Tag Archives: John Le Carre

Murderers, famine and spies in this week’s reading

Having enjoyed HF Heard’s A Taste for Murder (adapted into the TV episode The Sting of Death) I finally ordered a copy of the second “Mr. Mycroft” book, REPLY PAID. Here, Silchester, the twitty narrator of the first book, has leveled up: he now works in Los Angeles solving ciphers and codes for private individuals; despite being a 1942 novel there’s no suggestion of working for the military or any acknowledgement of the war at all. When he tackles one cryptic message for a client, Mycroft (a pseudonym used by a still-under-copyright Sherlock Holmes, not his brother Mycroft) turns up and warns Silchester the code is a clue to a radioactive deposit that the client is willing to kill for (Heard’s description of chain reactions is amusingly off). The mystery here isn’t half as engaging as the killer bees of the first book, and it became a struggle to finish.

HUNGER by Jackie Morse Kessler is a Y/A about a teenage anorexic forced to assume the role of Famine in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the price for Death averting her suicide attempt. Anorexic Lisa feels this is ridiculous — she loves food! Doesn’t he realize how much discipline it took her to stop eating a single French fry on her date that evening? — but inflicting the horror of famine on the world soon puts her own mental problems in a different light, not to mention giving her a strong wish to break the deal.

Kessler does a good job capturing Lisa’s delusional sense of her bloated self and doesn’t pretend beating her illness will be easy. I’m also pleased that she doesn’t try to get clever or satirical with famine, showing instead that for millions of people food insecurity is a life and death issue. The ending, however, still disappointed me, though I won’t give any spoilers. In case you’re wondering, the Teen Titans cover here is for a story where the Titans also battle the four riders.

Kim Philby, legendary Soviet mole in British intelligence, is one of those people I know of but not about which led me to pick up A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. The book looks at the double agent through the prism of his friends — Philby, a charmer, had many — particularly his BFF Nicholas Elliott, who met Philby in WW II and remained blind to his duplicity for the next two decades (John Le Carré interviewed Elliott in The Pigeon Tunnel, a meeting also printed in the back of Macintyre’s book).

Macintyre shows that MI6 in that era was too much a tight circle of friends, the Right Sort recruited from the Right Schools and therefore quite above suspicion. A good, dramatic tale with some odd six degrees of kinship (Peter Ustinov and the drummer for the Police both had parents who moved through Elliott and Philby’s orbit).

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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.

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Spies, Camelot, needlework and time travel: books read

AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD was John Le Carré’s final novel (he wrote Silverview much earlier), focusing on Nat, an agent handler recently returned to London from years working for MI5 abroad. His wife Prue worked with him but now she’s free to resume her old career as an activist lawyer while Nat settles in as head of a minor London station, relaxing by playing badminton at his local country club. In one plotline, one of Nat’s underlings proposes a sting on a well-connected Russian oligarch; in the other, he befriends Ed, a skilled badminton player eager to take on the local champ.

Surprisingly the two plotlines don’t really knit together except by coincidence, but the book still works. It has a lot of the author’s post-9/11 anger, this time directed at the US for electing Trump and the UK for signing off on Brexit. It also has probably the happiest marriage of any of Le Carré’s protagonists. If not one of his classics, certainly a solid finish to his career.

QUEEN OF NONE by Natania Barron is well executed but not my sort of thing — grim, gritty takes on Camelot don’t work for me, but that’s not her fault. The protagonist, Anna, is a twin sister to Arthur (referenced in passing by Geoffrey of Monmouth), cursed by Merlin to be queen of none, forever forgotten. After years enduring her marriage to King Lot she’s returning as a widow to Camelot where her half-sister Morgan recruits her for schemes against Merlin and Arthur marries her to Lancelot for his own scheming motives. Like I said, not right for me but it’s personal preference not for any flaws in the book.

THREADS OF LIFE: A History of the World Through the Eye of A Needle by Clare Hunter looks at how embroidery, sewing and needlework have, at various points in history, been status symbols, works of art, protests (women ranging from slaves to Japanese POWs using needlework to express their rage at imprisonment), gendered (after embroidery stopped being an upper class status symbol it became Ordinary Women’s Work), deeply traditional and occasionally magical. Unfortunately Hunter recounts this in a plodding style with too many personal reminiscences, plus the book is devoid of illustration (she does throw in a list of online sources at the end). Informative but sub-par.

William O’Farrell’s REPEAT PERFORMANCE is the basis for the 1947 film, so I’ve long been curious to read it. The recently reissued novel has a man running from the cops after murdering his lover (they gender-flipped the lead role for the film), thinking that if he could just get this past year to do over, he could change everything .. and then it happens (unlike the movie it’s not on New Year’s Day and it ends up ambiguous whether it was all in his head). Now he has a chance to avoid his affair, prevent his unstable wife’s suicide, stop his cross-dressing buddy from getting committed … but of course, things don’t work out that easily.

