Category Archives: Reading

Black Hammer and the ends of heroic ages

One of the Atomic Junkshop reviewers recommended Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston to me; as the library had V2, The Event, I picked it up. It was probably a better intro than the first volume, Secret Origins.

The premise of the series is that after an epic battle between Spiral City’s superheroes and the world-ending Anti-God, a half-dozen heroes — Black Hammer, Abe Slam, Golden Gail, Barbalien, Madame Dragonfly and Colonel Weird (all recognizable as pastiches — Black Hammer is a hybrid of Thor and the New Gods’ Orion, Barbalien is the Martian Manhunter and so forth) — wake up in the small village of Rockford. They can’t seem to leave (Black Hammer dies when he tries) and have to get along as best they can, posing as ordinary people. It’s particularly rough on Gail, a 50something woman now trapped in her nine-year-old superhero form. At the end of the first book Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy arrives, and some of what’s going on becomes obvious. In the second volume, The Event, we explore Rockford in more detail and things get more interesting. To date there’s also a spinoff, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which looks at how Lucy wound up there.

Overall it’s a fun series, even if the riffing on established character types gets heavyhanded at times. But it got me thinking how often in the past two decades we’ve seen this sort of thing.

It started, as far as I remember, with Kingdom Come about 22 years ago. The Age of Heroes has become the Age of Super-Powered Showoffs Throwing Buses At Each Other (to paraphrase the creators); can the older heroes return in time to put things right.

Marvel’s Earth X and its sequels likewise showed the Marvel Universe sliding into its dotage. Then came Terra Obscura, a spinoff of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong in which a parallel world’s superheroes are freed from captivity after forty years and the world has to deal. Albion similarly assumes the superhumans and adventurers of British 1960s comics have all been locked away. Project Superpowers took many of the same characters as Terra Obscura, sealed away in Pandora’s Box in a misguided attempt to seal up evil (because they’re the hope that was also in the box). Now they’re out, facing a world that’s grown much worse without them. And there’s at least one more I don’t quite remember.

I’ve seen lots of other stories showing superheroes in the future, but without assuming a collapse of some sort; Gerry Conway’s Last Days of Animal Man, for instance, looks 10 or 15 years down the road, but assumes superheroes are still going strong. In the Spider-Girl series, everyone’s older, but the new Fantastic Five and the new Avengers are just as heroic as their predecessors. So Heroes in Decline isn’t automatic when writers look to tomorrow.

I suppose it could just be that everyone wants to knock off the critically acclaimed Kingdom Come. But I wonder if it also doesn’t reflect the aging of the superhero genre and its fans. It’s easy if you’re a long-time fan to feel the best years of the genre are behind you; Mark Waid and Alex Ross were quite upfront that Kingdom Come represented their take on 1990s superheroes and how they’d fallen from the Silver Age. It may also reflect, as Eric C. Flint puts it, that longtime fans want more than an entertaining story. They want metacommentary and deconstruction, and stories like these tend very much that way.

Regardless, Black Hammer is worth picking up. Though if I’d read V1 first, I don’t know I’d have been interested enough to try V2.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ormston, all rights remain with current holder.

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The Klan, divorce in America and the Sub-Mariner: books and graphic novels

THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon is a history written in full awareness how much that Klan’s anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-Catholic politics mirrors the current era, and how the Klansmen (and women) saw themselves as the Real Americans in contrast to their opponents (Jews being their biggest bogeyman). After the initial attempt to revive the Klan in the wake of Birth of a Nation flopped, a couple of PR whizzes (Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke) bought the organization and took it national. Their trick was that along with politics they presented the KKK as a fraternal organization much like the Masons or the Elks (and it did have a lot in common with them), with the added plus that if members recruited new Klansmen, they got a commission (part of which was passed up the line). Tyler was the first of several prominent Klanswomen who found the organization a perfect outlet for ambitions as motivational speakers, organizers and businesswoman. Interesting, and depressingly familiar

