Category Archives: Comics

Robin Hood and the evil rich

“In times of economic downturns, in times of tyranny and oppression, and in times of political upheaval, the hero Robin Hood makes his timely call.” — from a history of Robin Hood discussing why the legend stays strong, even attaching itself to other people. For instance, the article notes, Jesse James was often portrayed as a Robin Hood figure who’d help out the poor — though I’ve read elsewhere that was a conscious Southern effort to hold him up as the enemy of Northern banking interests after the Civil War.

Part of that, perhaps is that the image of the corrupt rich, trampling are rights, is just as eternal as Robin of Sherwood. As the TV series Leverage put it, “The rich and powerful take what they want — we steal it back for you.” The series showed a team of crooks using their skills as modern-day Robins, providig the poor and pushed-around with “leverage” against the oppressor.

Go back 100 years and George Allen England’s The Air Trust isn’t that different. A grasping millionaire, bummed out that he’s gotten his hands on everything possible, thinks of something he doesn’t own yet — air. He establishes a series of oxygen extraction factories that provide pure, bottled oxygen for people who want it to pep them up. Nobody’s going to realize the amount of oxygen he’s extracting will eventually make air unbreathable — at which point we’ll have to pay any price for his oxygenators if we want to survive. It’s a great concept though heavy socialist exposition undercuts it (there’s even socialist poetry!).

Move to the 1940s and Leading Comics #5 (author unknnown, art by Ed Dobrotka) gives us the heartwarming story of “The Miracles Money Can’t Buy.” That is, I thought it would be heartwarming (“With all my money what I really want is love — a miracle money can’t buy.”) but the miracles in this case are things like the world’s largest diamond and the world’s greatest racehorse. The Skull, world’s wealthiest man, can’t buy them simply because the owners won’t sell. His solution is to bust five criminals off death row and send them out to bring in those wonder items. You could update that one easily, just give the Skull a made-up name — hmm, how does Elon Bezos sound?

Jump forward to the Silver Age and we have another timeless rich dude, Gregory Gideon (whom I wrote about recently at Atomic Junkshop). Gideon is a gazillionaire on the brink of total control of the world’s economy. When his three closest competitors beat back his takeover attempt he proposes a wager: set him any task and when he succeeds, they sell out. The trio come back with something they imagine not even Gideon can achieve — destroy the Fantastic Four! Gideon comes closer than you might expect (details at the link) before learning that yes, the best miracles are those money can’t buy, like the love of his son. Schmaltzy, yes, but Lee and Kirby make it work.

The idea of the rich screwing us over has lasting power because it’s so often true. So it’s not surprising we fantasize someone — the FF, the Seven Soldiers, Robin Hood — who can give us that leverage.

#SFWApro. Covers by Mort Meskin (top) and Jack Kirby.

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Titans, pseudo-romans and Rasputin: books read this week

After reading Mary Shelley’s life in Romantic Outlaws I checked Percy Shelley’s PROMETHEUS UNBOUND out of the library. This was a sequel to the partially lost Greek drama Prometheus Bound though Shelley acknowledges he’s taking the theme, involving Prometheus’  freedom and its effect on the tyrant-god Zeus, in a different direction. Unfortunately the poem deals with less with that theme than Romantic paeans to the beauty of nature; while any one page of that was a joy to read, at 100-plus pages it palled on me.

I picked up the Y/A fantasy AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir because I’m fascinated by the Roman Empire and this was supposedly set in an alt.Rome. I don’t find it very Roman other than the names and some ranks (centurion, augur) but it kept me reading nonetheless. One protagonist is Elias, an imperial warrior about to qualify as a Mask (a kind of ninja) only to be dragged into the struggle for imperial succession; the other is Laia, resident of s subjugated land and reluctant ally of the resistance in the hope they can help her free her brother. Need I say that their paths cross?

I could have done without all the sexual tension between Elias and his BFF Helene, but that’s just personal taste. I have a bigger problem with the amount of rape and rape threats; while I can buy Laia, who’s posing as a slave being on the receiving end of that shit (though as this review points out, it’s presented more as She’s So Beautiful than about power and dominance), there’s no reason to have Helene, a fellow Mask, treated that way (especially given women have apparently been Masks for centuries). No, “realism” doesn’t excuse it — underage male slaves would have been fair game in ancient Rome but we don’t see any male/male assault.