The protagonist is considerably less innocent than in the film though not everything that goes wrong is his fault. It’s quite obvious, for instance, that his wife is taking a long walk on a short pier regardless of what he does (and cheated on him first). Overall satisfactory but the ending disappoints — I think I get what O’Farrell was going for but it doesn’t quite work.

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Juvenile Delinquents and John Le Carré: books read

A CYCLE OF OUTRAGE: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s by James Burkhart Gilbert looks at the conviction American society was under siege by youth running wild (teen sex! teen crime!) and that the cause of it was found in popular culture: movies, comic books and rock-and-roll were corrupting America’s youth (part of the issue for intelligentsia taking this line was that national popular culture erased regional, local culture, and didn’t embrace Social Realism the way they thought it should). Gilbert looks at the various movers and shakers from the FBI to anti-comics activist Fredric Wertham and their various efforts to figure out a solution. However as they were frequently at odds with each other (was government censorship the answer?) nothing really developed.

This is very inside baseball in spots, though Gilbert does a good job showing how the crisis was perceived and whether there really was a crisis (statistics aren’t reliable enough to be sure). A brief discussion of Teenagers From Outer Space makes me think the juvenile-delinquent stereotype is the reason for making the ETs teens (whose ruthlessness comes from Bad Upbringing).

TEENAGE CONFIDENTIAL: An Illustrated History of the American Teen by Michael Barson and Steven Heller focuses more on the pop culture side, showing how teens went from cute and wholesome (Andy Hardy, Archie) to Wild And Dangerous, as captured in multiple films, comics and paperbacks. More entertaining than Cycle of Outrage, and I don’t think less deep. Between them they should give me some useful thoughts about how teens are portrayed in movies such as The Blob.John Le Carré’s SILVERVIEW has a businessman turned bookstore owner strike up friendship with Edward, a local gent who has some good advice on how to boost store traffic — and by the way, could I use your computers to do some relevant online research? Unfortunately it turns out Edward has a mysterious past, connections with MI5 and a current project that’s of great concern to the heads of national security … In the introduction, the late novelist’s son says his father charged him with finishing and publishing any leftover material at the time of Le Carré’s death; to his surprise, this novel was finished and polished so he just had to get it to the publisher. I wonder if the issue might have been that his father wanted to add some material: 200 pages is relatively short these days and Edward’s project could have used some explaining. As is, it’s not great but it is good.

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RIP John Le Carré

David Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré, died last week at the age of 89.

Despite being an immense fan of his, I don’t think this was exceptionally tragic, except in the sense death is usually tragic. He had a long life, a truly amazing career and his last book, Legacy of Spies proved he still had the touch. As I said at the link, writers returning to the scene of their early classics usually tank, but Le Carré came through.

When I started reading (sometimes, but not usually rereading) Cornwell’s work a few years ago, I fully expected that he’d no longer be cutting edge. Sure, he was more cynical than James Bond, but several spy books I’d read in recent decades showed more cynicism than James Bond. They knew that espionage services included careerists who put personal advancement ahead of the mission, incompetents, and officials who treated ordinary people like pawns. But there was always the hero, standing against them, doing the right thing.

When I read Spy Who Came In From the Cold I realized Cornwell’s cynicism was of a different order. It’s his protagonists who treat ordinary people like pawns, make incompetent decisions or prioritize their careers. Smiley and his boss Control at a minimum put an innocent British woman’s life in danger; at worst, they put her in danger fully knowing she won’t survive.  In Looking-Glass War Control manipulates a branch of military intelligence to eliminate them as potential rivals. Cornwell, an ex-spy himself, rips into British intelligence in countless ways, as only someone on the inside can rip into something.

His 21xt century novels aren’t his best work. After 9/11 his anger at the way intelligence services have been let off the leash with no consequence if they bite someone led to some heavy handed endings (even though I’m sympathetic to his views). But we still got some excellent books such as Legacy and A Most Wanted Man.

Cornwell’s writing is first rate and his characterization ditto, though reading so much in a relatively concentrated span of time makes his tropes stand out (this is true of any writer) such as the protagonist with the dysfunctional marriage, the ne’er do well father and the flamboyant, edgy troublemaker (The Naive and Sentimental Lover, my least favorite of his books, has two out of the three). He can still make those tropes work, like the conniving father in A Perfect Spy, or work against them, like the happily married couple in Our Kind of Traitor.

He was a great talent, and it was a pleasure to read him.

