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Matthew Hughes: The Spiral Labyrinth

At the end of Matthew Hughes’ Majestrum, Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth’s foremost discriminator, found that his intuitive other half, his own fully-formed personality inside his head, had taken a new name, Osk Rievor. This new story begins with Rievor researching the history of magic from the previous age in anticipation of the next age when magic will again reign supreme. But Hapthorn has clients to work for in order to get paid, and to Rievor’s frustration Hapthorn and his integrator – a digital assistant turned into a wizard’s familiar – head off in search of a missing person, getting captured themselves before managing to free the object of their quest, and coming away with a small spaceship under their ownership in the bargain.

From there, Hapthorn acquiesces to Riever’s desire to visit some points of mystical power in the world, a task which seems tedious at first, but turns dangerous when their pair – plus integrator – are again captured, this time by a mysterious being controlling a red-and-black spiral labyrinth down which they walk. When Hapthorn emerges at the other end, Rievor is no longer in his head, and he’s no longer in his own world, having been thrown into a medieval period hundreds of years in the future, in the coming age of magic. Armed with only his superhuman reasoning ability, in a world where reason is at best scoffed at, Hapthorn must find and rescue his other half and find a way to return to his own time – not to mention figure out who captured them in the first place, and how to stop him from doing it again!

Labyrinth is similar structurally to Majestrum in that it starts with a short mystery to show off Hapthorn’s skills, and then launches into the main story. But this one is more of a fish-out-of-water story, and features more interplay among the characters, especially as Rievor and the integrator both become better realized.

Hughes has plenty of fun playing with Clarke’s third law, as Hapthorn uses his skills to perform feats of reasoning that seem like magic – and of course can be duplicated by magic in the future era. This leads to the philosophical conundrum in which he’s unable to convince people that he’s not a magician, even though they can tell he’s not using magic – there’s clearly something odd about him. The way Hughes sets up these ideas and pulls them together is quite clever, and is a big part of the enjoyment of the book.

Another part, of course, is the light touch which Hughes applies to his writing style. Hughes spreads his humor around among all the characters, and Hapthorn more than anyone else is the target of the jibes of other characters. It results in a fine line that Hughes has to walk, since constantly making fun of the main character in a largely serious story can undermine the whole narrative, but the fact that Hapthorn is both very competent and also a bit full of himself means that seeing him cut down to size from time to time seems justified.

The book has a more satisfying climax than Majestrum did, as Hapthorn cuts a more heroic figure than he did at the end of the first book, and the confrontation with the antagonist feels not quite so metaphysical. Hughes also proves willing to make some radical changes to the status quo of Hapthorn’s world, as two major characters undergo significant transformations at the end of the book. Not many authors seem willing to do this in serial fiction, which makes it exciting since now we can anticipate what Hughes will do with the new configuration even though we know we won’t be getting exactly more of the same.

As a result, The Spiral Labyrinth isn’t so much better or worse than Majestrum as simply different, and equally entertaining on its own terms. But you can’t ask for much for than an exotic milieu, engaging characters, and amusing writing, which is what this series delivers. There’s at least one more volume in the series, and I’m looking forward to it.

This Week's Haul

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Batman and Robin #7, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Green Lantern #50, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Rebecca Buchman, Tom Nguyen & Mark Irwin (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #35, by Bill Willingham, Travis Moore & Dan Green (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #19, by Matt Wagner, Joëlle Jones & David Hahn (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead #3 of 6, by Ian Edginton & Davide Fabbri (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four #575, by Jonathan Hickman & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #22, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker & Andrew Hennessy (Marvel)
  • Echo #19, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Irredeemable #10, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #4 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Chew #8, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
Batman and Robin #7 is the perfect example of the “average” Grant Morrison book:

  1. The story starts with the current Batman (Dick Grayson) carrying the body of the previous Batman (Bruce Wayne – or as far as everyone in the DC Universe knows it’s his body) out of its crypt. This page is a piece of the setup, but it then transitions to a seemingly-completely-unconnected scene in London, a gimmick Morrison often employs make his plots more cagey.
  2. Obscure guest stars, in this case Knight and Squire, the equivalent of Batman and Robin of England. (Morrison created the current versions of these characters, but their antecedents are from the Silver Age, and John Byrne also used them in his series Generations III.) Knight visually resembles another Morrison creation, Prometheus.
  3. The first two episodes of the story are essentially a blind for Batman’s real goal, which is the revive his predecessor with the help of a Lazarus Pit. This unfortunately tends to make many of Morrison’s stories hard to follow, especially as in this case, where it seems like Batman was well aware of where the pit was (the body preceded him there, after all), and Batwoman turns up for some reason, but the chain of events doesn’t really make much sense.
  4. The characterizations don’t quite ring true: Dick’s speech near the end about his drive to bring Bruce back belies both the rocky relationship between the two men as adults. Dick’s defeated tone of voice – even though he really had nothing to do with Bruce’s death – also feels out of character.

