Category Archives: Comics

Girls and Golems: stuff I’ve been reading

Despite the cool cover, THE RED MAGICIAN by Lisa Goldstein only has one scene with a golem, as the eponymous magus attempts to create one only to have a hostile Rabbi/mystic undo his work. That said, this was a good one to reread, told from the POV of a young Jewish girl watching the Red Magician warn her 1930s European village about bad things coming, only to find the local Rabbi, who has magic of his own, stubbornly oppose him. As usual for Goldstein (this was her first novel), the magic is wild, unchaotic and feels very magical; the golem’s creation feels mystical, rather than simply reciting a spell.

SWEEP: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier is set in 19th century England, where protagonist Nan has been enduring life as a chimney sweep working for the brutal Crudd ever since the disappearance of her mentor/father-figure (never named other than “the Sweep”). When she almost dies cleaning out a school chimney, the ball of strange soot the Sweep left with her comes to life as a golem and saves her. Now they have to stay off Crudd’s radar while Nan introduces her new friend Charley to the wonders of life. This is a good juvenile, though stock as a story of an artificial life form; as a golem it’s only marginal (it talks — golems can’t — and there’s no clue how the Sweep created Charlie).

In THE MONOLITH by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Phil Winslade, protagonist Alice is a drug addict trying to avoid falling into the clutches of Princeton, a ruthless pimp who wants her working for him. When she inherits her grandmother’s old home she hides there, but discovers Something walled up in the basement. It turns out that years earlier, grandma helped a local rabbi make a golem to fight the local mobsters only to seal it away when it became too aggressive a vigilante. Now, though, it may be the defender Alice needs … This is the first three issues of a DC series, though the TPB came out from Image (I presume that means it’s creator-owned) — as the remaining issues involved Batman, I doubt we’ll see them reprinted. No great loss: I saw this in single issues and wasn’t impressed. It’s readable, no more than that.

I’ll add one last extra that definitely belongs in my article, the third and final issue of Atlas’ Bronze Age The Scorpion, by Gabriel Levy and Jim Craig. As Tom Brevoort explains, the first two issues, by Howard Chaykin, had presented the Scorpion as an immortal 1930s pulp hero, whom Chaykin turned into Dominic Fortune at Marvel after Atlas tanked. In #3, the Scorpion is a modern-day costumed crimefighter (given the immortal angle I’m guessing he’s the same guy) who goes up against a Fourth Reich with the help of a golem (the rationale for creating the golem is both contrived and kind of interesting).

#SFWApro. Top cover uncredited, bottom one by Jim Craig, all rights to images remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Reading

Wonder Woman: George Perez’ era ends with a War of the Gods!

In 1991, the George Perez era of Wonder Woman came to an end with #62. Though really, everything that’s happened since has built on his foundation; even Greg Rucka’s recent reboot just gets us back to Perez after the mess of the New 52 reboot. It’s a disappointing stretch, building on the murky hints about Circe at the end of year four, and never attaining the excellence of the third year of Perez’ run.

After recapping much of the previous series in #49, we get #50, in which Hippolyta leads a party of Amazon ambassadors into “Patriarch’s World” to begin a goodwill tour. A running thread through the next seven or eight issues is that there have been mysterious deaths and thefts of ancient religious artifacts from museums in the cities the Amazons visit. Hmm, possible connection? Another complication: first Hermes seems to go nuts, then it turns out his Roman counterpart, Mercury, is impersonating him at times, then fighting to replace him. A third: everyone Diana knows is snapping at her, finding fault with her, worrying about the impact she’s had on their lives. It’s puzzling and upsetting for Di, especially when it’s all happening at once, and she’s had alarming, stressful nightmares about her friends.

Turns out there’s a reason. The post-Crisis Dr. Psycho has been mind-gaming everyone, subtly playing on their resentments and Diana’s insecurities to torment and distract her. Unfortunately this version of Psycho is less interesting a reboot than the Roy Thomas take, which was close to Marston’s misogynist original. Perez’ seems to be (as my friend Ross once put it) a sadistic aesthete; at one point, after a woman’s seen through his disguise (Vanessa’s school guidance counselor), he torments her by feeding nightmares into her unborn child and forcing the mom to experience them. He gloats about what a brilliant masterpiece this will be. We never learn anything beyond that about his goals or origins. However this arc does climax with a great scene where Wonder Woman delivers the woman’s baby without either the baby or the mother dying (at that point

Things continue looking worse as the Amazons look more and more like killers. Wonder Woman herself comes under suspicion. Etta’s CO, General Yezdigerd, is up to something. Insp. Indelicato’s partner starts to see a pattern before he’s murdered. And then begins the War of the Gods.

