Category Archives: Comics

A queen and a winged wonder: books read

THE TRUE QUEEN: A Sorcerer to the Crown Novel by Zen Cho is an excellent follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, surprisingly going in different directions. Amnesiac twins in Malaysia, one magical and one not, discover one of them is being eaten away by a curse; they flee through the spirit world to England to hunt the cause, only for the magical sister to disappear in transit. Her sister Muna arrives at Prunella Wythe’s academy for female wizards (a new and still controversial development) where she has to find a way to bring her sister back while getting caught up in the “magiciennes” conflicts both small (arranged marriage!) and large (war with the queen of Faerie). Everything worked and it had none of the problems that bothered me about the first novel.

THE HAWKMAN COMPANION by Doug Zawisza is one of the worst-edited TwoMorrows books I’ve read (“inspired by the tenants on which America was built,” for instance ) and occasional streaks of pretension, but it’s still an excellent guide to Hawkman’s history and how badly mangled it’s become over the past three decades (repeated reboots and twists warping the Silver Age Earth-One Winged Wonder’s backstory beyond belief). It’s also a good look at the problems of editorial mismanagement: Tony Isabella’s successful Hawkman reboot in the early 1980s tanked after his new editor told him to wrap up the planned multi-year arc in a couple of issues while William Messner-Loebs’ run suffered from editorial trying to rip off Image’s style (by which logic nineteen pages of action and one page of thought was too slow-paced). It’s also curious that while most of the interviewees are fond of the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl (married cops from the planet Thanagar) and the fact they were such a great couple, the Golden Age reincarnated Egyptian prince has been the only Hawkman since the 1990s, and the Hawks haven’t been married since the mid-1980s. I doubt things have improved with whatever version of Hawkman is operating in the New 52. Despite the editing flaws, a thorough job, as I expect from TwoMorrows.

#SFWApro. Cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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“The Amazing Amazon as you’ve seen her before!”

That’s how Trina Robbins and Kurt Busiek described their four-issue mini, The Legend of Wonder Woman which came out immediately following the end of WW’s series in 1986. Despite the “never” on the cover, this was a deliberate call back to the Golden Age Wonder Woman: her villains, the style of art (Robbins, who co-plotted, does a great H.G. Peters). And what Robbins describes as the key to her appeal to girls back then: “a superior female character who had … trips to fantastic lost kingdoms and meetings with beautiful (and often evil) queens and empresses.”

At the same time, it has a lot of the visuals associated with the modern Wonder Woman (i.e., the one who starred in the book from the Silver Age through 1986) such as her chest emblem being a modified WW rather than an American eagle.

As Busiek put it in one of the text pages, the post-Crisis universe erased both the Earth-One and Earth-Two Wonder Women from continuity, so they were free for those four issues to ignore the little details.

The story starts after Diana’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths (following the original proposal to make her a statue; apparently turning her back into clay was a last-minute switch). With the Amazons dispirited, Hippolyta (the blonde Earth-One version) uses the time-scanning magic sphere to recall one of Wonder Woman’s adventures. Atomia, the tyrant of a subatomic universe, appears and attacks Paradise Island and the world with her nuclear based powers and warriors. The Amazons and Steve Trevor are kidnapped and turned into slaves in the process. Caught up in all this is Suzie, a pre-teen girl Wonder Woman wound up babysitting. Suzie is a restless, spoiled child who’s torn between Atomia, who lets her do whatever she wands and then some, and Wonder Woman. Ultimately, of course, she chooses the side of good (it’s nicer!) and helps WW and Steve win.