The story overall is intriguing despite its flaws, and Cameron Stewart draws the hell out of it, easily the best artwork the series has yet seen. The issue did have an unfortunate in word balloon placement flaw in one panel, and you might find a glossary of British terminology in the issue helpful, but neither is a detriment to the book.

What’s less encouraging is how the faux body of Batman is being handled, since we know from the end of Final Crisis that Bruce Wayne is still alive, apparently on a parallel world, but Dick says here that Superman confirmed that the body has Bruce’s DNA. Superman is by definition a reliable source in situations like this, so it has to be Bruce. Which severely limits how Morrison can explain that it’s not really Bruce: A clone would be so cliché that it would render the whole thing pointless. Bruce could have traded places with his double from the other Earth (which would be a bit draconian). But any solution which ends up with Superman being wrong or having been tricked means the whole thing fails. (This was a flaw in Mark Waid’s otherwise excellent The Return of Barry Allen, where Green Lantern’s ring verifies that Barry is really Barry, and that undercuts the whole story; this is a problem with having godlike characters running around your universe.) I’m curious to see whether Morrison can make it work.

Fantastic Four hits a mini-milestone this month, issue #575, but I thought the issue was a disappointment. It involves the FF going deep into the Earth to help the Mole Man with a problem he’s having, and they’re not able to help very much, but a highly-advanced underground city is raised to the surface within US territory, presumably to set up future storylines. There are some great visuals by Dale Eaglesham, but at the end my reaction was, “Wait, that’s it?” Something about this issue was just ill-conceived: Not a lot much action and not much of a climax, nor was it very thought-provoking. If it doesn’t end up setting up something big down the road, then I’ll wonder why they bothered with this issue at all.
The second series of The Unknown ends this week, and it’s been quite a bit better than the first series, which ended rather ambiguously and without a lot of satisfaction for the characters or the readers. It turns out that there were several things happening in the first series which were just not clear at the time, and writer Mark Waid reveals a lot of what was going on here: What Catherine Allingham was really after, and a the surprising nature of her former partner, Doyle.

At first, The Unknown seemed like it was going to be a Sherlock Holmes-like series (something Waid has done before in a more traditional manner with Ruse) with supernatural overtones, but in fact it’s turning out to be a fantasy/suspense/horror series which happens to have a detective as its protagonist, in particular, a detective interested in learning the truth about the afterlife because she’s under a death sentence herself.

Yet so much of the series’ status quo has been overturned in this second series that I wonder if Waid is going to send it off somewhere else again in the next series. I could easily see him wrapping up the whole story in one more series if that’s what he has in mind, or peeling back more layers from the onion. I could be happy with it either way, though I think making it a longer, more complex series will make it more likely that it will be a great story rather than an interesting diversion. Especially if he expands on the characters more, as they’re fairly one-dimensional so far.

The biggest surprise in independent comics last year was the series Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory. I missed the boat on it, and picked up the first collection and the next two issues to catch up, so now I’m up-to-date.

The premise is that in the near future avian flu has caused the US and several other nations to outlaw poultry from the market, and the F.D.A. is charged with investigating poultry and food-related crimes. Tony Chu was a cop who has the ability – more of a curse, really – to be able to read the history of anything he tastes. Very useful, but also rather disgusting when what you need to get information about is a rancid corpse. Tony is recruited to work for the FDA, his boss hates him, and his partner has an agenda at odds with Tony’s sense of right and wrong.

The stories are mildly disgusting (and often quite violent), but rather witty. The art is cartoony and expressive, not entirely my kind of thing, but it fits the story well. Overall it’s a very offbeat package, a little bit fantasy, a little bit crime drama. Some people love Chew to bits, while I think it’s entertaining enough but I don’t want to read it while I’m eating dinner. But if quirk is something you appreciate in a comic book, then it might well be for you.

Not Much Luck

We’re back from our latest vacation to Las Vegas. It was a fun trip, as always – except for the losing part, that is.

We flew in on Saturday as usual, and this time got a room in the west wing of the MGM Grand, where we tend to stay these days. The west wing is quiet and we had a room right next to its elevator, which was convenient since we usually have a hike from our room to get to it. The west wing’s elevator also drops you out near the poker room, which was convenient for me. And the room itself has more gadgets in it than the normal rooms (a television in the bathroom mirror, a touch-to-activate lamp, and so forth), so we spent a while playing once we arrived.

