Category Archives: Comics

Graphic novels, mostly Marvel

IMMORTAL HULK: Abomination by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett is the fourth collection in the Immortal Hulk series. General Fortean’s latest attempt to destroy the Hulk by trapping him as Bruce Banner has some unexpected side effects (“Call me … Joe.”) but not to worry, he has a back up involving resurrecting Rick Jones as the new Abomination. Can Hulk save his best friend, even now that Betty Ross is Harpy again? A grim little tale though I’m not sure at this point why Fortean’s scheme to kill Bruce would work better than any of his previous deaths.

ALIAS: Come Home and JESSICA JONES: Uncaged by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos are part of Jessica’s original series and the most recent one, respectively. In the first book, Jessica agrees to search for a missing girl in a small town, which may tie into the fact that she’s allegedly a mutant (“Yeah, her best friend’s boyfriend’s buddy said she’d said so.”). It’s a hardboiled PI story, but set in the Marvel Universe with an ex-superhero as the protagonist.

Uncaged has Jess released from prison, on the outs with her friends and with Luke Cage pissed she’d hidden their kid away from him. In that state, she’s the perfect target for a woman who has a grudge against the superhero community and would love to have a former Avenger spill all their secrets. Will Jess do it? This had a real Astro City feel as Jess learns about some of the cosmic events she hasn’t been a partner to.

SUPER SONS: The Polarshield Project by Ridley Pearson and Ile Gonzalez is a middle-grade graphic novel pairing up Jon Kent and Damien Wayne (who’ve been working together several years in regular continuity). Global warming has forced both families to relocate inland where the kids are bullied as “floodrunners” (which seems a rather forced excuse to get bullying into the story); now it appears they have to work together against a villain who’s plotting to …. well, I read it but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the plan was. And names like Dr. Cray Ving make me wonder when the other shoe is going to drop (e.g., he turns out to be a life-drinking monster calling itself — The Craving!) and it never does. I know I’m not the target audience but that doesn’t make me like it any better.

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Action films explained and some so-so comic collections.

Rereading ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie by Eric Litchtenfeld proved a good move as he has excellent insights about Predator, Independence Day and the Spielberg War of the Worlds. Lichtenfeld argues that the action film (as opposed to war films or PI films  with lots of action in them) starts in the 1970s with Dirty Harry and Death Wish

— bringing Western themes of violent vengeance to urban setting. Then the genre goes through phases including the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era of buff musclemen, martial arts from Stephen Segal and Churck Norris, Die Hard knockoffs and disaster films (which is where he sees Independence Day falling), all with running themes such as revenge, captivity narratives and fetishized weapons. While I might quibble with Lichtenfeld’s genre boundaries in spots, overall this is excellent.

THE WOODS: The Arrow by James Tynian IV and Michael Dialynas has a high school mysteriously transported into the middle of an alien forest. They have no running water, a limited food supply, there are monsters outside; the president of the student council does what she can, an ex-military gym coach becomes obsessed with imposing order and an antisocial needs leads a party in pursuit of a possible answer. Like Summit last week, this is too by the numbers, though it’s a more interesting book.

ETHER: Death of the Last Golden Blaze by Matt Kindt and David Rubîn is the story of Boone Dias, a scientist cum detective (he seems very Sherlock Holmes to me) investigating crimes in Ether, a parallel world of magic. Dias doesn’t believe in magic — it’s all science to him — which makes it easier to think analytically about crimes, such as the murder of Golden Blaze, Ether’s great champion. This volume had too much set-up for the series, but it’s a good story nonetheless.

ADLER by Lavie Tidhar and Paul McCaffrey is such a good idea — accurately described as “League of Extraordinary Gentlewoman” — I wish the execution had been better. It’s 1902 in a somewhat steampunk Great Britain, with Queen Victoria still alive thanks to drug treatments from Dr. Jekyll. When nurse Jane Eyre returns from the Boer War, she finds rooms with Irene Adler and becomes embroiled in her latest adventure, thwarting a terrorist attack by Ayesha of Kor — she’s PO’d the British have colonized her kingdom — on London making a bomb out of some of this radium Madam Curie has discovered.

