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This Week's Haul

  • Batman and Robin #9, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Blackest Night #7 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • The Flash: Rebirth #6 of 6, by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Scyver & Scott Hanna (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #36, by Bill Willingham, Jesus Merino & Jesse Delperdang (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #20, by Matt Wagner, Joëlle Jones & David Hahn (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead #4 of 6, by Ian Edginton, Davide Fabbri & Tom Mandrake (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Avengers: The Korvac Saga HC, by Jim Shooter, Len Wein, Roger Stern, David Michelinie, George Pérez, Sal Buscema, David Wenzel, Klaus Janson, Pablo Marcos & others (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #576, by Jonathan Hickman & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #6 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #11, by Mark Waid, Peter Krause & Diego Barreto (Boom)
This month’s Batman and Robin is hands-down the best issue of the series so far. Overlooking the rather obvious solution to getting the critically-injured Batwoman out of the cave where the two Batmen fought last issue (ah, the joys of a readily-available deus ex machina), Morrison manages to pull off everything he tries here: The faux Batman returns to Gotham and faces off with Robin, who’s recovering from a spine transplant (!). The impostor speaks in broken English with a mix of old and new styles of Batman jargon, and is gradually decaying as the story goes on. Robin and Alfred put up a stiff fight (always nice to see Alfred show he’s more than just a butler), and then Batman and Batwoman show up to put things away. Robin gets a justified jab in at Batman’s behavior at the end. And Cameron Stewart’s art is outstanding, the finest the series has yet seen (I hate the hair style he and Frank Quitely have saddled Dick Grayson with, though). For a change, I liked this issue better than Greg Burgas did.

The series has been something of a mess so far, because Morrison spends too much time messing around with either peripheral elements, or with the “bigger picture” of what’s going on in the Batman universe, even though that bigger picture is rather silly. (Consider, after all, the Batman here doesn’t even wonder who might have put a fake body – which managed to fool Superman – in place of the original Batman.) If he could just focus on the relationship between Batman and Robin, this would be a much better series.

The delayed finale of The Flash: Rebirth shows up this week. Although Ethan Van Scyver’s artwork is always nice to see (though it seems much less detailed here than usual), this has been a rather pedestrian story all around, certainly not nearly as good as the last time Geoff Johns brought a hero back from the dead. Of course, Green Lantern: Rebirth had to explain why Hal Jordan went bad so he could return to being a hero, whereas Barry Allen has been sainted by DC heroes and fanboys for decades now, so this story was just about giving him a threat big enough to reinstate him among the DC pantheon. And Johns pulls in all the usual Flash tropes, most of them (naturally enough) from Mark Waid’s remarkable run on the title: The Reverse-Flash, the extended Flash family, and the Speed Force. He throws in a retcon where Barry’s father was arrested for the murder of his mother, and a bit of time travel involving the beginning of Barry’s career, but it’s otherwise a pretty routine modern-day Flash story, actually not up to the standards of Johns’ own run on Wally West’s series.

To be fair, a friend of mine described Johns’ Green Lantern relaunch shortly after it began as “the least necessary relaunch in comics”, and it ended up being considerably more interesting than that. With an ongoing Flash series on the way, Johns may be able to work similar magic there. But this isn’t a promising start.

Why do I get the feeling that we’re finally getting to the Justice Society of America story that Bill Willingham really wanted to tell? The last several issues have been nothing more than a fairly stupid way to split the JSA into two teams, getting (mostly) the marginal members into the JSA All-Stars series (where they can be safely ignored) and paring the core team down to manageable levels. Here we jump right into the story – 20 years in the future, where Mr. Terrific is imprisoned by a new regime which has captured and is executing the JSA members. He’s dictating his memoir, expecting his own end to come soon, explaining how the new regime came into power, with a group of Nazi-oriented villains attacking the JSA and killing Green Lantern.

It’s not like we haven’t seen set-ups like this before, but Willingham seems to enjoy and excel at telling war stories, so even if this ends up being resolved through the miracle of time travel, it could still be fun.