Then we puttered around for the afternoon before going to see Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. Burton is a classic magician – he opens his act by running down a short genealogy of magicians dating back to the 1800s, with himself as the current heir to the throne. His illusions rely heavily on making things disappear and reappear, the most spectacular form of illusion, I guess. He even has a couple of tricks which made me think of The Prestige to the point that I wondered whether he has a twin brother.

One of the most surprising things about Burton’s show is the gap between his promotional material and the show itself. The posters and images I’ve seen of him are split between him as a debonair high society man from the early 20th century, and a more modern “tall dark stranger” in black clothing (especially the 2009 image all over the Monte Carlo). In the show, though, he seems quite different from what I’d expected from the images, though not at all displeasing: The biggest surprise is that he still has a fairly strong hint of a Kentucky accent, not the “standard American” midwest accent most performers have (nor even a southern country accent). Another difference is that he’s all smiles all the time, not at all mysterious in his demeanor (plus he currently has his hair cut short, very different from in the photos). His act itself is actually rather jokey, and the dramatic flair (such as the masked stranger who appears from time to time) seems too goofy to take seriously. There’s also a lot more skin in the show (in the form of seven scantily-clad women) than I’d expected from a show which seems targeted at families. Overall quite different then I’d been expecting.

But the show is basically a lot of fun: I have some vague understandings of how sleight-of-hand works (I’m far from being an expert, but I’m not entirely clueless), but some of his illusions are truly impressive. We were able to get second-row seats so we got a good view of everything, and I don’t have a first idea how many of his tricks work. And that’s not a bad thing. So if you enjoy magic shows, you ought to enjoy seeing Burton.

Sunday morning we had brunch at the Café Bellagio, and then went to check out the new property on the strip: City Center, a 5-hotel project which reportedly cost in the vicinity of $11 billion (with a ‘B’) dollars to build. We walked through some pieces of it, but mostly went and gambled at the Aria, the only hotel of the five which has a casino, including a poker room. The thing is certainly a step forward in elegance and extravagance in Vegas hotels, but – it’s still a Vegas hotel, and making a bigger, posher one is just no longer impressive in and of itself.

Sunday was also the day of the NFL championship games. While we were at the Aria, the Jets/Colts game was on, and it was amusing to hear the cheers from the bar nearby while playing poker: Jets fans were much louder (and therefore probably more numerous) than Colts fans, and their TVs were showing the game a few seconds earlier than ours were, so we could tell when a big play happened based on how loud the cheers were. Since I always root against New York sports teams, I was happy to see the Jets lose. Despite being a Patriots fan, I don’t have any problems rooting for the Colts; the teams have been big rivals in this decade, but it’s hard to root against Peyton Manning, who I think is clearly the best quarterback of his generation.

Later in the afternoon we gambled at the Flamingo, during which time the Saints/Vikings game was on. At one point I took a bathroom break and passed a bar with 5 people sitting at it, all wearing Vikings jerseys. Vikings fans seemed to greatly outnumber Saints fans, and there were plenty of Packers fans wearing their Favre jerseys, too. I was rooting a little more for the Saints, since I went to college in New Orleans, but seeing Favre get to another Super Bowl would have been fine, too. But it wasn’t to be for Favre, as the Vikings turned the ball over 5 times – including Favre’s last-minute interception throw in the 4th quarter – and the Saints won it in overtime. The teams did hit the over on the total score of 53.5, though, and the Super Bowl had an over/under of 56.5 when we left Vegas, so it may be an exciting game.

We finished the evening with our annual meal at Bally’s Steakhouse, which was delicious as always. The after-dinner coffee with kahlua and grand marnier was excellent, too!

Our weekend at the gambling tables was not quite as much fun, though. We’ve almost entirely moved away from slot machines and video poker, to games which have less of a house edge, or in my case, no house edge, at the poker tables. Debbi mostly plays Pai Gow Poker, where the house still has an edge, but you can play for a long time and often break even. Our first day we played some Pai Gow together and Debbi won what I lost, and I lost a little more at those tables over the weekend. But at the poker tables themselves, I had a really rough weekend.

The first game I played was 2/4 limit at the MGM, which was a tight-passive game where I basically bleeded off chips over two hours. The next game, 3/6 limit at the Aria on Sunday, was a loose-aggressive game where I did not get very many good cards and lost over a full buy-in. Finally at the Flamingo on Sunday, the 2/4 limit game was good to me and I was able to recoup some of my losses. But Monday I finally tried the 1/2 no-limit game at the Flamingo, and got stacked twice, mostly I think through bad luck, but it overwhelmed my good luck. I finished the weekend with a break-even session of 2/4 back at the MGM.