After telling the tale, Hippolyta discovers not only are the Amazons not inspired, they’re confused: there’s never been a child on Paradise Island. Athena? reveals she’s been holding off the reality-altering effects of the Crisis but now they’re sweeping in. The Amazons are erased, but Athena promises something awesome will rise …

I didn’t care much for the story when I first read it, but I liked it a lot more this time, possibly because I’ve grown fonder of the Golden Age Wonder Woman in the years since first reading. This may explain why I found myself thinking “for a Golden Age tribute, shouldn’t there be more bondage?” Though we did get the cover of #3. The tribute still didn’t match the level of the last few years of the regular comic, but I did enjoy it, and it does catch a lot of the Golden Age feel. Suzie was Busiek’s creation but became Robbins’ surrogate, the girl having the adventures with Princess Diana Robbins would have loved to experience at that age.

Despite DC playing up Jodi Picoult as one of the first women to write Wonder Woman, women have been scripting her since 1945: William Marston’s secretary Joye Murchison, Dani Thomas co-writing with her husband Roy and Mindi Newell write before Wonder Woman ended (I believe there may have been some other uncredited female writers over the years). That’s still a small list but “one of the few” would have been a more accurate phrasing.

Following the finish of Legends of Wonder Woman came the George Perez-helmed reboot. I’ll be back in a few weeks when I review the initial six-issue arc.

#SFWApro. Covers by Trina Robbins, all rights remain with current holder.

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Egypt, France and the Solar System: books read

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djeli Clark shows why libraries are wonderful: at $15 for a paperback novella, I’d never have bought it for myself, and so I’d have missed a first-rate story.

The setting is 20th century Egypt in an alternate history triggered when an Islamic mystic opened a gateway and let magic and the djinn back into the world. While Egypt isn’t the only nation affected, Cairo was ground zero, giving Egypt a head start; the nation threw off Western imperialism and is now one of the world’s great powers.The protagonists are detectives working for the government body dealing with supernatural threats; when one of the city’s elevated tram cars becomes possessed, they have to figure out by what, and how to get rid of it. Which proves, of course, more complicated than expected.

Clark has a great setting with lots of convincing detail (at least to someone who doesn’t know Egypt well) and he tells a good story. As he apparently has other novellas out, I look forward to when they all come out in an anthology down the road (it’ll be a lot more cost-effective to buy this one then).

ELEANOR AND THE EGRET: Taking Flight by John Layman and Sam Kieth is a really oddball France-set graphic novel. Eleanor is an artist, mysteriously blocked in her painting, working with a talking egret to steal paintings by the celebrated Anastasia Rue. Which the egret then feeds on. Det. Belanger is the cop on the case, trying to figure out the who and the why behind the thefts and finding himself quite charmed by this young lady, Eleanor, that he’s met. Rue, however, is not at all delighted … Goofy and charming, I really liked this one (a lot more than Layman’s Chew).

Rereading NORTHWEST SMITH by C.L. Moore was a frustrating experience, and not just because it omits Moore’s crossover between space mercenary Smith and her sword-and-sorcery warrior Jirel (my Jirel of Joiry collection doesn’t have it either). The stories are solidly in that pulp style I love so much, but read collectively, they’re too much alike — almost half of them follow the structure of the first, Shambleau, in having Smith deal with some exotically alien Bad Girl who wants to suck out his soul.  Smith himself is surprisingly ineffective as a protagonist; while Moore reminds us he’s tough, he’s usually helpless in the grip of paranormal forces so someone else, such as his sidekick Yarol, has to save the day. He’s also a lot nastier than I remember — he grumbles a lot about working for slavers in one story, but money’s tight so he goes ahead and does it. The stories still work, but in hindsight I’d have enjoyed them better if I’d slowed down the reading to maybe one story every couple of days, interspersed with other things.

#SFWApro. Cover by Stephen Martiniere, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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From Armistice Day to Bitch Planet, here’s this week’s reading

PEACE AT LAST: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 by Guy Cuthbertson follows the day from the early morning as hostilities wound down (though some people on the front still died) to the 11 AM armistice proclamation through the varied reactions including prayer, joy, grief for the loss, relief at going home, worries about life on the home front, dismay at the thought of becoming a civilian again, and excitement at such trivial things as church bells ringing and cities lighting up at night (both banned during the war to avoid giving Zeppelins targets). The jubilation the War to End All Wars had actually ended produced countless spontaneous parades and celebrations like the one below on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, even as some church and government leaders fretted the day should be more solemn (they got their wish: a few years later, Armistice Day would become a much more brooding event). A little monotonous at times (one celebration, followed by another, followed by another) but more than interesting enough to be worth the reading. And lord, it’s depressing to realize we’ll never see anything like this again — I think our culture’s just accepted perpetual war or imminent war is the way of things.

