Signs of the Season

People are putting Christmas lights up on their houses, Christmas tree farms are in business, and heck, we even went out and bought an artificial Christmas tree yesterday. It must be the holiday season.

You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find an artificial Christmas tree that doesn’t have its own lights built-in, and that doesn’t have little artificial pine cones, or berries, or snow-tipped branches. I.e., things the cats could chew off and eat. As for the lights, we don’t need them because we already have plenty of our own. But we found one after hitting several stores, at Lowe’s, which actually had the best selection of anywhere we went. We decided to get an artificial tree because the price of real trees has been going through the roof the last few years. I don’t mind paying $20 or even $30 for a tree, but $40 and up is getting ridiculous for something we’re only going to have up for 3 or 4 weeks. So we’ll give this a try.

The holiday season of course starts with Thanksgiving. (Well, it does unless you’re a retailer who’s had Christmas decorations up since before Halloween, but if you did, then there’s something wrong with you.) We had a low-key Thanksgiving in which we cooked a turkey and all the sides. Debbi actually did most of the cooking, for which I was thankful. 🙂 But she was very pleased that she managed to time everything to come out at nearly the same time. I took a walk down to the supermarket in the middle of it all to pick up a few things we’d forgotten, and it was a gorgeous day.

Unfortunately, another sign of the season is the sight of stores closing due to the poor economy. The chain Mervyn’s (which competes in the clothing and housewares markets with Sears and Kohl’s) is going out of business after several years of struggling. The nearby Circuit City is closing, too, as part of the electronics retailer’s efforts to stay afloat. (This particular site used to be a Good Guys! store; I wonder what’ll follow it?) So we went around to see if there was anything we wanted to pick up. And we got a bunch of other shopping in, too.

We’re also looking for some stuff for home improvement projects. Well, one project isn’t ‘improvement’ so much as ‘replacement’, since the light on the upstairs porch went AWOL when we got our complex painted. I liked the old light – it gave off a lot of light, which is nice for sitting up there during warm summer evenings – and would like to get a similar one.

But we’d also like to replace the light fixtures downstairs. All three of them use halogen bulbs, which are low-profile, but the three bulbs total something like 700 watts (or more), so I’d like to get lights that we can use compact fluorescent bulbs in, which will cut our energy use by hundreds of watts. Which would be good because we sometimes manage to overload the circuit and trip the breaker downstairs. I’m hoping that replacing light fixtures will be pretty easy, but first we have to find some we like. The typical home improvement stores tend to stock only “traditional” style fixtures, and I want something more modern, so we’ll probably have to hit the lighting stores to find what we want.

So that’s been our weekend. Well, that and Debbi went to the Harvest Festival on Friday with her friends. Today we’re just going to stay home and watch football, I think.

Which ain’t a bad idea because another sign of the season is that it’s starting to get chilly outside.

This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: The Kingdom #1, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Fernando Pasarin, Mick Gray, Jack Purcell & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #48, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #6, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #7, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Hulk #8, by Jeph Loeb, Arthur Adams & Frank Cho (Marvel)
  • Nova #19, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The End League #6, by Rick Remender & Eric Canete (Dark Horse)
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 of 6, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: The Kingdom #1 Make no mistake, this week’s JSA special, The Kingdom has no more relationship to Kingdom Come or its sequel The Kingdom than does anything else going on in JSA lately. Indeed, it’s really just an extra-large issue of JSA, with a nicer-than-usual Alex Ross cover. (I do wish he’d do more covers which actually illustrate what happens in the story, though.) Fernando Pasarin, the regular jSA artist, even illustrates it.

The story is basically yet-more reaction by the JSAers to the efforts of Gog’s seven-day plan to bring paradise to Earth. The best part is Stargirl’s efforts to drill some sense into Damage, for which she recruits Atom Smasher to help out (Damage is the son of the golden age Atom, while Atom Smasher – nee Nuklon – is his godson). It goes badly, of course. Meanwhile, Sand starts to worry that Gog’s goals aren’t so altruistic, leading to the cliffhanger ending of the issue.

Thy Kingdom Come – the ongoing story in JSA dealing with the arrival of the Kingdom Come Superman on Earth-DC and his attempts to forestall the tragedy that befell his world – has spun out in a wide variety of story threads, but none of them have been fully satisfying. I’m not sure the resolution of the Gog story is going to make or break it, but it’s got to have a better resolution than the rather limp conclusion to the Power Girl/Earth-2 story or it’s going to be a big disappointment.

