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End of the Season

Yesterday Subrata and I went up to San Francisco to watch the last game of the Giants’ season. It was a belated birthday present for Subrata, as he hadn’t been to a game all year due to getting his infant son oriented to the world.

We were lucky to get tickets, I think, since Cy Young hopeful Tim Lincecum was pitching against the Giants’ nemesis, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lincecum recorded his first 9 out by strikeout, and ended up striking out 13 in 7 innings. Only 24 years old, Lincecum looks like the next great thing after leading the Majors in strikeouts this year, and finishing 3rd in ERA.

The Dodgers had already secured their playoff berth and had basically nothing to play for, so they ran out a few of their starters at the beginning of the game, and then a legion of scrubs as the game wore on. Manny Ramirez never got into the game. There were nonetheless several hard-hit balls to the outfield, both to “Triples Alley” and one ball that Juan Pierre managed to snag up against the left field wall. Of course, Pierre also managed to botch a catch when the ball came at him out of the sun, to the delight of the bleacher creatures.

We were sitting in the bleachers ourselves, which made for pretty nice seats. It turned out that cow-orker K and another cow-orker were sitting 15 rows behind us, but we never saw each other.

We did get to see Omar Vizquel in what was surely his last game as a Giant, and maybe his final game in the Majors. I remember (dimly) when he was traded to the Indians from the Mariners back in 1993, beginning his tenure on the run of great 90s Indians teams. I don’t think he’s truly Hall-of-Fame caliber, but he has had a noteworthy career.

Anyway, it was a good day at the ballpark. We also watched the scoreboards and noted that the Milwaukee Brewers are going to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. New manager Dale Svuem seems to have done a good job of deploying his talent effectively in the last 2 weeks of the season – including starting CC Sabathia 3 times in 8 days – though he got help from another New York Mets collapse. Meanwhile, the Twins and White Sox ended up separated by 1/2 game, which means the ChiSox are playing a make-up game in Chicago against the Tigers, and if they win, then they play the Twins tomorrow to see who wins the AL Central. (If they lose today, then the Twins get the title.)

Subrata and I agreed that the playoffs should be exciting. In the AL, I think the Devil Rays are solid favorites over either the Twins or White Sox, while the Red Sox and Angels should be a pretty good series (though maybe less good since Sox starter Josh Beckett is hurting.) In the NL, the Cubs are a very good team with some big question marks, but probably still likely to beat the Dodgers. The Brewers and Phillies will probably be a messy series with lots of runs scored.

It’s hard to pick a favorite to go to the World Series. The Cubs seem like the best bet in the NL, but almost anyone from the AL could go. In either case I think the AL team is likely to beat the Cubs, since I think the AL teams are just generally stronger.

But, that’s why they play the games.

This Week’s Haul

  • Fables #76, by Bill Willingham & Michael Allred (DC/Vertigo)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #46, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #4, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Hulk #6, by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Death Queen of California one-shot (Marvel)
  • Nova #17, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Echo #6, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Hellboy: The Crooked Man #3 of 3, by Mike Mignola & Richard Corben (Dark Horse)
  • Project Superpowers #6 of 7, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
  • Perhapanauts #4, by Todd Dezago, Craig Rousseau & Jason Armstrong (Image)

A pretty big week, yet I have little to say about most of the books. Sometimes this happens. In many cases the books are just moving their stories forward (interminably so in the case of books like Legion and Hulk). Generally good reading, but neither great enough nor awful enough to prompt a review.

Fables #76 Fables launches into its new era with an issue in which Pinocchio shows Geppetto – the former Emperor who has been granted amnesty – around Fabletown in New York City. Geppetto is outraged at having to live around the little people, while the other inhabitants are outraged that Geppetto has been granted amnesty and allowed to live. Exactly why he was granted amnesty is also explained.

Willingham’s depiction of Geppetto here is, frankly, masterful. Geppetto truly believes that his conquest of the homelands was for the best, trading millions of lives for the welfare of billions, and he holds the fables who opposed him in utter contempt for bringing down his empire, probably throwing it into violent chaos, and refusing to keep their own citizens in line through the use of force. To Geppetto, there’s no hypocrisy in his outlook: The ends justify the means, and the concept of democracy and any freedom other than that allowed by the ruler is useless. Most revealing is his confrontation with Snow White, whom he asks, basically, what he ever did to her to make her oppose him as one of the leaders of the opposition. The fact that he didn’t personally assail her misses the whole point, of course, but he doesn’t see that. He simply has no common ground with which to interact with the other fables. His only ally is Pinocchio, who loves him as his father.

Naturally, the Fabletown leaders are also trying to figure out how they can get more information out of Geppetto, which involves taking down his considerable mystical defenses. How that plays out could be interesting. And we also see progress on other fronts, notably Snow and Bigby’s kids growing up. I always enjoyed the adventures in Fabletown best in this series, and it’d nice to get back to it.

I have mixed feelings about Michael Allred’s art, especially since he draws Pinocchio radically differently from regular artist Mark Buckingham. He does draw a mean Geppetto, and the absence of shading in his figures and backgrounds gives it a distinctive look, but it lacks the dynamism of Buckingham as the figures all look rather stiff.

But the story easily carries the day here. It’s a promising start to the new era.

