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This Week’s Haul

  • Green Lantern #38, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #24, by Geoff Johns, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #8, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Starman Omnibus vol 2 of 6 HC, by James Robins, Tony Harris, Wade Von Grawbadger, Craig Hamilton, John Watkiss, Steve Yeowell & others (DC)
  • The Incredible Hercules #125 & 126, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Salva Espin, Clayton Henry, Rodney Buchemi, Greg Adams & Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #4 of 6, by Kurt Busiek & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Nova #22, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea Divito (Marvel)
  • Gigantic #3 of 5, by Rick Remender & Eric Nguyen (Dark Horse)
  • Mister X: Condemned #3 of 4, by Dean Motter (Dark Horse)
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #4 of 6, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
  • The Complete Peanuts: 1971-1972, by Charles M. Schultz (Fantagraphics)
Starman Omnibus vol 2 Man do I ever appreciate DC publishing James Robinson’s Starman in this nice hardcover omnibus series. Not only does it collect some issues which weren’t in the trade paperbacks, but it collects some odds-and-ends stories from other titles which I’ve never read at all! There are two Shade stories here which I’d never read before, one of which is actually relevant to later events in the series.

This particular volume has both one of my least-favorite stories in the series (Jack Knight and the Shade face a demon on the other side of a magical painting), but it also contains my hands-down favorite story, in which Jack meets Wes Dodds, the original Sandman – now a man in his 80s – and they investigate a series of murders. The story is sort of a sequel to Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, and explores the relationships that heroes have to one another, the camaraderie which leads to a sort of friendship where a friendship wouldn’t otherwise exist. It’s also one of the most blatant examples of generational relationships in superhero comics, as Dodds is clearly at least one generation, if not two, removed from Jack Knight. (I don’t think it’s ever clearly stated, but I think Jack is himself in his 30s, rather old for a superhero, especially a novice one.)

There are many good standalone stories in here, too: The original Starman’s first battle with The Mist (which leads into the Sandman/Starman story), and “The Return of Bobo”, in which a small-time villain gets out of jail and returns to Opal City, to the worry of the police and Jack Knight. Bobo is one of the series’ best characters, as is immediately evident from this story. But Starman is similar to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in that the standalone stories build up the background of the series and eventually contribute important pieces to the characters and ongoing storyline. And even if not every detail is crucial, most stories are enjoyable on their own.

James Robinson is sorely missed in comics – at least by me; these days I think he mainly works in Hollywood. But this volume of Starman reminds me that he really was one of the most sophisticated writers in the business. In some ways the best is yet to come, but in many ways the best is right here in this book.

Marvels: Eye of the Camera #4 I’ve been disappointed in Marvels: Eye of the Camera so far, and I think I know why: The strong character arc of the original Marvels, and the strong sense of time and place of each issue of that series, is missing here. Eye feels like it’s one brief glimpse of 1970s and 80s Marvel after another, without the depth that gives the glimpses meaning. Granted, the period covered so far is mostly not an iconic period in Marvel’s publishing history (the Claremont/Byrne X-Men aside), but I still think it would have been a much better series if it had been pared down to fewer incidents.

This issue primarily focuses on the wake of the Secret Wars series, especially the second one, in which the godlike Beyonder comes to Earth and trails destruction in his wake. It’s okay, but it still feels like a series of vignettes. It’s loosely connected by Phil Sheldon’s ongoing battle with cancer, but the series just isn’t working for me.

There’s still time for Busiek to pull it off, but it’s been a rather haphazard story so far.

Gigantic #3 Greg Burgas wonders why Gigantic isn’t a better comic book. I think the answer’s pretty simple: While it’s a high-concept action story (“The Earth’s just a setting for alien reality TV programming”), it’s really a very depressing one. The lead character is a man who was turned into a gladiator for the aliens when he was younger, and has come back to his homeworld a hunted man. Catastrophe, tragedy and a whole lot of punching ensues. The first three issues haven’t really expanded on the premise very much, it’s continued to just be a lot of tragedy and punching with no light visible at the end of the tunnel. I have a similar problem with the other Remender series I’m reading, The End League. I can deal with dark comics series, but these aren’t just dark, they’re bleak. So they’re not much fun.

For a much better take on a very similar premise, try Dan Vado’s The Griffin. While the art in that one is a little iffy, the story is first-rate. If you can find the original DC Comics prestige-format mini-series (6 issues), that’s even better, since the SLG collection is in black-and-white.