And I really hated the names of the various cultures — the Martial Empire, the Scholastic Empire, the Tribals living in the neighboring deserts. Those aren’t names, they’re classifications. But since I kept reading even when I was pressed for time, Tahir must have done something right.

RASPUTIN: The Road to the Winter Palace by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo is a boring retelling of the story of the sinister priest (if you want the facts, I highly recommend Radzinsky’s The Rasputin Files). I really could have done without making him a Child of Abuse, which is very much a cliche for villains these days.

Case in point, it’s also the origin of the Absorbing Man in Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward’s BLACK BOLT: Hard Time. It’s good, and, surprisingly different in tone from Ahmed’s Miles Morales stories. Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus has trapped him in an interplanetary prison and taken his form. Nobody’s coming to rescue him. His powers are gone. The Jailer is a parasite who feeds on suffering, to the point of killing  and resurrecting prisoners for more power. And Crusher Creel, AKA the Absorbing Man, is happy to show Black Bolt why he’s the toughest con on the cell block. Despite my reservation on Creel’s backstory, Ahmed’s writing is good; however the art is a murky mess.

#SFWApro. Portrait of Shelley writing his poem is by Joseph Severn, courtesy of wikimedia.

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Museums, comic books and Andre Norton: books read

I was puzzled why a theater historian would write WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: The Dime Museum in America, but Andrea Stulman Dennett’s book reveals that theater was a very large part of the 19th century dime-museum industry. As she details, early attempts by American museums — mostly collectors showing off their cabinet of curiosities to the public — to charge admission flopped. P.T. Barnum, however, found the magic formula, a mix of science, freak show and humbug, all carefully packaged to be family friendly (which brought in a female audience as it was a safe place women could go together).

Museums turned to adding theater because they could swap a new play in much faster than replacing a midget or a dog-faced boy; over time, they also added waxworks, novelty acts and even short film, making them the launching pad for vaudeville, cinemas and carnival sideshows. While the offspring outlasted the parent, Dennett points out that Ripley’s Believe It Or Not appealed to the same sense of wonder that had audiences flocking to Barnum and others, and ran well into the late 20th century.

AMERICAN COMICS: A History by Jeremy Dauber does a good job discussing how sequential art goes back a long way (do William Hogarth’s prints such as A Rake’s Progress constitute the first comic strip?). Dauber then traces the history from political cartoons through comic strips to the Golden Age of comic books … and after that everything became familiar so I stopped.

That is not the author’s fault but I did find some extremely bad errors. Luke Cage was not Power Man when he started out (see the Billy Graham cover here) and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl was a separate character from the one who appeared a few years earlier (if that’s not what Dauber meant, he wrote it poorly). So I’m even happier that I didn’t bother to go through it all.

GARAN THE ETERNAL is an oddball Andre Norton collection that includes two Witch World shorts; her first published story, “People of the Crater”; and it’s prequel, written years later, “Garin of Yu-Lac.” Comparing the two Garin stories shows how much Norton improved as a writer. The first one is an A. Merritt-style Lost World story but while Norton knows the elements it should include, she can’t make it sing. The second story is bigger and better but the characters are still stick figures.

The short story “One Spell Wizard,” by contrast, is a fun story about a shapeshift matching wits with a mage. It’s odd in that the magic seems like real magic rather than the more psi-oriented powers of the series. Still, it’s fun, and the other yarn, “Legacy of Sorn Fen,” is pretty good.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.


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And this is how they got us to buy comics back in the day

Covers like this one by Dick Dillin. Or this one by Joe Kubert.They screamed that whatever was happening inside would be so much cooler than all the other books on the stands, Buy Me Now! I didn’t buy either of these but the competition was stiff every month. Lots and lots of cool covers, even if the stories inside didn’t match up (consider the synopsis for “Blackhawk’s Reign of Terror“)

The prevailing view now is that we’re going to buy our favorites regardless of the cover. The cover art is correspondingly less engaging. It’s one of the few things where I really do think it was better back in my youth.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Non-canonical takes on Superman, plus cartographers: books read

SMALLVILLE: Chaos and SMALLVILLE: Continuity by Bryan Q. Miller and multiple artists (Cat Staggs does the cover), wraps up the comic-book continuation of the Smallville TV series. At this point we’ve gone from No Flights, No Tights to a full alt.version of the DCU, which is fine by me but did upset some fans of the show.