FRAY: Book Two of the Unraveled Kingdom by Rowenna Miller hooked me with its set-up: it’s an alt.France in the years before the revolution, with protagonist Sophie a petite bourgeois struggling to navigate between her brother’s revolutionary activities and her fiance, a prince trying to push for more gradual reform. Unfortunately this didn’t work for me at all: the 100 pages I finished were competently written but despite the tense situation there’s no sense of tension in the storyline — in fact if I hadn’t read the back of the book, I wouldn’t have any idea what the storyline was. And the magic could easily have been cut without affecting the plot, and that’s always a negative with me. So I gave up on it.

JAILBAIT: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States by Carolyn Cocca looks at the various pressure groups and political debates fighting around the topic in the 20th century and how they played out in legal changes in Georgia, New Jersey and California. While a lot of this is too dry for me, it’s interesting to see what the laws represent to various constituencies, such as a way to police teen sex, to protect adolescent girls from predators, to stop teen pregnancy, to protect young boys from male pedophiles (an easier justification for protecting boys than the possibility of female predators) and the similar mix of objections (girls will seduce men then cry rape; two kids the same age could be busted; if older boys face charges, will their girlfriends even report them?).

Most of the reviews of the current Immortal Hulk series paint it as a horror comic taking Jade-Jaws in new directions, IMMORTAL HULK: Hulk in Hell by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett felt like a throwback to Peter David’s run on the title. We have a dominant, destructive Hulk personality, Bruce’s deranged Dad serving as an agent of Hell, the netherworld rising (that doesn’t make it horror — superheroes deal with that crap on a regular basis) … But David’s run is one of the best Hulk eras, so the comparison doesn’t mean the book is flawed, just that it doesn’t appear to be breaking new ground. I’m okay with that, though the text ruminations on the nature of evil got old fast.

BITCH PLANET: President Bitch by Kelly Sue deConnick and Valentine De Landro has a less focused plotline than V1, Extraordinary Machine, nor does it really follow the plot threads. Instead we have the women prisoners’ schemes to survive entangled with a grieving father and a familiar face turning up in one of the cells, while back on Earth the revolution starts and the patriarchs prove perfectly capable of backstabbing each other. Good, but I think an extra volume in between the two focusing on the prisoners’ plight would have been good.

#SFWApro. Photo is public domain from the Chicago Daily News via Wikimedia Commons.

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Historical fantasy, gaming mysteries and graphic novels: this week’s reading

WHERE OBLIVION LIVES: A Los Nefilim Novel by T. Frohock is set in 1930s Spain and Germany (Franco and Hitler are rising to power in the background) where the Nefilim (half-angels acting as heaven’s agents on Earth) Diego finds himself tormented by a magical violin from one of his past lives. Attempting to stop the attack and prove himself to his brethren (he’s part-demon too, which makes him suspicious), he ventures into Germany, unaware that both an imprisoned fallen angel and a former Nefilim leader have plans for him.

I know T. Frohock from Mysticon, but I sincerely enjoyed it (thank goodness — as I’ve said before, I always worry I’ll read a friend’s book and hate it). It’s very low-key but it works here, has a gay protagonist and a solid story. There were times I wasn’t clear about the mythos (I didn’t realize until late in the book that Diego’s much older than a normal human), but nothing that got me lost (and better light exposition than too much). The details of the early 1930s setting worked well, too.