Anyway, far from being “special”, if you’re not reading JSA then this isn’t likely to have any meaning for you.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 The Umbrella Academy starts its second series by catching up with the survivors of the first series, who mostly haven’t fared too well in the interim. The first issue ends with a big “uh-oh” cliffhanger following a wacky action scene. Like the first issue of the first series, it all seems perfectly promising. But the first series meandered all over the place and ended up not going much of anywhere, just weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I’m hoping the second series is better, by which I mean, more coherent and meaningful. I do like Gabriel Bá’s artwork quite a bit, still evoking that of Mike Mignola but with its own stylings.

This Week’s Haul

Running almost a week late, as happens from time to time.

  • The Brave and the Bold #19, by David Hine, Doug Braithwaite & Bill Reinhold (DC)
  • Ex Machina #39, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fables: War and Pieces vol 11 TPB, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha & Niko Henrichon (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: Magog #1, by Peter Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Mick Gray, and Geoff Johns & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #9 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Carlos Magno & Andi Tong, and Ron Marz, Julio Ferreira & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Terra #2 of 4, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #6 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Iron Man vol 107 HC, collecting Iron Man vol 1 #2-13, by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska & Johnny Craig (Marvel)
  • Castle Waiting #13, by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
  • Invincible #55, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • Atomic Robo: Dogs of War #4 of 5, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Joshua Ross & Jonathan Ross (Red 5)
Terra #2 Don MacPherson covers the uncomfortable opening pages of Terra in which the heroine – having been lying naked on a table while Dr. Mid-Nite examined her after she was brought in unconscious following a battle – gets dressed while arguing with him and Power Girl about her privacy being invaded. It’s a little weird that the previous thing I read by Conner – the Power Girl story in JSA Classified a few years back – also featured a sequence in which the heroine was getting dressed. It’s not clear to me why Terra was nude in the first place – it’s not like her costume covers her up very much – so it just seems gratuitous. Not that I don’t appreciate Conner’s drawings – she does draw very attractive women – but still, it feels gratuitous. (There’s another scene toward the end of the issue in which the presumptive villain is having a talk with his girlfriend while she’s showering, and it’s almost as awkward.)

Okay, that aside, Terra is taking an unusual storytelling tack: The heroine is fighting one threat after another (here we have the Silver Banshee, a random Sumerian monster, and a horde of zombies) but none of them seem related to one another. Rather, they’re a foil to explore Terra’s personality and – presumably – eventually get to her background and her seemingly self-imposed mission. It appears that she’s a clone of the original Terra, inhabited by a spirit (or something) which is using her earth-manipulation powers for good. I’m interested to see how this plays out, but overall the art is outstripping the story so far.

Marvel Masterworks vol 103: Iron Man The fifth volume of Marvel’s Iron Man Masterworks shipped this week, and I think that’ll be it for me. Iron Man wasn’t really among Marvel’s A-list material until David Michelinie and Bob Layton took over the book in the mid-70s: It started off illustrated by Steve Ditko, followed by Don Heck, Gene Colan, and in this volume George Tuska. Colan’s run is something of a revelation, perhaps the best work I’ve ever seen by him, but Ditko seemed to be phoning it in, neither Heck nor Tuska have been among my favorites. And the stories were never that exciting, either. This volume is written by Archie Goodwin (Stan Lee wrote most of the earlier tales), who was a very good writer, but it looks like it’s another series of undistinguished adventure yarns. So I think I’ve run out of gas on this one.

At this point I’m still buying the Avengers and Spider-Man Masterworks, and I’d buy another Nick Fury one if they print it (which they really should, to get the Steranko stuff in hardcover). But I’m just about out of gas on all the others I’m buying, and a couple have basically collected all the issues I want. But after over 100 volumes, I think Marvel has just about mined their silver age catalogue for the stuff worth collecting.

Atomic Robo: Dogs of War #4 It took a little while, but with this latest issue I think Atomic Robo is really coming together. And it’s mostly because of the interplay between rivals/reluctant allies Robo and the British agent The Sparrow, which not only makes the chase and fight scenes more fun, but the humor works much better with two characters invested in the action. She’s basically the first real supporting character in the series, and the series is much the better for it.