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John Le Carré, sex, the south and cats: books read

My general reaction to “famous author returns to world of legendary early work” is to cringe, because the results usually suck. John Le Carré’s A LEGACY OF SPIES was therefore a pleasant surprise, as Peter Guillam — a former aide to George Smiley — learns that The Spy Who Came In From the Cold has a son who’s now suing Peter and the British government for getting his father killed. Investigating the real story plunges Peter back into the Cold War to show how the scheming in Spy was partly to unmask the traitor Smiley and Control suspected in their organization (instead the mole wouldn’t be outed until Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) I could have done with less of the spycraft details (they don’t seem as important as when Cold War espionage was current events) but overall very good; I find it encouraging for my future that Le Carré could turn out something this readable at 86 years old. I have now read all of Le Carré’s novels until he writes another — though I may get around to his autobiography at some point.

THE LONG SEXUAL REVOLUTION: English Women, Sex and Contraception, 1800-1975 by Hera Cook looks at how England went from discomfort and ignorance over sex, women’s pleasure and methods of contraception to the sexual revolution and the acceptance of birth control and optional parenthood. Very informative about how uninformed people were, and how they coped (wives refusing to put out was a common solution — maybe that’s why today’s religious right rejects marital rape), how male privilege was the default setting (it was argued condoms were a bad idea because they made it impossible for the man to act on impulse) and how big a difference effective birth control made — Cook is writing partly to refute previous arguments that the sexual revolution wasn’t all that. Dry and specialized, but informative.

THE LONG SOUTHERN STRATEGY: How Cashing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics by Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields argues that the GOP’s success has effectively spread Southern standards of racism, religion and gender nationwide, though the only point I was interested in was the gender aspect. While this made a couple of interesting points — it reminds me a lot of Mothers of Invention in discussing the restricted role of Southern womanhood — it’s mostly political information I already know, though backed up by a lot more polls and stats.

77 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE GETTING A CAT: The Essential Guide to Preparing Your Family and Home for a Feline Companion by Susan M. Ewing is a competent Getting A Cat book but doesn’t tell me anything my previous reading on this topic didn’t.

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Spies, mysteries and gender: this week’s reading

AN ACT OF VILLAINY: An Amory Ames Mystery by Ashley Weaver, is a decent retro mystery with a 1930s English sleuthing couple (though their marriage is less stable than detecting couples were at the time), poison-pen letters, plenty of suspects for the murder of a talented actress (a jealous understudy? A cheated-on wife?) and everyone gathered together for the big reveal. I enjoyed this, though the reveal the killer is insane comes out of nowhere — that’s the kind of explanation that needs some groundwork. While this didn’t have as much period detail as I was expecting, I give Weaver points for having all the characters act appropriately formal — Amory’s husband still refers to his mother-in-law as “Mrs,” for instance.

A DELICATE TRUTH by John Le Carré starts with a terrorist operation you just know is going to go terribly wrong (it involves an ambitious British politician working with a private Blackwater-type group), then focuses in on the minister’s private secretary, Toby. He knows something nasty has gone down and begins investigating, but that of course proves an extremely dangerous choice … I’m sympathetic to Le Carré’s scathing view of counter-terrorism and the way botched operations and innocent deaths rarely bring down any punishment. But by the same token, it’s hard for me to buy that the big reveal (innocent woman and child killed!) would actually be a career-ender for anyone. And in many ways, this felt more like a stock spy movie script (Toby struggling to get the truth out reminded me of Three Days of the Condor) than Le Carré’s best work.

YOU THROW LIKE A GIRL: The Blind Spot of Masculinity by former NFL star Don McPherson argues that society needs to throw a sharper light on men’s behavior (“We ask why an abused woman stays in a relationship — but never why the man stays.”) and find positive role models rather than just focusing on what not to do. While much of this is familiar to me, McPherson makes some sharp points, such as the difference between chivalrously protecting women and supporting and helping women.

GOOD AND MAD: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister looks at both the power for change that women’s anger can fuel change (it prompted a lot of women to run for office in 2018) and the way society has portrayed female rage as something they should be ashamed of, particularly when it’s directed at men.

Traister, who’s done a lot of reporting on sexual harassment (and has some eye-raising Harvey Weinstein accounts) does her sharpest writing on that topic. She points out, as others have done, that the issue isn’t sex but the damage to women’s professional lives (half of the women who experience harassment start looking for a new job within two years). And that contrary to anti-metoo writers, the issue is not weak women terrified of sex (as Katie Roiphe pretends) but “women in 2017 who had briefly believed they were equal to their male peers but had just been reminded they were not. [They were] women who had suddenly had their comparative powerlessness, their essential inequality, revealed to them.”

