Category Archives: Reading

Slavers, Leigh Brackett and a friend of mine: stuff read

THIS VAST SOUTHERN EMPIRE: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp looks at how American slave states saw England’s 1830s decision to abolish slavery as the beginning of a 19th century Cold War: Britain’s influence could pressure other states into emancipating, eventually leaving the U.S. isolated (though many Southerners were convinced ending slavery was so obviously absurd it would inevitably fail). As the 3/5 clause in the Constitution gave the South disproportionate clout in the federal government, the result was an aggressive foreign policy built around sustaining and allying with slave states such as Brazil, Texas and Cuba (thoughts of England liberating Cuba and creating a nation of black revolutionaries were a major Southern bogeyman) and building up a strong enough military to counteract any overt free-the-slaves moves from Britain. Extremely interesting.

I wrapped up my Leigh Brackett rereading with THE HALFLING AND OTHER STORIES, which strikes me as a very “typical” collection of her works: the titular hardboiled SF yarn about a carnie owner and his mysterious new entertaining, mysterious quests on unknown worlds (Citadel on Lost Ages and Lake of the Gone Forever), and the Eric John Stark story Enchantress of Venus. Less typically there’s the Zenna Hnederson-esque The Truants, the suprisingly upbeat The Shadows and the biting critique of racism, All the Colors of the Rainbow. Overall, excellent (Gone Forever works much better for me now that I’m old enough to have known loss).

And my friend Allegra Gullino has a short story, Jezebel’s Escape in the latest issue of Eldritch Science.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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An anthology blows up and other links about books, movies, recipes and reporting

So my friend John Hartness of Falstaff Books posted this week on Facebook about some problems with the anthology Flashing Swords #6 (following up on a series of anthologies published around 50 years ago). It seems the publisher was blindsided by editor Robert M. Price and didn’t realize Price hadn’t signed or sent the authors contracts for the stories included therein, and had credited himself as copyright holder (the publisher admits that was a screw-up on their part). The authors were also upset with Price’s foreword, which veers into undead sexist cliches about how women need to stop crying rape, feminists hate het sex, and participation-trophy cliches (he is hardly the first anthologist to do stuff like this). The publisher, to their credit, says they’re killing the book and paying the writers a kill fee, which is precisely the way to handle a mess like this.

Due to the Trump Virus, it looks like the gap between theatrical release and streaming will narrow a lot.

DAW head Betsy Wolheim thinks Patrick Rothfuss hasn’t written anything on the third Kingkiller Chronicles book. This has led to much speculation by my writing friends why she didn’t keep her opinions in house: is he seriously missing deadlines? How close is he really to getting finished? Does it hurt specfic in general if people assume “maybe it’s better if I wait until all the books are out” and don’t buy into series early. One person linked to an article from a few years ago in which Penguin took very late authors to court.

Fifteen years ago, cable was home entertainment’s big dog. Now cable falters as streaming rises.

“This was a time of “Mean Streets” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” “American Graffiti” and “Last Tango in Paris.” “Airport” sequels and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Edgy political thrillers, socially aware satires and mainstream melodramas managed to coexist with B-movies, porn and Warholian provocations. Regardless of their artistic aspirations, most were enormously entertaining.” — Ann Hornaday on why seventies film rocked. It’s an interesting take but as someone generally skeptical about How We Have Fallen Since Decade X, I’m not sure I agree (it rapidly turns into a standard grumble about all those CGI superhero movies taking up the multiplex).

Who exactly gets credit as a recipe creator?

Who should get immortalized in bird names?

An author pushed his book higher on the bestseller list by buying copies himself.

Years ago, critic Leonard Maltin discussed the problem of rating and reviewing a movie when the original version has been re-edited and is no longer available. A few years ago on Inverse, an article discussed the problem of finding the original Han Shot First Star Wars.

I wrote a while back about how bad management had killed reporting at Deadspin. Most of the staff who quit are back with a new project.

And here’s a Virgil Finlay cover to close with.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover remain with current holder.

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Avengers, Batman and Superman: it’s the A-list but is it their A-game?

SUPERMAN: The Golden Age Volume Three by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and several other artists continues in the vein of the first two volumes. We have Lois’ relentless hunt for scoops (reckless, but so much more competent than when I was a kid years later), social issues (can a spoiled heiress realize her duty to her employees?), Luthor and a few other supervillains and an increasing number of fifth columnists and Sinister Foreign Powers, carefully not specified (this was the prewar period when pushing for war against Germany was still a touchy subject). These are entertaining, though not consistent — Superman flies in one story, then goes back to jumping, and some stories still hinge on people never hearing of the Man of Steel. Fun, but definitely not up to Batman in the same era.

