Category Archives: Reading

Paper Girls: Farewell to the Four

I finished the Brian K. Vaughn/Cliff Chiang Paper Girls a year or so back, but never got around to reviewing the final volume. Eventually I figured I’d just reread the whole thing and roll it into an overall series review. That proved to be a good idea as I’d completely misinterpreted the last couple of issues the first time I read them.

The first volume opens Halloween morning 1988 in the suburb of Stony Brook when four paper girls meet during their rounds. Chain-smoking Mac is the tough one, the first girl to land a paperboy delivery job; Tiffany is a videogame junkie; KJ is into sports, but has a taste for science fiction; Erin is the newest papergirl in the neighborhood. This delivery route will be like no other because they encounter what appear to be aliens. Only why would an alien have equipment that has an Earth apple marked on it as a logo? It looks like what some of the girls have seen on computers in their school, but obviously you can’t have a computer small enough to hold in your hand.

It turns out the “aliens” are time travelers (it has a disfiguring effect if you travel too much) and before you know it the girls are bouncing across time along with them. It all takes place within Stony Brook, but ranging from the prehistoric past to the unimaginable future, from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century. Erin meets her future self in the second volume and discovers she’s a loser; Tiffany learns she grows up into an MBA drop-out turned club rat. Mac learns she’ll be dead of leukemia before she’s out of her teens. If you have any nostalgia, the series has a boatload of pop culture and political references, plus a recurring gag that their adult selves don’t remember everything perfectly (“I could have sworn we’d seen Freejack by ’88.”).

The girls encounter Quanta Braunstein, the inventor of time travel; Wari, a Paleolithic teen mother; and a comic-strip writer helping the time travelers change history. They have to, she explains: the 21st century is a dystopian nightmare of terrorists crashing planes into buildings, killers sending anthrax through the mail and cell phones addicting their users!The older generation, however, thinks tampering with time is a seriously bad idea. They’re out to stop the kids and the Paper Girls are caught in the middle. Plus they’ve got to deal with constant danger, treacherous clones, lesbian love and Mac’s looming death (they find a cure for leukemia, but it turns out she has the deadly time-travel wasting disease, which is incurable). I must admit I eventually lost track of how some of the plot threads in one era led into another, but the series stayed fun.

And then came the final volume. The girls have become scattered across time (Mac and Braunstein are on Earth watching the sun going nova), but eventually their future selves (or clones) bring them all together. They’ve brokered a truce in the war: no more time travel, no more attempts to change history, everything will be restored as close as possible to the original timeline. That includes wiping the minds of the four so that their future follows it’s predetermined path. The girls aren’t down with that: Erin and Kimberly don’t fancy their adult lives much, and none of the girls like that in the original timeline, they no longer hang out after ’88. However the adults inform them it’s for their own good and mind-wipe them anyway.

We return back to ’88, the morning after Halloween as the girls make one last ride together, more or less oblivious to their adventures in time. (Tiffany’s done her best to plant subconscious triggers to reboot their memories). As they approach a crossroads, a car that’s been tailing them suddenly cuts in front of the girls, forcing them to brake abruptly. Good thing, because if they’d gone through the intersection, a reckless driver would have hit and killed them. Instead, they’re alive and it’s just possible they’ll stay friends (though Mac’s still doomed, dammit); we see the driver was Wari, giving the girls a final Thank You.

I thought this ending was a cheat the first time I read it. Characters declaring “you can’t change the timeline,” then making a special exception for some reason always feels like a cheat to me, and I saw it more than a few times, when I worked on Now and Then We Time Travel. Rereading I realize the issue with preserving the timeline wasn’t keeping the time stream stable but simply a concession from the kids to the elders. Wari intervening might break the terms of the deal but it’s not going to destabilize the time stream.

That said, it still raises questions. We know the girls didn’t die in a crash that morning in the original timeline, so what changed? Was it the subconscious memory stimulus changing things slightly? Still, I found it much more satisfying than on first reading. Though Mac’s death still bites. But nevertheless I enthusiastically recommend the series.