Despite it’s many flaws, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman uses Victorian characters who are clearly recognizable. Here, however, the characters feel like name-only versions: the nurse character has nothing to do with Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane appeared in fiction fifty years earlier. There’s no shortage of characters I might see doing the nursing thing (female PI Loveday Brooke or Polly from the “Old Man in the Corner” stories) so I can’t see any reason to pick Jane beyond name value. And Ayesha’s scheme is not only overly complicated (building a death ray she has no intention of using) it comes too close to the climax of the original LGX. The art is good-looking but in the action scenes I had a hard time following who was doing what to whom. Overall, a disappointment.

#SFWApro. Irene Adler portrait by J. Allen St. John, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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From phantom hitchhikers to slave revolts: books and graphic novels

THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK DRESS is Seanan McGuire’s sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, returning us to the ghost roads and the unlife of ghostly hitchhiker Rose Marshall, the Phantom Prom Date. Rose ended the first book on a high note, protected against Bobby Cross murdering her again (the souls of those he runs down or off the road fuel his car and make him immortal) and reunited with her high-school sweetheart.

After a couple of chapters of exposition (I don’t know I’d have gone further if I hadn’t read V1 — but it does help set up Rose’s “normal” compared to what’s coming), Bobby traps her and weakens her protection. A couple of chapters later, he turns her mortal. Rose has powerful allies in the ghost world, but in reality she’s easy prey. Her only hope is a folklore professor who has a grudge against her, but will that be enough when Bobby comes hunting?

There were bits of this that I found cliched — Rose’s reaction to the 21st century could just as easily be Captain America thawing out of the ice — but overall this was great reading and better than the first book. I look forward to catching the concluding volume before too long.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL: A Reckless Book is part of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ noir series about 1980s PI Ethan Reckless. In this story, his new girlfriend asks him to find the sister who left for Hollywood a decade earlier, then vanished without a word.

The story doesn’t reinvent the hardboiled PI, and some elements of the mystery are stock. Overall it worked, though, and I really liked the emphasis on how different hunting someone was back then — even finding a list of movies the sister appeared in takes work in the pre-Internet age.

UNITY: To Kill a King by Matt Kindt and Doug Braithwaite is set in the same Valiant Universe as Archer and Armstrong and is, I think, a crossover event between several characters (including Armstrong’s brother Gilad, the Eternal Warrior). The medieval warrior known as X-O Man of War has used his powers to bring his Visigoth people back to their ancestral home in Rumania; this freaks out Russia enough that they’re close to going nuclear. Can the telekinetic Harada put together a team to take Man of War out? And what happens after?  As I don’t know any of the cast besides Gilad, I was hardly excited about this book, but it was still fun enough to spend time with.

SUMMIT: The Long Way Home by Amy Chu and Jan Duursema was less engaging. The story involves an astronaut on a blow-up-the-meteor suicide mission; against all odds she somehow survives but with the ghosts of her team in her head and strange powers manifesting in her body. What’s going on? And is it possible even her mentor has a hidden agenda? This is perfectly competent but it felt perfectly formulaic, nothing I haven’t seen a dozen times before.

WAKE: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez, is frustrating because, as Hall shows, there’s so little on the record about the topic: historians often missed signs that women were taking up arms and many sources are inaccessible (Hall’s tried researching slave-ship uprisings at Lloyds of London, but they’d rather their role insuring those voyages be forgotten). While Hall discusses what little we know, most of the book is about her research efforts and the painful feelings diving into this stuff dredges up in her. Don’t get me wrong, that works as a narrative, but like Hall, I wish I could learn more.

#SFWApro. Covers by Aly Hill and Hugo Martinez, all rights remain with current holder.

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From the Civil War to Area 51, and all points in-between! Books read

I picked up SHERMAN’S GHOSTS: Soldiers, Civilians and the American Way of War by Matthew Carr because I understood it to be a look at how Sherman’s concept of total war on the civilian population — though Carr argues Sherman’s bark was more brutal than his bite — affected our concepts of war in the 20th century. The answer, however, appears to be not much: while theorists often invoked Sherman’s policy of targeting the enemy, it doesn’t appear Sherman was a direct influence on the Nazi blitzkrieg or the saturation bombing of Vietnam. So the book doesn’t amount to more than a history of modern warfare against civilians, which didn’t tell me enough that I didn’t already know.