It turns out Circe (who was using Psycho to distract Diana) has been gathering the various stolen artifacts for a mega-ritual which summons most of the pantheons out of wherever they dwell when they stop being worshipped (it’s a little unclear). The Roman pantheon attacks Olympus to claim it from the Greeks. The Egyptian gods rise in Salem, where Dr. Fate hangs out. Thanagarian gods appear in Chicago, where Hawkman and Hawkwoman operate. Other deities manifest elsewhere. The Bani-Migdhall Amazons and the Cheetah are  involved as agents of Circe.

Her endgame? The destruction and rebirth of reality, with the new reality one where her patron, Hecate, will reign supreme. And in the process, Wonder Woman will be destroyed, as prophecy decrees either she dies or Circe does. And sure enough, right before the final issue of the crossover, Circe confronts Diana on the beach where Hippolyta formed her and reverts her back into clay. That might have been it but the demon Etrigan’s old foe Klarion, the Witchboy, mischievously sends Diana’s soul into Hell instead of the Greek afterlife. She returns for the big finish … which wasn’t so big.

I’ve complained that some stretches of Perez’ run get awfully talky, and the climax was very much so. There’s been so much going on, and much that isn’t clear so great honking swaths of War of the Gods #4 are devoted to explaining what exactly was going on, the secret history of Black Adam’s Egyptian pantheon-powers, why Solomon is one of the Shazam powers alongside Greek and Roman deities and more. It’s not much of a climax, and it’s not material we had to have (would anyone have thrown the book away and complained if we didn’t have Solomon explained?).

Perez’ final issue of WW follows. Appropriately the theme is moving on: Steve proposes to Etta, Nessie graduates, Hippolyta tells her daughter that she needs to go off and do her superhero thing and leave the Amazons to work out their own arrangements with the rest of the world and the Myndi Mayer Foundation, which in the DC Universe handles licensing for the Wonder Woman comic, gets a letter from George Perez saying it’s time for him to move on too.

Next up: The very different William Messner-Loebes run. We’ll see if it’s as much fun as I remember it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Jill Thompson, everything else by Perez. All rights remain to current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Wonder Woman

Giant-slayers, copyright, libertarians and more: books read

I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nakamura apparently has some cult status, but it didn’t work for me at all. Protagonist Barbara believes she’s defending her small town from giants, which is stressing her to the point nobody can stand to be around her — but is it true? Or is the giant-killing a metaphor for Something Else? Like Kingdom of the Wicked I figured the answer out almost at once, and wasn’t any more interested in the results than with the previous book.

BLACK HAMMER: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and various artists is an anthology that shows the limits of the Black Hammer mythos: the core story of the series is fine but as pastiches of various heroic templates, characters such as Abe Slam, Golden Gail and Barb Alien aren’t distinctive enough in a conventional adventure. Readable, but no more than that.

THEFT: A History of Music by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins is the product of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, looking at the history of copyright in music the way their earlier Bound by Law looked at fair use. This looks at musical notation, classical composers engaging in sampling (the assumption was that you could borrow but you had to do something new with it). and the impact of tech — does listening to a phonograph record or a player piano constitute a performance? Quite informative about our view of music, originality and copyright law, including such oddities as John Fogerty getting sued for ripping himself off (his former record label unsuccessfully sued on the grounds Old Man Down the Road was too close to Fogerty’s CCR work). If you’re interested you can download Theft for free, legally.

In Edward Eager’s final book, five kids experience SEVEN DAY MAGIC when they discover their newest acquisition from the local library is a magic book that both grants wishes and becomes whatever book its wielder most desires (Eager more or less acknowledges a debt to the similarly mutating magic ring in E. Nesbit’s Magic Castle). This leads them into the early days of Oz, the sequel to Half Magic (now I know why one scene I remembered so clearly wasn’t in the original book) and join their granny in her rip-roaring youth. The ending is unintentionally sad — the kids’ confidence they’ll have another magic adventure (and all previous kids got two) means we’d have had a sequel if Eager hadn’t died a couple of years later.

A LIBERTARIAN WALKS INTO A BEAR: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling recounts how some rag-tag libertarians acted out one of the movement’s fantasies: move to a small state (or in this case a New Hampshire town) in large enough numbers to set policy, then strip away government services and let the free market take over. Countless liberal blog posts have predicted this would work out very badly, and it seems they were right: as town services dwindled away, no dynamic John Galts jumped up with a more efficient free-market solution. Roads deteriorated. Bears, already a problem in New Hampshire, swarmed in. Things got messy. Much as I take a certain schadenfreude in watching libertarian fantasies crash, the author does a good job not simply snarking at them. The cast of residents, libertarian and otherwise, a quirky, individualistic lot and Hongoltz-Hetling conveys a lot of affection for them and sympathy for their problems. He’s also clear about the state’s role — when similar bear problems hit a larger, more influential city, there was a lot more support.