This issue just about wraps up Robo’s mission to destroy the Nazi armored battle suits in 1943, with some collateral carnage along the way. I guess next issue with be a denouement. The short back-up stories are also entertaining, although very lightweight. This series has been an improvement on the first series so far, but I’m hoping it will get weightier in future series.

Q&A: How Did You Get Into Software?

(Ganked from Nadyne.)

I think I was first exposed to computers by a neighbor of mine when I was about 8 or 9 (so, 1977 or 78) who had somehow piqued my interest with some stories of his programming mainframes. He loaned me a book he had on programming in FORTRAN, which I thumbed through but didn’t really understand. I’m not sure it was a very good book, to be honest, although at that point I had no idea what distinguished a good book on programming from a bad book. (It’s not clear to me that most people who write programming books know this either.)

Also around this time I got into video games courtesy of the Atari 2600, which was the most popular (at least in my neck of the woods) game console of its day. There was even a “programming in BASIC” cartridge for the system which I bought with images of programming my own games, but it was a waste of time since its capabilities were, uh, extremely limited. But also around this time a friend of mine, Ben, got a TRS-80 Model I, which actually did have a full BASIC programming language. I borrowed his books on BASIC programming and wrote out – in long-hand on lined paper! – lengthy programs which represented little games. I’d go over to his house and type them in and see if they worked, debug them, etc. It was all totally ad-hoc, but those days I spent lots of time writing and drawing random stuff on paper, so it was right up my alley.

My parents bought me my very own TRS-80 Model III, which must have been when I was 11 or 12 given that it was released in 1980. So I was able to create all my own little games, and I’d also create little animation programs with the rather primitive graphics system. It had a tape drive and 4K of RAM, and I wrote a text adventure game which filled up the whole of memory, and I had to cut corners to get it to fit in. Later it got upgraded to 48K of RAM with a floppy drive. This was the day of computer magazines which printed whole programs in source code, and I subscribed to one: Softside. I especially enjoyed the text adventure games, in which they encoded all of the text strings using a simple algorithm so you wouldn’t have the game spoiled for you while you typed it in. On the other hand, you ended up with some interesting typos in the strings when you ran the program.

(I sometimes wonder if typing in all this stuff from paper helped make me such a fast typist, especially since I’m a two-fingered typist.)

In late 1981 my friend Rob – who at this point qualifies as my oldest friend with whom I’m still in contact – moved in across the street. They had an Apple II+, and we spent many hours on that thing playing Ultima II and watching MTV. This was a big step forward since it had better graphics and color, which my TRS-80 didn’t have. A couple of years later my Mom bought an Apple IIe, which pretty much put my TRS-80 into mothballs.

My next step in actual programming came through playing play by mail games, which inspired me to construct my own turn-based computer games, which my friends would play. I wrote an elaborate system in BASIC to track everyone’s moves and the state of the game, and emit board state to the screen from each player’s perspective (one of the things I thought was neat about these games was that you could only see a limited amount of the board, quite different from real-time board games). Unfortunately I had no idea how to write printer code, so I had to copy all the boards onto paper to hand them out. Did I mention that I had a lot of free time back in the day? (Did I mention that my grades weren’t so great early in high school?)

By senior year of high school I was seriously interested in computer programming, and I signed up for two programming courses at once, a full-time class in Pascal, and a part-time class in BASIC (the instructor insisted I take the latter class in order to take the former). These were my first exposure to structured programming principles. I also worked part-time in the computer lab and had to restructure a program they were using in the office. This was my first experience working with someone else’s code, and it was more than I could handle at the time – it was very slow going. I just shake my head when I reminisce about it, since these days I wade into thousands of lines of code I’ve never seen before on a semi-regular basis.

The other thing to mention here is that Rob’s mother bought one of the very first Macintosh computers, which must have been right in 1984. It had MacPaint and MacWrite, plus of course an ImageWriter. The screen size, graphics, and color were a bit of a letdown compared to the Apple II, but the interface and software made up for that. I still have a paper print-out of a drawing I did in MacPaint on that very machine. I don’t really remember Rob and I using that machine for much more than novelty fiddling around – the Apple II was still the game system – but in senior year – by which time Rob had gone off to college – my new friend Matt also had a Mac, and we spent many, many hours after school at his house playing Dungeon of Doom on it.