The plot of both books concerns the Monitors attempting to bring about the Crisis on Infinite Earths, remodeling the entire multiverse including Superman’s Earth. When he and Lois get sucked into the multiverse, the other heroes struggle to hold on while Lex launches his own scheme for coming out on top. A spectacular, fun story that shows this has become something of a composite mythos, importing not only comic-book elements but characters such as Aya from the Green Lantern animated series. More fun than I found the series.

SUPERMAN/BATMAN: Generations by John Byrne starts with the two heroes as outlaws in 1939, then follows them every ten years to show how their world changes, sometimes colorful, sometimes grim, sometimes silly (Byrne’s cover at the right is for the goofy story elements of the 1950s). It’s one of Byrne’s better works, though very dark in spots; the ending with Lana, on the other hand, comes too far out of left field.

I picked up THE CARTOGRAPHERS by Peng Shepherd to see if it overlaps with my map-based fantasy Oh the Places You’ll Go! but I think they’re quite different. Protagonist Nell is an expert in old maps who lost her career after “the Junk Box incident.” Then she gets word her estranged father is dead and comes to believe he was murdered over a map — but it’s a cheap gas station map from the 1930s (the kind everyone used to navigate on trips before Google Maps) so what would the point be?

Nell’s struggle and the big secret are cool. Unfortunately Shepherd spends a huge chunk on the book on Nell’s parents and their friends and what happened when they discovered the secret. They simply weren’t interesting.

I do give Shepherd credit for not making this into a straight conspiracy thriller but the flashbacks ruined the book for me; there are also some serious plot defects I won’t divulge as they come with spoilers.

#SFWApro. Covers by Staggs, Byrne and Helen Crawford White, all rights remain with current holders

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Black women heroes and Greek robots: books read

WOMEN OF BLAXPLOITATION: How the Black American Film Heroine Changed Popular Culture by Yvonne Sims argues that while not great art movies such as Coffy, Cleopatra Jones and the TV series Get Christy Love were ground-breakers in their way, giving black women a role other than stock stereotypes (tragic mulatto, sexy seductress, mammy). Sims discusses the pros and cons of different films and their stars and wonders why Pam Grier and other actors got so much more flak than the studios that made the movies. I liked all that but Sims is on shakier ground when she argues the films paved the way for later tough female leads such as Ripley in the Alien films or Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island. Given they weren’t unprecedented — there’s Emma Peel in The Avengers, Honey West and Linda Stirling in movie serials — I’d need a strong argument Grier and her fellow actors were the game-changers. We don’t get one.

BLACK AF: America’s Sweetheart by Kwanza Osajyevo and Jennifer Johnson is a sequel to Black, set in a world where black people and only blacks possess metahuman abilities, which is why whites have tried so hard to oppress them. The protagonist, Eli, attempts to prove metahumans are trustworthy by becoming a superhero, Good Girl, only to discover her powers are no match for the media: when she saves a black community from a flood, for instane, Fox paints her as a reverse racist who only cares about her own people. Very good.

As I greatly enjoyed Adrienne Mayor’s First Fossil Hunters I was optimistic for her GODS AND ROBOTS: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Her account of Greek legends about automatons (Talos, the legendary bronze giant, wasn’t magic but a machine, albeit one designed with a divine level of craft) and some occasional real creations is fascinating but Mayor insists on blending this with a discussion of contemporary SF which didn’t feel relevant no matter what the parallels. The Greeks debating whether automatons could reproduce is interesting, for instance, but comparing it with the Blade Runner 2045 plotline involving a Replicant baby is not.

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

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Catching up on first graphic novels in various series

The most fun of this post’s reading is VORACIOUS: Diners, Dinosaurs and Dives by Markisan Naso and Jason Muhr. Protagonist Nate had a great career as a Big Apple chef until the death of his sister broke his spirit. Back in his tiny Colorado home town he’s content working as a barista; then the death of a relative he didn’t know he had leads to Nate inheriting a time machine. This, in turn, leads to him going back to the dinosaur age and the discovery dinosaurs are really, really tasty. Suddenly the vision for a new restaurant is born …This is light and a lot of fun.