When I was a tween, my impression from TV was that divorce was slightly edgy, disreputable and just not done by normal people. Ah, youth; DIVORCE: An American Tradition by Glenda Riley shows that the US was already divorcing at a much higher rate than Europeans, and had been doing so for years (the US allowed judicial divorce long before Great Britain did). Riley tracks the constant push and shove between those who wanted to make marriage eternal, those who thought an exit option was necessary, and those who thought marriage, not divorce, was the real problem (the whole “we don’t need a piece of paper to prove we love each other” of the 1960s had lots of precedent). This has lots of detail, some of it amusing, such as learning Indianapolis was once the quickie divorce capital of America (though the statistics don’t confirm the reputation). Interesting again

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE GOLDEN-AGE SUB-MARINER by Bill Everett and others was one I picked up on sale last year. While I’m not particularly a fan of Namor, there’s some fun to be had here; in one story, when Namor busts up a ring of radium thieves he keeps the rare element for use by his own people (not yet identified as Atlantean) rather than returning it. The backup, the Angel, is pretty fun too; the protagonist apparently has no secret identity, being the Angel full-time (not the only Golden-Age hero of whom that was true). Entertaining, but I doubt I’d have bought it at full-price.

#SFWApro. Art by Alex Schomburg, all rights remain with current holder.

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Strange Adventures for a Friday morning

Art by Murphy Anderson

The cover that started DC’s gorilla-cover trend. Art by J. Winslow Mortimer.

Art by Gil Kane

Murphy Anderson again. Trixie could totally handle saving the world.

Gil Kane on another gorilla cover.

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Doc Savage, Monk and Women: The Talking Devil and the Running Skeletons

As I’ve mentioned before, Lester Dent didn’t bother much with continuity. If one of Doc’s team has a moment of character development beyond the standard characterization, Dent doesn’t follow up on it. However after establishing in The Devil’s Black Rock that the guys were trying to break Monk of his skirt-chasing, Dent has been referencing it regularly, as in May 1943’s THE TALKING DEVIL. Not that it works any better here than in previous books.

The book starts with Doc’s crew introducing him to wealthy millionaire Montague Ogden whose right-hand man Sam Joseph is suffering dementia centering around a grotesque devil figureine Joseph thinks talks to him. After consulting with some top brain experts, Doc decides it’s a brain tumor. He operates … but there’s no tumor. And the other doctors insist they only agreed with him because they couldn’t think of questioning such a legend.

Oh, and an organized press campaign suggests that Doc has been performing illegal brain surgery on all those criminals he busts that never show up for trial. Could that have something to do with why several men with no memory of their past (Doc pegs them all as graduates of his crime college) have suddenly turned criminal? Doc realizes he’s been set up but why? And for whom?

Oilman “Rotary” Harrison fills in the gap when he and his daughter “Sis” (it’s been a while since we’ve had such quirky nicknames) contact Doc, who subsequently rescues them from the bad guys. They’re reminiscent of Tex Haven and his brainy daughter Rhoda in The Freckled Shark; like Rhoda, Sis’s brains and talent don’t play much of a role in the story, but I’d sooner have a smart supporting female character than a dull one.

From this point, the story moves fast until Doc learns what it’s all about: a scheme to blackmail him into giving up a share of his wealth in return for stopping the rumors. Doc believes that surgically reforming criminals will someday be accepted as the solution to stopping crime, and he doesn’t want it tarnished before society’s ready. Of course, it doesn’t come to that.

A background point is that even when Doc’s cracking cases like this, he’s working on the war effort: when he uses a chemical to track the bad guys’ airplane exhausts, he mentions to Monk it’s already at use by the army overseas.

Similarly, in THE RUNNING SKELETONS, we learn Doc’s fleet of cars is now down to two: the military have taken the others to use as models for making better vehicles. Even Doc sacrifices for the war effort. This story is much more tied to the war: after his son starved overseas, a scientist developed a formula that enables men to live without eating. The side-effect is that their flesh becomes translucent; the other side effect is that it’s a short-term fix that eventually kills the subjects if they don’t change back.