The Seven Samurai

It’s been a lo-o-ong time since we’d been to see anything at the Stanford Theatre, but when I saw they were doing an Akira Kurosawa film festival, I persuaded Debbi to go with me to see the classic Japanese film The Seven Samurai (1954). I’ve actually never seen any Kurosawa films, and I’ve always figured I should see at least this one. (No, I’ve never seen The Magnificent Seven, either.)

Set in 16th-century Japan, a peasant village is under threat of a large band of mounted bandits. One of the peasants refuses to just give in, and after consulting with the village elder they go to a larger town to recruit samurai to come defend them. After some initial difficulties, they find an older rōnin, Kanbê, who is willing to help, and he is able to find six others to assist him in the defense, including a young appentice, Katsushirô, and a wild reckless samurai, Kikochiyo. Returning to the village, the samurai find the peasants are suspicious of them, but they earn their trust and start building defenses and training the peasants in basic military skills. After the barley is harvested, the bandits attack, and the samurai lead the villagers in defending their town, even though the samurai receive no payment other than the food the peasants have to eat. (You can read the full synopsis in the Wikipedia entry.)

The Seven Samurai is a long film – nearly 3-1/2 hours – and it often drags. One of the joys of watching films from other eras or cultures is in seeing how conventions in filmmaking differ from what we see today, and yet there are only so many meaningful glances you can take before the film bogs down (I have the same problem with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, although I enjoy the film overall quite a bit). The first 45 minutes are quite difficult to get through, as it mainly concerns the peasants and their plight. Once Kanbê appears, the film becomes more exciting and more amusing, especially the sequence of recruiting the other samurai. Indeed, the humor is by far the best facet of the film.

Dramatically, the film is very uneven. The acting ranges from strong to poor; the an playing the apprentice, Katsushirô, is quite stiff, and he has a relationship with Shino, the daughter of one of the peasants, who’s played by a woman whose style could best be described as hysterical. Their scenes together were often painful to watch. The other samurai are generally very well acted, especially Kanbê (who Debbi observed resembles Morgan Freeman in his appearance and mannerisms) and Kikochiyo, the latter of whom is over-the-top in all the right ways, his best scene being the one in which we learn something of his background, although he has several other good scenes.

Although the battle sequences appear very well done for their day they sometimes feel a little too contrived and implausible. It’s easy to see how the film influenced later films involving a few going up against many (of which the TV show The A-Team has to be the reductio ad absurdum). And it’s not a cheerful film, with a rather downbeat ending for the samurai, although a satisfying one in terms of the characters. Kurosawa clearly demonstrates many of the skills of great screenwriters and directors, but I don’t think he pulls them all together as well as, say, Alfred Hitchcock was himself doing in the 50s.

I would say The Seven Samurai is mainly of interest to people fascinated by film history, or historical films for that matter. It has much to recommend it, but I think it falls short of being truly great, not least because of its length and pacing. I’m glad I saw it, but I doubt I’ll feel the need to see it again anytime soon.

Bye-Bye Infinite Loop

No, I’m not leaving Apple, but our team is moving to a new building this weekend, so today is our last day in Infinite Loop, the main Apple campus. I’ve never worked at Apple anywhere else, having been in 3 different buildings on campus. In fact, I’ve been on the same floor of the same building (albeit in 3 different offices and a temporary cubicle) for 8 years. That’s a long time.

We’re not moving far away – walking over to have lunch at the cafeteria should be easy (a bit trickier on windy, rainy days like today) – and the new building has been substantially remodeled and looks pretty nice (I checked it out on my way out today). But still, I’ll miss being on campus.

But: Onwards and upwards!

Bye-bye!