The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Death Queen of California The second Iron Fist one-shot featuring Orson Randall, and “golden age” Iron Fist, is a standalone story in which he visits California in 1928. It’s a decent enough pulp yarn somewhat inspired by Weird Tales style horror stories. But I don’t really see the point in it, since it doesn’t seem to tie in to the main series at all. Filling in Orson’s back story in this way doesn’t seem like an effective use of pages, especially since the character met his demise early in the ongoing series (in the present day).

I guess it’s just a bold effort to extract more money from me (and I’m shocked! Shocked! I tell you!). And it seems to have worked in this case. But I’ll be more wary next time.

Staycation

A few months ago Debbi and I were thinking of going to Hawaii this month. We never got around to planning the trip, but when we finally decided we weren’t going, I looked at my calendar and though, “Actually, September looks like a pretty good time to take a vacation anyway, even to just stay around home”, and I had the vacation time to do it.

Well, after last week, I was oh-so-glad I’d taken this week off, because I really needed the break.

I’ve kept plenty busy this week, though. For instance, I went up to have lunch with Debbi at her workplace twice this week (they have a very nice cafeteria and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve eaten there). I also cooked dinner twice, making an Indian dish on Wednesday, and sautéed marinated chicken with rice pilaf on Thursday.

Monday I went into the city afterwards and did some shopping, notably stopping at Borderlands Books (although I didn’t get to see their new kitten). I struck out going around to the comic book stores up there, though. In the evening I played Magic over at my friend Chris’ place, and was able to play later than usual since it wasn’t a “school night” for me.

Tuesday I drove down to Campbell and had brunch at Stacks, which was only blemished by the fact that I was sitting at the one table right across from the toasting machine, so it was a little too warm. But I spent the morning walking around downtown Campbell and shopping at Recycle Bookstore West and at Heroes. Heroes is the one comics shop (other than my regular store, Comics Conspiracy) that I make a point of visiting every few months: They’ve resisted the move to becoming a trade paperback store, and still have a large back issue selection which turns over regularly, as well as many other goodies. They’ve been reorganizing over the last couple of years and they now have little nooks which have little surprises waiting for just the right customer to come in and find them. (For example, they had a copy of The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

I’ve spent most of the rest of the week hanging around at home, reading comic books and a novel, revising my Magic decks, and doing a bunch of housework, such as trimming the tree in front of the house and cleaning up the front room a bit. I thought about going to play poker, but could never quite motivate myself to go.

It’s been a warm, sunny week. The painter’s been working on the trim and other details around the complex. I haven’t really missed going bike riding this week due to the heat and keeping myself so busy. I did utterly fail at my plan of trying to do a journal entry a day and get caught up on the partially-written stuff in my drafts folder. Oh well. But I did talk to Mom today; she gave me a call since she just got high-speed internet service and is able to put her new computer to work with it.

But overall it’s been both relaxing and productive, and I’ve managed to get past all the turmoil of last week. Newton’s even been taking his thyroid pills without complaint! (Turns out he loves pill pockets.)

Ahh, if only I had next week off, too.

Closing Yankee Stadium

Last night we watched the last game at Yankee Stadium, the 85-year-old “House that Ruth Built” which has hung more World Series championship flags than any other stadium. Even though a Yankees loss would have clinched a Red Sox playoff appearance – not to mention the Hated Yankees’ first non-playoff season since 1993, it’s hard to begrudge them a 7-3 victory against the hapless Baltimore Orioles (a.k.a., the only team in the AL East which isn’t any good).

Before the game they trotted out plenty of Yankee greats, a few not-so-greats, and a few relatives of greats, including Babe Ruth’s 92-year-old daughter to throw out the first pitch. It reminded me a lot of the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park in which the All-Century Team was presented, and the players, legends, and fans were all having such a great time that it delayed the start of the game (to the consternation of the baseball executives, who wanted to Get On With It). This one was purely Yankee-centric, of course. But it was still interesting to see. After the game, Derek Jeter gave a short speech thanking the fans for their support, and the team took a lap around the park waving to the fans. I’m not overly fond of Jeter – he is, after all, the face of this generation’s Yankees – but I can’t deny that he seems a classy guy.

ESPN did a good job covering the game, which felt more like an All-Star Game with the Yankees appearing to enjoy every minute of it, win or lose, and there were several good interviews with the retired players in the park. Reggie Jackson was as always a provocative figure, stating his opinion that Mariano Rivera is one of the five greatest Yankees. (Let’s see: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle… who else has a clear claim to that fifth spot? Jeter? Whitey Ford? Jackson himself? Maybe Reggie’s on to something here.) Yogi Berra’s always fun to watch, as well.

Even as a Red Sox fan, it’s a little sad to see another historic stadium closing up shop – the Yankees move to their brand new stadium next year. This leaves Fenway Park (opened 1912) and the Cubs’ Wrigley Field (1914) as the last links to the era before expansion. The next oldest is Dodger Stadium (1962), amazingly enough, and only a half-dozen other parks pre-date the 1990s (and the Mets’ Shea Stadium and the Twins’ Metrodome will be history soon enough). While we shouldn’t be a slave to history, a sense of its history has always been one of baseball’s strengths.