WATCHING SKIES: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us by Mark O’Connell, is the memoir of a British kid about 20 years younger than me on growing up fascinated by movies, particularly the big SF films of the 1970s. I gambled this might shed an interesting light on Spielberg or the Christopher Reeve Superma but it really didn’t, nor did I connect with O’Connell’s personal views of movies, movie-loving and the struggle to see movies (apparently catching even big American films wasn’t that easy in those days). This might have worked better if I was too young to remember this era.

Having read Day of the Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos recently, I figured I’d try John Wyndham’s THE CHRYSALIDS as many people consider it his best work. While I don’t agree, it is very good (as is this Mark Salkowski cover).  The narrator is a kid in what readers can see is a post-nuclear war society where radiation-induced mutations are constant; in the boy’s community, the solution to protecting the gene pool is not to suffer a mutant to live. That makes life extremely uncomfortable for the narrator as he’s one of several kids in a telepathic gestalt; it’s not as obvious as being born with an extra toe, but it’s still not easy to keep the secret. This is familiar stuff — it may have been less so back then — but it works very well.

Somehow I never got around to reviewing the individual collections of Jeff Smith’s BONE when I read them so I might as well review the whole series now. In the opening issue, cousins Fone Bone (the nice one), Smiley Bone (goofy and a little dumb) and Phony Bone (the greedy, not-as-cunning-as-he-thinks one) are fleeing their community (Phony’s latest scam has gotten them in hot water. Wandering into a neighboring valley seems a simple enough solution, but what about the dragon? The pretty girl Fone falls hard for? The cow races? The cosmic war between good and evil?

This starts off as a cute, whimsical story that feels close to the old Disney Duck Tales. Over time it grows into something much more epic, which makes it remarkable that it still works, right up to the end.

BATMAN: Blink by Dwayne McDuffie and Val Semeiks (cover by Semeiks) is two related Batman stories. In the first, Batman crosses the path of Lee Hyland, a blind man with the ability to see through the eyes of anyone he touches. This comes in handy for Hyland’s bottom line — look, here’s someone’s account number and their passwords! — but ith Gotham City plagued by a series of random killings, Hyland’s abilities may help the Bat identify the man behind it. In the second story arc, government agents kidnap Hyland to exploit his ability; when Batman goes looking for him, things get violent. Good stuff.

As I’ll be writing about the fictional appearances of Area 51 in Alien Visitors, I figured I’d check out Annie Jacobsen’s AREA 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Military Base as it seemed to be a serious look rather than conspiracy theorist. Unfortunately the history of secret experimental planes and the people who work on them told me way more than I wanted to know, which is not Jacobsen’s fault. Where I do fault her is that she does slide into conspiracy theories, making a great deal out of the Atomic Energy Commission taking over matters nuclear from the Manhattan Project — I feel as if she was about to blurt out “They were both just covers for Hydra!” And she makes a very flimsy case for the Roswell incident being an encounter with Soviet flying saucer technology crewed by kids mutated by Dr. Mengele’s WW II research.

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Graphic novels: Lots of women, plus some men

I was never a fan of the Jem cartoon so I was pleasantly surprised to find JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS: Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell (which I thought I’d already blogged about but apparently not) and V2, Viral (by Thompson and multiple artists) so much fun, though Showtime was definitely better.

As you may know, the cartoon’s protagonist was Jerrica, a young woman whose supercomputer Synergy gives her a secret identity as the rock star Jem. I never understood why she needed one but Thompson gives it her own spin here: Jerrica’s talented, but has too much stage fright to perform. When her father’s supercomputer comes up with a cover identity, she’s suddenly free (the text pages of V1 point out Jem never made it to comics so the authors are free themselves — they have no previous versions to compete with). Their sudden rise draws attention from rock reporter Rio, who worries Jem’s too arrogant for a wonderful woman like Jerrica, and from the rival group the Misfits, who like the Holograms much less than Rio does (but that doesn’t stop a romance from springing up between a Misfit and a Hologram).

By the end of the second collection, the Misfits have actually developed into something more than just nasty jerks. However the constantly shifting artists in Viral took some of the punch out of the series. I’ll still pick up V3, Dark Jem.

BLACK WIDOW: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell and Tom Raney does a remarkable job piecing together the various inconsistencies in Natasha’s history — why, when she first appears in Iron Man, is she just a sexy manipulator rather than the deadly fighter she became later? Was she ever a ballerina? Whatever happened to her trusted right hand from the Bronze Age, Ivan?