NEST OF THE MONARCH: A Dark Talents Novel by Kay Kenyon is set in 1936 as psi-spy Kim (a “spill,” meaning people blurt out secrets around her) goes undercover as a diplomat’s wife in Germany, where she learns the Nazis have a Big and Evil Plan involving a White Russian with a special ability they see as the key to taking over Europe bloodlessly. This was well executed with excellent period detail (vastly better than MJ-12, which employed  similar elements), but it didn’t click with me as much as Frohock’s did; possibly it was that it’s more spy thriller than SF, but it may just have been my mood.

While I”m not a cozy mystery fan, I looked at NO SAVING THROW: A Ten Again Mystery by Kristin McFarland because the gaming-store setting seemed more fun than the usual restaurants and yarn stores in the genre. The story of the store’s owner investigating a murder that took place during some LARPing, possibly by a deranged gamer, gets the gaming parts right (and the stereotypes of gamers that the cast have to deal with) but the mystery flopped for me. The owner’s decision to investigate on her own lacked a very good reason, and I really couldn’t see her cop best friend accepting this so casually.

COPPERHEAD by Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski is a competent space western graphic novel about a female sheriff with a troubled record, starting over with her son in the eponymous mining town. She doesn’t like the local android population, her deputy resents not being made sheriff and the local rich guy thinks she’s going to be a problem; meanwhile she has to solve the murder of alien family. First in a series, this feels very much like a pilot episode establishing the series. Competently done, but not terribly compelling (admittedly my lack of interest in Westerns may factor in).

GHOSTBUSTERS: Mass Hysteria by Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening is twenty issues or so of a  Ghostbusters series from IDW, with the Ghostbusters and a junior team (created for the series) battle against the usual array of menaces, plus the looming threat of Gozer’s old adversary Tiamat rising in the background. Captures the spirit of the films very well (I don’t believe it’s drawing on the cartoons at all).

#SFWApro. Cover by Richard L. Aquan and multiple others, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Batman, Black Panther and of course testosterone: Books

I knew the big spoiler for BATMAN: The Wedding (Tom King and multiple artists) was that it didn’t come off, but given King’s best work has been the Selina/Bruce relationship I thought it would still be fun. Nope; we have an idiotic Booster Gold plotline, then we get into the non-funny, non-interesting 21st century Joker crashing the wedding (Greg Hatcher at Atomic Junkshop lays out what’s wrong with that) and finally Selina walking away thanks to some manipulation by Bane. It’s that last part that annoys me — walking away without at least talking to Bruce about it is cheap TV soap crap. Thumbs down.

BATMAN: Night of the Monster Men by Steve Orlando, multiple co-writers and artists was surprisingly enjoyable though I’m not sure it’s actually good.  Hugo Strange creates an army of monsters (this is based on a Golden Age story that already got rebooted once in this century) to destroy Gotham, so Batman has to draw on all his allies, including Batwoman, Nightwing, Spoiler and Gotham Girl to save the day. I think it’s maybe seeing all the Bat-family together and Batman not acting like a complete tool that made me like it, because that’s rare these days.

BLACK PANTHER: Panther’s Quest by Don McGregor and Gene Colan brought McGregor back to T’Challa for the first time since the 1970s Jungle Action run. The plotline tackles the question of T’Challa’s never seen mother, who it turns out vanished in South Africa years earlier. Now T’Challa has a clue to her whereabouts, but unsurprisingly, some powerful people don’t want her found. This results in a real-world look at South Africa before apartheid collapsed, and McGregor does a good job showing an ugly regime without going over the top (a lot of comics in the 1980s treated South Africa like Dr. Doom’s Latveria). However the naturalistic story, in weekly installments is slow-paced, and the heavy narration overwhelms the story in a way it didn’t in Panther’s Rage.

Like her Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s TESTOSTERONE REX: Myths of Science, Sex and Society does an excellent job deconstructing Men Are From Alpha, Women Are From Beta myths about humans, such as the argument that natural selection evolved males to be more promiscuous (the advantage is considerably less than pop-science cliches imply, nor is male polyamory or female fidelity a universal natural norm); that men are natural risk-takers (studies show people of either gender tend to take risks in some parts of life and caution in others) and claims that women are neither competitive or sexually lustful. This also covers some of the same territory as her previous book, showing how much of male or female is perception (gender performance goes up or down depending whether a task is typed as male, female or neutral). Very good, and obviously useful for Undead Sexist Cliches.