Looking forward, the Yankees have some pretty serious problems to deal with over the next few years, even with the biggest payroll in baseball. A lot of things went (unexpectedly) right for them this year, but they’re still going to miss the playoffs (demonstrating once again that Daring Fireball’s John Gruber may be a good technology columnist, but he’s a pretty poor sports analyst), and Jeter, Mike Mussina and Hideki Matsui seem to be firmly into the decline phases of their careers. The first few years at the new Yankee Stadium could be rough ones for the home team.

On the bright side, we all can watch the Red Sox try to defend their World Series title next month!

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #869, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • All-Star Superman #12 of 12, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #17, by Marv Wolfman & Phil Winslade (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #8 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Wes Craig & Dan Davis, and Ron Marz, Andie Tong & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #5, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men #26, by Warren Ellis & Simone Bianchi (Marvel)
  • Castle Waiting #12, by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
  • Star Trek: Assignment Earth #5 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Pantheon: Welcome to the Machine vol 1 TPB, by Bill Willingham, Mike Leeke & Bill Williams (Lone Star)
  • Atomic Robo: Dogs of War #2 of 6, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener & Derrick Fish (Red 5)
All-Star Superman #12 All-Star Superman wraps up its run this week. It’s actually a good example of what I think the “All-Star” premise was intended for: A couple of big-name creators given the time and leeway to produce the best story featuring the character that they could. The book wasn’t monthly, but it shipped regularly, and fans looked forward to it. (By contrast, All-Star Batman seems to have received more bad critical attention than good, and I think it’s still not done, even though it started before Superman. I skipped it, since I see writer Frank Miller as little more than self-parody, these days.)

What did I think about it? Well, I thought it was very good, and occasionally excellent. I think it’s hands-down the best thing Grant Morrison has done over the last two years (though admittedly I think you have to go back to JLA to find his last really solid series). It uses (essentially) the pre-Crisis Superman, a figure of almost godlike power but deep connection and empathy with mankind, and explores the nooks and crannies of his friendships and backdrop, without getting wrapped up in continuity or going overboard with too many characters.

The story’s structure is based around the twelve labors of Hercules (although I don’t think the tasks in each issue correspond even loosely to those of Hercules), with the detail that in the first issue Lex Luthor manages to overwhelm Superman’s cells with a blast of energy from the sun, giving him additional powers but also dooming him to death within one year.

There are several excellent issues in the series, especially issue #5 in which Clark Kent interviews Lex Luthor in prison. (To be fair, this issue has a pretty bad pun near the end, which may be biased me in favor of it.) I also particularly liked #2, with Lois staying at the Fortress and seeing some of its wonders. On the other hand, stretching the Bizarro world story out to two parts (#7-8) felt like pushing it. Issue #9 with the two other survivors of Krypton seemed routine. And issue #10 features a number of running themes of the series, but also feels disjointed and like little more than a lead-in to the two-part conclusion.

This last issue is something of a mixed bag. The final confrontation with Luthor is quite good, but the scenes where Superman returns from the brink of death didn’t really make any sense. Morrison’s hallucinatory sequences tend to be among the least effective moments in his writing. He’s much stronger when he stays grounded in the concrete elements of the story. Consequently, the issue’s denouement has a weak moment – in which Superman goes off to “fix” the sun, with a Morrisonian flourish in which he’s building it a new heart, a concept which sounds good in words but seems ridiculous when illustrated – and a strong moment, when the scientist Leo Quintum answers the question of what the world would do if Superman didn’t come back. (Thus the series ends with one of its strongest visual images.)

I’m always conflicted when I see Frank Quitely’s artwork. In many ways it’s similar to that of Gary Frank: Both artists give a real sense of form and substance to their figures, but both artists tend to be weak on backgrounds, in that the backgrounds are often absent so they feel rather distracting when they’re present in a panel. Their characters also often have the same facial tics, which often works for Frank but which I find a minus for Quitely because his characters’ grimaces often make them look grotesque, even inhuman. Quitely’s female figures have this squashed look to their faces, and their bodies look weirdly deformed – and it’s consistent across the women, so it looks really weird. The best art I’ve seen from Quitely was in JLA: Earth 2; it seems like his style has been getting quirkier ever since then, and not, to my mind, for the better.

Overall, a good series. Not as strong as Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, to which it has some similarities, although to be fair that’s a ludicrously high standard to hold any Superman tale to.

Star Trek: Assignment Earth #5 I had originally thought that John Byrne’s Assignment: Earth series was going to be 12 issues, with a loosely-connected overall story arc similar to that from Byrne & Roger Stern’s Marvel: The Lost Generation. I’m not sure why I thought that, since apparently it was always planned as a 5-issue series.

It ended up being 5 basically standalone stories, each one taking place a year later than the previous one. Unfortunately, all of the stories are fairly routine, the leap in time is never large enough to make much of a difference, and we never learn anything really deep about Gary Seven or Roberta. So it ends up being something of a shrug of a series. I think my favorite bit is actually the “back-up” story in this last issue, featuring Roberta and Isis; the lead story involves a double of Richard Nixon (as you can tell from the cover), and pales by comparison despite its longer length.