SHADOW — GO MADE is, like The Shadow Strikes, a 1960s Shadow spy thriller by Dennis Lynds, but a stronger one. A series of crimes and other puzzling activities (Green Berets surrendering to the North Vietnamese for no reason) draws the Shadow’s attention. It turns out the SPECTRE-style crime ring CYPHER is using the crime wave as the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation showcasing it’s latest service, access to mind-control tech which they’ll sell to the highest bidder (they considered leasing, but decided the contracts would become too complicated). Not up to the best of Walter Gibson, but entertaining.

#SFWApro. Cover by N.M. Bodecker, all rights to image remain with current holder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, copyright, Reading

Character Assassination: The Scarlet Witch and Monica Rambeau

No, I’m not talking about WandaVision )though that was the inspiration for this post), but about how both Wanda and Monica were derailed and lessened in the comics by bad creative decisions.

By the time John Byrne started writing the Avengers at the end of the 1980s, the Scarlet Witch had 25 years of history. Starting as one of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, joining the Avengers, taking up witchcraft as a way to enhance her natural mutant abilities, falling in love with the Vision, marrying him. She’d also learned she and Quicksilver were Magneto’s children and developed an awkward, tentative relationship with her father (he’d been an abusive leader as head of the Brotherhood). For several years they’d been Avengers only occasionally, living in suburbia and trying to make a go of normal life.

Byrne, for whatever reason, decided to undo most of this. He declared that the Vision was clearly a machine, “a toaster” who couldn’t really feel emotion; Wanda, therefore, must be insane to be in a relationship with him. On a flimsy rationale, he has the government disassemble the Vision (which made no sense — it was established Vizh was an organic, living being of synthetic materials, not composed of parts you can unscrew), rebuild him with his emotions gone. Their kids turn out to be an illusion created by Wanda’s magic. The Scarlet Witch understandably snaps under the strain and goes psycho. The marriage was gone and the idea of Wanda as the crazy lady was canon. Brian Michael Bendis made it worse by having Wanda go even crazier and destroy the team in his Avengers Disassembled arc; later she wiped out all of reality to set up Marvel’s House of M event. Marvel also wiped out her Child of Magneto status to break her ties to the X-Men mythos (back when Disney didn’t have access to the X-Men for the movies).

Since Byrne started the ball rolling, writers have either written the Scarlet Witch as insane or struggled to remake her into a sane character again. I hope by now that may have changed (I haven’t been following comics as closely since moving to Durham) but that’s a lot of wasted years.

Monica Rambeau took it on the chin too. A New Orleans cop who acquired the power to turn herself into any form of electromagnetic energy, Monica became Captain Marvel — Marvel keeps the trademark as long as they have a character with the name, which is why the Golden Age Captain Marvel is now Shazam — and joined the Avengers. Creator Roger Stern had her grow in confidence and capability with an eye to eventually making her the Avengers’ new leader.

Editor Mark Gruenwald, however, overruled him, wanting Captain America, as a more high-profile character, to return to the team and become leader instead (this may have been in hopes of boosting Cap’s own sales). But first, Stern should have Monica become leader, then screw up massively, so everyone would see Cap was the right choice (I assume that was to show race and gender weren’t an issue, though as she’s the first black woman on the team that’s now how it comes across). Stern balked at mangling his character that way; Gruenwald fired him. Captain Marvel did become leader, did screw up massively and faded to a much lower profile for a long while (as well as losing the Captain Marvel title in favor of Spectrum, then eventually Photon). I imagine that will change now, which is good.

#SFWApro. Covers by Rick Leonardi (top) and Tom Palmer, all rights remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Reading

Wednesday, so covers!

The art is uncredited but I think it’s based on an episode of The Addams Family.Next a neat cover by Robert Gibson Jones.This uncredited 1949 cover is a good example of how paperbacks used to sell with sex (it’s not the primary thing I think of when I think of Gladiator)And finally a cover I like by Alex Schomberg#SFWApro. All rights to covers remain with current holder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Reading

The Claws of the Cat, the Tail of the Tigra

Marvel’s TIGRA: The Complete Collection is an awkward book to review as it has so many different series bundled together, going in so many different directions.