And that, she adds, is why even groping and leering comments that don’t rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein-class predation still deserve to be punished: they’re “professional harm and power abuse” and that needs to end.

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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).

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John le Carré and Jack Cole: authors read

After the mess of Mission Song, John le Carré returns to form with A MOST WANTED MAN. Issa, the title character, is a Chechen refugee and alleged terrorist who shows up in Germany with a vague hope of starting his life over. Because his corrupt Russian father has ties to British-born German banker Tommy Brue (Tommy’s father handled the guy’s money laundering), Issa’s refugee-rights lawyer Annabelle believes she can talk Tommy into helping Issa. All three of them become the subjects of British and German intelligence efforts, with an eye to using Issa as bait in a scheme to turn a prominent terrorist funder.

Part of what makes it work is that instead of the stock thriller plot that took over Absolute Friends, everything that’s going down seems perfectly plausible: people get deported or their lives ruined simply because they try to help out someone they couldn’t have known is a terrorist, or suspected as a terrorist. Is Issa guitly? It seems unlikely at first but the concluding scenes make it seem possible … maybe. That’s still enough to bring others to disaster. The book is well written and while it does use some stock le Carré tropes (Brue’s ne’er do well father, his failed marriage), they don’t bog the book down. The only real problem is the ending, which feels very ex machina (technically it’s set up earlier, but it still feels forced).

THE PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES, Vol. 3, continues Jack Cole’s delightful Golden Age run on the stretchable superhero with the same mix of horror and comedy stories found in Vol. 2, all marked by Cole’s loonie visual style. The Gay Nineties Nightmare may be my favorite in this volume: hunting a wanted fugitive, Plas and Woozy discover he’s fled to a town that cut off contact with the rest of the United States after it was left out in the 1900 census. As a result, it’s still frozen in the 1890s (“Gay Nineties” nostalgia had a surge of popularity in the 1940s). Other stories involve body-swappers, bad girls, cities gone mad and other goofiness. A pleasure to reread this one.

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International intrigue, overpopulation and spelunking: books read

John LeCarré’s MISSION SONG is the most disappointing novel of his since The Naive and Sentimental Lover. The protagonist, Bruno Salvo, is a Congolese/Irish mixed-race translator with a flair for African languages. A client in British intelligence hires Salvo to attend a conference at which a visionary Congolese leader will build an alliance with Western power players to unite his war-torn country and restore Freedom and Democracy … eventually. When Salvo realizes the conference does not have his people’s interest at heart (which I’m pretty sure anyone who’s read it figured out as fast as I did) he tries to do something about it but runs headlong into the corrupt British forces involved. Just as the last third of Absolute Friends recycled war on terror cliches, this book feels like a Cold War thriller of 60 years ago (just switch out the corrupt business interests for Commies). Even LeCarré’s writing couldn’t hold me on this one.

Robert Bloch’s THIS CROWDED EARTH is set in a dystopian late 20th century world where curing disease and age has led to massive overpopulation: skyscrapers are hundreds of stories high, elevators can take an hour to deliver you (to say nothing of how crowded they are) and having one room to live in is luxurious. The protagonist finally snaps and gets sent to a mental hospital — but with space at such a premium, why does it have private rooms and spacious grounds? Why do the nurses keep jumping his bones? It turns out he’s part of the big and secret plan to save the world, but there are a few bumps along the way …  This comes off less as the dystopian fiction I expected and more a metacommentary on dystopian SF, showing the usual solutions won’t work (we can’t colonize the Solar System to drain off the crowds), the Resistance is half-assed and incompetent and all the predictions about dystopia from the 1950s (this was a late-1950s novel) turned out wrong. Given Bloch’s usual cynicism, I’m surprised he actually offered a happy ending; overall this was more interesting than good, and it’s very sausage fest-ish (two hot nurses and one mom in one scene are all the female presence we get).

In the Silver Age, spelunking adventurer Cave Carson headed an adventure team on the lines of the Sea Devils or the Time Masters but he never got his own series. Nevertheless, he has popped up several times since that era, and finally landed a starring slot with Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming’s CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Underground. His glory days over, Cave now works on underground drilling vehicles for the powerful EBX tech and struggles to rein in his rebellious daughter Chloe (Mom, a subterranean princess, has passed away). When it turns out EBX is up to no good, Cave, Chloe and the obscure superhero Wild Dog (yes, the prototype for the guy in Arrow) must work together to save the lost race of Muldoog and stop EBX from unleashing a demonic monster. Hardly up to the level of Way’s Umbrella Academy, but fun as a weird pulpish underground adventure (certainly better than Paul Chadwick’s The World Below).

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