Pantheon vol 1: Welcome to the Machine Bill Willingham is probably best known in comics today as the writer of Fables, the DC/Vertigo book about legendary fantastic characters exiled to our world. And it’s a well-deserved reknown, since Fables is an excellent comic that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. Back in the 1990s he was a lot less well-known, though; I mainly knew him from his 1980s series The Elementals, and his short-lived series Coventry. Somehow I stumbled upon issue #4 of Pantheon, a series Willingham was writing for Lone Star Press, and I was impressed enough to order the earlier issues and follow it through to its conclusion (it ran for 13 issues, with a few side stories along the way). Now the first half has been collected in paperback – and in color, as the original series was in B&W – with some extra material. The second volume is planned to come out next year.

Pantheon has a high concept premise: It’s another “last superhero story”, which is the same high concept as Watchmen, and which came into vogue later through (for instance) Marvel’s “The End” series of stories about its characters. In that way, it’s not very original, although that doesn’t really diminish the concept: Not only do readers enjoy reading the end of a story, but reading about the end of an era also has its own special charm (it’s the reason I regard The Lord of the Rings as a great story – the end of an era of wonders pervades every chapter of the book). And while Watchmen is about a particularly quirky world with an unusual assortment of heroes, Pantheon is about (essentially) any DC/Marvel-style superhero universe, with specific characters standing in for the trademarked ones. So we have the Freedom Machine standing in for the Justice League and Avengers, with Dynasty and Blackheart standing in for Superman and Batman, and various clear analogues throughout the rest of the roster.

What makes the series work – and what, frankly, is Willingham’s true strength as a writer – is that all of these characters are their own figures, they’re not merely pale shadows of the more famous ones. Dynasty is a woman, and her powers are somewhat tied to that fact. Blackheart is as obsessed as Batman, but he has his own particular quirks. Willingham takes ideals and creates new and memorable concrete characters out of them. You’d think every writer could do this, but somehow Willingham does it better than almost everyone else. I think this is part of why Fables works, too: Willingham tends to the details, and is able to bring them out to the point that they affect the big picture, too. (I think the evolution of Prince Charming is a good example of this.)

The premise of the story is that the heroes have defeated all of the major villains in the world, having either imprisoned, exiled or killed them. But what do the heroes do once their work is done? They split into two factions, one (led by Dynasty) which believes in staying ready but otherwise staying the course as defenders of humanity, and another (led by the telekinetic Daedalus) who thinks that superheroes should take over the world and guide it into a new golden age. Daedalus is cold and calculating, and believes that anyone not with him is against him (or might be), and takes terrible measures to prevent any aid from coming to his foes. He also releases four of the worst villains the Freedom Machine has imprisoned to keep them busy while he schemes. Most chilling is a flashback – which obviously is important since it spans two issues of the series, but it’s not immediately evident how – in which all the heroes gathered together in the 80s to fight a terrifying teenaged villain named Deathboy. This sets the tone for the series as being brutal in resolving the characters’ fates in high-pressure situations, although it never falls to the level of raw gore; it’s still rooted in the style of traditional superheroes.

For me, Pantheon had a “can’t-look-away” feel to it, with imaginative characters and scenarios which made me what to see how they turned out. Without giving too much away, the story completes its arc as intended, although I found it just a little bit disappointing for not going farther than it did, although with some bits left deliberately dangling at the end and left to the reader’s imagination. While I’d say Pantheon didn’t quite live up to its promise, it’s still a really good story and a must-read if you enjoy this sort of story, or just enjoy superhero stories with an unusual degree of imagination in them.

The art is by Mike Leeke and Bill Williams (Williams being the publisher of Lone Star), with the occasional artist doing a few pages, presumably when Leeke couldn’t keep up. Leeke has an interesting style, reminiscent of Steve Woron’s (although without the “good girl art” content), with a good sense of form, design, and expression, yet with some rough edges: Sometimes a head is too small, or a pose looks a little off. But overall he fits the series very well. And if you’ve wondered why I sometimes carp on artists who give backgrounds the short shrift, Leeke’s a good example of why: He draws detailed and solid backgrounds which provide a strong sense of setting. Even in a sequence in the Grand Canyon he puts plenty of rock formations in the background rather than just drawing shots of people standing on (or flying above) the ground. Although it looks like he did some work for Comico and Valiant (both now defunct companies), I don’t think I’ve seen his work anywhere since Pantheon, which is a shame.

(The covers to the issues of the series were really cool, too. Colorful and eye-catching.)

It’s rare for a small press to produce a mainstream superhero book which stacks up against the big guys – even the larger independent companies often have trouble pulling that off – but Pantheon hits the mark while being different and imaginative. It might not be for everyone, and some people might find it not different enough, but for most people, if you’re a fan of superhero comics, this one is well worth searching out (or even buying from the publisher!).

The Mother of Crappy Weeks

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. I mean, it’s not like I got into a car accident or had a death in the family or anything that bad. But this week has been just one thing after another.