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert is one of those people I thought would be around forever, because after all I’ve been watching him since I was a kid, when he and Gene Siskel were hosting Sneak Previews in the late 1970s. It was a little shocking when Siskel died in 1999, but also reassuring (I thought) that Ebert kept their film review show going afterwards. Other than graying hair, Ebert didn’t seem to change very much over the years. I can’t say I was ever a “true fan”, since I didn’t follow his columns (even on the Web), nor watch his show every week (though I’d sometimes watch one if I came across it). Nothing against him, but I’m not truly a film buff, and in fact I’ve spent more time in the last decade watching films made before I was born than films made after I was born. Still, like any other enduring public figure who’s been there for most of your life, you get used to the lack of change.

I came across Ebert’s blog a year or two ago and had read about him having had throat cancer. His picture on his blog showed him with his hands palms-together in front of his face, covering much of his lower face. But other than looking thinner, he basically looked like the same guy.

The picture, it seems, is several years old, as I learned by reading this amazing profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire, which includes a head shot of Ebert as he looks today: He no longer has a lower jaw bone, and cannot eat or talk. And, obviously, he looks quite different. If you cover the bottom of his head, then he looks basically the same as he always has. But the difference of the totality is striking.

I’m not sure why the photo is so fascinating to me. I usually shy away from pictures like this (for example, the seemingly-omnipresent ads in the paper to donate to help children with cleft palates always cause me to turn the page immediately), but not this one. With the equally bewitching article, I think it makes me think that this sort of thing – although rare – could happen to anyone. Ebert seems to deal with it as well as anyone could hope for, at least from the view from the outside: Last month he wrote an entry about not being able to eat, where he seems to be philosophical about it. I’m sure it’s been terrifying for him at times – but you can’t be terrified constantly.

This month Ebert wrote a follow-up to the Esquire article, and it’s also a fascinating read (and has additional pictures). He seems a little surprised that he’s exposed his home life as much as he has, as if he knew intellectually what inviting the writer into his home to write the profile meant, but until he saw it he hadn’t realized it emotionally.

It’s the final paragraph in the blog post that gripped me the most:

I studiously avoid looking at myself in a mirror. It would not be productive. If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive.

I don’t think I could do that. I don’t know if I’d be able to deal with it as well as Ebert seems to be. Then again, maybe you deal with it because it’s better than the alternative.

This Week's Haul

A huge week this week, the most expensive I can recall in recent memory. (Okay, I bought some Magic cards, too, since my Worldwake booster boxes haven’t arrived yet.) Two hardcovers, two paperbacks, and a goodly set of books.

  • Green Lantern #51, by Geoff Johns & Doug Mahnke (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #45, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Keith Champagne & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • Power Girl #9, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • The Starman Omnibus vol 4 HC, by James Robinson, Jerry Ordway, Tony Harris,Peter Krause, Mike Mignola, Gary Erskine, Matt Smith, Mike Mayhew, Gene Ha, Wade Von Grawbadger, Dick Giordano & others (DC)
  • Fantastic Four: In Search of Galactus HC, by Marv Wolfman, Keith Pollard, John Buyne, Sal Buscema & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #23, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wed Craig & Serge LaPointe (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #141, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #6 of 6, by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #3, by Mark Waid, Jean Diaz & Belardino Brabo (Boom)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Pawns of War TPB, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Invincible #70, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • Jack Staff: Rocky Realities vol 4 TPB, by Paul Grist (Image)
  • Atomic Robo: Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #1 of 4, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
After a long delay, the final issue of Marvels: Eye of the Camera is out this week. My adoration of Kurt Busiek‘s writing knows few bounds, but this is not one of his best series. It follows the protagonist of the first series, Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon, after he learns that he has cancer, and his life in the 1970s and 80s as he watches the Marvel universe develop around him. But rather than being an everyman’s chronicle of key points in the development of Marvel’s world, it’s a rather glum, somewhat sentimental portrayal of Phil coming to grips with the end of his life. And where the first Marvels spotlighted some of the truly great moments of early Marvel comics, few of the scenes depicted in Eye of the Camera measure up. This final issue shows a fight between the X-Men and… someone, a story I dimly remember as it was published around the time I decided X-Men had become unreadable and I dropped it, but compared to the Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner, or the Fantastic Four vs. Galactus, it’s an almost comically trivial encounter.