The book opens with Ivan warning Natasha she’s the target of something called the Icepick Protocol, then he’s killed. Figuring out what’s going on gets Natasha thinking about her past and the memory implants she’s undergone in the service of the Red Room (an idea introduced by a previous writer) — when she told Daredevil she’d been a ballerine, she really though it was true. I really enjoyed this one.

SUPERGIRL: The Hunt for Reactron by Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Jamal Igle suffers from the same problem as the previous volume — it’s part of a big crossover with Superman’s series and huge gaps of plot are missing — the cops are hunting Supergirl for a murder that happened elsewhere in the event, then the victim turns up alive, also off-panel. I like the way Gates writes Supergirl and her relationship with Lana (though that blows up by the end of this volume) but the discontinuity is infuriating.

CAPTAIN MARVEL: Accused by Kelly Thompson and Cory Smith has Carol Danvers now working as the new Accuser for the joint Kree/Skrull Empire (ruled by Hulkling of Young Avengers). When a settlement with both races living in harmony is massacred, Hulkling sends Carol out to play judge, jury and executioner — something that gets more complicated when it looks like the killer is the Kree half-sister she never knew she had. I still dislike the retcon that Carol’s really half-Kree but this made good use of it. The follow up volume, New World by Thompson and Lee Garbett, has Carol hurled into a dystopian future where Ove (son of Enchantress and Sub-Mariner) now rules and not wisely — can Captain Marvel turn things around? I liked this, but the rationale for breaking up Carol and Rhodey as a couple was dumb-ass.

IMMORTAL HULK: The Green Door by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett and Lee Garbett follows up on Or Is He Both? as Hulk, Doc Samson and Sasquatch continue puzzling out what the hell is happening with gamma radiation while the newest incarnation of Hulkbusters captures Hulk and chops him into pieces for storage (now I see why people refer to this run as a horror comic) — don’t worry, he got better. This and the third volume Hulk in Hell (which I reread and like better now that it’s in context) explain some of what’s going on — to wit, that the Hulk we’re seeing now is a protective father figure Bruce dreamed up (though given his childhood of abuse, he also fears him). And we learn why Jackie McGee is so keen on being a Hulk herself (“My anger gets dismissed — you smash up cities and they make you a founding Avenger.”). Looking forward to continuing with this run.

INVISIBLE MEN: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro looks at a variety of comics artists from the Golden Age, whether they were one-timers in the industry or building careers. While some worked directly for publishers, more worked through the studios that provided ready made strips to publishers and one passed for white. Their work includes the short-lived All Negro Comics, Voodah (a black Tarzan type), horror, romance and Phantom Lady in her raciest-looking period. Interesting.

#SFWApro. Covers by Campbell and Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holders.

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Jetpacks, Hulk and Supergirl: books read

As a kid, it seemed as inevitable we’d be flying to work on jetpacks by the 21st century, just like we’d have a lunar colony. Thus I was thrilled to order JETPACK DREAMS: One Man’s Up and Down Search (But Mostly Down) For the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon … and much less thrilled to read it. While this covers the history of jetpack as real-world tech adequately enough, along with appearance in TV, comics and movies from Gilligan’s Island to Thunderball to The Rocketeer, Montandon devotes far too much of the book to talking about himself.  How it was inspired by a mid-thirties crisis, his family’s experiences at a jet pack convention, his road trips to talk to jet-pack designers (people are still hopeful) …

This works in a book like Catch and Kill where the work to get the story becomes part of the story, but here it’s just tedious. And he makes one sloppy error, referring EE Smith’s The Skylark of Space as a person, not a spaceship (minor in the context of this topic, but still annoying). I wish he’d written more about the problems with jetpacks — while he covers the big ones (a pack with enough fuel for a long flight is heavy), one former pilot mentions in passing the problems with avoiding mid-air collisions — more on that would have helped. As is, a pretty feeble book that I’ll give away soon (not the first time I’ve regretted an impulse purchase).