Speaking of the Darknight Detective, BATMAN: Universe is surprisingly fun despite being written by Brian Michael Bendis (art by Nick Derington), whom I’m not fond of. This is a light-hearted romp that starts with the Riddler stealing a mysterious Faberge Egg that’s more than it seems. Tracking the egg sends Batman up against Vandal Savage and bouncing through the DC Universe from Rann to Gorilla City to the Old West, fighting alongside Green Lantern, Nightwing, Adam Strange and Jonah Hex. Lightweight but very enjoyable.

AVENGERS: Masters of Evil by Roy Thomas and various artists (most notably John Buscema) follows up Once An Avenger as the team battle Dragon Man, Diablo, Magneto, Typhon the Terrible, the Super-Adaptoid and the sinister communist super-weapon the Psychotron.There are some really good stories in here (YMMV depending on your taste for the Silver Age) and many things I like, such as Thomas constantly referencing what’s going on with Captain America, Thor and other Avengers or former Avengers in their own books.

On the downside, there’s also a whole lot of writing that indicates Thomas was still learning his craft or just overworked. A new heroic Black Knight (replacing a villain of the same name) shows up but a couple of issues later the Avengers forget that he’s not the same as the villain. The Avengers’ butler Jarvis betrays them for dubious reasons, but they take him back without thinking twice. The Magneto plotline stretches out way longer than it should have. The Black Widow gets a kickass arc helping thwart her former communist masters, then becomes a whiny girlfriend for the rest of this volume (and a good while afterwards).

On the plus side, the book wraps up with an emotional one where Cap uses time travel to determine if Bucky survived the way Cap did, and gets his heart ripped out watching him die again (little did he know …). Then when the Avengers return to the present they enter an alternate timeline where the original team have turned into dictators; can they stop a physically far more powerful Avengers team? There are some clever touches in the scenes where they take down Earth’s other superheroes, such as Thor trying to figure out why Daredevil’s a superhero when he doesn’t apparently have any powers.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Derington, bottom by Buscema, all rights remain with current holders.


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Wonder Woman in images

So as I’ve written so much about Wonder Woman, I figured I’d showcase some of her memorable covers. Like HG Peters’ cover for the start of her series in Sensation ComicsAnd a Ross Andru cover for one of Robert Kanigher’s rather zany issues—Here Andru captures Kanigher’s insanely racist and just plain insane concept for a new villain, Egg Fu.And one for the Wonder Family era, also by Andru.Now we get a Dick Giordano cover featuring Catwoman, Diana and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (face it true believer, this one has it all!).The George Perez cover that kicked off his Wonder Woman reboot.And Perez’ truly chilling version of Ares from a few issues later.Then we have Gene Colan from his too-brief run with Roy Thomas.A Mike Sekowsky cover from Diana’s depowered years.I’ll end with two bits of interior art — this Ross Andru scene from the late Silver Age story in which Kanigher fires most of the supporting cast (this particular scene among fans looks like a prescient parody of online fan debates)—And this HG Peters scene giving us a memorable example of William Marston’s interest in bondage and dominance.#SFWApro. All rights to all images remain with current holder.

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A hip Amazon who swings? She’s not your mother’s Wonder Woman!

So a couple of weeks back I became proud possessor of WONDER WOMAN: Diana Prince: Celebrating the ’60s Omnibus which collects the complete run of her non-super years (1968 through 1972). As I’ve already reviewed the TPBs (Vols 1, 2 and 3 at least) thought I’d do it this time much the way I handle rereading the rest of her run, posting about story arcs and similar obvious benchmarks. So I’ll start with a focus on Wonder Woman #178; it’s a one-shot story that doesn’t really tie into the following arc (Diana’s still Wonder Woman, for instance) but does serve to alert readers to what’s comingWonder Woman’s Rival by Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky opens with police arresting Steve Trevor for the murder of someone named Alex Block; Steve claims he has an alibi — a girl he met at a hippie nightclub called the Tangerine Trolley — but he didn’t get her name and can’t locate her. At the trial we learn Block met Wonder Woman and Steve at a party where the creep told WW she was a disgusting freak, then tried to grope her. Steve decked the dude. Later an emergency needing Amazon involvement ended a Steve/WW make-out session so he went to the club and flirted with the girl.