All we really know at the start, though, is that salesman Tom Lewis is trying to reach Doc Savage and traveling with a dog-carrying case that contains something terrifying (it’s a dog transformed by the formula). The bad guys try to stop Lewis meeting Doc; Monk and Ham get a message from Lewis and decide to investigate solo. Their buddies, fed up with their perpetual squabbling have been bombarding them with “peace is beautiful” messages (even having a skywriter paint it out over the city). So why not cut Doc, Rennie and the others out and hog the action for themselves? That’ll show them! Doc spots what’s going on, though, and catches up with Monk and Ham. Together, they hunt for the case and the secret behind it.

Also joining the action: Tom’s showgirl girlfriend. Willie (“Not Billie. Ten chorus girls out of every dozen are called Billie, and I resent being part of the mob.”). Willie’s not the typical female lead – she’s brave, reasonably capable, but what really sticks out is, she’s fun. Part of the fun is that she’s crushed on Doc for years, and keeps putting him in a state of embarrassment.

It would be a terrific book, but the opening and the ending flop badly. The opening has a black porter open Lewis’s case and jump off the train. It’s a racist clone of similar scenes in movie comedies, and that makes for unpleasant reading.

At the ending it turns out that the real villain isn’t the scientist but a crook who’s taken control of the drug to exploit it for evil by …. Well, Dent doesn’t actually say. Maybe a plan to treat people with the drug and bill them for a cure?  Possibly, but overall this is one of the weaker criminal schemes. Between the start and the finish, it’s fine, but the two ends underwhelmed me.

 

#SFWApro. Covers by Emery Clarke, all rights remain with current holders.

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Witch hunts and suicide missions: books read

A TRIAL OF WITCHES: A Seventeenth Century Witchcraft Prosecution by Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn works much better than Malcolm Gaskill’s tedious Witchfinders, wisely focusing on one single 1662 trial, of accused (and found guilty) witches Amy Denny and Rose Cullender in Lowescroft. The authors detail the accusations at trial (Denny supposedly hexed merchant Samuel Pacy’s daughter after Pacy refused to sell Denny some surplus herring); the learned personages testifying or sitting in judgment (most notably the once-legendary judge Sir Matthew Hale, now best known for his warnings about the dangers of women crying rape); the accusers; and the village itself. The authors agree with the theory witch trials were less about the Inquisition sweeping down and more about local, personal interactions: the two women were quarrelsome and strongminded, and Pacy refusing Denny’s request (by local standards a very reasonable one) may have given him an incentive to believe she was evil and therefore not entitled to charity. Other factors in play include religious outlooks, recent political turmoil and the sexism of the era. A very good book on the subject.

SUICIDE SQUAD: Trial By Fire by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell launched the long-running 1980s series about a team of supervillains working for the government as disposable agents (if they’re caught, they can be written off as crooks doing criminal stuff). This was a little too grim-and-gritty for my taste when it came out, and even now I’m not rushing to get V2. That said, it is well done as the team tackles an Arab terrorist super-team (the Bad Arab stereotypes have not improved with age), rescue a dissident from the Soviet Union and stop a white supremacist from using a fake superhero to launch a race war (black crooks get dragged to the cops, white criminals get to go free if they join the militia). And of course, with a bunch of sociopaths, possession victims and broken people, there are no end of potential problems that can break the team apart. If this is your sort of thing, definitely worth buying,

#SFWApro. Cover by Luke McDonnell, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Two books that didn’t work, and why

A slightly different version of Is Our Writers Learning? this month as I look at two books that disappointed me and the reasons for it.

MEDUSA’S WEB by Tim Powers was a big disappointment because I usually love Powers’ work. Like Lisa Goldstein, when Powers doesn’t work for me, I’m surprised.

After their Aunt Amity commits suicide, Scott and Maddy, who grew up with her after their parents died, reunite with cousins Claimayne and Ariel. The quartet’s dysfunctional relationship is complicated by the supernatural element: a spider motif that when stared at detaches your mind through time. You can wind up in your own body in the past or future, or in someone else’s. As Scott and Maddy start using the spiders again, they find themselves visiting famous figures in Hollywood’s past who’ve dabbled in the magic. Claimayne, however is using the spiders for evil; Aunt Amity hopes to time jump into Maddy’s body for good; and rival groups obsessed with the power see Scott and Maddy as potential threats.