  1. I mentioned on Sunday that one of my credit card numbers had apparently been stolen, so I closed down the account and had them send me a new card with a new account. The card was supposed to arrive on Tuesday, but it didn’t. So that was stressful. It did arrive on Wednesday, though, and I’ve used it, so that’s good. I still have to go update all my recurring bills with the new number though. Argh.
  2. Work this week has been a never-ending series of Stuff. About five different projects that popped up all at once needing immediate attention. Juggling those – and trying to actually get the coding done on them – has been quite an effort.
  3. I took the cats in for their annual check-up, and the vet recommended I switch them off of hairball control cat food, since apparently it contains a mild laxative in it, which might explain some of the bowel issues the cats have been having (for which he’s taking a round of antibiotics to help clean things out, too). Naturally we’d just bought two 20-pound bags of the stuff last weekend. I took one in and exchanged it, and we’ll use the other one to wean them onto the new food gradually.
  4. This morning the vet calls and tells me that both Newton and Jefferson have elevated thyroid levels. Newton’s is quite elevated, and not really unexpected. Jefferson’s is somewhat elevated, and is rather surprising since he’s a low-key kitty. So Newton gets to start on drugs to control his thyroid (a condition which might also explain his bowel issues, and his gradual weight loss over the last couple of years), and Jefferson is getting another test and might also get the drugs.

    Hopefully I can get them pilled without much trouble with the help of pill pockets. Otherwise it’s going to be a real pain in the ass, and/or expensive if I have to switch to a different method of drug delivery.

  5. This morning I noticed that my bike’s rear wheel was out of true. This afternoon I noticed that in fact it has popped a spoke. This is the wheel which was popping 1-2 spokes per year a few years ago, and which had its rim replaced a couple of months ago. This is really not cool. I may have a new bike in my future. And you can bet it won’t be a Bianchi, given how this one’s worked out.

    Sadly the repair shop is booked up for the next week and a half. Makes me wonder if I should locate a shop that can give me faster turn-around times.

  6. The really surreal thing is when I called the bike shop this afternoon: Whoever picked up sounded like they were about 5 years old. Our conversation went something like this:

    Me: Hello?

    Them: Hello.

    Me: Is this <name of store>?

    Them: Yes.

    Me: I’d like to make an appointment to bring my bike in.

    Them: Okay.

    Me: <weirded-out silence>

    Them: <starts babbling into the phone wordlessly>

    I just shook my head and hung up the phone. I decided to go to coffee and try again when I got back. This time I got a real person and made an appointment. I didn’t ask about the earlier call, though. I checked the number at the time and was sure it was the right number, but maybe it was a wrong number. I dunno.

  7. The house painting is still going on. I went out to water my plants – which are down on the patio rather than on the porch where they usually live – and tracked dirt into the house this morning. Gah. I’ll be really glad when the painting is done. I’m certainly done with it. Hopefully only one more week.

Speaking of one more week, on the bright side I have next week off for vacation. Which after this week I really, really need. As always I have plenty of stuff to do, even if my plans to go for some bike rides have been deep-sixed by the popped spoke.

It can’t be much worse than this week. And if it is, then I’ll really be unhappy.

Weekend Projects

A very productive weekend. I:

  1. Replaced the burned-out bulbs in the front post light on one side of our complex’s driveway. This included trimming back bushes so I could get to it.
  2. Bought and installed a new showerhead.
  3. Bought and installed a new double light switch in the master bathroom. For some reason one of the switches only works if the other one is on too, which isn’t how the old one worked, but I can’t figure out exactly what I did wrong, and the way it works now is good enough, since I always turn those two on at the same time anyway.
  4. Figured out which of our complex’s sprinklers is busted and gushing water in the morning, and shut it down until we can get it fixed.
  5. Played some Spore. Did I mention that I bought Spore last week?
  6. Bought cat food. This one is very important – just ask the cats!
  7. Talked to my Mom.

Plus various little chores around the house.

The downside is that I payed bills tonight and noticed a couple of charges on one of my credit cards which were not mine. It sounds like someone got hold of and used the previous number attached to my account (and which is auto-forwarded to the new number). So I asked them to close the account and open a new one. And dispute the bogus charges, of course. Hopefully it will all go smoothly and I’ll be up-and-running again in a couple of days with a new card. But I always get all stressed out whenever something like this happens – I wish I didn’t, but I don’t know how not to. Debbi told me to take deep breaths, since there’s nothing I can do until the new card arrives – I’ve done all I can do. But I’ll be on edge until it does arrive.

At least this time it didn’t happen right before I went away on vacation.

This Week’s Haul

Hey, it’s the 100th edition of This Week’s Haul! I missed a week here and there (usually due to being away on vacation), but I have been keeping this up for nearly two years – yay me!

  • Booster Gold #12, by Chuck Dixon, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Ex Machina #38, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven vol 2 TPB, by Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja, Tonci Zonjic & others (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron First: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death one-shot, by Matt Fraction, Nick Dragotta, Mike Allred, Laura Allred, Russ Heath, Lewis LaRosa, Stefano Gaudiano, Matt Hollingsworth & Mitch Breitwiser (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #15, by Matt Fraction, Khari Evans & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #16, by Matt Fraction, David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #17, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #18, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Invincible #52, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
The Immortal Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven vol 2 TPB Last week I read the first volume of The Immortal Iron Fist, and I enjoyed it enough that this week I picked up the second volume, and all of the issues published after that to get caught up on the series. (Boy, remember the days when you’d discover a new series and spend the next two years trying to buy all the earlier issues to get caught up on what had happened? Now you just buy a couple of trade paperbacks and the last few months’ worth of issues and there you go. Ain’t progress great?)