The prosecution’s case boils down to: Steve has no alibi, he beat up the guy and killing him was the one way he could feel like a man when hanging out with Wonder Woman (who, on the stand, testifies that Steve said Block was a rat who ought to end up dead). While comic-book jurisprudence has never worried much about legal procedure, this seems exceptionally unconvincing: motive yes, but no weapon, no evidence, nothing that ties Steve to the crime. I’m sure juries convicted decorated war heroes on that kind of evidence all the time (sarcasm font). However it works, and when Lt. Prince comes to see him, Steve confesses to being pissed at hell at Wonder Woman for betraying him. Because testifying truthfully is totally not what he should expect Wonder Woman to do on the stand, right? So Di decides if she can’t save Steve as Wonder Woman, she’ll save him as Diana Prince by finding that vanished girl. Which requires visiting clubs like the Tangerine Trolley, which will require Diana to blend in so she goes clothes shopping —All of which is almost certainly modeled on Cornell Woolrich’s The Phantom Lady, a noir novel involving a wrongly accused man, an unnamed woman alibi and the guy’s lover trying to find her. And just as in Woolrich, someone’s determined to stop Diana cold. Eventually Diana does track down the girl, Tina, with the help of Steve’s best friend, Roger Seely. Unfortunately it turns out Roger is the killer, having murdered Block to cover his embezzlement of company funds. He tries to eliminate Diana and Tina to ensure Steve’s conviction stands, but of course, he doesn’t know he’s dealing with Wonder Woman …

At the end Steve, as you can see, reconciles with Wonder Woman but tells her he’s so impressed with Diana, he wants to date her (one of the few times someone’s found the secret identity more desirable than the superhero). Wonder Woman worries that if he’s going to date other woman, his next pick might be someone who isn’t her secret identity.

None of this ties in to the following Dr. Cyber arc; in fact that last page has so little relation to the changes ahead I suspect O’Neil was pulling a fast one so that we’d be blindsided. At the same time it does establish a lot of the tone they were shooting for: cool fashion, hip contemporary settings and playing up the men in Diana’s life a lot more (of course the late Silver Age Wonder Woman had already gone heavy on romance-comics tropes).

As Kelly Sue DeConick says in the excellent intro to this volume, this is one of the big problems of this era of WW. In trying to remake WW into a Realistic Modern Woman (or close as a martial-arts mistress battling an international crime syndicate can get), O’Neil and Sekowsky frequently default to sexist tropes where good as Diana Prince is, she still needs a man to be the boss (something I discussed recently). Diana gets a buzz off all her new fashion, and she delights that guys are finding her attractive; you’d think she’d never had any identity but dull, drab Lt. Prince. Which is one of my own complaints about the adventures to follow, that not only would they work better if she were a new character, the creators often treat her that way.

On the plus side, Sekowsky’s art is some of his best and will continue to be so.

I’ll be back soon with the de-powered Wonder Woman’s first story arc, as she and “the incredible I Ching” (and boy, does he bring a heaping helping of problems to the story) take on the half-man, half-machine Dr. Cyber!

#SFWApro. All art by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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Devil dogs, Welshmen and more: books read

Despite the cover copy, THE HAVEN by Graham Diamond is actually a post-apocalyptic (though we don’t learn that until late in the book) fantasy adventure. The Haven is the city that rules over a human empire surrounded by a vast, seemingly endless forest (one character waxes rhapsodic about how vast the Haven’s domain is — OMG, twenty miles across!) populated with talking beasts: birds (human allies), feral dogs (enemies), wolves (neutral) and venomous bats (enemies). Now a supreme dog overlord has arisen, plotting to sweep all humanity away: can the Haven survive? Can Lord Nigel succeed in his quest to find land outside the forest (something the Havenites aren’t sure exists)?

This blew me away when I first read it in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Not so much now — not that it’s bad, I’ve just read so much more and it’s harder to impress me. I did enjoy rereading it though, but I do think the post-apocalyptic aspect should have been seeded better (it turns out there’s at least some awareness among the learned in Haven, but this never comes up until near the end).