A few memorable hands:

  • In limit at the Flamingo, I got a “big blind special”, flopping a flush with J5h and getting paid off. I later flopped the nut flush with AKh and got paid there, too.
  • The first hand in which I got stacked in NL: I had about $110 in the small blind. After a few limpers, I raised to $10 with pocket Queens. The big blind reraised to $20. The limpers folded, and I raised to $50. The big blind called. So there’s about $105 in the pot, and I have about $60 left. The flop is AA6, and I go all-in. The big blind calls and shows Kings. The final board is AA6-6-A, so even if a queen had come, the 3 aces would have counterfeited my full house. The big blind was a guy from Russia who didn’t speak English (his English seemed limited to “I don’t speak English”), but he crushed the table, going on a tremendous run and winning about $500 in a little over an hour. In a later hand, I managed to get out from under his turned nut flush (which he showed) when I folded my pocket Tens on a Jack-high board.
  • The other hand had me on the button with about $75 in my stack. After 4 limpers, I raised to $12 with pocket Aces. The small blind called, and the big blind and limpers folded (pot $34). The flop is KQ9r, and the small blind bets $10. I go all-in for my last $63, and she calls. She shows K9 for two pair. I hit my 5-outer on the turn, a Queen, and she rivers her 4-outer, a King, and I lose. Yes, she was sitting in the same seat as the guy who stacked me the first time.

It’s not clear that I could have gotten away from either of the big hands, although on reflection I should have played the first hand more carefully, since AK and AQ were within his range (even though I hadn’t been at the table long enough to get a read on anyone) and obviously crush me on an AA7 board. Then again, with him having Kings, AK, AQ and AA were within my range so I arguably had some fold equity. I dunno.

All told this was I think my worst showing at the tables in Vegas I’ve ever had, which was pretty demoralizing since I thought I’d been getting better over the last couple of years. But other than one encouraging session, it was almost entirely disappointing. Just bad luck, or so I have some serious work to do to improve my game to take on even the low-stakes tables? I’m not sure.

We flew out Tuesday afternoon. It was still a fun trip, but the losing part did color it unfavorably to some degree. I’m sure we’ll go back next year (if anything, because Debbi wants to go see Garth Brooks), but it might take most of that time to work back my enthusiasm for the trip. At least for the gambling part.

This Week's Haul

Hey, would you look at this, it’s an entry finally posted in a timely manner!

  • The Brave and the Bold #31, by J. Michael Straczynski, Chad Hardin, Justiniano, Wayne Faucher & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Fables #92, by Bill Willingham & David Lapham (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #44, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Tom Nguyen & Keith Champagne (DC)
  • Power Girl #8, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Starman #81, by James Robinson, Fernando Dagnino & Bill Sienkiewicz (DC)
  • The Incredible Hercules #140, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lante & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #33, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Thing: Project Pegasus deluxe HC, by Ralph Macchio, Mark Gruenwald, Sal Buscema, John Byrne, George Pérez, Sam Grainger, Alfredo Alcala, Joe Sinnott & Gene Day (Marvel)
  • X-Men: The Asgardian Wars HC, by Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, Arthur Adams, Bob Wiacek, Terry Austin, Al Gordon & Mike Mignola (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #2, by Mark Waid, Jean Diaz & Belardino Brabo (Boom)
  • RASL #6, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon)
The Brave and the Bold #31 I picked up a couple of DC books this week which are largely humorous, but they couldn’t be much more different if they’d tried. The Brave and the Bold features the uncomfortable pairing of the Atom and the Joker, where the Joker is suffering from a brain illness, and only the Atom can save him, by shrinking down far enough to deliver a capsule to a point in his brain that might cure him – or kill him. The story opens with Atom being unable to get to Arkham at first because he can only travel through land telephone lines, not cell phones, and then features several pages of Atom refusing to help save the Joker until he’s told that the cure might not even work, so Atom could do his best and still fail. The phone idea is cute, as long as you don’t think about it too hard (throwing an arbitrary limit on an ability that doesn’t make much sense in the first place is always silly; wouldn’t Atom also have trouble with fiber optic cables in the phone system?), but wrestling with his conscience doesn’t work at all. The Atom if an old-style hero who’s largely stuck to those roots, and while he might lament the need to save the life of an enemy, his over-the-top heart-wringing here feels completely out of character.

The rest of the story is okay, and played more seriously: While in the Joker’s brain, Atom gets flashes of Joker’s childhood memories – the making of a psychopath, as it were. It’s not terribly insightful, and has flashes of gallows humor, which still isn’t terribly funny. There’s isn’t much covered here that hasn’t been covered in many Joker stories previously, and the story wasn’t as satisfying overall as, say, John Byrne’s tale in his Generations series where one Batman has to save the Joker from being haunted to death by the ghost of an earlier Batman.