All of that is vintage Powers. What isn’t typical is that the dysfunctional quartet and their relationship plays a large role in the story and the characters just don’t work. Scott’s a bitter burn-out, Maddy’s a New Age burn-out, Ariel’s bitter and vicious and Claimayne’s just an evil cripple stereotype. While Powers does beaten-down, burned-out characters well (“Scarecrow” Crane in Last Call for instance), his books don’t usually focus on the characters relatiionships as much as this one. That may have been smart.

Plus the magic really doesn’t hold together the way Powers’ powers (ROFL) usually do. I never quite saw how the power enables Claimayne and others to steal youth from people or how Amity would use it to take someone’s body permanently. And the happy ending involves Maddy jumping back in time to live with Rudolph Valentino even though the time-jumping power of the spiders is supposedly broken by then.  I like eucatastrophe endings, but this one doesn’t make sense — and Maddy’s just not interesting enough to care she’s happy.

A minor problem is that while we get references to Hollywood history and appearances by a few people, Medusa’s Web doesn’t immerse itself in history the way Declare did. That makes the mythos much less vivid and interesting.

MJ-12: INCEPTION by J. Michael Martinez, however, is a whole ‘nother level down from there.

The premise: in post-war occupied Germany, Allied forces discover a mysterious energy thing which when disturbed sends out waves of dark matter across Central City — no, wait, that was TV’s Flash, wasn’t it? But the effect is the same, as people spontaneously develop meta-powers. The government recruits a number of “variants” (and man, am I tired of everyone trying to come up with a new name for superhumans — variants, post-human, evos, etc.) for MJ-12, a new black ops agency. However the Soviets have their own Variants and when the U.S. team goes into the field, it’s time for a Clash of Titans!!

By that point I’d already lost interest. Martinez spends half the book doing nothing but set up. He sets up the premise, then introduces us to all the characters before we finally get going on the plot. That would be maybe workable if the premise or the characters were riveting but no. Sure, I’m a comics fan so “superhumans working for the government” is old news. But even if all I ever watched was TV, the premise is old news: Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans, Heroes’ evos, the metas of Flash. It doesn’t take much set up any more. And the characters are stock: tormented healer, tormented living Cerebro, racist transmuter, tormented empath. Even more stock, we learn at the end of the book that future volumes will give us mutie-haters—er Variant haters—and a Variant supremacy movement. That’s old hat too; the first X-Men movie was almost two decades ago.

Spending half the book to set up a formula situation born of a formulaic concept does not a winning novel make.

#SFWApro. Cover design James Iacobelli, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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Let’s science! SF covers and science links

Images and links have no relation to each other, in case you were wondering.

(Art by Schinella)

A prominent lab generated multiple research studies whose conclusions (kids will eat fruit if you just put a sticker of Elmo on it!) went viral. It appears they got the results by fudging data a lot.

The Stanford prison experiment showed that people given the power to abuse others will use it. Except it doesn’t hold up.

(Art uncredited)

Companies are embedding microchips in employees. With their consent, so far anyway.

(Earl Bergey)

How much does culture affect psychology?

(Uncredited)

Private space launches are now competing for aerospace with plane flights.

Meet the tardigrates, Earth’s most indestructible animal.

(Powers)

Lots of information now lies in programs so old they’re no longer readable, or on CD-Roms. Researchers hope to develop a universal virtual computer that can read them.

Rich people’s interest in the future of technology? Surviving while the world dies.

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Does the Count of Monte Cristo read romance comics? Books read

While I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO I’d never read the unabridged version before this past week. Having done so, I must confess I prefer the unabridged one I’d read previously (though that abridged one major element, the final downfall of the scheming banker Danglars). The book tells the  story of Edmond Dantes, unjustly imprisoned for fifteen years, escaping and acquiring almost unlimited wealth, then using it to bring slow, relentless doom on the three men who framed him. It’s a great yarn and I love some of the subtle webs Dantes spins. I also like how deftly he uses his wealth: to enlist the aid of a bandit chief he drops one bribe so that the chief’s imprisoned man gets a long stay of execution, then another to get the guy out of the slammer.