#SFWApro Comics art by Cliff Chiang, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Will the rain of golems never end?

Seriously, the non-stop reading makes me feel like I’m on this Ross Andre/Mike Esposito cover —Or this Neal Adams one.That said, here we go with more kabbalistic goodness.

GOLEM by Scott Barkman, Alex Leung and Mark Louie Vuycanklat starts in Sarajevo when a young kabbalist sees his best friend killed as the Balkan War heats up. Srojan the kabbalist creates a golem for vengeance and justice but as the golem later points out, Srojan’s not skilled: he ends up with a golem that has the power of speech and free will. It’s still committed to Srojan’s goals but it’s approach is more Punisher than Captain America. Can Srojan put the monster he’s unleashed back in the box? This wasn’t bad at all.

JOE GOLEM: The Drowning City and The Conjurors by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Peter Bergting wrap up the original arc (I don’t know if there are sequels in the works) which I realized reading is set in the same world as Mignola’s Baltimore graphic novel series. The occultist Cocteau has a plan to contact the cosmic entities in the Outer Dark, making himself into a god; trivial questions like the cost to humanity don’t trouble him. Can Joe, Simon Church and tough street-kid Molly stop him? These two volumes were based on a novel by Mignola and Golden so it’s not surprising they’re the strongest of the series. Very good.

GOLEM IN MY GLOVE BOX: A Monster Haven Novel by R.L. Naquin doesn’t qualify for my golem article (the golems are generic magical animates) and isn’t memorable otherwise. This urban fantasy has an empath protecting Earth’s cryptid population, battling a mind-manipulating Empath of Doom turned serial killer. This was third-rate for the genre, and gets way too cute trying to be different (the monster under the bed is a thing?); the whimsy and the bloodshed don’t mesh well either.

Rereading Helene Wecker’s THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI proved a wise move as I can see how the book stands out from most of the pack. In contrast to the golems yearning for freedom, Chava here is horrified when her master’s death leaves her free and independent, as it’s her nature to take directions from others and to work slavishly at her tasks (what makes for disastrous household work in some comical golem tales here proves a boon when she works tirelessly as a baker or a seamstress). The story of her bonding with a djinn for whom freedom is life itself works well as an opposites-attract romance; the sequel comes out this year but fortunately too late for me to have to incorporate it into my article.

FURRY AND FLO: The Solemn Golem by Thomas Kingsley Troupe is part of a kids’ series about human Flo, whose apartment building has a dimensional gateway in the basement, and her BFF Furry, a werewolf prince hiding from his evil father. In this episode, a golem comes looking for Furry but turns to the side of good when he realizes it’s nicer. Doesn’t make the book — the golem here is just another animated figure — but cute enough.

SILENCE FALLEN: A Mercy Thompson Novel by Patricia Briggs has the series hero — a coyote shapeshifter/ghost whisperer — kidnapped to Prague by a powerful European vampire as part of an elaborate scheme I didn’t really care about. While in Prague Mercy encounters the ghost of the Golem of Prague (which she fits into the series mythology) and despite its obvious eagerness to go Hulk Smash on the city, allies with it against a vampire conspiracy. This didn’t work for me at all, as the seemingly endless discussion of vampire and were politics and culture bored me silly — but in fairness, that’s a matter of taste (I assume for her fans it’s as interesting as a detailed discussion of kryptonite varieties is for me).

FEET OF CLAY: A Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett has city watch commander Sam Vimes investigating a series of murders where the only clue is streaks of clay left behind; of course it can’t actually involve golems as those clay figures (animated by written instructions placed in their hollow heads) only exist to serve man, right? Pratchett does a good job tackling the slavery aspect of golems, though there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the book, as usual for Pratchett.

#SFWApro. Joe Golem cover by David Palumbo; all rights to images remain with current holders. Hopefully next week will be the last golem post

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Covers for a Wednesday

An interesting cover by Ed Emsh.And this by Robert Gibson Jones. I wonder why there are leprechauns in the Andes?And what would Hump Day be without Edmond Swiatek introducing us to a giant pink ape.And an uncredited cover to finish up.#SFWApro. All rights to cover remain with current holders.