In 1987 I headed off to college at Tulane, and although I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, I did want to keep up with programming. Tulane was a little draconian about its computer science courses: I wasn’t able to test out of classes with material I’d already taken, so I spent my freshman year being re-taught stuff I’d learned the year before. Sophomore year, though, we moved on to C more advanced information about how computers work. By the end of the year I’d decided to declare my major in CS, since the competing majors (English and art) were things I thought I could work on on my own without formal collegiate training. (Naturally, I’ve done fairly little creative writing or drawing ever since. Oh well!)

So that’s when I committed to a career in software When I finished college I felt somewhat deficient in my programming skills – in particular, use of pointers in C still baffled me from time to time – so I went off to graduate school at Wisconsin. Although I didn’t get a Ph.D. there, I did have the opportunity to work with an outstanding programmer on a research project and I learned a tremendous amount from studying his code and talking with him about how he designed software.

I was never a Macintosh programmer in the classic days. Whenever I tried to learn Mac programming I was either daunted by the high price of the developer tools (“Hmm, developer tools or four months of comic books…?”) or I would read about what was involved (the APIs and the lack of protected memory) and it just didn’t seem worth it, especially once I had experienced doing programming on UNIX systems. So my first experience with graphics programming was with X Windows. On the bright side, once Apple moved to a UNIX OS with the advent of Mac OS X, that made it an ideal system for my programming background.

When I look back on it, I often feel like I backed into being a programmer. I wasn’t a hacker or prolific programmer like many of my peers at the time, and sometimes I’d wonder if I wasn’t a fraud because programming didn’t consume my hobby time like it did so many other peoples’. But I’ve always tended to spread my time and attention across a variety of hobbies and interests – as even a casual reading of my journal should prove. Despite this I’ve ended up as a solid software engineer (well, I think so, anyway) in my career. Programming isn’t the be-all and end-all of my life, but I still enjoy building things and seeing them work, and all things considered I don’t regret the choices I made to end up where I am.

MVP Notes

We’re in the thick of baseball awards season, and it’s made for some interesting reading.

In the National League, Albert Pujols won the MVP in both the Internet Baseball Awards (by a very wide margin) and the official voting (by a narrower margin). This seems only natural since Pujols was far-and-away the best hitter in baseball – and it wasn’t particularly close. While you could argue that Hanley Ramirez or Chase Utley might be more valuable because of their position, they had to make up a good amount of ground compared to Pujols’ advantage with the bat, and while Pujols does play the easiest defensive position on the diamond, he’s a plus defender there, too. He came up as a third baseman, and has also played both outfield corners; he’s only at first base due to his bum elbow which his team naturally wants to protect as much as possible.

Despite this, folks like Thomas Boswell thinks Ryan Howard should have been the league’s MVP. I like Boswell’s writing, his book The Heart of the Order is among my favorites, but his whole argument is just ridiculously wrong. That he’s bringing up RBI and the position the player’s team finished as anything other than a tiebreaker is just plain silly, and, well Joe Posnanski writes a nifty refutation of Boswell’s position which says all that and more.

I think people still underestimate just how valuable it is for a hitter to not make an out. Pujols is the complete package as a hitter in a way that no other active player is. He’s really that good, and it’s amazing that people seriously question whether he should have been the MVP.

Over in the American League, I was mildly surprised when Red Sock Dustin Pedroia won the IBA, and even more so when he won the real deal.

This was a tougher award to pick. Pedroia was third in the AL in VORP, behind Alex Rodriguez and Grady Sizemore. Pedroia logged significantly more plate appearances than most of his competition (only Sizemore logged more, and Josh Hamilton was a little behind). And most of the competition also played difficult defensive positions (Pedroia plays second base). There were also some good pitchers in the mix, as either Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay would have been a credible MVP.

I think you could build a reasonable argument for any number of these players being the MVP. I think the reason Pedroia won the actual award is that he plays for a high-profile playoff team, and he put up what was probably his career year. Voters like those sorts of things.

Rob Neyer picks Twins catcher Joe Mauer as his guy, and I think he’s a credible choice, too, although I don’t think he’s clearly better than Pedroia. Mauer did get overlooked by voters in each pool, although I think he was swimming uphill given the tendencies of the voters. I think Neyer’s right that he just never had the buzz, and with so many credible candidates he needed something to make him stand out in their minds. Additionally, I think there’s a perception that Mauer’s been a little disappointing since he hasn’t developed big-time power. Of course, he’s only 25, so he still has time.