But mostly it’s that the humorous bits go so horribly wrong that makes this story rather painful to read. Quite a letdown after last month’s decent Green Lantern/Doctor Fate yarn. The format of The Brave and the Bold seems to be exposing many of Straczynski’s flaws as a writer, and it’s not pretty.

Power Girl #8 On the other hand, while the set-up of this 2-part Power Girl story disappointed me, the payoff in this issue is considerably funnier. Okay, the cliffhanger from last month gets handled in 4 pages (despite “hours of fighting” having elapsed between issues), but after that, rather than PG being (theoretically) at the mercy of Vartox, she manages to tame him down to civilized levels, and laughs out loud at some of the ridiculousness of his plans. There are several giggle-worthy moments in the issue, and everything works out for the best for both characters.

I still think Power Girl would be better served with some more serious stories – since very little about the series has been serious so far – but at least they got the lightheartedness of this issue right. And certainly more right than Straczynski did in The Brave and the Bold.

Starman #81 The most-heralded Blackest Night series revival has to be this one issue of James Robinson’s Starman. Naturally Robinson – who writes the issue – sticks to his guns by having Jack Knight stay retired despite his brother being raised by the black lantern rings to wreak havoc on Opal City; instead we catch up with some of his supporting cast to see where they’ve ended up since Jack left and his father died. Naturally the Shade figures as the prominent hero. It’s a clever way to do another Starman issue without really doing another Starman issue. Even the art evokes some of the low-key feel of the original series, although I’ve never been a big fan of Bill Sienkiewicz’s endless squiggles as an inker.

It works as an add-on to the original series, rather than just a cynical Blackest Night tie-in. (Don McPherson notes that readers of the series are likely to enjoy the issue more than people surfing by due to the tie-in, which is exactly right.)

I’ve heard a rumor (which may be baseless) that Robinson is interested in doing a Shade series. I’d totally sign up for that.

The Thing: Project Pegasus If you want to see how they did good superhero comics when I was a teenager (in the 1980s), Marvel has two fine hardcover collections out this week. First (and best), is the Thing in Project Pegasus, from his old Marvel Two-in-One series. If you can believe it, there was once a series (it ran for 100 issues!) which mostly featured this member of the Fantastic Four teaming up with a different hero every month, often with good stories and better artwork. Project Pegasus was the apex of the series, a 6-issue story featuring some third- and fourth-string supporting characters, but what made it work was the setting: Ol’ blue-eyes signs on for a tour as a security guard at Project Pegasus, a high-security prison and research institute for super-powered criminals, as well as heroes and innocents who need some sort of high-tech treatment. During his stint, an outside organization infiltrates the project for their own nefarious aims, leading to a major disaster (when their main agent goes rogue) which Ben and company have to fight.

Admittedly, the motivations of the infiltrating organization are a little vague, but it’s still cracking good superhero adventure stuff. Great art by Byrne, Pérez and company, too. The series has also been collected in paperback in the past, but the hardcover has a 2-part story which introduced Pegasus 2 years earlier. Check it out.

X-Men: The Asgardian Wars Then there’s X-Men: The Asgardian Wars, which was arguably Chris Claremont’s last hurrah as a great comics writer. The Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants titles (the main X-books in the late 80s) had been spluttering along in gradual artistic decline (in my opinion) when Claremont put together this pair of 2-part stories featuring Marvel’s mutants facing off against the Norse god Loki. First Loki tries to gain favors from even more powerful gods by forcing a boon on humanity, and the X-Men and the Canadian team Alpha Flight have to deal with the consequences. Then, perturbed by the X-Men’s interference, Loki abducts Storm (who was powerless at the time) and accidentally knocks a collection of New Mutants across the realm of Asgard, where they find themselves rather out of their league. The X-Men join in the fun to foil Loki, who’s really just entertaining himself while waiting for the right moment to make a play for the throne of Asgard.

The first story is one of Claremont’s better moral dilemmas for his characters, putting the heroes on opposite sides of a complex issue, and it’s lushly illustrated by the great Paul Smith. The second story more of a straightforward adventure story, and it’s drawn by Arthur Adams just as he was getting good, although it still has a little too much of the “boobs, boobs and more boobs” style he sometimes lapses into, and the finishes are not as clean nor the work as detailed as his later stuff.

But honestly I think this was the last great X-Men story. Yeah yeah, Grant Morrison, Josh Whedon, Warren Ellis, blah blah blah. None of them turned out X-Men stories as good as this. And this was just the last gasp of the “All-New, All-Different X-Men”; it used to be even better.