The best stuff in the series really does feature Sheldon, particular in this issue when the mutant Maggie, who as a girl hid out in the Sheldons’ baseman, returns to visit Phil on his deathbed, and they reminisce about that, and Phil puts a big chunk of his life into perspective.

But on the other hand, in a world in which characters survive and barely age for decades, it’s especially sad to see a likable, practically heroic, man like Phil die quietly like he does, and be buried in the ground like anyone else while superheroes fly overhead. As a writer himself (Phil is a writer as well as a photographer), and given his medical history over the last decade, I’m sure Busiek is putting some of his own thoughts and feelings down in this story. It’s not that it doesn’t work at all, but despite Phil’s attempts to put a brave face on his last moments and his legacy, it ends up feeling like too little, not rewarding enough for Phil or for us reading about him.

Jay Anacleto is no Alex Ross, and his figures and expressions often feel a little stiff, and too understated. And where Ross brought a surprising degree of verisimilitude to the superhero sequences he painted, Anacleto can’t duplicate the feat here.

Overall I was disappointed in Eye of the Camera, feeling that the sense of wonder that drove the first Marvels series to be mostly missing, and not really being compelled by the personal drama that was driving the story. I imagine people who read character drama-driven independent comics would get more out of the book than I did, but then people who read those comics are not very likely to pick up a Marvel title.

It’s time for another plug of the lovely Starman omnibus hardcovers that DC is publishing. The series was not entirely collected in paperback, and it’s neat to be able to read the whole thing, including a lot of ancillary material, in this oversized package.

The run is reaching the end of its heyday, as Tony Harris didn’t last a lot beyond this point (we’re up to issue #46 with this volume), and Peter Snejbjerg is a decent artist but he doesn’t have anywhere near the range or rendering awesomeness of Harris. This volume collects the crossover with The Power of SHAZAM, which was a lot of fun as an example of how a non-mainstream series can interact with a completely mainstream one, as well as the excellent Starman 80-Page Giant which featured a story with each Starman character up to that point, including the mysterious Starman of 1951. Plus they collect the Batman/Starman/Hellboy mini-series, which I’d completely forgotten about. Finally, they set things up for the next major story arc, in which Jack Knight goes into outer space to find his girlfriend’s missing brother.

I’d thought the omnibus series was intended to be 6 volumes, but with another 34 issues to go, I bet it’ll be 7 or 8 instead, especially if they include – for instance, the first arc of JSA, in which Jack Knight appeared in a supporting role (as James Robinson helped launch that series). Regardless, I’ll be very happy to have this whole set on my shelf.

Another excellent hardcover collection of a great Marvel Comics story from my childhood. Back in the early 1970s, after first Jack Kirby and then Stan Lee had left the Fantastic Four, the book really suffered creatively. In the late 70s, Marv Wolfman took over writing and editing the book and produced a memorable run full of action, adventure, and character drama – really, bringing it back to the roots that Lee and Kirby had brought up. This era is largely forgotten for two reasons: First, because John Byrne’s later run – actually only about a year and a half later – has been so acclaimed that it’s utterly eclipsed Wolfman’s run. Second, because Wolfman’s run was awkwardly aborted; I’m not sure why, but I suspect it had to do with personality clashes when Jim Shooter became editor-in-chief of Marvel (both Wolfman and longtime Marvel veteran Roy Thomas jumped to DC around that time). Wolfman had spent his two years on the title setting up some long-term plot threads, the most major of which was somewhat abruptly wrapped up after Wolfman left, and another of which – really just a moment of foreshadowing – was dealt with two years later by Byrne. It’s too bad, because I’d have liked to see Wolfman have the chance to build a legacy on the FF similar to that of Lee and Kirby. On the other hand, his departure not only opened the door for Byrne’s run (which is quite good), but also meant Wolfman could write The New Teen Titans, which is, frankly, even better.