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And youth keeps right on growing old (or) Alan Moore becomes a grumpy old fart

As my recent birthday reminded me, we’re all getting older, including creators way more successful than me. And just like everyone else, age can warp us creative types in various ways.

To take an obvious example, let’s say you start out your career doing something both original and good. The response from readers is often not “now give us something else original and good” but “give us more like that one.” The financial pressure to keep doing the same thing, even if you want to experiment, can be very strong (I’m reminded of Jack Kirby’s lament that he wanted to inspire other comics creators to do what he’d done and create new things; instead he inspired a lot of them to work on stuff he’d already created like New Gods or Fantastic Four). Even if that doesn’t happen, very few creators can stay on the cutting edge forever. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work on Oklahoma was ground-breaking, as Ethan Mordden details in Beautiful Mornin’. By the 1960s they were still successful — Sound of Music was a mega-hit on stage and on screen — but their shows were what the avant-garde musical creators were breaking away from.

Another effect of age is that creators, just like the rest of us, get nostalgic for old stuff and grumpy about new stuff. Richard Rodgers didn’t think anyone would be able to make a musical out of rock music. Harlan Ellison, in his late 1980s writing, objected to DC’s reboots of Superman and the Shadow (admittedly the latter was dreadful) — why were they disrespecting fans who like the old stuff? — but he also objected to Marvel’s New Universe line. Not because it was crappy (it was) but what if fans spent money on the new books instead of Spidey and Captain America? What if that led to the classic characters getting canceled in favor of the New Universe? Not good!

If it’s not acceptable to launch new books or reboot old ones, the only option is to keep doing old ones the way they’ve always been done (which was the point of his short story Jeffty Is Five). Ellison was in his fifties by then; he’d gone from being an angry young man speaking the truth to power (okay, yelling the truth to power) to a crotchety old fart wishing kids would get off his lawn (of course, George RR Martin’s Armageddon Rag was bewailing how the world had turned to crap and he was in his thirties at the time)

Alan Moore seems to have wound up in a similar place.

It’s noticeable in LGX: Century in which he seems displeased with 21st century culture in general and particularly with Harry Potter — what a sad, juvenile set of stories those were, unfit for mature minds! In the series’ finish, LGX Tempest, which I just finished (review to come soon), we get more of the same. James Bond, who was believably vicious in Black Dossier, is now a homicidal maniac taking great glee in killing people for sport. Complaints about how America has been infatuated with superheroes, plus snark that Birth of a Nation was the first masked-superhero film (the KKK as masked vigilantes — makes you think about Batman, doesn’t it? Well DOESN”T IT?). Elric (not officially) tells Orlando in one scene that stories about superhumans make readers think “only impossible beings are capable of greatness … they cease attempting it for themselves.”

It appears the characters are speaking for their author as Moore has made the same points in several interviews (here, here and here). They’re not fit fodder for adults. People who watch superhero movies are clinging to their childhood, afraid to face the world. They’re escapist fantasy. Despite a little added diversity, they’re a master-race fantasies fit only for white supremacists.

My short answer: bite me, Mr. Moore. As JRR Tolkien once said, the only people who object to escape are jailers.

My longer answer: Getting nostalgic for childhood, wanting to escape whatever your life’s woes are for a while, these are not bad impulses. And it’s not a binary thing, where if you read comics you can’t possibly read anything serious or “mature.” I read superhero comics. I also read a lot of other stuff (very little of it is serious literature, true), and I stay informed about politics and what’s going on in the world. And no, reading comics or fantasizing about larger than life adventures does not mean we give up on doing anything ourselves (he reminds me of a Bill Maher rant I blogged about a few years ago).

As Kurt Busiek once pointed out, if comics can express the fantasies of teenage boys, they can express anything: the fantasies of girls, fantasies of justice, the frustrations of middle age. Nerd Reactors compares comics to videogames, another field that initially targeted kids but now spreads out to appeal to all kinds of people.