The Secret Lives of Comic Store Employees

Interesting piece at Wired. I’m not sure how much of it is “secret”, although to be fair I’ve been acquaintances with owners or employees of comics stores for over 30 years so maybe it’s just not secret to me!

Ten Years in California

It was ten years ago yesterday that I moved to California from Madison, WI.

Back then I had just turned 30, interviewed with Apple, and accepted the job that brought me out here. The months of January, February and March 1999 went by in a whirlwind of travel, cleanup, preparation, packing, starting a new job, and finding an apartment. The upside of such a big move is that you’re just too busy lining up all the ducks to get too stressed out about the change – you’re too busy being too stressed out about getting it to work. It was just an insane time.

On the one hand I think I could have managed things better way back when – in particular, I wish I’d gotten better guidance from my friends about where to live, as I ended up living 15+ miles away from all of them, which made me miserable for a while – but on the other hand I did eventually correct the mistakes I made, I ended up at a company that was on the upswing and working on interesting stuff in a job I enjoy (ten years later, I’m still working at Apple), and my life in California has been enjoyable and productive and involved considerably less cold and snow than did my life in Madison.

Even ten years later, leaving Madison still feels bittersweet: I had and have a lot of friends there, and it’s a great city. But it’s also a small city, and I’ve appreciated the more and varied opportunities for all kinds of things here in the Bay Area. I guess I’m just a big city guy at my core.

(And I have lots of friends here, too!)

All-in-all, it’s been a good ten years. What will the next ten bring?

Rainy Day by the Ocean

We’re having another storm come through the area this weekend, bringing more much-needed water to the area. Now, for those of you who live in regions with actual weather, rather than mere climate, “storm” in this case really means “series of showers, and maybe some wind”. We almost never get the raging downpours and gale-force winds, never mind any thunder and lightning, that hit the northeast or midwest. Still, I’m happy for any showers we do get, since for eight months out of the year it’s Eternal Summer here.

We drove over to Half Moon Bay this morning for breakfast. We parked across the street from the Main Street Grill and noticed an ambulance and fire engine outside. We waited until they were done taking a guy away in the ambulance before heading in. (I wondered why an ambulance always seems to be accompanied by a fire truck; Debbi thinks it’s because the firemen have the equipment and knowledge to extract people from difficult spots if necessary, while the EMTs are there for their medical expertise. Seems plausible to me.)

While the Grill was reasonably busy (though hardly packed), the rest of downtown Half Moon Bay was pretty dead. We walked down Main Street and I don’t think we passed anyone else walking around, although there were a few people in stores. I think Half Moon Bay is driven by a vacationers economy, and it’s had plenty of turnover of retail stores since I started going there; I wonder how hard it’s going to be hit by the recession.

Afterwards we drove over to Half Moon Bay State Beach and just sat in the car for a couple of hours reading, listening to the rain, and watching the waves roll in. There were a handful of other cars in the parking lot, and one minivan disgorged a family who walked down to the beach – mostly in shorts and carrying beach shovels and buckets – and who later returned and left. The rain came in waves but never completely stopped.

Now we’re home and winding down for an afternoon and evening inside (assuming we can figure out what to do for dinner). Considering I went into work yesterday, that’s pretty much all I want to do today.

This Week’s Haul

  • The Brave and the Bold #22, by David Hine, Doug Braithwaite & Bill Reinhold (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #12 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Carlos Magno & Julio Ferreira (DC)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #10, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Victor Olazaba & Livesay (Marvel)
  • Invincible #59, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
Tangent: Superman's Reign #12 Tangent: Superman’s Reign had a promising start: The DC Universe heroes meeting their counterparts from “Earth Tangent”, and catching up with the main characters from that world was fun, since it’s spent the last few years under the supposedly-benevolent rule of their Superman, a powerful telepath and telekinetic.

Unfortunately the series ended up being a mess, padded by at least four issues. It didn’t help that each issue (save the last) featured a back-up story taking up a quarter of the pages, but doing nothing more than recounting the backstory of the Tangent characters (and ultimately going nowhere). There were too many characters so no one stood out as the protagonist, everyone got lost in the shuffle. Plus the game of musical artists started mid-way through, none of them quite working out as well as the original artist, Matthew Clark, did.

I think the series would have been better served by getting rid of the backup story and cutting it back to 6 issues or so. But ultimately I think the series just didn’t have a reason for being other than throwing the DC and Tangent heroes together, and frankly that just wasn’t enough to carry it.