It starts with The Claws of the Cat #1, a 1972 attempt at a feminist superhero. Greer Grant was a bright young college student who fell in love with cop Bill Nelson, married him and put her education and any career plans on hold to be Mrs. Bill Nelson; that’s what her husband wanted, after all (this was a familiar scenario for women in those days). When Bill died of a gunshot, Greer had no skills to support herself but eventually wound up working with Dr. Tumulo, a scientist researching on ways to enhance human ability. Despite the interference from her financial backer, Donalbain — he wanted his bimbo mistress to undergo the treatment — Tumulo put Greer through it as well, endowing her with greater speed, strength, intellect and an empathic ability. When it turned out Donalbain had some very bad ideas for the treatment, Greer donned the costume he’d designed for his mistress (she died due to her lack of training) and ended his plans as (drumroll) the Cat!

It was a good story followed by three much less engaging issues with C-lister foes (Commander Kraken and Man-Bull, for instance) and one team-up with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up. That might have been it but Tony Isabella began writing for Marvel a couple of years later and wanted to add more women to the lineup. He hit on the idea of transforming Greer into a literal cat — Tigra the Were-Woman (“were” in “werewolf” actually means man so this name meant “Tigra the Manwoman.” Oopos)! It turns out Dr. Tumulo was part of an ancient race of Cat People. When Greer is fatally injured by Hydra agents hunting the doctor, the Cat People put Greer through a mystic ritual transforming her into one of their own, whom they named Tigra after a legendary warrior of their people (Steve Englehart would later retcon a lot of this. It got confusing).

After defeating Hydra, Tigra had a brief run in Marvel Chillers and popped up in several guest-star bits. The Chillers run by Isabella was good, pitting her against a team of Scavengers called the Rat Pack, Spidey’s old foe Kraven and pairing her up with Marvel’s Native American hero, Red Wolf. The team-ups are variable in quality.

I was puzzled why Marvel included a 2002 Tigra miniseries with all the Bronze Age stuff, but it turns out the four issues go back to the Were-Woman’s roots. She discovers Bill may have been murdered by vigilante cops, members of a secret society that’s into gunning down crooks without inconveniences like a trial. Going undercover as a rookie (at this point she could shift back and forth from her Tigra identity) she tries to root out the truth. If the plot is unclear in spots, it’s overall good, though the assurances the vigilantes are totally not like most cops rings a little hollow in the days of Black Lives Matter.

Overall this volume was nothing I needed to have, but I’m happy that I do have it.

#SFWApro. Covers by Marie Severin (top) and Ed Hannigan, all rights remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics

Graphic novels about golems and more

THE GOLEM’S VOICE by David G. Klein is set in 1943 Prague, as pre-teen Yakob becomes separated from his family as they’re deported to a concentration camp. Wandering into the synagogue of Rabbi Judah ben Loew, Yakob reanimates the Golem and uses him to protect a small band of refugees in the nearby woods. Meanwhile, a German commander seeks to capture the Golem, learn its secrets and exploit its power for the Reich. This is okay, but suffers from having too many deus ex machina moments (ben Loew’s spirit intervening to move the plot along).

THE SCENT OF MAY RAIN (done as a Kickstarter) by Mark O. Stack and Ray Epstein with Kaylee Rowena on art worked a great deal better; it’s also unusual in having a new golem rather than resurrecting the Golem of Prague. In 1920, a Jewish professor brings a female golem to life because his little girl needs a mother. She’s bound to serve and obey, but at the same time she has her own independent spirit, which leads to her becoming the superhero Amazon in WW II (an obvious hat tip to Wonder Woman being born from clay). But what does she truly want for herself? A lesbian golem freedom fighter/mother stands out from the pack, and it’s actually good as well as unusual.

THE TERRIFICS: Meet the Terrifics by Jeff Lemire and various artists was DC’s attempt to riff on the Fantastic Four (I believe this came out when Disney didn’t have film rights to the FF so like the X-Men the comics pushed them aside). Mr. Terrific, Phantom Girl, Metamorpho and Plastic Man are bound together as a team when energy from the Dark Multiverse makes it impossible for them to stay far apart. Can they work together? Can they find a solution? Who is this Tom Strong sending them warnings (I must admit I feel sorry for Alan Moore at seeing yet another of his creations brought into the DCU)? I wasn’t blown away, but I’ll buy V2 eventually.

SUPERMAN’S PAL, JIMMY OLSEN: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber is a frustrating book. The premise is that Jimmy — largely the same goofball as the Silver Age, though with a wealthier family — has become the Daily Planet’s financial lifeline due to the insane online traffic generated by his nutty adventures. Then someone kills him, but why? Is it the wife he acquired during a drunken party in Gorilla City? Luthor? Can he survive long enough to find out?