I’m sure part of this is Moore’s frustrated anger over the way DC Comics has made his work into their intellectual property (you can find the details of his issues online). But that doesn’t make his argument any less cranky and unreasonable.

#SFWApro. Covers by Howard Chaykin and Kevin O’Neill, all rights to image remain with current holders.

 

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I love the detail on this cover

 

Due to that muzzy-headedness I mentioned Friday, I didn’t focus enough to get today’s book-review post written. So instead I’m going to give you a comics cover I like because of the detail.

The cop whose hat has apparently been pushed off by his headcrest. The girl clutching her Mom. The military members here and there. The obvious shock, conveyed so well even without human faces (though part of that is knowing what’s happening — crop out one of the figures from the context and I don’t know they’d say “shock” so effectively).

It’s very easy to do a crowd scene that’s just a crowd of people. Making them a crowd of individuals is tougher. Murphy Anderson does a great job here. The story inside involves the last survivor of Mars plotting to conquer Earth; a scientist who escaped the effect of his morphing ray sets out to stop him. It’s not a standout, but it’s enjoyable if you like Strange Adventures yarns, which I do.

But even if I hated it, I’d still think the cover was cool.

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Paperback covers for hump day

Charles Binger gives us an anthology cover that captures elements of multiple stories therein.I’m guessing the answer to the cover question is “the space-dive wanton” as she’s the one on the cover. Besides, she looks like she’d be a fun empress. Art is uncredited.This is based on DaVinci the way a “based on truth” movie is based on facts. Cool uncredited art on the cover though.An eye-catching cover by Robert Gibson Jones.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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So I’m not the only one who remembers Wonder Woman’s twin sister?

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Nubia when she debuted in Wonder Woman #204 and I’m glad she’s back in NUBIA: Real One. But I’m a comics nerd and I’m old enough that I bought the debut issue off a drugstore spinner rack. I have lots of affection for characters so forgotten they’d barely qualify for pub trivia questions (the Galactic Golem, the Devil-Fish, the Reincarnators, Jason Bard …). I’d have put Nubia in that category, but no, she has a fanbase. For example, LL McKinney, the Real One writer, who says she was blown away to discover there was a black woman who could hold her own with Wonder Woman.

In hindsight, it’s not surprising Nubia has fans. While many comics readers hate having female/POC characters introduced as spinoffs of established white/male heroes, as writer Devin Grayson once said, a lesbian Batwoman or a black Wonder Woman automatically gets a cachet that a new gay character might not. Maybe that’s less true in the current comics world, but appearing in 1972 Nubia was a lot more unusual, beating Storm out as as the first black female superhero. And she’s also a good character; I doubt anyone remembers the black Legionnaire Tyroc as fondly.

Nubia shows up after the clumsy reboot that restores Wonder Woman to her powers after several years as a (comparatively) ordinary woman. After her martial arts mentor/father figure I Ching is killed by a random sniper, Diana gets the kind of convenient head injury that brings on amnesia, somehow makes it back to Paradise Island (which vanished from the mortal world at the start of the powerless period, something blithely ignored here) and regains her powers. Then up shows an armored warrior who challenges Diana for the name of Wonder Woman. Having Wonder Woman defend her title is one of those ideas that crops up semiregularly in the series. First there was one of Robert Kanigher’s Silver Age stories, then Nubia (created by Kanigher and Don Heck), then a Bronze Age tale, then one of William Messner-Loebs’ stories in the 1990s.

When Nubia challenges Diana, they initially prove perfectly matched. Nubia finally gets the drop on her, as on the cover (and not by a lucky break, as often happens — she beats her fair and square), but then freezes at the killing stroke. Diana disarms her, Hippolyta — who suspects the truth — proclaims a draw. The two warriors embrace but Nubia warns Diana when they meet again until their rivalry is decided.