The Brave and the Bold #22 On the other hand, the underrated series The Brave and the Bold wraps up its latest story arc and it turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable retro-style team-up of Green Lantern and the Phantom Stranger (with a side of Green Arrow) facing down a powerful creature trying to end all life in the universe. It includes a visit to a fairly alien world (by comic book standards) and themes of the value of life even in trying circumstances. I’ve never read anything by David Hine before, but this is a pretty good indication that I should check out his other work, if I come across any. Doug Braithwaite is a pretty good artist with a bit of Mike Grell and Norm Breyfogle in his style, and his work looks better here than it did in Alex Ross’ series Justice.

After this series of fill-in issues, I guess J. Michael Straczynski is taking over the series with the next issue. Although it sounds like it’s already running late, and as you saw in my review of Thor last week his previous comics work hasn’t thrilled me (although The Twelve has been quite good, though it’s running late, too). Anyway, we can cross that bridge when we come to it. If we come to it.

Gregory Frost: Shadowbridge & Lord Tophet

This is a charming novel that was divided into two volumes – presumably by the publisher – but if you just read Shadowbridge you’ll be disappointed at the end, since it’s not a whole story. Fortunately I enjoyed the first half enough to be happy to head right into the second half. That’s a little unusual since I’m not generally a fan of fantasy, but it has elements reminiscent of both Tim Powers and Michael Swanwick, whose works I enjoy.

Shadowbridge is a world of a few small islands and a great many giant bridge spans across its ocean. Thousands of people live on the spans of the bridges, and their origins are lost to antiquity. Their medieval cultures are mixed with fantastic creatures living alongside the humans, demigods walking the world, and the gods dabbling in mortal affairs, especially through the Dragon Bowls on each span through which favors are visited on a few worthies.

Into this world strides Bardsham, the greatest storyteller of his age, through the use of shadow puppets. But that was years ago, and the story opens with his daughter, Leodora, taking up his legacy, with his puppets, and aided by his former assistant, Soter, a drunkard who helps her set up engagements. Leodora performs under the name of Jax to hide her gender, and gathers stories from the spans she visits. In time they’re joined by Diverus, a gifted musician who has been touched by the gods. But Soter is terrified that the horrible fate that was visited on Bardsham and his wife Leandra – Leodora’s parents – will find and doom her as well.

Shadowbridge has a touch of metatextual feeling to it, with regular asides in which a character tells a traditional story from somewhere on the bridge. Each of these stories is itself a rewarding vignette on its own, and it gradually develops that the stories have grains of truth as well as elements that have evolved over the centuries; which pieces are which is left up to the reader, and they give the reader something to mull over while reading the rest of the novel.

The story takes a little while to get going, spending a large chunk of the first volume on Leodora’s childhood, and the tragedies which led her to leave the island on which she grew up to follow in her father’s footsteps. It goes on a little too long for my tastes, though there’s some good stuff in there, especially her earliest years. And then another chunk of time on Diverus’ story, which is more exotic and ominous. But once the backstory is out of the way, things move along quickly, as Soter takes them further and further from Leodora’s childhood home and ultimately back to the span where the key events in Bardsham’s downfall occurred.

The second volume takes place mainly on this ancient span, as Leodora learns how Bardsham was seen by those living there, and also glimpses a mysterious span-beneath-the-span which she suspects has some role to play in the story. This is some of the best stuff in the novel, especially the city below, which has several layers the characters have to peel back. The general setting of Shadowbridge is not quite as exotic as I’d hoped – often it’s just a slightly quirky medieval world – but some of the specific ideas are quite well realized.

Frost has an accessible writing style with which he weaves some evocative tales. As far as the two authors whose work this novel resembles, the setting is more like Swanwick, but the storytelling is more like Powers, albeit not quite so tightly wound around a careful plot. Nonetheless the payoff is satisfying, even if the denouement left me feeling like we don’t really know whether the characters lived happily ever after.

All-in-all Shadowbridge is quite an entertaining novel, and if it’s slightly rough around the edges it makes up for that in pure enjoyment and the cleverness of the individual episodes. I don’t know whether Frost plans to write more books in this setting, but I’d read them if he does.

Dollhouse

I’ve never been a fan of Joss Whedon. I don’t particularly dislike him, either, but my exposure to his work has been limited. I never watched Buffy or Angel because by the time it registered that they might be worth watching, I’d finished catching up on several other series and didn’t feel like catching up on yet more series. I watched five episodes of Firefly and hated it (stories boring, setting ridiculous, characters unlikeable). And I’ve never read any of the comic books he’s written.