However even allowing that the nineteenth century had the time to read really big books (this paperback is 1100 pages) this feels very much like Dumas, writing this as a serial, padded it out to add a few extra installments. The bandit chief Vampa doesn’t need much of a backstory, but we get the history of how he became the chieftain anyway, and there are endlessly long displays of Dantes’ spectacular wealth. I may try reading this again, or I may go back to the abridged. I must add that the happy ending works better than I remembered, though the relationship has an unpleasant power imbalance to it. Still, it’s a great story and I have hopes of doing a fantasy variation on it some day.

HOW TO GO STEADY: Timeless Dating Advice, Wisdom and Lessons From Vintage Romance Comics by Jacque Nodell (granddaughter of Golden Age artist Martin Nodell and romance-comics blogger at Sequential Crush) gives a good overview of the advice columnists who populated the romance comics of the 1950s through the 1970s, sharing tips on dating, finding a guy, going steady, S-E-X and fashion in response to reader questions (including some from boys — the comics were less the province of female fans than I assumed). Nodell gives a list of the various columnists (some real people, others staff writers hiding behind pseudonyms) and looks at their advice which she argues was more liberated than a lot of what was out there back in the day. No, they weren’t encouraging kids to use birth control or anything, but they did put a lot of emphasis on girls having their own interests rather than building their life around Him, and not putting up a false front to land a guy (I have seen books and articles even from later eras that suggested the opposite). Though that said, I can’t imagine any columnist today not freaking out about a teenager having a boyfriend a decade older. Obviously not for everyone, but even as a non-romance comics reader I found it interesting.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Jay Scott Pike, all rights remain with current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes, tea and schedules

Back at Mysticon I saw a mug from the Philosophers Guild covered with Sherlock Holmes quotes (my favorite is “Mediocrity acknowledges nothing higher than itself. True talent always recognizes genius.”). I didn’t have space in my luggage, but I finally got around to ordering it a couple of weeks ago. It now alternates with my usual German porcelain stein as my tea mug of choice.

In other (and completely unrelated) news, I’m finding the last 90 minutes of the day becoming frustrating. It’s probably the lowest point of my work day so I’ve been using it for low-intensity stuff such as proofreading and email. But if I don’t have any of that to do, I often find it difficult to switch to something more creative. Particularly if Plushie’s been in my lap a lot. I’m not sure if it’s the way I have to sit to manage him and a computer or the feeling that I’ve had no personal space all day, but my brain wears out.

I could take the time off and resume work in the evening, but a lot can depend on TYG’s schedule, whether she wants to chat, and whether the dogs are really fidgety. So I prefer to avoid evening work.

But perhaps I need to change that. I’ll give it some thought.

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Friends, writing, reading: a link post

First the friends: Maggie Maxwell from my writing group has a story up at Daily Science Fiction, Love Letters From Robots. Fellow local writer Michele Berger has Nussia up at Book Smugglers.

Now the other links:

A look at how some romance writers game Amazon’s algorithms, and the trademark lawsuit over the word “cocky.”

An economist argues that we don’t need libraries because we can buy any book from Amazon. So close down libraries, making Amazon more money and saving our taxes!

Some fans of the old She-Ra series think her reboot looks too tomboyish. Her creator begs to differ.

As a Raymond Chandler fan, I love this photo guide to the LA locations in his stories.

Abebooks recommends the best dystopias (what a phrase!). Red Clocks is one of them (a world where abortion is outlawed, probably coming soon to a future near us).

Whiteness in American cinema (could Ferris Bueller get away with all his crap if he was black?)

What to pack for a major con. The collapsible bottles seemed like such a good idea, I bought some.

Writing near-future SF when tech is changing so fast.

How to strengthen our muscles while we’re sitting.

Seanan McGuire is justifiably PO’d that the sequel to Sparrow Hill Road has been e-pirated before it hit the stands (“No one is unable to afford it, because no one is supposed to be buying it. The book is not out in any country. No one is being prevented from reading it by regional restrictions.”).

Star Wars fans harass Lucasfilm employees for not giving them a suitably male-centric narrative in the new films. As Atomic Junkshop says, these dudes don’t realize they’re the Sith.

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