I had some reservations about the first volume, and I’m happy to say that the second volume, The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven is much better all around. The story has two threads:

  1. It tells the story of Daniel Rand’s father Wendell who years ago went through the same trials as Danny did to become the Iron Fist, a quest which cost him the friendship of his best friend Davos, and also showed him to be tortured by his relationship with the previous Iron Fist, Orson Randall, who may or may not have been Wendell’s father.
  2. In the present day, Danny is summoned to the otherdimensional city of K’un Lun, where he became Iron Fist, to fight in a tournament against the immortal champions of six other cities – including Davos, who is now the champion of another city. While doing so, he also learns that there’s a plot afoot from Earth to reach and destroy the city. In trying to stop this plot while not appearing derelict in his duties in the tournament, Danny learns that his predecessors have left some interesting secrets around the city which have some interesting uses.

There’s a lot of good stuff in here: Danny seems less like a naive rookie (one of the biggest problems I had with the first book) and more like a fairly worldly guy who’s just out of his element and being kept off-balance by a variety of challenges that are just not what he’s used to dealing with. Despite being a martial arts master and having spent his teen years in K’un Lun, Danny has always been more of Earth than of that city, so feeling out-of-place during the tournament makes sense.

The stories of Orson Randall and Wendell Rand are both very well done. Randall is the Iron Fist who managed to escape his destiny, and he’s obviously shaping the series despite the fact that he’s no longer among the living. Wendell Rand’s contribution is of having brought Danny to K’un Lun (before meeting his own untimely end) and of having turned Davos into an enemy. Davos’ father is Lei Kung the Thunderer, the mentor to the Iron Fists. The humanizing of this figure is one of the book’s greatest strengths: He’s a hero in his own right, but his uneasy relationship with his son makes him seem more vulnerable. Davos is maybe the most interesting character in the book, having become much more nuanced than his one-note villainous persona in the early Iron Fist stories of the 70s.

The volume has a nifty showdown between all sides with a lot of good action and satisfying resolutions, as well as setting up some potential storylines for the following issues. Well worth a read.

(By the way, the flashback sequences featuring Orson Randall are based on the style of 30s and 40s pulp adventures. In addition to the contrast in styles, there’s an issue where Danny meets with Orson’s former associates, who are now elderly people, and that sequence is drawn by Howard Chaykin, who produced The Shadow: Blood and Judgment mini-series in the 1980s, which similarly portrayed the former associates of the Shadow encountering him again in the present day. A nice little in-joke.)

Following this story, it looks like Brubaker, Fraction and Aja left the title, and that writer Duane Swierczynski and artist Travel Foreman are the new creators (with Russ Heath illustrating the scenes taking place in the past). After a last story by Fraction, the new story starts like this: On the eve of his 33rd birthday, Danny learns that every previous Iron Fist – save for Orson Randall – died at the age of 33. Issue #18 starts with one of those annoying “flash-forwards” to the future where one of the characters is reminiscing about how Iron Fist died; it’s a gimmick which is going to be cheesy at best, because Fist can’t really die and make a satisfying story, but having him live is going to feel like a cheat. I’d rather the story stayed in the present (and past) to show how Danny cheats his presumptive fate. But other than that it’s off to a rather gripping start, with Fist facing an enemy that’s too much for him and relying on his friends to bail him out. The presence of the other immortal weapons hasn’t been forgotten, so this could shape up to be quite a fight.

The series overall is based around the themes of responsibility and destiny, and about the degree to which the Iron Fists meet both standards. It’s got some flaws, but it’s still enjoyable. The series sales seem to be fairly stable, so hopefully it’ll be around for a while.

Superheroes and Science Fiction

Sometimes in the blogosphere you come across a thoughtful, passionate piece which reads like a manifesto, or at least a clear statement of The Way Things Are in the worldview of the writer – and the worldview is so at odds with your own that you just have to respond.

Other times, you write such a response, and then let it sit in your Drafts folder for several months until you finally think, “Hey, I should finish that off and post it…” As you might guess, this post is one of these.

A while back, Comics Should Be Good linked to a pair of articles written by ‘amypoodle’ at Mindless Ones about superhero comics as “soft” science fiction. It’s interesting stuff, but I knew I was going to have trouble with it from the word go, indeed from the beginning of the first post, “Candyfloss Horizons”:

For those unaware of the distinction between hard and soft sci-fi, the former spends its time postulating imaginary futures that unfold out of pre-existing science/theory, whereas the latter jettisons notions of the possible, concerning itself with the imaginary part of the equation. In its most basic form, it deals with the psychological and sociolological impact of tomorrow – the soft sciences – but at its logical extremes it details societies, internal states and/or technologies beyond comprehension, whose function and form defy simple explanation.

When I first read this article, I wondered if she was just trying to tweak fans of hard science fiction, but I don’t think so. I think she genuinely saw hard SF as limited and bland, wrapped up in explaining the nuts-and-bolts of how its ideas worked, while soft SF was more far-ranging, less restrictive. And this is, well, very far from my own thinking.

Now, defining “science fiction” has always been something of a losing battle – sort of the Godwin’s Law of literary semantics – so defining those sub-terms isn’t likely to get you very far, either, though that rarely stops people from trying: You can go read the Wikipedia entries on hard SF and soft SF. And like any good genre fan, I’m always happy to chip in my two cents.