THE MASTER OF DREAMS: Book One of the Dreamscape Cycle by Mike Resnick isn’t as bad as I found his The Doctor and the Rough Rider, it’s just dismally bland. Protagonist Eddie Raven gets sucked into dreamscapes resembling Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and more (with enough changes to avoid copyright problems) where his dream girl keeps turning up, but can he defeat the Master of Dreams beside it all? While I like this kind of jumping-int0-fiction story (I’ve done something similar myself), Raven’s extremely passive and never seems to feel any urgency about getting home; the book reads like Resnick thought the settings would be enough to wow us, and they’re not.

#SFWApro. Cover by Bill Reinhold and Veronica Gandini, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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Wonder Woman: Earth-One, Earth-Two and After

Having wrapped up the adventures of Earth-One’s Wonder Woman last week I thought I’d take a blog post to detail the differences between the Wonder Women of DC’s Earth-One and Earth-Two. My apologies if it gets a bit nerdy.

When Wonder Woman debuted in Sensation Comics in 1942, there was no talk of parallel Earths; she was the one, the only Amazing Amazon. That continued to be the status quo even after Barry Allen discovers, in Flash #123, that the Golden Age Flash he’d read about as a kid really existed on a parallel earth. Flash #137, however, established that Earth-Two had a Wonder Woman, a member of the Justice Society separate from the one Barry worked with in the Justice League. She wouldn’t appear in action for another four years and only occasionally after that. Probably she looked redundant, being identical to Earth-One’s WW (Earth-Two’s Superman and Batman didn’t show up until the 1970s).

Where the Earth-One Flash and Green Lantern were separate people from their predecessors from the first, there was no clear sign when Wonder Woman stopped telling Earth-Two stories and switched to Earth-One. Mike’s Amazing World makes a good case it was 1958’s  Wonder Woman #98. Robert Kanigher retells Diana’s origin, but with several different details from the Golden Age version. Athena orders the Amazons to send a champion into Man’s World to fight injustice, rather than fight WW II; instead of Diana worrying her mother won’t let her go, she’s worried Hippolyta will show favoritism and pick her; and Steve only arrives after Diana’s won the contest and is about to leave for the U.S. It’s also the first with Ross Andru and Mike Esposito as the art team rather than WW co-creator H.G. Peters (is that what freed Kanigher up to change direction?).

After that it was Earth-One all the way until Wonder Woman switched to Earth-Two for its WW II retro adventures in the 1970s. Unlike the other Golden Age heroes, we still knew nothing of her life in the present; we knew Batman married Catwoman and Clark Kent married Lois but nothing of WW. That changed after Roy Thomas and Gene Colan took over the book. In #300 they revealed that Earth-Two’s Diana had married Steve Trevor and they had a daughter, Lyta Trevor, who’d inherited Mom’s special gifts, enhanced by Amazon training. We’d see more of Lyta and her mother in Infinity, Inc., a series about the children of the Justice Society; Lyta was a member of Infinity, under the code name Fury.

Thomas’s beloved Earth-Two history vanished, however, when Crisis on Infinite Earths erased both WW from existence. While Dr. Fate, the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern and other Golden Age heroes survived largely unscathed, Earth-Two characters too close to the modern versions did not — not only Wonder Woman but the Golden Age Superman, Batman, Green Arrow and Aquaman not only didn’t exist any more, they never had (this has soured Thomas on ever working with DC again).

