Unconventional super-hero sagas and more! Books read (#SFWApro)

AMERICAN WAY by John Ridley and Georges Jeanty has young ad man Wes invited to join the Kennedy administration in 1961. It turns out the Civil Defense Corps — the Justice League or Avengers equivalent — are actually propaganda; their powers are real but their big epic battles are PR to keep public opinion upbeat. When Old Glory (think Captain America) apparently dies in combat (“He was a four-pack a day smoker.”) Wes hits on a scheme to introduce a Negro superhero to the team, thereby shoring up JFK’s feeble civil rights record. Unfortunately things go horribly wrong … This is the best handling of superhero as propaganda since Captain Confederacy, but it’s not as good. For one thing, the hero names don’t always work — East Coast Intellectual is just silly and no way would the government have a Human Torch-type Southerner named Southern Cross (to me it invokes cross-burning too obviously). And the ending tanked it: the villain unmasking comes out of left field, with no better rationale than I Like to Kill. Plus Ridley cops out on various arcs (the CDC collapsing, the CDC exposed in the media, etc.) to keep the balls in the air (we eventually did get a sequel).

ASTRO CITY: Confessions by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson (cover by Alex Ross, all rights remain with current holder) gives us Brian, son of a small-town doctor who died penniless; determined to Be Someone, he winds up as the sidekick to the shadowy Batmanesque Confessor in Astro City. But there are secrets the Confessor has not confessed … All of which takes place against the background of a series of mysterious events, heroes going bad, aliens infiltrating, the public turning against the heroes — yep, the classic superhero big crossover event except it’s just the background to the important stuff. This was my first introduction to Astro City and while the parallel plotlines sometimes fit together awkwardly, overall it’s fantastic.

HELLBOY: Into the Silent Sea by Mike Mignola and Gary Gianni fits into that period when Hellboy was drifting at sea while trying to make sense of his destiny (I’ve already added it to the Hellboy Chronology). Suddenly he’s on a 19th century sailing ship a female occultist is using to find and contact one of the Oghdru Jahad. Bad idea? Stuff and nonsense, it’ll work out great! This is minor fluff (about one step above a dream episode) but eerie enough I liked it anyway.

Moving to more conventional yarns, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: The Extremists by Steve Orlando and various artists has Batman putting together a new League on the grounds people need ordinary heroes they can identify with rather than gods like Superman and Green Lantern. And sure, Vixen, Killer Frost, the Ray and Lobo look so much more human and down to Earth, it makes perfect sense — not. Orlando’s better here than on Supergirl, but not good enough — the themes of order vs. chaos would have worked better if they’d been subtext instead of talked about aloud at length.

SUPERMAN: Multiplicity by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason is the kind of old school parallel-earth crossover I’ve missed since DC downplayed its multiverse: Superman discovers the sinister Prophecy capturing all the Superman across the multiverse as part of a plan to save his own universe. Needless to say, the prime Man of Steel ain’t gonna put up with that for long. Adequate, but no more, and the art didn’t work for me at all. Also the Swamp Thing opening story is as gratuitous as Hero Fights Hero stories invariably are.

Now, print nonfiction: Given how tired I am of people portraying Nikola Tesla as a modern saint (in contrast to the Satanic Edison), EMPIRES OF LIGHT: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes pleased me by taking a more low-key, realistic approach. Edison comes off as a tough businessman who can’t stomach being replaced as the Master of Electricity by Tesla’s alternating current; Tesla comes off as brilliant but on occasion too idealistic for his own good. The book does a fine job showing what a game changer electric power and lighting was, and the technical issues that led to Tesla and Westinghouse winning out.


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