(Boswell suggests that Francisco Rodriguez and his newly-minted saves record should have been the MVP, which is just absurd, as K-Rod wasn’t even the best reliever in his league, or particularly close to being so, and his record was due to the peculiar circumstances of his being on a good team in a poor division. His comparison to Dennis Eckersley‘s 1992 season doesn’t hold water either, since Eck was considerably more dominant than K-Rod was. Even then there were many better candidates among both the hitters and the pitchers.)

I think the awards are partly to honor players who reached the pinnacle of their profession in a given year, and partly to give us fans something to argue about. There’s plenty of red meat to chew on for the AL award, but I’m sure Pedroia and his fans are just happy to have made it this far. (Two years ago a lot of people wondered if he’d ever hit enough to be a solid Major League regular.)

But on the NL side I think we should just sit back and appreciate Albert Pujols as the greatest active hitter (and he’d be the greatest hitter of his era if he hadn’t spent the first few years of his career competing with one of the two greatest hitters of any era). At this point it looks like the only thing that can stop him is his own elbow.

Did I Mention The Lovely Weather This Past Weekend?

Well it was amazing: Highs in the 80s in the valley, so Sunday morning we drove over to Half Moon Bay for breakfast and to walk around along the coast. We were delayed getting there due to an accident on Route 92 (a sedan smashed up with a minivan – both cars looked totaled, but I didn’t see any injured people), but we got there about half an hour later than expected.

After breakfast at the Main Street Grill we went to Poplar Beach and walked along the bluffs to the south of the parking lot. Here are a couple of pics from our walk:

Debbi by a wind-blown cypress tree in Half Moon Bay
(click for larger image)

Half Moon Bay beaches & coastline

It was cooler and breezy by the ocean, but still just about a perfect day. I think 4 out of every 5 people we saw were out walking their dogs. Can’t blame them, as this might be our last nice summer day for the year – summer days in November! Now I remember why I live here!

In the evening we cooked chicken-fried steak with homemade fries and frozen green beans for dinner. Mmmm…

What a Day!

It’s the middle of November and it’s pushing 80 degrees outside here in the Bay Area. Sunny, a little hazy, just about perfect. I’m wearing shorts and sandals today. Couldn’t ask for much better.

This is something of a change from Wednesday night when we were out playing frisbee and in the space of 20 minutes, the field we were on went from this:

The fog rolling in

…to this:

The fog has arrived

Not to mention what the other fields looked like:

The other fields in the fog

Thank goodness those Bad Old Days are behind us.

Until, you know, next week or something.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #14, by Rick Remender, Pat Olliffe & Jerry Ordway (DC)
  • Fables #78, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1, by Alex Ross (DC)
  • Fire & Brimstone #3 of 5, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
Fables #78 Wow, after a couple issues of adjustment, Fables is hitting the ground running in its post-Adversary storyline. A couple of treasure-hunters in the homelands free what looks like a Really Bad Man aims to cause big trouble for our heroes. Geppetto is still holier-than-thou, and he maybe has some justification. And something really bad happens to a good guy, while something really good happens to a bad girl (and that ain’t good for the good guys). Things could get out of hand quickly for our heroes, and I think that’s the point: They’re heading into uncharted waters against opponents they don’t know much about, one of whom they don’t even know exists.

Willingham’s usual modus operandi as a writer involves characters making careful plans and then navigating the difficulties in executing them. It looks like he’s preparing for a sequence of sheer carnage and mayhem, and I’m very interested in seeing how it plays out. And, frankly, a little nervous, because I foresee things going very, very badly for some of our heroes – and that this makes me nervous is a sign of good writing.

Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1 Alex Ross flies solo on this Justice Society tie-in, focusing on the Superman from Kingdom Come. The issue is mainly an exploration of Superman’s feelings and regrets in the wake of the death of his wife and friends on his own world, and it’s quite well-done. Arguably it doesn’t really provide a lot more information than we received in Kingdom Come, but it does provide some depth and nuance, and humanizes the Man of Steel from the parallel world some. The most touching moments are when he tells this world’s Lois Lane what happened on his world, and how it changed him.

The important detail regarding the ongoing JSA story is the revelation that Superman was sent to this Earth when the bomb was dropped on the warring superheroes. This occurs near the end of Kingdom Come, but it’s still before the end. That suggests that Superman’s presence here is part of his redemption at the end of that story, and it also explains his anger in JSA since he hasn’t gone through the crucial experiences in the final pages of that story.