That created a problem for Lyta. Thomas’ solution was to use one established Golden Age character, Quality Comics‘ Miss America and a new Golden Age hero, Fury, to fill the gap: Lyta was the first Fury’s daughter and Miss America (who took WW’s place in the JSA) became her adoptive mother after Fury I disappeared. However after Infinity Inc. wrapped up, Lyta got shitty treatment. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman killed her husband Hector off and made Lyta the mother of Daniel, Morpheus’ eventual replacement. After that she never showed up anywhere unless she was pregnant or comatose; Hector, by contrast, got to return and become Dr. Fate for a while.

And that was that.
#SFWApro. Covers by H.G. Peters and Gene Colan, all rights remain with current holders.

 

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Special agents, space travel, Russian warrior women and more: books read.

CHASE by Dan Curtis Johnson and James H. Williams III was a 1998 DC comics series I wish had run longer (though Chase has been bouncing around the DCU ever since). Cameron Chase is an agent for the DEO (yes the inspiration for the one on Supergirl) which covertly watches over the metahuman community. Chase has some issues with the superhero set, but she’s a capable agent who does her job, whether it’s with them or against them; she also has a latent meta-power of her own that allows her to shut down other people’s abilities. The explanation for it was one of the things they never got around to, as well as the mystery about how reformed supervillain Mr. Bones wound up as head of the agency.

This includes the original series plus several short stories from various DC special editions. While I passed it up when it originally came out, I’m happy to have Cameron’s stories in TPB.

John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has a vacationing British couple befriended by a burly Russian money launderer who offers to turn over his treasure-trove of Russian Mafia secrets to the authorities if they’ll just get him and his family to England and his son into Eton (one of the prestige private schools) This works best in the opening chapters because of the unusual structure, alternating between the encounter and the couple undergoing grilling by British intelligence. It gets more stock near the end, and particularly in the finish — given Le Carré’s 21st century cynicism, it’s no surprise pervasive British corruption wins out over justice. Overall, though, good, and maybe his only novel where a happy couple live all the way to the end without getting torn apart.

ALPHA CENTAURI OR DIE! is a space opera from Leigh Brackett, without the exotic style of her Martian books (even the hardboiled Nemesis From Terra): with Earth’s oppressive government restricting space flight to robot ships (part of a general policy on controlling everyone’s movements), a pilot leads a group of rebels into space hoping to evade the ships and reach Alpha Centauri. However, after they succeed, it turns out there’s Something Powerful on the planet awaiting them. This is extremely sexist, the colonists’ wives being sniveling and timid without the energy Brackett’s Bad Girls exude; however it’s a good, tense read otherwise and I love the secret of the alien race.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich is a spectacular collection of anecdotes by women who fought on the Russian front for various reasons (revenge, patriotism, a desire to be near their husbands) and lived through experiences that while certainly familiar (death, friend’s death, near death, scenes of brutality, rape and harassment) comes off fresh, whether because of the female point of view, the grimness of the Russian front or Alexievich having a good eye for a killer quote. The aftermath of the war was a real mixed bag for the interviewees, including those mired in PTSD, those who say they settled down happily, those who were treated as camp followers by their hometowns; a couple who had their husbands carted off by Stalin for getting captured instead of dying. Very good and a fantastic resource if you wants scenes of violence, starvation in sieges or the sounds of combat (like the constant crack of bones when the fighting gets close enough to hear).

#SFWApro. Cover by J.H. Williams III, bottom cover uncredited. All rights to both remain with current holders.

 

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Reading, writing and viewing: It’s no longer a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world

You heard it hear first — okay, you probably already heard it somewhere else. But it’s worth marking the imminent death of Mad Magazine. I was never really a fan of Mad, but it was so omnipresent in my teen years that it still feels like a blow. The article says part of the problem is that Mad-style satire is now common everywhere. Then again, one of my Atomic Junkshop co-bloggers said that should have made it a perfect time for Mad to take the role Cracked did as a kind of online satire and commentary central. But it never happened.

Reading Fran of the Floods got me curious about the many strips I read in my sisters’ Diana and other books. If you’re at all curious, this is a good source. New Statesman gives a historical overview; I’m a little disappointed to learn the girls’ comics market has apparently died out, though as noted at the link there’s a lot of reprinting in trade paperback going on.