This Week's Haul

Once again, just in time for this week’s comics, it’s last week’s comics!

  • Booster Gold #28, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Secret Six #17, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #9, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Marvels Project #5 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Absolution #6 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • Age of Reptiles: The Journey #2 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • Rex Mundi: Gate of God vol 6 TPB, by Arvid Nelson, Juan Ferreyra, Guy Davis & Brian Churilla (Dark Horse)
Absolution #6 Christos Gage’s Absolution wraps up this week, and it’s one of the better series I’ve read from Avatar. Avatar’s comics often seem geared towards fairly extreme violence (is this better or worse than the companies geared towards cheesecake and sex?), and mostly they’re not my cup of tea, but Absolution is “only” about as violent as a noir detective story. In a world where superheroes are part of law enforcement agencies, John Dusk is a lower-powered Green Lantern-like character who, after fighting one too many psychopaths and realizing they’re often getting off with light sentences, decides to start executing the worst of the criminals he encounters.

Gage doesn’t spend a lot of time working through Dusk’s mindset after making this decision, mainly because Dusk embraces it fully and actually feels better once he started offing the bad guys than he did before, so there’s not much internal conflict. The conflict is mainly external, as one criminal mastermind realizes what Dusk is doing and blackmails him into taking out some of the mastermind’s rivals. And of course Dusk can’t hide his actions from his policewoman girlfriend or his superhero comrades forever, and eventually they figure out what he’s doing, after his actions lead to a tragedy for one of his friends. The series closes this issue with the nationwide debate regarding whether he’s been doing right or doing wrong by playing executioner, the main argument for the ‘doing right’ side being that he scrupulously stuck to only killing the worst of the worst.

While not the most nuanced story, Absolution is pretty effective at presenting its issues in the form of the fairly likable Dusk, and contrasting him with some of the scum he faces off with. That it doesn’t come to any concrete conclusions is a point in its favor, as that’s howshort stories (which, frankly, is what a 6-issue comic series is) often work. This isn’t a series for fans of traditional superheroes, but it’s another interesting component of considering how superheroes might operate in the real world, so it’s worth checking out if that’s your cup of tea.

Rex Mundi vol 6: The Gate of God The final collection of Rex Mundi came out this week. It’s one of Greg Burgas’ favorites (so naturally made his best of 2009 list), but I never quite warmed to it, although it had many intriguing ingredients.

It takes place in an alternate history Europe where the Protestant Reformation failed, and where magic has been (quietly) a part of history. Set in France in 1933, Doctor Julien Sauniere finds that one of his friends has been murdered, and this sets him on a path to find the Holy Grail. Opposing him is the Duke of Lorraine, a powerful member of the aristocracy who is working to create a new Frankish empire under his dominion. The two men also have a woman between them, whom they each love: An old colleague of Sauniere’s who’s gone on to become Lorraine’s physician. Sauniere is also pursued by a member of the Catholic Church’s inquisition, but helped by a mysterious robed figure. So the story is a little bit murder mystery, but a big part conspiracy story, set against the backdrop of a burgeoning war, one which at first resembles World War I, but as Lorraine’s plans come to greater fruition comes more to resemble World War II, with France playing the role of Nazi Germany.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what it is about Rex Mundi that didn’t quite work for me. The story isn’t really character-driven, since the characters are all pretty thin. Lorraine is an outright villain, although his conquest is in many ways the most interesting piece of the story. However, it’s really just a backdrop, providing evidence for Lorraine being the villain, and indeed the war continues after the story’s end. I found it difficult to relate to the motivations of the lead character, Sauniere. Sure, he was initially motivated to find the killer of his friend, but I never quite bought that he’d keep getting in deeper and deeper rather than just return to his life (eventually of course he gets in so deep that the life he had no longer exists, but it takes a long time to get to that point). That he’s the hero opposing the villain Lorraine is almost incident, it’s not why Sauniere is involved. Sauniere has a few dimensions to him at the beginning (a doctor who treats Jews in violation of the law, and who seems to be an alcoholic), but his journey strips his distinguishing characteristics from him and he becomes a fairly generic hero figure.

Ultimately the story is plot-driven, partly by Sauniere’s quest and partly by the need to oppose Lorraine (the latter only really comes to the fore in the last third of the story). While writer Nelson had clearly planned the story arc from the beginning, it still felt like it contained too many digressions and diversions, manipulating the characters rather than building the story in a natural way. There are some memorable scenes, but the story as a whole is not very memorable.

The final volume feels more cohesive than the earlier ones, as it all builds to the final conflict between the good guys and the bad guys. Unfortunately although he climax is handled pretty well, there’s not nearly enough of a denouement: Sauniere’s story ends rather abruptly and disappointingly, and the last page provides an unsatisfying end to the story, leaving me with the feeling that there’s another 10 pages or so which somehow got chopped off by accident.