IMMORTAL HULK: Or Is He Both? by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett opens some time after Hawkeye killed Bruce Banner in a crossover event (unlike so many TPBs that leave me guessing about this stuff, the ending includes the relevant backstory); now he’s somehow alive, wandering the country and trying to only hulk out when there’s someone who needs smashing. But there are things about the Hulk that Bruce has never fully understood, like the reasons he can never die forever …

When I read V3 of this run I wasn’t impressed, but V8 worked a lot better for me, so I decided to start from the beginning. Ewing says he grew up with the Hulk cartoon of the 1980s and was quite stunned to read a collection of the first Hulk series and realize Hulk could also be a figure of horror. While most reviews describe the book as horror, as I said reading Hulk in Hell, it’s not that different from the stuff superheroes deal with on a regular basis. But it’s well done, even though I’m not a Hulk fan, so I’ll continue with the series.

SUPERGIRL: Daughter of New Krypton by Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle is a good example of not providing context: this is part of a big Superman event involving New Krypton (the Kryptonian survivors had set up a new planet in our Solar System) and several key events take place between the issues collected here. On the plus side, Gates writes a good Supergirl, decent but still a little insecure, and unsure how to balance her Kryptonian and human lives. Unfortunately  it didn’t take as DC’s kept rebooting Supergirl over and over (they did that pre-Crisis too, but only to the extent of changing her job, her supporting cast, etc.). I haven’t seen a better take since Gates’, though.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Disappointments of Marvel’s Early Years

As I recently observed over at Atomic Junkshop, for all the praise Marvel gets for reinventing comics, much of its early Silver Age stuff was mediocre; the company’s rep rested on the A-list work of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. Case in point, THOR: God of Thunder, which collects the first year and a half of  the thunder god’s Marvel run. While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are best associated with Thor in this era, there are multiple different creators working on the strip, which explains why it’s so “meh.”

In the first story, Dr. Don Blake is trapped in a cave during the invasion of the Stone Men of Saturn. Having dropped his cane (he has a bum leg), he finds a walking stick in the cave and discovers when he strikes it on the ground he transforms into Thor, Norse god of thunder! A few issues later, Thor’s brother Loki attacks him; he and everyone in Asgard just accepts Don as the Thor (this wouldn’t be explained for a decade). Which I can overlook because bringing Asgard into the book was much more interesting than the uninspired Red agents and thugs Thor fought otherwise.

f course, even without Thor, Dr. Blake doesn’t make much sense: depending on the story he’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, a G.P. or a tech genius who builds androids. Even Asgard doesn’t help much at times — Loki runs around playing pranks much like Mxyzptlk in Superman stories. Blake becomes the first of Lee’s disability cliches, wishing he could express his love for Jane but he can’t because he’s — a cripple! Late in the book they ditch that idea in favor of having Odin forbid Thor from marrying a mortal, which would be the dominant obstacle for several years. It generated much better melodrama, as did Lee and Kirby whenever they were writing the book (from most accounts, Kirby was really down with writing about mythology). For the moment though, it’s a second string book.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: The Human Torch suffers from similar problems, including the assorted creative teams working on it. The Golden Age Human Torch was one of Marvel’s few A-listers, so it’s not surprising they tried Johnny Stor as a solo act. The result is a stock teen superhero story (more stock than Spider-Man or Supergirl as Johnny’s not as independent — he’s still answering to the FF and particularly his sister) which even gave Johnny a secret identity in the early stories (they eventually explained “well, you wanted to have a normal teen life so we pretended we didn’t know you were the Torch.”). And it’s very weird how the Human Torch can use his flame like Green Lantern’s power ring, forming nets, saws, darts …

On the plus side, this does set up Johnny’s long frenemy relationship with Spider-Man, and introduced a number of long-running villains (Trapster, Wizard, Eel), as well as a villain impersonating Captain America (the response led to the resurrection of Cap in Avengers). Still, it wasn’t the success they’d hoped for; by the end of this collection the Thing had guest-starred and he’d soon be c0-star (and Dr. Strange had become a much superior backup feature). It didn’t help — “Agents of SHIELD” took over the slot.

As a big fan of Count of Monte Cristo, I picked up a copy of COUNT by Ibrahim Moustafa. An SF reworking, it has the protagonist, like Edmund Dantes, sentenced to life in an inescapable prison by three schemers. Years later, though, he does escape, bent on revenge, despite warnings that he should use his newly acquired wealth to make the world better, not simply satisfy his bloodlust. Will he gain revenge? Will he listen to the better angels of his nature? While I can’t say the answers are surprising, I did enjoy the telling.