I think that hard science fiction is where the imagination is, extrapolating from current knowledge and trends or just positing a wild idea and running with that to craft a fully-realized world (or at least a rich-if-narrow slice of one) and exploring the implications of the story’s premise. Certainly there’s plenty of hard SF which is mainly concerned with the scientific implications of the ideas, but on the other hand quite a few writers use the ideas as a springboard for a coherent story, or explore the sociological or psychological implications of the ideas. Hard SF certainly doesn’t stick to existing science and theory, as Vernor Vinge’s works often illustrate; one of the preeminent hard SF writers around, his novels The Peace War and A Fire Upon The Deep rather blatantly introduce concepts created out of whole cloth (‘Bobbles’ and ‘Zones of Thought’, respectively) and build their stories around them, spending time exploring what the ideas mean without worrying much about how they work. Charles Stross’ Glasshouse is another hard SF novel which closely examines the social implications of its premise. Vinge and Stross, among others (Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroder, et. al.), have done a lot to define hard SF over the last decade or two, and I don’t think it fits in the box that Amypoodle describes for it.

By contrast, I mainly think of soft science fiction as referring to stories which contain only the trappings of science fiction, which in which the scientific – or pseudo-scientific – elements are either just part of the background or not treated very seriously, and which don’t really concern themselves with plumbing the depths of the implications of their ideas content. Often they’re re-using tried-and-true SF ideas and routine ways, using them as a setting rather than as a key element in the story. Nearly every science fiction TV show is soft SF, I can’t offhand think of one that isn’t. Certainly both Star Trek and Babylon 5 were. I’d also classify Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series as soft SF, as well as Jack McDevitt’s novels. McDevitt’s books come closer to being hard SF, but for the most part they’re employing well-worn science fictional ideas in the service of his particular stories, rather than breaking new ground or putting the ideas front-and-center.

The core difference, I think, is that hard SF presents the fantastic ideas content as a worthwhile and intellectual challenging component of the story in itself, whereas soft SF does not. But this certainly doesn’t mean that hard SF restricts itself to only dealing with the ideas content, although this is true of some hard SF.

So I think Amypoodle goes off in the wrong direction from the beginning, and this is made even more clear in her follow-up post, which is primarily about Grant Morrison’s comics writing. Its basic idea is summed up near the end:

Soft SF ram-raids and runs with the optimism embedded in the earliest victorian science fiction and brings it slap-bang up to date. It’s hard SF’s 20th century counterpart. Its evolution. Recent hard SF seems so wanky in comparison, what with its fetishistic obsession with the operating manual and what lies beneath the pants of the futuristic societies it slavers over. It also feels terribly stuffy and conservative. Vanilla. ‘Nothing will essentially change’, Star Trek, Stargate and the rest of the drivel explain, ‘but we will have faster aeroplanes that move about in outer-space’. Well, bollocks to that. Do you think anything will be recognizable a million years from now, if we survive that long? I don’t. Least of all ourselves. And as for the stories that inform our new world? Grant and a few others are intuiting them now. They’re showing us what might be – charting the candyfloss horizon.

This paragraph seems completely at odds with the reality of hard SF today. She groups Star Trek and Stargate with hard SF (huh?), accuses recent hard SF of being primarily interested in “the operating manual” (wha?), and her article comes across as unaware of the burgeoning interest in hard SF in the technological singularity which is strongly concerned with the notion that not only is everything going to change in ways we can barely even imagine, but that the big change could be coming sooner than we think.

Using Grant Morrison as an example of how superhero comics are soft SF seems a weird choice, since the style of Morrison’s books has a lot more in common in hard SF than with soft. My perception of Morrison has always been as an ideas man; he has on-the-edge ideas (well, for comic books, anyway) in seemingly endless supply (putting aside the dreary Final Crisis). Where Morrison diverges from hard SF is in the depth of his stories: Unlike someone like Vernor Vinge – another terrific ideasmith – Morrison rarely explores the implications of his ideas in depth; rather, after a cursory examination of an idea (mainly to exploit its “coolness factor”) he moves on to the next idea. Occasionally an idea undergoes successive refinement, usually because a character which embodies that idea sticks around long enough that a further extension of his abilities has time to come to light, but then, this is pretty much how superhero comics have always worked; that’s why the Flash, for instance, ends up with some nifty new talents every few years, as a new writer figures out what else having inhuman speed and reflexes is good for.

To be sure, the lack of depth is partly due to the superhero genre, which has long catered towards style over substance, and takes advantage of the short attention span that most of its audience (hard-core fanboys excepted) seems to have. Morrison has made two significant stabs at dealing with his ideas at greater length and depth, in The Invisibles and Seven Soldiers. The former has flashes of true brilliance, but the good stuff in the middle was bookended by muddled storytelling at either end. The latter was a tasty melange of mostly-preexisting ideas, but its very structure of seven separate characters with their own storylines worked against providing the payoff of real depth that it seemed to desire. (It also fell prey to Morrison’s essential weakness: His characterizations tend to be exceedingly flat.)

So Morrison’s writing isn’t hard science fiction because his ideas are handled relatively superficially. It isn’t soft science fiction because the ideas content is too high.

So what is it?

It’s fantasy.