I’ll have to read the whole thing again to see if it holds up better, since there’s a lot of time for nuances to get lost between reading individual volumes. But Rex Mundi never wowed me enough to consider it one of the best comics of the decade. I appreciated it for being something different in the comics market, but that’s not enough to make it a great book. I’d put it about on a par with James A. Owen’s Starchild, but behind, say, Teri Wood’s Wandering Star or Mark Oakley’s Thieves & Kings (even though it looks like T&K might never be completed).

What Driving Carefully in the Rain Means to Me

Here’s what I do when driving in bad weather like this week’s rainstorms:

  • Drop my usual speed 10-15 MPH, maybe more if conditions are really bad.
  • Don’t use cruise control.
  • Leave more space between me and the car in front of me. Be prepared to slow down if someone merges between us.
  • Turn on my headlights.
  • Keep an eye out for standing water on the road. Try to avoid large puddles if possible, slow down (but not too quickly) if not.
  • Stay in the rightmost lane if I’m one of the slower cars on the road.

I actually always drive with my lights on, day and night, good weather and bad. This is because years ago our local traffic newspaper columnist Mr. Roadshow had columns which noted two things: First, that driving with your lights on all the time runs only about $3 per year (probably all the way up to $6 with higher gas prices), and second, a trucker who said he found it much easier to see cars on the road in all conditions because nothing else really looks like a car headlight. I decided if it made it easier for truckers to see me, then it’s well worth the minuscule cost.

Epic Rainstorm

The Bay Area is having an epic series of rainstorms this week, with the heaviest downfall hitting today. While we had thunder Tuesday morning (and our DSL had gone out, though rebooting the modem fixed it), it’s just been pouring, pouring, pouring this morning. When I got up this morning, Blackjack was hiding in the closet. He’s come out and been social this morning, but he doesn’t like this weather. I think this is the most rain we’ve gotten in such a short span of time since I moved here. (I wasn’t here for the El Niño storms and mudslides of the 90s.)

Naturally there have been plenty of traffic accidents, including this impressive story about three men pulling an unconscious driver out of his burning car.

I’ve been delayed getting out this morning by spending time trying to improve the drainage routes in my back yard, since I noticed there was half an inch of standing water on my patio. The thing just wasn’t built for this amount of rain. I unclogged the main artery for the patio to drain, which routes the water into my pond. The pond is a pretty good place to send the rain, since it’s away from the building, and I can also grab a bucket and bail it if necessary. I bailed 10 bucketfuls (20 gallons, maybe?) into the sink this morning, to provide some more space for the water. Perhaps I should invest in 50 feet of hose to use the pond’s pup to just pump the water steadily out of the pond and into the sink. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

The rain’s picking up again, and it’s time for me to head out. I’ll drive carefully, you can bet on that.

Birthday Party

The birthday party last night went off without a hitch. In fact, it might have been the best one I’ve thrown. I’m not quite sure why, but everyone who came stayed until the end, and everyone was talking with everyone else, which seems like a sure sign of a good party. A little oddly, everyone suddenly decided to leave around 10:30 (the party started at 7:00) – it’s only odd because literally everyone left at the same time (save for a couple of folks who left slightly earlier).

Shortly before the party Debbi and I debated who would be the first to show up. I put my proverbial money on Josh, who’s usually pretty punctual, but I should have put my money on Chris, who only lives a block away and who arrived just a little after 7! I think Josh was fourth.

I always tell people they don’t need to bring gifts to my party, but Chris brought one anyway – sort of. He gave me five packs of arguably the worst Magic expansion ever made, Homelands. He said he’ll have won if any of the cards ever show up in my decks at his Monday night Magic sessions. There were actually a couple of not-too-sucky cards in the packs (Abbey Gargoyles could be useful in our metagame), but yeah, it was a pretty weak set of cards. I told him I might be more likely to put the note he included with the packs in one of my decks!

I don’t throw many parties – pretty much just my birthday party once a year – and I always worry that we’ll try to cram too many people into our relatively-little house. There are always a few people I’d like to invite but I’m wary of going overboard (there are also always a few people I don’t think of until the day of the party, so my apologies if I left you out!). In fact, we managed to fill all our chairs and still have a few people standing or sitting on the floor, but we weren’t quite packed together, which was good. Getting through the living room without stepping on someone was a feat, though. I believe we had 13 people show up, plus me and Debbi.

As usual I picked up cakes from the Prolific Oven, and ice cream from Rick’s, and it all went over well. Rick’s is one of the best-kept-secrets in the south bay, it often seems, and I’m always happy to introduce new people to their yummy treats.