WITCH DOCTOR: Under the Knife by Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner introduces us to Vincent Morrow, a doctor come occultist dealing with possession, changelings, being a Chosen One (he’d rather not be, but Excalibur picked him), Cthulhu’s fleas (“When the Great Ones came to our dimension, some creatures hitched a ride.”) and the magical bureaucracy, ably assisted by EMT Gast and freakish nurse Penny Dreadful. While I’m glad I went with a library copy than buying, What If Dr. House Became Dr. Strange made for a good read.

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Post-apocalyptic adventures and a retconned Hulk

THE ATOMIC KNIGHTS by John Broome and Murphy Anderson was an early 1960s series in DC’s Strange Adventures, set after the devastating WW III of 1986. Anti-radiation treatments have protected humans from fallout, but all plant and animal life is gone. Canned food is the only source; give someone a stockpile of cans and the energy-weapons to protect it and people will crawl at his feet to feed their families.

Enter Gardner Grayle, literally the average man (the exact average of the atomic-age American soldier). When he discovers some ancient armor in a museum is proof against rayguns (a freak bit of metallurgy) he organizes the Atomic Knights, a Round Table type fellowship devoted to rebuilding civilization. Fighting against ignorance, battling petty tyrants and occasional oddness (alien invaders, time-tossed Atlanteans) they set out to remind a world of might-makes-right that might should serve right.

This series was a lot of fun, though a later retcon story in the 1980s felt that was unacceptable: nuclear war will be bad, it shouldn’t be written as a fun adventure. While it is certainly true that post-WW III won’t be gloriously exciting, I still love the series. Though they could have done better by the one female knight, Marene, who serves primarily as Gardner’s love-interest.

THE RAMPAGING HULK by Doug Moench and various artists blew me away when I first read it back in the late 1970s (it was a black and white magazine released to cash in on the Hulk TV show). The story, involving the Hulk and sidekick Rick Jones battling some rather stupid alien invaders, didn’t grab me. What did was that it was a retcon set in the early Silver Age, with the Hulk running into the X-Men, Namor and the Avengers members in the period between his original book getting canceled (something Tom Brevoort discusses here) and his return in the first issue of Avengers.

That kind of retcon has become common since, but at the time I’d never seen anything like it. Sure, Roy Thomas set his Invaders back in WW II, but that continuity meant little to me back then; early Silver Age was my childhood, even if I was more DC than Marvel. Having Hulk interact with the original X-Men or Namor grieving after his people abandoned him was just soooo cool.

However as several older fans pointed out it was also quite discontinuous. When Hulk’s first series wrapped up Hulk was still speaking English (though rougher, more blue-collar English than Bruce Banner). Changing back and forth had nothing to do with his anger; he did it with a ray machine. Moench, however, wrote the Bronze Age Hulk who spoke pidgin and changed when he got angry. Whether it was low sales or the complaints, Moench wrapped up the storyline in #9 and switched to contemporary stories closer to the tone of the TV show. As I didn’t care for that era of the original series, I left it unfinished.

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From stage magic to 1950s monsters, this week’s reading

HIDING THE ELEPHANT: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer (a professional designer of stage illusions) opens with Houdini making an elephant disappear, then comes back to that night near the finish to explain why this spectacular feat was met with a yawn (Houdini wasn’t particularly good at stage magic, and he’d chosen a theater where most of the audience couldn’t see what was happening). In-between, the book looks at Robert-Houdin, the founder of modern stage magic, and subsequent luminaries such as John Nevil Maskelyne, Charles Morritt, Harry Thurston and SE Pelbit (the man who made sawing a woman in half synonymous with stage conjuring). Steinmeyer explains how conjurors really do a lot of their tricks with mirrors, among other secrets, and discusses what makes a good stage performance — is spectacle more important than simple, well executed tricks, for instance? An interesting, if specialized work.

BLACK WIDOW: The Ties That Bind by Kelly Thompson and Elena Casagrande is a frustrating one. The book opens with Natasha ambushed, then picks up months later with “Natalia” working as an architect, in a relationship with her toddler’s father. Winter Soldier and Hawkeye realize something’s wrong, but she’s so happy — do they really want to snap her out of this?

The idea they’d even consider leaving her brainwashed strikes me as awfully creepy; beyond that, several of the developments late in the collection are cliched as hell. Despite which there’s a lot I enjoyed in the book but it’s not as standout as I’d thought it might be. I’m also puzzled how Natasha’s ex, the Red Guardian is alive again (though as he shows up in the Black Widow movie I’m not surprised).