It’s a great premise and the plot is fun, but the execution suffers. Fraction’s writing is way too cute and this bounces around in time to the point Pulp Fiction looks linear. AQUAMAN: Deadly Waters by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo collects the final run of Aquaman’s Silver Age serie. Aquaman gets trapped in a subatomic universe, meets Deadman, fights off aliens, thwarts a deranged millionaire and battles a reckless superhero in Detroit, all with some wild art by Aparo, who seems to be channeling Ditko in some of the subatomic scenes. I really dislike that Mera gets to do nothing but wring her hands and worry (as I’ve mentioned before, Dick Giordano sidelined her as soon as he became editor) but overall this was a good volume (courtesy of my bro, as a Christmas gift). Steve Skeates subsequently adapted an unused Aquaman script for another comics company and gave the last Aquaman issue a sequel at Marvel to boot.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Rowena, Curt Swan and Nicholas Cardy. All rights remain with current holders.

1 Comment

Filed under Comics, Reading

More “you think YOU’RE having a bad day?” covers

First by Mort Meskin—Then by Bob Brown —And Dick Dillin—And Dillin again —George Roussos—And Gene Colan —#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, cover art, Reading

Books read from various series

PEACE TALKS: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a disappointing return to the series after six years away. Part of the disappointment is that there’s no warning this and the upcoming Battle Ground are one large story in two volumes, which makes the Big Menace showing up midbook and the abrupt, unresolved ending unsatisfying (it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger as much as just chopping the book in two at the middle).

The novel starts out great as everything goes wrong for Harry (except his love life, because he and Murph are finally getting it on). Lovecraftian entities are hunting him. The White Council wants to expel Harry, leaving him vulnerable to anyone with scores to settle. Cops are investigating some of Harry’s past actions. The Fae Mab has ordered Harry, as her Winter Knight, to provide three services to a vampire queen, no matter what she asks. And all this while Harry’s working security for a conference of the supernatural world’s powers, none of whom get along well. And then Harry’s vampire brother Thomas suddenly attacks and almost kills a leader of the svartalfar.

As Thomas has no rational reason to do this, I’d expect the plot to be exposing whoever manipulated/pressured him into the attack. Instead we veer into a caper story like the previous novel Skin Game, with Harry and Thomas’ sister carrying out an elaborate plan to rescue Thomas from magical jail without collapsing the peace conference. I lost interest.

Oh, and the gimmick of Harry having “conjuritis,” where he constantly sneezes up random materializations, feels like something from a Bewitched episode.

By contrast JENNING’S LITTLE HUT by Anthony Buckeridge actually improves on the previous book in the series. Jennings and his friends have taken up building huts on a stretch of school property dominated by a pond and a lot of mud — but it’s conditional on them not getting too messy or into too much trouble. Needless to say, Jennings and Darbishire have problems with those conditions …. Will Mr. Carter notice Jennings walking around all day with a pane of glass? Will Sir Richard Grenville stop the Spanish Armada? Will Atkinson figure out why one Old Boy thinks it’s 1895? I enjoyed this.

ADVENTUREMAN: The End and Everything After by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson (who provided the cover above) is the start of a series, and on paper sounds like something that would work for me: a Doc Savage pastiche (though with a more diverse team of aids) plunged into an adventure straight out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run. Claire Fallon and her son Tommy are fans of the old Adventureman pulp stories, which appear to end with Adventureman and his team defeated. After a woman drops off a mysterious never-before-seen volume about Adventureman (equivalent to Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life), Claire suddenly notices Adventureman’s legendary skyscraper HQ standing where an undistinguished tenement should be. And she seems to be growing bigger and stronger and smarter …

The art on this is great, but the story is lacking. It has all the right pieces for a great yarn, but the magic is just lacking, as if there’s no sincerity to the story (that’s a subjective interpretation, not an assessment of Fraction and Dodson’s state of mind). Still, I’ll check out V2 just to see if it improves.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Doc Savage, Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading

Valentine’s Day approaching, so romance covers!

Kicking off with this Nick Cardy cover and it’s searing, agonizing question.Then Jay Scott Pike showing the dilemma of the woman torn between settling and becoming an old maid (just look what a crone she is!).John Romita catches a moment of romantic confusion.Ric Estrada delivers a very 1960s cover.Here’s a cover with a warning, but will the protagonist listen? Art is uncredited.And a poster for a romantic movie I’m very fond of.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, cover art, Movies