The cats retreated upstairs when the first people showed up, as usual, but three of them came downstairs to check people out. Newton in particular examined everyone’s shoes, getting a good sniff since they were all laid out in front of the hall closet. Jefferson needed a little encouragement to come down, but eventually sat and watched from the stairs. Blackjack is becoming our social cat, as he made the rounds several times.

My friend Cliff showed up about 10 minutes after the party ended – he’d had another commitment not too far from us, but it didn’t wrap up until after we did. But he hung out for a bit and we caught up on his holiday adventures and vice versa.

All-in-all, a very fun party.

Today we had a quiet day mostly at home, although I did go out to get my hair cut. Debbi kind of wanted to go out and do something, mainly because although she feels okay she’s dealing with an annoying cough and she’s just plain tired of being sick. After our very busy weekend last weekend, I was happy to have a day at home, and she didn’t push very hard since it’s my birthday weekend. We watched football, did some reading, and I came upstairs to pay bills and build some new Magic decks this evening. 🙂

This has been a pretty low key birthday, but I actually feel really good about it. It’s been a fun weekend all around, except maybe for the complex fire alarm we had to deal with yesterday (but it turned out to be nothing). I hope next year’s is just as good!

Forty-One

Age 41 doesn’t feel very different from the day before age 41, other than that my birthday falls on a weekend this year. None of the angst that accompanied turning forty (not that I was crying in my beer, you understand). The most awkward thing about 41 is coming up with a witty title for the Evite invitation for my party tonight; I expect next year will be easier.

Other than preparing for the party, today will be a pretty normal day. I actually have a couple of chores to work on outside today, because I want to get them done (or at least make some headway) before the rains set in tomorrow (we’re expected to get 8 inches of rain in the next week). Debbi baked scones (from Iveta) for me this morning, and I talked to my Dad for 45 minutes. But, well, for the most part birthdays aren’t very different from other days, at least, not at my age.

And that’s fine.

This Week's Haul

A.K.A., last week’s haul, desperately late.

I thumbed through Marvel’s The Siege in the store and decided – as I do for nearly every Marvel event comic – to skip it. Chad Nevitt at Comics Should Be Good sums it up pretty well: The “Dark Avengers” (villains acting as the Avengers since the real Avengers have been ousted by the powers that be) attack Thor and Asgard. My fundamental problem with Marvel’s events – and the way their comics have gone generally in recent years – is that the heroes aren’t very heroic. J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor was bland and dull, and having a bunch of villains attack a group of gods who really aren’t very heroic themselves is just not interesting to me. Sure, I like Thor a lot better than I like the villains, so I’d prefer him to “win”, but I don’t care enough to get engaged with the story.

  • Suicide Squad #67, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Echo #18, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Gigantic #5 of 5, by Rick Remender & Eric Nguyen (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #38, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Suicide Squad #67 Part of DC’s Blackest Night event involves resurrecting some cancelled comics series of years past for one more issue. One of the more unusual comics of the late 80s/early 90s was John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, which Gail Simone’s Secret Six bears some resemblance to: The Squad were villains who were recruited for high-risk government-sanctioned missions, with the promise of a pardon afterwards. The Six are a small organization of criminals. The Six are sort of the darker version of the Squad.

So in this one-issue revival of Suicide Squad, there’s a little of the usual rigamarole regarding dead Squad members being revived as black lanterns, but mainly it’s about Amanda Waller of the Squad deciding she needs Deadshot for a mission, and staging a trap for the Six to both put them out of business and capture Deadshot to force him to rejoin. It’s a good set-up for the next Secret Six story arc, and Ostrander and Simone co-write it. It ought to be good, as long as the black lanterns don’t play too big a role.

Gigantic #5 Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen’s Gigantic comes to an end, the last issue being extremely late (issue #4 came out last May), and unfortunately it wasn’t worth the wait. The trappings are those of big monsters smashing each other, but the story itself is rather depressing, and the upbeat ending in this issue not only doesn’t really put a brave face on the earlier events, but it feels very out-of-place next to the rest of the story. Greg Burgas found it disappointing, too, and he touches on some of the series’ other flaws: The lead character is unsympathetic, the story is hard to follow despite not being very complicated.

Nguyen’s art doesn’t work for me at all: It’s too sketchy, which doesn’t do justice to the designs of the characters. I didn’t care for it in Sandman Mystery Theatre a few years ago, either.

For a similar premise – a young man leaves with aliens, and comes back years later to find he can’t go home again – I’d recommend Dan Vado’s graphic novel The Griffin instead. It has its flaws too, but the story is far more satisfying than Gigantic.