Well, either that, or Ross and Geoff Johns are just messin’ with us. (That would suck.)

The book has an afterword in which Ross describes his process of illustrating the book, which is not painted like his usual work. It’s fairly interesting, although somehow seeing how extensively he uses photographic models takes some of the magic out of his otherwise wonderful artwork.

I’ve given Ross a rough time in my reviews of many of his recent projects, but this one is solid. I wish all his work was this good. Heck, I wish JSA was this good, as character bits like this have been almost entirely absent from that series (a problem I’ve had with it ever since the previous volume was launched back in 1999).

B.P.R.D.: The Warning #5 The latest B.P.R.D. mini-series comes to an end, and although some of the pieces have moved around (there’s a new villain – who might be a hero, but his methods are questionable; Liz Sherman has disappeared; monsters are allying with each other and have decimated Munich), I’m still wondering where it’s all going. It’s been years and it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

I know, I’m sung this song before, and anyone who’s been reading me long enough is probably wondering why I keep reading the series. I wonder that myself; every time I decide to give up I figure if I just read one more mini-series, then the answers and resolutions will start coming. Sometimes I read one more series and it’s just good enough to make me curious what happens next. But ultimately I keep being disappointed: I honestly can’t tell whether the plot has really progressed over the last couple of years.

Maybe it is time for me to quit.

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard

One stormy night in 1816, shortly before his wedding, physician Michael Crawford places his wedding ring on a statue, and so becomes ties to one of the nephelim, a race of inhuman vampires who predate humanity on Earth. The morning after his wedding, he wakes to find his bride Julia horrifically torn to bits in their locked room, and he’s forced to flee the life he knew to escape the hangman’s noose. With the aid of poet John Keats, he heads across the English Channel to France where he encounters Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, and becomes deeply embroiled in a fight to fight off the creature which haunts him. He’s pursued by Julia’s twin sister Josephine, who gains a nephelim lover of her own.

Taking place between 1816 and 1822, The Stress of Her Regard is a shadow history centered around the lives of the three romantic poets, all of whom died young and whose families also suffered from early deaths. Powers uses the nephelim to explain both their artistic prowess as well as the grim elements of their lives: The nephelim attach themselves like haunting spirits to humans and (perhaps as a side-effect) imbue them with certain skills and even with long life, but the nephelim are also jealous creatures who try to kill all who are loved by their human beloved.

There are many recurring elements of a Tim Powers novel: The main character is physically mutilated and forced to abandon the life they knew; there’s a leap in time between the first and second halves of the book; and the plot culminates in a mystical ritual which goes wrong somehow (yet often succeeds nonetheless). The main character is usually an everyman – albeit one with some skills of his own – who ends up as the lynchpin character amidst towering (or at least more knowledgeable) figures. All of these elements are present here, and while you could argue that this makes Powers’ books a little repetitive, his intricate plotting and clever twists and turns make each story unique. Clearly he just enjoys writing about certain dramatic situations.

A common theme of Powers’ novels is being torn between the temptations offered by the opposing forces, and one’s own well-being or loved ones. This conflict is as clear here as it’s ever been, with Crawford deeply succumbing to the nephelim’s influence in the first half, and then severely tempted to invite them back – despite the ruin it would deliver on his life and friends – in the second. He sees what the nephelim do to other people, even when – as they do for Byron – they provide a vital piece of meaning in their lives. Crawford goes through hell to get rid of his succubus, but constantly feels the temptation to invite it back, and thus can’t pass judgment on others who succumb. For the love of his friends, he drags himself through further hell in order to help them. Although Powers’ narrative is sometimes verbose enough to take the reader out of the moment, it’s still powerful stuff through the sheer aggregation of tension and emotion.

Stress wraps up with a satisfying climax and touching denouement, bringing the lives of the famous supporting characters to their historical closes. It should please any Powers fan, and is a strong fantasy/suspense tale for anyone else.