In the following issue, Kanigher and Heck explore “The Mystery of Nubia” in a backup story. To Nubia’s puzzlement, Hippolyta makes a point of embracing her for a second goodbye before Nubia returns to her home, Floating Island. The inhabitants are a black tribe, two of whom fight for the right to wed their princess, Nubia. She, however, informs the winner that he has another challenger — herself, fighting for the right not to marry anyone. They battle, she wins, but Nubia refuses to kill him: a woman, she says “never forgets that once a life has been taken, it can never return.” She then broods privately on how lonely she feels as an orphan who doesn’t even remember her parents — was that why Hippolyta embraced her, out of compassion?

Cary Bates takes up the writing for the finalé, “War of the Wonder Women” in which we learn Nubia’s origin. When Hippolyta sculpted Diana from clay (an origin Kanigher never used himself, giving her an unseen father) she also created a black twin sister. Mars, however, stole the baby away before the gods blessed Diana with the strength of Hercules, speed of Mercury etc. While that should give Diana the edge, Mars has trained Nubia in every possible form of combat, molding her into a weapon to destroy Wonder Woman and the Amazons. Floating Island attacks Paradise Island; Wonder Woman arrives to help her sisters fight the invasion; Nubia then proclaims their final battle. Diana, however, guesses the ring with Mars’ symbol that Nubia wears is fueling her rage and manages to remove it. Nubia’s war-fervor fades and the two women drive off Mars together. When Diana returns to Paradise Island, Hippolyta reveals the truth.

Although the last caption of the story proclaimed it “the end and the beginning,” the beginning went nowhere. In Supergirl #9, Supergirl gets fed up with men and accepts Hippolyta’s invitation to relocate to Paradise Island before deciding withdrawing from the world is not the solution. Nubia appears, but primarily for Supergirl to save from a deadly poison. Nubia’s final appearance came in Super Friends #25 in which the villainous Overlord has turned the Super Friends into his evil puppets. When Wonder Woman goes to Africa, Nubia confronts her, revealing that she’s devoted herself to becoming the champion of Africa’s women. It’s not a bad idea for giving Nubia her own space — as an Amazon she’s always in Diana’s shadow — but nothing further came of it.And then came Real One by McKinney and Robyn Smith. We meet Nubia as a typical American teenager with two lesbian moms — well typical except that she’s freakishly, superhumanly strong. She’s always hidden it because she’s black and she knows damn well white people react to even non-metahuman blacks as dangerous menaces. Sure enough, when she uses her strength to stop a robbery (one of her friends was in danger), the police are way more concerned about the scary black woman than the crooks.

The story concerns Nubia’s unease about where she fits in the world, her relationships with her friends (made more awkward by knowing she’s different) and an entitled white bigot/misogynist at her school who’s harassing one of her friends. Midway through the story she learns her origin when her moms’ friend Diana shows up and guess who it is? Wonder Woman explains that years ago, she found her lost twin sister in a temple of Mars, kept as a baby in suspended animation. Hippolyta gave the child away to her moms — one’s an Amazon who gave up Themyscira for love of a mortal woman — and raised her normally as possible. But that jerk at school is getting increasingly dangerous so like it or not, it’s time for Nubia to become a hero …

I really enjoyed this. It does a great job fitting Nubia into a real world of social media, date rape and Black Lives Matter. If this Nubia turned up in a future issue of Wonder Woman that would be cool, though McKinney says she’d like to see the original return. I’d be cool with either.

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Way more golems than I anticipated!

GOLEM: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions in the Making of the Artificial Anthropoid by Moshe Idel is a nonfiction book I read years ago about the kabbalistic view of the golem: how do you make one (there are several versions)? What does the ritual signify? Is a golem truly human — for example, could it make up the minimum number of Jewish men to sit shiva (probably not)? This is extremely dry as Idel isn’t dealing with folklore and the kabbalists have no interest in what a golem might actually do; the legends of golems as protectors or folktales of them as bumbling servants only developed in the 19th century (the 16th century legend of the golem of Prague doesn’t go back any earlier). The kind of reference that makes me glad I have so many books.

THE GOLEM: Mystical Tales from the Ghetto of Prague by Chayim Bloch is an early 20th century book  I read some years back under the impression the tales were authentic traditions rather than 19th century retcons. That said, this is an entertaining collection of faux folktales as Rabbi Judah Ben Loew and his servant “Joseph” outwit Christians seeking to hurt their people while the golem, effective as a protector, keeps bumbling simple household tasks.