IMMORTAL HULK: Keeper of the Door by Al Ewing and Joe Bennettworked much better than the last time I looked at the series. Several incarnations of Hulk are trapped in what’s either Hell or his own mind. The Leader is taking over. Bruce’s evil dad is back. I have no real idea what’s going on but I still found it entertaining.

I cannot say that for MONSTERS IN THE MACHINE: Science Fiction Film and the Militarization of America After World War II by Steffen Hantke. It opens by stating that nobody under the age of fifty could possibly remember these films (I watched almost all of them after 1980, via cable, videotape or DVD), then gets the publication date wrong for Castle of Otranto (1764, not 1864), then describes Satan’s Satellites as a super-cheap movie made entirely out of stock footage (it’s a movie serial re-edited into a feature — a common practice — so while Hantke’s description is technically accurate I think it’s also inadequate).  Getting past that, Hantke’s thesis that all 1950s SF movies are really about (and mostly propaganda for) the military industrial complex suffers from heavy academese and unconvincing analysis (the alien replacing the husband in I Married a Monster From Outer Space embodies the PTSDed WW II veteran!). Not without a couple of interesting points, such as why SF films didn’t show more nuclear explosions, but not enough of them.

#SFWApro. Cover by Adam Hughes, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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Feathers, Avengers, pandemics and a feral child: this week’s reading.

FEATHERS by Jorge Corona is a fantasy graphic novel in which a noblewoman’s daughter and a bird-boy work together to stop a mysterious Someone who’s kidnapping kids from the rougher areas of the city. I think this is targeted to a younger demographic than me, but I enjoyed it.

So as part of rereading the Silver Age, I’m now up to 1963 (which I’ve discussed in a couple of Atomic Junkshop posts here and here) which is when the Avengers debuted. So on impulse I ordered AVENGERS: The Origin by Joe Casey and Phil Noto, which expands the first issue into a five-issue miniseries (I’ve often joked about how many Silver Age stories would be expanded into a Big Crossover Event if they’d done them today — apparently I wasn’t wrong).

This updated version (Rick Jones’ Teen Brigade are now sound like a proto-antifa) resolves some of the oddities of the original tale, such as a circus stumbling across the Hulk and thinking he’s a giant robot they can use in their show and gives the Wasp more character and capability than Lee and Kirby gave her. It also does a good job on showing these new heroes interacting awkwardly with each other (though Casey did better in his previous two Earth’s Mightiest Heroes retcon minis — and Mark Waid did it better in JLA: Year One). However it never addresses something that leaps out at me reading the original story — the complete absence of Bruce Banner. At the time, Banner used a ray to turn himself into the Hulk. Avengers #1 never explains why the Hulk is just leaping across the desert and even Bruce’s sidekick Rick Jones never mentions Banner (given how much the Hulk’s short-lived first series kept rebooting him, I’m guessing this was another reboot, to see if Hulk worked better without Banner).

I’ll make the minor complaint that while I largely enjoyed Noto’s art, his view of Asgard is way too neon — it’s feels like Vegas.

THE RULES OF CONTAGION: Why Things Spread — and Why They Stop by Adam Kucharski argues the same rules that shape pandemics and analyzing pandemics also affect financial crises (Too Big To Fail banks being the equivalent of superspreaders for the 2008 crisis), how memes and false news spread online and the problems of research (you can’t ethically launch a pandemic to see how it spreads, and some people debate the ethics of spreading rumors). While I’m normally suspicious of this kind of one-size-fits-all explanations, Kucharski knows his stuff (he’s worked in both epidemiology and the finance industry) and he’s clear that one size doesn’t fit all: despite the popular concept of memes miraculously going viral, they don’t usually spread both fast and wide. Interesting.

BEASTS OF EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCE by Ruth Emmie Lang tells the story of Weylyn Grey, a feral child who can also control the weather (though often badly), talk to animals, grow plants instantly and teach himself to read overnight. While this starts off with a nice folktale feel,Weylyn, powers aside, is too bland as a character, not changing much from where he starts out. He’s more the excuse for the story, which is told almost all from other people’s viewpoints than its heart, and in the end that runs out of steam.

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

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