This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America #20, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Nathan Massengill, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • The New Teen Titans Archives vol 4 HC, by Marv Wolfman, George Pérez & Romeo Tanghal (DC)
  • Terra #1 of 4, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amada Conner (DC)
  • Top Ten Season Two #2 of 5, by Zander Cannon & Gene Ha (DC/America’s Best)
  • Gigantic #1 of 5, by Rick Remender & Eric Nguyen (Dark Horse)
The New Teen Titans Archives vol. 4 When compiling a list of the most significant books during the bronze age of comics (roughly 1970-1990), Marv Wolfman & George Pérez’s New Teen Titans would certainly make the top ten, a little bit behind Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men. The two books (and rumor is that Titans was intended to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s X-Men) brought stronger characterization and soap opera elements to mainstream superhero comics, essentially taking what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had done at Marvel in the 60s to a higher level of sophistication. As such, both series are worth reading for their historical import, but also because they both hold up pretty well today.

This week DC released the fourth volume of the Titans Archives, covering issues #21-27, which is roughly the midpoint of the Wolfman/Pérez run (Pérez left the series after #47, although he returned occasionally thereafter, but the book wasn’t the same without him). What really makes the series work is that it’s about a group of former teenage sidekicks who are growing up; rather than being 11 or 12, they’re now 19 or 20 and are coming into their own. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: The original Robin was only going to become a man once, Kid Flash was only going to figure out how to come out of the shadow of his mentor once. Into this mix they dropped three brand-new characters from significantly different backgrounds and forged a team out of them.

This particular volume is something of a mixed bag: The first story involves the cult leader Brother Blood, who I never felt really worked as a villain due to being just too heavy-handed. The third story was notable for dealing with teenage runaways and the underworld they can often fall into. It does a pretty good job of both surveying many different characters’ fates with a central story holding it together, but again it feels a little too heavy-handed. But it was cutting-edge at the time, the sorts of issues (drugs, prostitution, minors getting involved with the mob) which had previously been verboten in comics. It’s the middle story which really shines, the longest story since the 6-issue one which launched the series: The alien Starfire’s evil sister comes to Earth and kidnaps her, and the Titans chase after her and get involved in the ongoing civil war in her home solar system. It’s satisfying as a science fiction adventure, but it also cements Robin and Starfire’s growing romantic relationship, while providing insight into her background. It’s still a fun read even today, at least as long as you ignore the political situation of the Vega system, which mostly makes little sense.

This was the point where George Pérez was making his transition from a Jack Kirby imitator to become George Pérez, with his outstanding sense of anatomy, unusually wide range of character faces, and detailed costumes and backgrounds. The changes occur almost before your eyes, and he’s now only about a year away from becoming the artist we know today, but he’s not quite there yet, and Romeo Tanghal’s inks – although they’d benefit nearly any other artist working at the time – are starting to feel not quite subtle enough to bring out the best in the pencils.

All-in-all, it’s a fine package, but the best was yet to come. Hopefully DC will keep going with these collections so we can get the whole run in hardcover.

Terra #1 Speaking of the Teen Titans, the volume above featured the first appearance of Terra, a Wolfman creation who was the pivotal character in the climactic story arc of his run with Pérez. Since then, as ComicVine’s entry on her says, she’s “probably one of the most retconned characters in the [DC Universe]”. She’s back this month, in a mini-series with yet another take on the character: This Terra is a cipher with the ability to telekinetically move the dirt and rock who protects the inhabitants below the Earth’s surface from intrusions from above – and vice-versa. In this first issue she gets in a little too deep and is rescued by Power Girl, who brings her to Doctor Mid-Nite who makes a surprising discovery about her identity. It’s a promising start, so we’ll see how it plays out.

It’s rare to see a female artist make it in mainstream superhero comics, so I’m always secretly rooting for them to hit it big, since I think it couldn’t help but be good for the industry. Unfortunately, it seems like there are only a few who make even a small impact in any decade: In the 80s there was Mary Wilshire and June Brigman, and in the 90s there was Jill Thompson.

In this decade we have Amanda Conner, who might be best known for drawing the sardonic graphic novel The Pro, and the Power Girl story in JSA Classified a few years ago. Terra may well end up being better than either of those. Conner’s strength is in facial expressions; she regularly composes pages with a series of panels from the same perspective which vary mainly in body language and expression, and they’re often the most memorable scenes in the issue. There are two such pages at the end of this issue. With the slightly cartoony edge to her style, reading this issue feels a little like reading a webcomic, yet it has a friendliness which sets it apart from the doom-and-gloom hyper-realism of many comics at DC these days.

The rest of this one ought to be fun.