This collection is a terrific outer-space odyssey in which Xandar – home of the Nova Corps – recruits the FF to help defend them against a Skrull armada. The FF are captured and sentenced to death – via a ray which will cause them to age to that point in just 3 days. Meanwhile, one of Xandar’s allies, the Sphinx, unlocks the power of his mystical gemstone and goes insane, displaying a cosmic level of power, and returning to Earth planning to reshape his homeworld. The FF are forced into a faustian bargain with Galactus to have the world-eater stop the Sphinx, after which all they have to do is find a way to stop Galactus and save themselves from the ravages of accelerated time.

Wolfman tells as good an adventure story as you’d have found in comics of the day, certainly the equal of what Chris Claremont and Byrne were doing on X-Men, and with art by Byrne, Keith Pollard, and longtime FF inker Joe Sinnott. If you’re a fan of any era of the FF, check this one out, because it’s really good. The current series by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham doesn’t really compare, even though it’s not bad by any means.

John Byrne’s Romulans comics get collected this month. His Star Trek comics for IDW (other than Assignment: Earth) are in my mind the best Trek comics I’ve seen since Mike W. Barr and Tom Sutton’s run for DC: He’s got the classic Trek look down, and he’s playing around in the backwaters of the universe while still telling recognizably Trek stories.

This collection is an arc which comes out of the classic episode Balance of Terror (one chapter of the book tells that story from the point of view of the Romulan commander, memorably played by Mark Lenard), and involves the Klingon/Romulan alliance, heavily based around the Klingons trying to manipulate the Romulans to get around the Organian peace treaty. It’s a pretty good story overall, although it has a disappointing ending (the Organians show up and, well, that’s it for the conflict), and when most of the major characters are anti-heroes or villains, well, it’s hard to root for anyone. Still, good stuff. I hope Byrne has more Star Trek stories in the pipeline, because I’d read ’em.

Not-a-Holiday Holidays

Considering this is a week full of holidays – Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday – it hasn’t been terribly festive for me!

First of all, I ended up going into work on Saturday. Blah. On the other hand, when I’d told her I’d be going in the day before, Debbi went out and got me a half-pound of marzipan from See’s Candy and gave it to me a day early. She told me that she’d had to brave the crowds after work on the Friday before Valentine’s Day. So I went to my bag and pulled out some See’s Candy I’d bought for her. It’s turns out that See’s is a lot less crowded at 12:45 in the afternoon the Friday before Valentine’s day.

We had a quiet Valentine’s Day, as it turned out. We exchanged cards, ran some errands, and in the evening I cooked dinner. I made a pasta dish with chicken, asparagus and pistachios in a cream sauce. The chicken was a new addition that Debbi suggested. I think it turned out the best of any time I’ve made this dish, and I’m not sure why. The sauce was not as thick as usual, which I think was a big factor. We nommed it down pretty quick, and Debbi had leftovers for dinner on Monday.

To add insult to the injury of my one-day weekend, Debbi got President’s Day off (which I don’t), so she had a three-day weekend. Sigh. (Well, good for her, though!)

Work has been hectic as all get-out lately (as you might guess since I went into work on Saturday). This week my main project got interrupted by a series of more important projects. Sigh. But I’m plowing through them as fast as I can.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for an order of the newest Magic set, Worldwake, to arrive. Ironically, I ordered them (via eBay) from a store up in Sacramento, figuring that they’d get here pretty quickly. But the store’s owners had a family emergency on release weekend, and they haven’t shipped them yet – a week and a half later. I’m sympathetic that they got backed up on shipping orders, but this is starting to get a little ridiculous. And frustrating. Hopefully they can get it out this week; I’m pinging them every few days for status updates.

Oh, and the weather has been absolutely beautiful this week, foggy in the morning (which sadly may have led to a small airplane crash in the area this morning), then sunny with highs near 70 by early afternoon. Of course, the rain’s supposed to return by Friday… but that’s okay, since I like rain, too.

So that’s the news from here: Some ups, some downs. And probably more of the same for the foreseeable future.

Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon

My favorite science fiction writer, Alastair Reynolds, has a new blog: Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon.