BEASTS OF BURDEN: Occupied Territory by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer and Benjamin Dewey is a WW II adventure in which the Wise Dog Emrys, accompanied by a very unwise dog, explores an uprising of supernatural Japanese forces. Not bad, but I much prefer the Burden Hill dogs to the Wise Dog adventures in this mythos.

THE UNSOUND by Cullen Bunn and Jack T. Cole is an enjoyably weird horror story, though I’m not sure I want to follow the series further. Ashli is the new nurse at a mental hospital who’s finding i a little weird there — why are the patients allowed to run loose? Shouldn’t someone do something about all the razor blades she keeps finding on the floors? It turns out things are even weirder than they initially appear …

BRITANNIA by Peter Milligan and multiple artists has Rome’s Vestal virgins send centurion/detective Antonius Axa to investigate a series of strange deaths in ancient Britain. It turns out there’s a supernatural force behind it — is the centurion able to stop it or is he in way over his head? This is enjoyable but somehow insubstantial.

SEVEN SECRETS by Tom Taylor and Daniele Di Nicuolo is another that’s readable but didn’t grab me. The protagonist, Caspar, is the son of two members of a cult that protects seven secrets with the power to end the world. As Caspar prepares for the tests that determine his own future with the order, the fellowship comes under attack from an outside force determined to possess the secrets. Readable, but it didn’t convince me the secrets were so important they were worth all this fuss.

MARCH by Rep. John Lewis (yes, the John Lewis), Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell chronicles the life of the civil-rights icon from his childhood dreams of becoming a preacher (“I baptized our chickens.”) to the initial civil-rights lunch counter sit-ins. This one is very good; while I’d say the drama of the material guaranteed it would be compelling, I’ve read lots of stuff in the same vein that wasn’t. So good job!

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

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John Le Carré, the Hulk and Mister Miracle: books read

THE PIGEON TUNNEL: Stories of My Life by John Le Carré  is less the biography I expected and more a collection of writing-related anecdotes — the real people he based various characters on, the perils of getting cocky (he had to rewrite The Honorable Schoolboy after sending it to press when it turned out his Hong Kong geography was out of date), research that involved meeting everyone from Yasser Arafat to a friend of Soviet double-agent Kim Philby, plus the perils of celebrity (various people assuming he’s got the same kind of pull in the Service as James Bond’s M). A great fan of German literature, Le Carré is also disgusted with how many Nazis stayed in government service during the post-war decades (he sees the Baader-Meinhof terrorists as a backlash against the continued Nazi presence). There’s also a discussion of multiple movies that never came to be (Fritz Lang was interested at one point) and a long section on Le Carré’s charming but malevolent con-man father. If not up to his novels, certainly worth reading.

THE WATER BLADE: Book One of the Ridnight Mysteries by Stuart Jaffe has two main protagonists: Axon, the female leader of a frontier adventuring party who dreams of wielding the magic Water Blade against the monstrous Beast, and Zev, a detective Naomi hires to investigate when someone murders one of her team. Zev is the more fun, a rookie with Sherlockian skills but little experience; this was enjoyable though I wish it had been clearer on the tech levels. I have no problem with magic co-existing with new inventions such as cars and rifles but I don’t quite know how they fit — have they just jumped past muskets? What is the tech level in the more advanced east? Still, this was fun.

SHOWCASE PRESENTS WORLD’S FINEST II is an uneven collection. Most of the stories are by Jerry Coleman and blandly forgettable but we also have Bill Finger giving us clever stories such as “The Batman Nobody Remembered” —

— and Edmond Hamilton turns in some emotionally charged ones such as “The Feud Between Batman and Superman,” which I blogged about at Atomic Junkshop. As part of my Silver Age reread over there, I’m glad to have this one. Even without that spur I’d enjoy it, but as with most Silver Age material, YMMV.

The Immortal Hulk arc ends disappointingly with IMMORTAL HULK: Of Hell and Death by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett. Most of the volume is good as Hulk and Betty discuss their feelings, Joe Fixit explains himself and She-Hulk joins in the action, but when we finally get down to The Place Below and confront the Gamma Entity … well, it’s just a lot of windy platitudes that explain nothing (it reminded me of God telling Job that he’s beyond comprehension — but in fiction, that doesn’t fly). It reminds me of GK Chesterton’s comment that a mystic hides nothing yet you’re mystified; a fake hides everything and the Big Reveal always disappointed. I hadn’t expected Ewing would fall into the B camp.