But on Friday, planning already to watch the new episode of Battlestar Galactica, we decided to watch the first episode of Whedon’s new series, Dollhouse.

The premise is that an agency is able to wipe peoples’ memories, program them with new personas and skills for particular assignments, and then restore them when they come back. The lead character is one such agent, Echo (Eliza Dushku).

As has been mentioned elsewhere (e.g., in the Boston Globe and by Peter David), the series’ basic flaw is: If you need a professional negotiator, or secret agent, or whatever, why not just hire an actual professional rather than someone “programmed” using some fictional technique? It’s a solution looking for a problem. (I’ve heard that Whedon’s original concept was less adventure-oriented and more intended to explore issues of enslavement and control, which makes more sense as a premise. Rumor is that Fox demanded the series be overhauled with their input, which helps explain what we got.)

The interesting thing about the opening episode is really one of story structure: It’s organized to make it as routine as possible. We have the obligatory introduction to the agency and the obligatory non-adventure to show Echo in a “programmed” role. Then we have the takes-only-2/3ds-of-an-episode adventure with some suspense and action. And then a fade to black amidst a few lingering questions that have been raised. So much set-up and plot mechanics get packed into the episode that there’s no room for characterization or depth, so it ended up being quite bland.

A much more effective approach – which itself isn’t original, but would have made the episode more interesting – would have been to start with Echo in the middle of an assignment, and to have us build up an empathy with her character. Have her really focused on where she is now, and only in the final act peel back the layers to show that she’s acting on behalf of the agency, and finally that she’s not even who we think she is, but is a fake persona. Make her real self very different from the one we’ve gotten to know, and we have some stake in the fact that the woman we knew doesn’t really exist. And not only is there less exposition about the agency, but the nature of the agency gets left as an open question, making us want to come back to find out what it’s all about. To be sure, some of this is known to anyone who read about the series before it aired, but I think this approach would have been far more effective in introducing the set-up while making the opening episode intriguing on its own.

So the overall premise is somewhat interesting, but presents some big challenges to keep us invested in the characters going forward. And the opening episode rates only a “meh”. So they’ve got a ways to climb to make me want to come back every Friday.

(The new BSG wasn’t one of their best, either, but then it was a “calm after the storm” following the excitement of the previous few episodes, so I can understand that.)

Rainy Weekend

We’re getting a series of rain storms here this week and next, and boy do we need the rain, what with northern California in the midst of a drought. Today it’s been pouring pretty hard all day.

We had a pretty quiet weekend, running errands and almost getting them done before the rain set in. We got the new TV broken in, and I broke down and threw out my ancient stereo cabinet, and we put our old TV in storage. Not sure if we’ll ever use it again, what with the transition to digital broadcasting and all, but if we don’t have it then we’ll definitely never use it.

We’d hoped to go to the California Academy of Sciences today – it’s been open for 6 months but the crowds have apparently been intense. Unfortunately the friends we’d planned to go with had to bow out, so we stuck around home instead. The silver lining might be that we didn’t have to drive and walk through the rain, eh?

Plus the cats we happy to have us home. Especially Roulette, who’s totally addicted to the toy that Lucy gave us at my birthday party and got a bunch of good playing in.

I enjoy rainy weekends. Wish we had some more of them this winter.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #17, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #81, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 HC, by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Dan Day & Rick Veitch (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #8 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Incognito #2, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Thor #600, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Fire and Brimstone #4 of 5, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #3 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The Sword: Water vol 2 TPB, by Joshua Luna & Jonathan Luna (Image)
  • Castle Waiting #14, by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
Saga of the Swamp Thing vol 1 Alan Moore’s work doesn’t need any recommendations from me, but it might be of interest that DC is collecting his Swamp Thing run in hardcover volumes. This first volume contains his first issue on the title, which I believe has never been collected before. It’s not essential, but it provides a little extra background to the next issue, which was the one in which Moore started to make his mark on the US comics market, completely upending the premise of the series and turning it into something even more interesting. The “everything you know is wrong” story has become a cliche in comics these days, but Moore was one of the ones who made it a cliché, and he can do it better than almost anyone else in the business.

Anyway, in this volume you can expect horror, adventure, carnage, philosophy, romance, and some outstanding artwork by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. It’s great stuff, and this is a nice package to read it if you haven’t previously.