THE REVOLT OF OWAIN GLYN DWR by R.R. Davies does a good job on one of those historical figures I know Of but not About — though Davies notes there’s really very little anyone now knows about Glyn Dwr (best known to most people as Shakespeare’s braggart rebel Owen Glendower) besides his revolt (in contrast to many historians who face that problem, Davies admirably restrains himself from padding his book by speculating). What we can reasonably guess is that conflicts with an English neighboring landowner mixed with longstanding Welsh resentment at English dominance led Glyn Dwr set himself in revolt against Henry IV, a war that benefited from Wales lack of a strong administrative English state, pressure on England from France, Scotland and Ireland, as well as internal English unrest (resolving these various problems led to the revolt’s collapse, though contrary to Shakespeare Glyn Dwr was a much more formidable foe than Hotspur). Reminiscent of History in Three Keys, Davies shows that Glyn Dwr’s memory endured because he could be adapted to multiple agenda: the English stereotype of the hotblooded Welshman, the mystic who calls spirits from the vasty deep (Glyn Dwr never claimed magical powers, but did invoke Merlin’s prophecies as justifying his revolt) and later the heroic father of Welsh nationalism. Good job, though very dense (Davies covers Welsh life and culture at the time in great detail).

WELCOME TO MARS: Politics, Pop Culture and Weird Science in 1950s America by Ken Hollings was my second unsatisfying reference-read for my McFarland Alien Invader book (though it’s head and shoulders above Them or Us). Going year by year through the decade, Hollings argues that the 1950s were as open to weird and unconventional ideas as the two decades that follows: UFOs appeared and obsessed America, the CIA dabbled with LSD, the Bridey Murphy story made people think about reincarnation and technology took the first step into space. Unfortunately the execution is a mess, Hollings never being as clever as he thinks he is (like an early argument we can think of the United States as the lost continent of Lemuria — as Lemuria isn’t imaginary, can’t it be anywhere?). The movie reviews aren’t very good either; Hollings’ review of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers focuses more on snarking about suburbia (sure the pod people are placid and complacent, but that’s because they’ve moved into such a nice suburb!) than anything substantial.

GREEN LANTERN: Intergalactic Lawman by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp has Hal trying to stop God from kidnapping the Earth, battling the sinister Blackstars and going undercover on a mission for the Guardians, but it doesn’t really click with me. Part of that is that like a lot of 21st century comics writers, Morrison’s fond of cosmic technobabble (“The Ubomb will condense and bind all matter in the universe to a quark core, instantaneously.”) which feels more Babble to me than Cosmic; part of it’s just that the story felt really choppy, nor does Hal’s character come across strongly.

#SFWApro. Cover by Wayne McLoughlin, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Covers for (mostly) classic specfic

An effective, though uncredited cover for a Ray Bradbury classicVictor Kalin does the cover for this short-story collection.Victor Olson does the next one, which I’m guessing is not a classic, and definitely isn’t specfic. Though it is, apparently, harsh and pitiless.Powers does the next cover.And Mitchell Hooks for Matheson’s excellent novel.And I’ll close with a good cover for a non-classic book, a blatant knockoff of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.#SFWApro.

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Nerds and dreams: books read

QUEENS OF GEEK by Jen Wilde is a Y/A romance focusing on three teen Aussie nerds attending a massive U.S. con. Taylor is overweight, Asperger’s and suffering acute social anxiety but desperate to meet the author the Queen Firestone fantasy series (which has a devoted Harry Potter-like fandom); Charlotte is bi, Chinese-Australian, a vlogger and there to promote her breakout film; Jamie is Latino and in love with Taylor, who feels the same but can’t read his feelings and is nervous to express herself. Will they finally get together? Will Taylor meet the author? Will Charlie start a new romance with another female vlogger or will her obnoxious co-star and ex-boyfriend throw a spanner in the works?

As I’m long past 18, it’s pleasantly surprising how enjoyable a lot of this was. Wilde also does a great job conveying what social anxiety is like and capturing the feeling of being totally, utterly in love with a book or series (which makes it surprising that Tay’s description of the books comes off very bland). On the downside, this is really lacking in conflict; several problems I was anticipating never arose, and while the book acknowledges fat-shaming, cyberbullying and crazy fan behavior, almost everyone we actually meet is incredibly nice (Skyler, the Firestone author, reacts to Taylor like she’s just met her new best friend). While I’m happy to have an overweight lead who’s not being fat-shamed, it still feels there needed to be more of a challenge that the girls’ own insecurities.

SANDMAN: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman and various artists is a good follow-up to Volume One. We meet Dream’s sister Death, visit a serial killer’s convention, catch up on various runaway dream-entities and learn how the Bronze Age Sandman fits into Gaiman’s mythos (it’s clever, though I blame the story, perhaps unfairly, for rendering Roy Thomas’ character Lyta Trevor useless). Weaving through it all is Rose Walker, a young woman searching for a lost relative, stumbling into danger and ultimately having closer ties to Morpheus than either realizes. A pleasure to reread.