It includes the first chapter of his forthcoming novel, Terminal World. Which I really need to preorder soon…

Incidentally, I recently read his “hardcover Ace double“, Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers, which was fun. Minla’s Flowers is perhaps a bit obvious, but Thousandth Night is a very good prequel to his fine novel House of Suns, and it’s worth reading just for that.

This Week's Haul

  • Batman and Robin #8, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Booster Gold #29, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Secret Six #18, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #10, by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Jimmy Broxton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. ultimate collection TPB, by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Phonogram: The Singles Club #7 of 7, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Image)
Grant Morrison does clear a few things up in the new Batman and Robin: Who the body left behind when Darkseid killed Batman in Final Crisis belongs to, and why Superman verified that it was Bruce Wayne’s (the explanation is fairly stupid, though), and how Batwoman ended up in England (though she’s basically superfluous to the story).

Either DC or Grant Morrison (maybe both) have really painted themselves into a corner here: Bruce Wayne is “dead”, but we know he’s not really dead. But Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne Al Ghul are now Batman and Robin – but we’re getting this story where Dick’s being a weenie and trying to resurrect Wayne using a Lazarus Pit. Which means the story can’t focus on Dick and Damian – plus Damian just had his spine replaced (!) so he’s been off the stage for a few issues anyway. The most promising part of Batman and Robin from the start was the relationship between Dick (a kinder, gentler Batman) and Damian (a nastier, crazier Robin), but that’s all fallen by the wayside in favor of plumbing the depths – yet again – of Batman’s convoluted mythos. And that’s just not as much fun as playing new games with new players. And Morrison’s writing style seems supremely unsuited to writing this series, inasmuch as characterization is his weak point.

At this point I’m basically assuming that Wayne will be back soon, and that this series will end with #12 or so. It’s shaping up to be completely forgettable, which is too bad, since there was some potential here.

From the beginning, The Unwritten felt like it was going to take a while to get going, and now it feels like it’s getting there: Our hero, Tom Taylor, has been confused for his fictional alter-ego written by his father in a series of Harry Potter-esque novels, and he’s been hunted by an assassin, whose victims’ murders Tom has been framed and imprisoned for. Now Tom has escaped prison with a reporter and a mysterious woman who sees to know more than she’s telling, and in this issue they end up in what seems like a giant hologram of late-1930s Germany. The only person they can talk to is Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who is making the film Jud Süß, and who provides a little insight (if obliquely) into the nature of fiction in the world writer Mike Carey is creating.

I’m willing to go along with the sometimes-frustrating pace of the story because I can identify with Tom’s own frustrating that many things don’t make any sense. He’s a sympathetic character who has gotten caught up – apparently through no fault of his own – in something much larger than he is. Of course, there’s the implication that he actually is the fictional character and that the story is building towards revealing that to him and showing what it means. My expectation is that these early chapters are largely sowing the ground for where the story is ultimately going, and that they’re not being oblique and obscure just for the sake of being so. The success of The Unwritten is going to depend heavily on there being clear explanations and resolutions of the major story elements at some point.

But so far I’m happy to go along for the ride. While I wish the pace would pick up a little bit, The Unwritten is still an intriguing read.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E is all about superheroes blowing things up. It’s Warren Ellis writing about five heroes who barely achieve the level of has-been (Photon and Machine Man are the headliners), making smart remarks and blowing up everything that a terrorist organization that’s taken over their sponsor group can throw at the, with Stuart Immonen drawing in a cartoony style which completely submerges the lush realism he usually brings to the page.

It is, overall, a really, really bad idea, executed with a modicum of what I assume is supposed to be humor, and even less cleverness, never mind anything even resembling an understanding of the characters. ( I always wondered why Machine Man suddenly appeared in Ms. Marvel behaving completely unlike his past appearances, and apparently this piece of drek is the reason.) The one actual good idea is plundering Marvel’s 1960s humor comic, Not Brand Ecch, for a team to fight the Nextwave.