I’m not a fan of Tom King’s work but I’d heard good things about his MISTER MIRACLE miniseries so I gave it a try. The story involves Scott apparently attempting suicide and portrays Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters so far from their established personalities — Orion an arrogant tyrant, Lightray a murderous, backstabbing dictator’s toady — that I couldn’t accept it at all. Then, at the end, it turns out maybe everything is just on Scott’s mind, a twist I utterly hate.

I wasn’t much happier with the Y/A graphic novel Mister Miracle: The Great Escape by Varian Johnson and Daniel Isles. Treating Granny Goodness’s school as the ultimate High School Hell isn’t a bad idea but it comes off too much stock high school tropes (Kanto and Glorious Godfrey won’t let Scott sit at the cool-kids table) and not enough Hell. Scott’s own arc is too much a stock zero-to-hero story for my taste too.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Jim Mooney, Curt Swan and Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holders.


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Marvel Comics in trade paperbacks!

MILES MORALES: Straight Out of Brooklyn by Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron has the “Brooklyn Spider-Man” (“The older guy’s the one from Queens.”) puzzled to be striking up an alliance with Peter’s old enemy the Rhino against a mad scientist kidnapping “worthless” children (i.e., immigrant, homeless, minority) and turning them into metahuman warriors. Then he winds up working with the Vulture’s mixed-race daughter against Tombstone, a less interesting segment. This was pleasant but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m simply too old to care about the teen side (Miles school days and romances are a big part of the plot) which is not the fault of the creators. I don’t particularly like the idea of a Spider-Man family — Spider-Gwen, Miles and Silk, all located in Earth-616’s New York City — but again, that’s a matter of taste, not a flaw.

DAREDEVIL: Know Fear by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto has the Man Without Fear back in Hell’s Kitchen but he’s off his game, too physically battered to fight effectively (I’ve no idea why, but not knowing such things no longer bothers me). In the first issue he screws up and kills a man by hitting him too hard, then grapples with that as things slide (as they do with Hornhead these days) into a downward spiral. This would have been great at two issues but at five it recycles the angst too often.

BLACK WIDOW: SHIELD’s Most Wanted by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee is set before BLACK WIDOW: Ties That Bind (it no longer bothers me reading out of sequence either) as it details her first encounter with the Weeping Lion. A threat to SHIELD’s leadership forces Natasha to break into the Helicarrier, then she’s off on a trek to confront Russia’s heir to the Red Room, the even nastier Black Room. Readable but extremely violent and not as engaging as I usually find Waid’s writing.

Moving back to the Silver Age, I picked up the first HULK MASTERWORKS volume as part of my Silver Age Rereading at Atomic Junkshop. A number of “meh” works turn out to be more enjoyable when I’m rereading them this way (probably because they’re mixed in with all kinds of other books) and this was no exception. While Hulk is not a character I like much and my criticisms of The Essential Hulk still stand, Jack Kirby’s art does give Stan Lee’s early stories (some of them are by Ditko) an intensity and energy that makes up for a lot. Things get less interesting by the end of the book when Lee and Steve Ditko were writing the Hulk’s Tales to Astonish stories.

The Second THOR masterworks collection is much, much better. Written by Lee and Kirby, these 1964 stories are vast improvement on the first volume; Kirby was passionate about the Norse myths and the energy here is palpable, plus “Tales of Asgard” makes a backup. On top of which, the Lee/Kirby team is finding the sense of melodrama that made their tales feel so intense. Thumbs up.

In FANTASTIC FOUR: The Master Plan of Doctor Doom, the duo deliver more of the same. Can Sue Storm choose between Reed and the Sub-Mariner? Can they and the Avengers work together to defeat the Hulk? Plus the origin of Doctor Doom, establishing him as monarch of Latveria. While Silver Age comics aren’t to everyone’s taste, I think they’re firing on all cylinders here. We even see characters change as Ben decides now that he has a girlfriend he’s okay being a freak — only to have Lee and Kirby drop that idea for more angst (see Ben angsting below, though from a much later issue).#SFWApro. Art by Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Only buy alien pets from an authorized dealer!

Because when you just buy them from strangers, they may be … evil!#SFWApro. Art by Dick Dillin, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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