Incognito #2 Incognito #1 was good, and issue #2 is even better: Our hero (or anti-hero) Zack Overkill takes to the rooftops at night to use his returning powers, covertly since it’s illegal for him to do so. He learns something about a couple of his co-workers, which end up getting him into trouble (or so it seems). Meanwhile, some nasty looking characters from his old life are trying to hunt him down.

The noir feel to the story complements the super-powered elements quite nicely, not least because there’s not a true superhero in sight. Sean Phillips’ style captures the seedy feel of the story quite well, but it’s still very readable and elegant in its way, unlike, say, Michael Gaydos’ art, which I always find too sketchy and not very pretty to look at. Incognito reminds me a bit of Bendis and Oeming’s Powers, but without the pretentious dialogue which Bendis hangs on his characters. Although I suspect its ambitions are not so lofty, it could end up being better than Powers once it gets going.

Thor #600 Thor returns to its “classic” numbering this month, a shtick Marvel’s been using with several of its long-running-but-relaunched titles. This extra-sized issue reprints several Silver Age stories, contains a cute “Mini Thor” story by Chris Giarrusso (the “secret weapon” in the otherwise-humorless Marvel Universe these days), and a multi-page collage of every cover from every issue in the series, dating back to Journey Into Mystery #1.

These extras aside, Thor #600 is the last issue I’ll be buying of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the title.

If there’s one word to describe this run, that word is dull. Although glacial and pointless also come to mind. I’ve written before that Straczynski’s comics-writing career hasn’t impressed me, but Thor may be his nadir: After an interesting beginning, the series got bogged down in the machinations of the Asgardians whom Thor returned to life, with yet another tiresome scheme by Loki. There was some early hope that Donald Blake would be fleshed out into a rounded character, but in fact everyone in this series is one-dimensional.

And, oh, the series has been going on for so long while barely making any progress at reaching a climax or resolution of any sort. Lots of talking, lots of portentiousness and worry, and none of it ever spills over. Finally in this issue we get a big fight, but it’s far too little, far too late, and it’s still just the set-up for the “real” plot, which sees Thor exiled from Asgard (what, again?).

I’ve talked about DC’s Final Crisis being a train wreck of a series from a writing standpoint, but Thor has been just as bad. I’d hung on this long hoping that #600 would see the conclusion of Straczynski’s story, but it feels like it’s really just beginning. And I just can’t stand it anymore: I’m outta here.

The Stuff Shuffle

This weekend I went out and bought something I’ve been thinking of buying for 2 years: A new television.

Of course, it hasn’t been delivered yet. And, more importantly, we’re still preparing for it.

One issue is that my stereo cabinet is something like 25 years old. I remember going out with my Dad to a furniture store in which seemed like an old-and-decrepit part of Boston (which probably means it was just “any not-suburban part”) to buy it, which was back in high school. I used to have slats for it to store LPs, although I think I chucked them a few years ago. Anyway, the thing is really old, and even though it could probably hold the new TV, I’m going to buy a cabinet made in this century which isn’t just a boring rectangle of particle boards. We scoped some out (note: Ikea’s TV stands are totally not made for me: short, boring, and lacking in storage space) and I’ll likely go buy the one we liked tomorrow (from Fry’s), now that we think it will meet our needs (read: it’ll fit in the space for the TV and hold my stereo components).

The other issue is reorganizing our DVD collection. We have frighteningly more DVDs than I thought we had, and yet probably an order of magnitude fewer than any serious DVD collector. But we don’t really have a good place to store them – we’ve been using some old semi-modular CD racks that Debbi had plus a modular wooden A/V rack to hold the DVDs and a variety of other things. Debbi’s idea was to just buy a bookcase and keep the DVDs in that. I was skeptical that a bookcase – rather than a case made specially for DVDs – would work, but we measured stuff at home and I was convinced. So I stopped at Ikea on the way home from my book discussion and picked one up. I put it together and the moved the DVDs into it. Yay! It’s more compact than the old shelves, but we can also keep some of the old shelves for knick knacks.

(By the way, I spend a lot of time measuring stuff and scoping stuff out when it comes to buying or arranging furniture. Our place isn’t very big and we have a lot of stuff [which arguably can be reworded as “I have a lot of books”] so I prefer to be careful to figure out whether what we’re looking at will fit.)

So that kept us plenty busy for the weekend, and will for the next couple of days as well. But hopefully it’ll be worth the effort. The last hurdle will be to see if the electrical circuit can handle the load of a modern TV (as opposed to the 8-year-old picture tube model we’ve got right now). We’ll find out later this week…