Microsoft is shutting the Microsoft Bookstore. And when it does, whatever ebooks you’ve bought will cease to exist.

Isabel Cooper on why originality is over-rated.

The days when Hulu and Netflix could stream almost everything we wanted to watch are going as everyone launches streaming services. As Mighty God King says, if it takes three or more streaming services to watch everything we want, what’s the point of cutting the cord? I haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery because it’s CBS streaming, nor have I caught Doom Patrol (though I will probably subscribe later this summer, just long enough to watch it).

Another article (I don’t have the link) argued that this used to be the dream: instead of having everything bundled together, allow us to pick and choose what we want to watch! Why the fuss? I certainly wanted un-bundling, but I wasn’t looking to pay for CBS, NBC and ABC separately. It was more about having to take Fox News, CNN (a better channel, but I don’t do TV news), ESPN and QVC if I wanted to get Cartoon Channel, Turner Classic and a couple of others I liked. That said, plenty of people saw this development coming, so I’m not that surprised. And it does make me glad Netflix still has DVDs, which won’t be affected.

M.A. Kropp says to write what you want, not what “they” want.

John Wayne was a racist, homophobe and sexist. Should we stop watching his movies?

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The Hand-Wave Opening

The back-cover copy of Fran of the Floods (which I reviewed last weekend) refers to the flooding as caused by global warming. That’s not it, at least, not as we think of it now. In the 1970s story, it’s simply that the sun suddenly started burning hotter, disrupting the weather. And when the sun calms down by the end of the story, the rain stops.

There’s no explanation why the sun gets hotter, but there doesn’t need to be really: as the title of my post implies, it’s just a hand wave to set things in motion (a decade earlier it would have been nuclear testing; a decade later, the greenhouse effect). And I think that’s perfectly fine. The science of how Britain floods is irrelevant to the story of whether Fran can survive long enough to reach her sister.

For a different hand-wave premise, there’s the British strip Wendy the Winner. This comedy strip from the Diana weekly has young Wendy Blake constantly entering contests and winning all kinds of things: a new ultra-modern house that her family hates, a trained seal that has to move in with them … I don’t have kids myself but I’m sure that most parents, after a few incidents like this would tell their daughter Stop Entering Contests. But that would kill the fun (I read this in my sister’s comics, and I recall it being entertaining).

The hand-wave opening is a variation on the old rule that coincidence can launch your story, but it can’t resolve it. Having your protagonist discover at the start of the story that they’re the exact double of the local monarch? Implausible but workable (in Prince of Zenda and Prince and the Pauper to name two examples). Pull that at the climax (“Wait — it’s our prince! Lay down your weapons!”) without establishing it first and the story’s gonna stink.

Roger Ebert put it a different way: grant the movie its premise. Even if it’s improbable or absurd, if it launches us on a cool journey, he thought it was forgivable. I’d agree. We never learn the cause of magic declining in Sisters of the Raven, but the focus of the story is on how society reacts when men lose power and women start to gain it (the same could be said of The Power).

Of course, what constitutes a believable hand-wave depends partly on the reader. There’s a scene in the play Noises Off where one of the actors playing a double role insists there’s no way his character could be the exact double of a Middle Eastern millionaire; when the director bullshits him that the playwright has explained all this (the two characters are half brothers!) the actor’s satisfied. Some people may not grant the premise. Love at first sight is a hand-wave of sorts, but it only works if you can prove the love has something substantial to it.

It also depends on the genre. If, say, you’re writing a near-future technothriller, you’ll probably need a more plausible rationale than “the sun got hot.” You might be able to hand-wave a miracle forensic science technique in an SF story (assuming it’s not about how the technique works) but probably not in a mainstream CSI thriller.

Fantasy is open to hand-wave premises, like finding a talking head in a washing machine. Just so long as the weirdness plays off at the end. That’s why I love writing it.

#SFWApro. Cover by Phil Gascoine, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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