And that shouldn’t come as a big revelation. After all, superhero comics spring from a fantasy heritage, whether they come from fantastic pulp adventure yarns, or are a sort of mythology for the post-industrial age. Like most fantasy, superhero comics don’t ask you to suspend your disbelief, to imagine that what you’re reading could happen, nor do they treat their ideas as a springboard for crafting a world grounded in the ramifications of those ideas. Rather, superhero comics present immensely powerful beings doing astonishing things, yet not really having a profound impact on the world; it’s still recognizably our world. Even Watchmen, despite Doctor Manhattan’s presence, is still just a few centimeters away from the world we knew when it was published.

Certainly there’s been some cross-pollination from SF over to the superhero genre, but it tends to be transient. Morrison perhaps shows more of its influence than most, but his work is still basically of the genre. Indeed, his best work, his run on JLA, embraces the genre more fully than anything else he’s written.

Superhero comics say, “Yeah, we know this isn’t real, that this could never be real, and we know that you know it too, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less cool.” But heading out to claim that comics are exploring the frontier of the imaginary somehow more seriously, less stuffily, than SF doesn’t match up with the actual books on the shelves. I love comic books – heck, every Wednesday I say “gosh I love comic books” to myself (and sometimes to others) – but forward-looking isn’t a characteristic of the genre. Morrison may inject more ideas content into his stories than most comics writers, but he still does so in a largely superficial manner (his Doom Patrol run was immensely frustrating in this way, with temptingly weird ideas which were thrown around and then discarded without deep consideration).

All of this applies equally well to another of her examples: Jack Kirby. He was a terrific ideasmith and designer of wild and wacky people, creatures and devices, but his creations were never plumbed in depth, and I don’t mean how they worked, but why they mattered. They were just big dumb objects, a term coined for science fiction but which practically defines fantasy, which is full of creatures and things and phenomena which can’t be explained and are rarely explored. They just are. (This is not to belittle Kirby, just to say that his fantastic creations drove his great adventure stories and that I think to see them as going much beyond that is to misunderstand his body of work.)

And from my perspective that’s the problem with Amypoodle’s candyfloss horizon: Like candyfloss itself, the horizon tastes real good, but it’s pure sugar and thus not very nourishing. Cool ideas are far more cool – and a lot more engaging – when they’re examined in depth for their implications and ramifications. Morrison can dazzle us with his bag of tricks when he’s on his game, but for the really chewy stories which really examine how the cool stuff affects our world, you’ll have to avoid being distracted by the candyfloss.

Cliff’s Wedding

Yesterday Debbi and I headed out to the wedding of my friend Cliff, who was marrying a Debby of his own!

I must be getting less high-strung in my old age, since putting on the monkey suit (i.e., my suit) didn’t bother me, despite having to remember how to tie a tie and doing so at the tail end of the area’s latest heat wave. And Debbi looked great in the dress she bought last month for the event. I did learn that it’s time to buy a new suit, though, as this one is showing the initial signs of being a little too old and worn (I think I bought it in 1994 to interview for jobs following grad school, so I can’t really complain).

Cliff is Jewish, so this was a traditional Jewish wedding (well, or so he told us!), which was a new experience for me. About as new as Subrata‘s Hindu wedding a few years back; heathen that I am, all of these religious wedding ceremonies are equally fresh to me, I guess. We showed up at the temple and the guests were divided into two rooms, one for the bride and one for the groom. Cliff was about as happy as I can imagine ever seeing him; he’d been looking for the right someone for a while, and has been positively brimming over with excitement over his wedding day.

This pre-ceremony event apparently traditionally involved the groom expounding on some element of the Torah – and apparently with some heckling from the gathered guests, although I’m not sure how traditional that is. Though I noticed that it was common throughout the events leading up to the ceremony that people would be laughing and joking about everything, and Cliff was certainly among those. After this, Cliff was danced (literally) over to Debby’s pre-ceremony reception (the violinist played what I presume is a traditional tune along the way, but before then he was playing “Mahna Mahna” and the theme from the Muppet Show, to much amusement of all), and we all went over for the ceremony.

Well, not quite: Before the ceremony is the signing of the marriage contract, which is apparently the majority of the legal event (under both California and Jewish law). This was somewhat less interesting for us because there wasn’t a lot going on to see or hear, and because the room was a little too small to see what events there were. But afterwards we went into the temple for the ceremony proper. And this was joyous but in a more serious sense, as ceremony typically is. One thing that struck me was that Debby circled Cliff 7 times when she walked in, and if I recall correctly (not having journalled about it at the time) Subrata circled Susan 7 times in their ceremony (or maybe it was the other way around?). I may have the particulars wrong, but the circling in both ceremonies struck me as interesting. Anyway, Debby seemed to be just was happy and enthusiastic about it all as Cliff was, and it all went quite smoothly.

The wedding reception was a couple of towns over, and we were seated with some of Cliff’s gaming friends. There were actually only two guests I knew beforehand, although there was one woman whom I recognized from the campus at work but whom I don’t know. (I don’t think she worked in Cliff’s group, so I may ask him how he knows her.) Dinner was quite yummy, and we had a good time watching the dancing (no, I didn’t dance), and we congratulated the happy couple of course.

And now they’re off on their honeymoon. I wish them the best – certainly it seems like they got off on the right foot!