Future Tense" would be a big mess.

So who the heck is this guy? Even those few readers of this blog with no particular interest in DC Comics - I seem to have a couple of dozen of you who kindly enjoy my every word for some fool reason - probably remember a big media event in 1993 when Superman was killed by a monster called Doomsday. Well, before he got better, as superheroes do, the Superman editorial office had the creative teams behind each of Supes' four books introduce and launch four new major characters.

Readers with very long memories may further recall that when the great Jack Kirby took over the Jimmy Olsen comic book in the early 1970s, he introduced a think tank full of weird super-scientists and clones and bizarre technology in a hidden city underneath Metropolis. Creators Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett reintroduced those guys, and had them build a clone with powers and abilities similar to the Man of Steel. I never had any interest in reading this character's book, which ran for almost a decade, but I understand that Kesel and Grummett built a tidy continuity around this character, Kirby's secret city, and a big supporting cast. This Superboy was very popular among the growing fangirl segment of comic fandom of the day.

To my pleasant surprise, this Superboy works really well with the Legion. I like the fresh take on a very old story. It was 1961 when the original Superboy saved the life of the original Mon-El by moving him into the Phantom Zone. If the original Legion stories are dated by everybody who wrote and drew them insisting that all the characters are best buddies and everybody reveres the Boy of Steel, these firstly have the more realistic approach that some people in the 30th Century find Superboy to be a strutting show-off with a big mouth and some find him kissable, and secondly have the really great twist of having the Mon-El character, Valor, be the one whom everybody adores. Nobody remembers Superboy after a thousand years, but Valor is a demigod.

Unfortunately, it looks like another crossover is on the immediate horizon. I just hope against hope that this one has aged half as well.

If there's a flaw in these books at all, it's that there are piles of subplots desperate for resolution. They finally got the story of Garth, Ayla, and Mekt straightened out after teasing it from the very beginning, and while it is obvious that Andromeda and Apparition are being moved off-screen for quite some time, Dirk Morgna - Sun Boy - is introduced only to be immediately sidelined, XS gets lost in time when the heroes go back to 1995, and Kinetix is only briefly mentioned in passing, with everybody certain that, wherever she is, she's just fine. The pace could honestly stand to slow down a little bit.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Dandridge: The Copper Conspiracy

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 Dandridge: The Copper Conspiracy (Rebellion, 2013).

As the spring "season" of new stories in the pages of 2000 AD comes to a close, it appears as though the latest adventure for Alec Worley's Dandridge, his longest outing so far, generated the least excitement, although I enjoyed it even more than everything else lately. The series is a perfectly balanced blend of over-the-top melodrama and humor, with its inspirations way out on its immaculately-stitched sleeve.

The hero of this series is Dr. Spartacus Dandridge, “an egomaniac who’ll say anything to get himself on the cover of a magazine,” who looks a good deal like the actor Peter Wyngarde - or, more accurately, like the lead character of the old adventure TV series Jason King - and who, in the far-flung past of the early 1980s, is having a fabulous time living large and saving the Empire from sci-fi criminals.

But there's another layer to this that requires a step or two more concentration to understand it. In much the same way that the "steampunk" genre is built around alternative histories where the Victorians built clockwork robots and everybody wore big goggles, this is "ghostpunk," where the Victorians harnessed the limitless energy of ectoplasm to power everything. Dandridge is a ghost, killed in the early 1900s and kept imprisoned for eighty years. So there's a touch of Adam Adamant Lives! in the premise, and the story tips its bowler to all sorts of influences, including, as is obvious in the picture above, The Avengers.

So in this story, Dandridge is wanted by both the authorities and by a strange organization that's employed some shape-changing robots, made from copper, to track him down. The MacGuffin of the moment is an enchanted blade that can terminally end the existence of ghosts, and our inebriated hero has crashed Roger Moore's Bentley. It takes more than just a note of moxie to start with a concept so high and keep batting to the fences with every swing.

Two different artists have worked on Dandridge since the character's debut in 2009. This time, his co-creator Warren Pleece is back, with the other artist Jon Davis-Hunt presumably busy on Worley's other 2000 AD series, Age of the Wolf. Pleece simply doesn't have the dynamic edge to his work that I enjoy the most, but I love his facial expressions and his designs. That said, either malaise or deadlines seem to have caught up with him before the end. The final two parts, which appeared in issues 1830 and 1831, were certainly less engaging than everything that came before. That's a shame, because the script is huge fun throughout, with Worley correctly noting that all of the adventure TV shows that inform this comic are full of sidetracks and clues and investigations and as many locations as can be managed.

The series is very fun and, now that it has hit 20 episodes, it's time to start thinking about whether we'll get a collected edition anytime soon. Hopefully, the editors will wait until they've commissioned one more story, to give any book the extra pages and heft that we'd enjoy the most, and hopefully that story will be commissioned very soon. Recommended.

(Clicking the image will take you to 2000 AD's online shop, where you can order issue 1824, either hard copy or digital, which features the first episode, of eight, of "The Copper Conspiracy.")

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Century 21: Menace from Space

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 Century 21: Menace from Space (Signum, 2012).

It's been a long time since a Century 21 collection drifted across my shelves. I resolved, after a late copy of the third volume showed up that I wasn't going to buy any more of these. The beautiful artwork of Ron Embleton, who painted the Stingray episodes, was ruined because the paperbacks didn't accommodate the art with adequate "gutters" on the interior margins, leaving both images and word balloons disappearing into the center of the paperback where they could not be read. I was certain that the editors loved the material, but the rotten presentation looked slapdash, no matter how nice a paper stock they used.

I had no idea that a fifth volume had been released. Another publisher, Signum, came to bat. And it's in hardback, no less! Joy of joys, the artwork problem is gone when you're opening a hardcover. I opened the book just to confirm across a couple of pages and punched the air. I found it purely by chance - somebody at the McKay Books in Nashville filed this in the "humor" section instead of "graphic novels" - and walked that book to the register with a spring in my step and looked forward to seeing some unexpurgated Embleton artwork on Stingray.

There's no Stingray in this book.

Oh, there's Zero X and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds and there's very good artwork by the likes of Frank Bellamy if you can get through the odds-n-sods "greatest hits" presentation of the stories, and I sure did enjoy reading them, but you're telling me that after four paperback editions with Embleton's Stingray all ruined, you finally put out a hardback that won't have that problem and it doesn't have any Embleton in it?

I wish somebody would put out a complete archive of these comics, in hardcover, with no margin issue. I'd buy those suckers in a heartbeat and sell back all five of these well-meaning turkeys to McKay. Sheesh!