#SFWApro. Art by Dave McKean, all rights remain with current holder.

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Writing, reading and race; some links

While I love Avenue Q, I’ve always winced at the line in one song telling us “Ethnic jokes might be uncouth/But we laugh because they’re based on truth.” because no, they’re not based on truth (black men are not oversexed and Jews are not insanely greedy, to cite the subtext of two that I’ve heard over the years) and the reasons people laugh at them are a lot uglier. Vox looks at the musical and the concept of ironic racism. The Mary Sue vents about what it sees as the similar ironic nastiness of Cards Against Humanity (though I have to say I enjoy playing that too).

” The film also romanticizes slavery as if it was nothing more than a workplace sitcom in which all the slaves were happy baristas at the plantation’s Starbucks.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on what to do with Gone With the Wind. It’s a question we’ve been debating for a long time.

Five years ago, Eric Flint wrote a blog post explaining why Hugo awards don’t match popular taste. I thought he made sense but Camestros Felapton makes a good case that Flint doesn’t. Felapton also discusses the appeal of works that subvert expectations and why those stand a better chance of winning awards (and conversely, why novels that give us exactly what we expect are long shots).

Michal Wocjik writes about reading 1984 for the first time.

Michele Berger on writing in a year like 2020.

Various cartoons look at recasting nonwhite roles with nonwhite voice actors.

Black-owned bookstores during a time of anti-racism protests.

A new movement compares advances paid to white authors and to authors of color. The publishing industry does not come out looking good.

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The Pat Savage syndrome

One of the points Tim Hanley makes in his Batgirl and Beyond is that in the Silver Age Batwoman, Batgirl I (Betty Kane) and Batgirl II (Barbara Gordon whom you’re probably all familiar with) were all shown to be competent, but still constantly sidelined. Reading I Died Yesterday this month has me thinking how I’ve often seen that trope, and it definitely applies to Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage.

When we first meet Pat in Brand of the Werewolf, she’s 18 years old, just lost her father and is determined to figure out the mystery behind his death. She can shoot, fight and track and has the same taste for adventure her cousin does. When she shows up in New York in Fear Cay, she tells Doc that after the previous adventure, life in the Canadian wilderness is just too dull. When the bad guys target a young woman, Pat trades places and lets them kidnap her instead. She admits later it was more excitement than she’d anticipated, but she’s up for the gig. By the following book, Death in Silver, she’s opened Patricia, Incorporated, her New York beauty salon/health spa which charges skyhigh prices (I Died Yesterday says Pat’s ruthless about turning away potential clients, thereby reassuring people she’s exclusive enough to be worth paying through the nose). And whenever she can, cutting herself in on Doc’s adventures.

It’s understandable Doc’s never very enthused about this. He’s in his thirties, Pat’s barely an adult; as he says in The Feathered Octopus, he knows she could hold her own with his team but he doesn’t want his last living relative risking her neck. It doesn’t change the fact that she is sidelined even in the stories she appears in; I Died Yesterday is one of the few that really shows her capable, and even there Doc’s conducting himself like a jerk to discourage her. It’s the kind of trick Ricky Ricardo might play on Lucy, if they’d been PIs. And it’s not unique; while one WW II book mentioned Doc recruiting Pat because his regular resources are stretched so thin, Violent Night has him using US spies to scare her off the case (it doesn’t work). Given he’s supposed to be hunting down Hitler, it’s a remarkable waste of resources. Pat almost never gets to shine, though both Millennium’s and Dynamite’s Doc Savage comics made it a point to give her more action.

Pat’s hardly unique. I’ve seen lots of books and movies where they establish the female lead is competent and capable, but then treat her as just the love interest. Or assume that no matter how competent or professional she is, all she really wants is to land a man; once she does that, forget her career! Or simply assume she’s just not good enough. I read a sequel in the 1970s to Robert E. Howard’s stories of mercenary Dark Agnes and it ends with this tough, capable warrior woman going all weak at the knees — good thing there’s a man around to hold her close and tell her everything’s okay (it makes me appreciate why Sigourney Weaver said she was so glad they never put a scene like that into Aliens). It’s an equivalent of sorts to the hot mess approach to writing women: show that no matter how tough, capable or adventurous she is, she’s not really going to be the hero Because our culture tells us that’s a a man’s job!

#SFWApro. Covers by Carmine Infantino, James Bama and Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holders.

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