THE JOURNALS OF PROFESSOR GUTHRIDGE by Kyt Wright is a novella about a 19th century occult investigator tackling various supernatural threats the main one being whatever crushed the skulls of some Jewish immigrants as if they were paper. And why on Earth is there so much clay around the crime scenes? This is adequate reading that suffers from a few anachronisms (nobody in the 19th century used the phrase “she has feelings for you” — and it’s odd to describe a Jew as having “some interest” in the Torah); a bigger problem is that Guthridge at one point rapes his lover but it’s treated more as a ghastly faux pas than rape. I will give Wright points for an ingenious solution to getting the magic talisman out of the golem’s mouth — just blast it with enough machine gun fire that the paper falls out of the collapsing head.

THE ALCHEMIST’S DOOR by Lisa Goldstein has Elizabethan occultist John Dee fleeing a demon across Europe, ending up in Prague at the court of occult-obsessed Rudolph II. There Dee meets Judah ben Loew, who has just discovered one of the 36 Lame Wufniks (the same mythical figures I used in No Good Deed Goes Unpunished) lives in the Prague ghetto. Rudolph wants to find and kill the man, destabilizing all of creation, in the belief he will be able to build a new reality; can Dee, ben Loew and the golem Yossel hold him at bay? The golem here is both a Hulk-like destroyer (making this Herb Trimpe cover appropriate — contrary to Wikipedia it has no connection to the Golem in Strange Tales above) and a Data-like artificial life-form yearning for humanity. A good historical fantasy.

JOE GOLEM, OCCULT DETECTIVE: The Outer Dark by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Patric Reynolds is somewhat stronger than the first volume. Joe investigates fanatics plotting to summon Lovecraftian outsiders to Earth, then battles a woman suffering from a unique form of possession; meanwhile Simon Church decides Joe’s girlfriend Lori is asking too many inconvenient questions … Makes Simon out to be a real shit, manipulating Joe as much as the men in Scent of May Rain.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Ernie Chan.

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All Singing, All Dancing: Jeanine Basinger’s The Movie Musical

Jeanine Basinger wrote the brilliant World War II Combat Film, the much less brilliant I Do and I Don’t (about marriage in the movies) and provided an excellent commentary track on my DVD of The Philadelphia Story (among other accomplishments). Her THE MOVIE MUSICAL falls in the middle, not as good as the combat-film book but better than I Do and I Don’t. It’s an informative book and I mostly enjoyed reading it, but I kept feeling I should have enjoyed it more.

Basinger is a musical fangirl (she says so in the intro) and it shows: she’s happy to write about not only the great musicals but failures, experiments and low-budget knockoffs. She opens discussing the birth of sound and the success of the musical The Jazz Singer (contrary to legend, neither the first sound film or first musical film) and how the movies developed musicals as a genre. She also discusses the question of what makes a musical (e.g., Casablanca isn’t a musical even though “As Time Goes By” is a major part of the story [the key is that the movie would be 90 percent there without it, which isn’t the same with Brigadoon or Top Hat) and how musicals work: given that people spontaneously singing and dancing together is inherently unrealistic, how do movies sell us that it’s plausible. The answers are various: all the music occurs onstage in performances, or the music starts on stage then continues off stage, or it’s a dream sequence, an animated film, a concert film … Though I must admit, I’m not sure this is such a serious issue: anyone who has issues with the absurdity probably isn’t going to attend a musical anyway (TYG thinks it’s silly, so she doesn’t watch).

Then we switch from chronology to an overview of the musical stars, the kind for whom “star vehicles” were filmed. A star vehicle is one made to showcase the star’s persona: an Elvis Presley film for example, was primarily an excuse to put Elvis onscreen singing, nothing else really mattered (and the quality suffered for it). She also looks at star duos (e.g. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and what makes them work, then we move on to subgenres (the B-movie, the musical biopic, operettas, singing cowboy films), then the different studios. Then we’re back to chronology: the 1950s when Gene Kelly and director Vincenté Minnelli helped elevate musicals to an art form Then on into the 1960s when things went wrong (big successes such as The Sound of Music followed by a long list of flops such as Doctor Dolittle), the grimdark musicals of the 1970s (e.g. Cabaret, set in Nazi Germany) and then a long ongoing decline. The audience likes musicals, filmmakers like making musicals, but they can’t make them profitably and in Basinger’s opinion can’t make them good enough. She suggests part of the problem is that upbeat musicals run against our more cynical age, which I don’t entirely buy (the 1940s had musicals and film noir, after all) and (more plausibly) that it takes a shit ton of skilled talent to make a good one; with the studio system gone, it’s much harder to assemble a good team than it used to be. Basinger also dismisses most post-studio movies for not being innovative, which is not a standard she applies as much to the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s — but then she made the same argument against recent films in I Do and I Don’t (contemporary movies about marriage aren’t doing anything new, so who cares?).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff and a ton of musicals I’d Netflix if Alien Visitors wasn’t sucking up so much viewing time. But I also finished it feeling unsatisfied. Part of that is the occasional error: Basinger’s version of the genesis of Singing in the Rain differs from the one on the DVD commentary track I have, and the commentary is more persuasive; the “you’ll come back a star” line in 42nd Street is not, in context “cornball” (the point is Ruby Keeler must be a star or everyone working on the show is suddenly unemployed).

Another problem is that the structure is kind of structureless: start with chronology, bounce to stars and studios, then back to chronology felt very off. A third issue is the selection: why devote so much space to Belita, a B-movie knockoff of skating musical star Sonja Henie rather than a more significant player (in fairness, that’s always an issue with a book like this)? I also wish she’d done something to parallel film development with stage more — stage musicals also got darker in the late 20th century, for instance.

And in fairness, part of the problem was me. Basinger went into more detail on specific films or actors than I needed to know; part of that may be the lack of structure but it’s also simply that she gave me more information than I wanted, which is never the author’s fault.

If you’re interested in the subject, it’s definitely worth checking out, despite my demurrals.

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Old houses, Victorian killers and an immortal: books read

THE TWISTED ONES by T. Kingfisher (AKA Ursula Vernon of Digger and Castle Hangnail) has a North Carolina woman reluctantly drive to her late grandmother’s house to clear out her possessions so Dad won’t have to. In between ruminating on her life, she stumbles onto a journal by her grandfather full of cryptic passages about strange things in the woods, then discoves what he was talking about when she stumbles into an uncanny land that shouldn’t exist. Unfortunately the first 100 pages are overwhelmingly a mundane story of a woman cleaning out a house and Kingfisher couldn’t keep me interested, nor did the uncanny land make up for it when we finally got there. Possibly the problem is that Kingfisher’s riffing on Arthur Machen’s short story “The White People,” and I’m not as fond of Machen as she is. So thumbs down for me, though I did love the protagonist’s dog (he reminds me a lot of Plushie, below).

ETERNAL WARRIOR: Sword of the Wild by Greg Pak, Trevor Hairsine and a couple of other artists is I believe a prequel to the immortal Gilad’s appearance in Archer and Armstrong. Unfortunately Gilad turning against the Earth and the gods only to run into his still faithful daughter and his now monstrous son really doesn’t tie in well to the other series and didn’t grab me in its own right. Competent, but not terribly distinguished.

PRETTY JANE AND THE VIPER OF KIDBROOKE LANE: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder by Paul Thomas Murphy tells how the discovery of a murdered maid in 1871 became a cause celebré. Police interested fixed on the son of the girl’s former employer, whom they claimed seduced her, then dispatched her when she became pregnant. While this was sensational in its day, it’s not a gripping crime by today’s standards, and maybe not that startling then — both Invention of Murder and Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead show how morbidly the Victorians fixated on tales of scandal and death like this. The details of legal and police procedure are interesting but not enough to make the book so (The Poisoner did a better job with its Crime of the Century).

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