Apparently this series was something of a fan favorite when it first came out, and it’s completely beyond me why: It’s not funny, it’s not smart, it’s not exciting, it’s just a train wreck from beginning to end. In short, it is Brand Ecch. And that ain’t good.

Eight months ago, Phonogram was getting a fair amount of positive Internet press, so I picked up the collection of the first series, Rue Britannia. Although it had its rough edges – Jamie McKelvie’s art wasn’t very polished, and Kieron Gillen’s story’s structure was a fairly uninventive “hero’s journey” one – it won me over. The premise was that phonomancer David Kohl’s identity and power were bound up in an early-90s incarnation of the goddess Britannia, based around the music of Britpop, and that someone was trying to rewrite her role in history, which would completely change Kohl’s nature, so he sets out to save her, even though her obsolescence meant that no one was really willing to help him. No one really cared, except him. It worked as a story of identity and sense of self in the face of a changing world.

Gillen and McKelvie followed this up with the series – now in color – The Singles Club, which comes to a close this week. Greg Burgas loved this series, as he wrote about here and here, but the series has not done well commercially, and it sounds like there won’t be a third series. Unfortunately, I’m not very surprised, because The Singles Club had none of the strengths of Rue Britannia, and I found it very difficult to relate to.

The core problem is that The Singles Club is a collection of 7 vaguely-linked short stories, and none of them have the power of Rue Britannia. I guess they were emulating the Sandman model of a big story followed by some short stories, but that’s a terrible model for a struggling independent series, and none of the short stories here are anywhere near as good as Neil Gaiman’s typical short story in Sandman. Gillen tries awfully hard to evoke a sense of wonder through love of music, but the characters are mostly ciphers and there’s no deeper thematic underpinnings to the stories to give them force. The premise of the world of Phonograph is subtle and thus a difficult clay to work with anyway: Phonomancers are able to work magic through the focus of music, but the magic is very understated, which means the sense of the fantastic is subdued and rarely a selling point to the series. Rue Britannia did get to the payoff of big-effect magic in the climax, which is what it really needed. The Singles Club never reaches that level in any of its stories. There’s just not much oomph in these little character dramas – the characters were pretty thin anyway – and they needed some oomph to get readers to spread the word. While Rue Britannia is something I’d recommend to a certain set of readers, The Singles Club isn’t.

This is a real shame, because McKelvie’s artwork is leaps and bounds better than in the first series, and the colors are fantastic, making his art all the more vivid. Indeed, the best moments in The Singles Club are the visuals and panel-to-panel storytelling; this last issue has one of the most memorable scenes in which the main character taunts and is chased by gang of apparent street thugs.

Burgas has a response to one of the criticisms the series has received:

Some people here have said they don’t like Phonogram, and some have even said they don’t like it because of the music Gillen references. But the music is ultimately beside the point completely, because, as Kohl points out, any music will do. Gillen might be an elitist ass, Kohl might be an elitist ass, Seth Bingo might be an elitist ass, but who really cares about their taste in music? All that matters is how you make it magical.

But I think Burgas is not understanding the criticism, which is that Britpop is such an integral part of the setting of this series that the series has to bend over backwards to make it relevant to the readers. The story titles in The Singles Club come from a variety of songs, none of which I’m familiar with, and so they have no meaning for me. The music isn’t magical for me, and Rue Britannia went to great lengths to emphasize that music is very personal, very specific, from person to person (a sentiment I completely agree with), so using Britpop as a stand-in for “any music the reader finds magical” is a complete failure of approach, because it’s not that “music” is used to make magic, but that very specific music is used to make a very specific sort of magic. The magic of Pete Townshend‘s “Stardust in Action”, Yes‘ “Wonderous Stories” and Dream Theater‘s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” are all very different from one another – and probably different for someone else than for me. So I can completely sympathize with readers who found it difficult to relate to the series because of the musical references (and the “liner notes” at the end aren’t really adequate): I thought Rue Britannia did a good job of making the story work even though the musical references were outside my understanding, but The Singles Club didn’t succeed in doing so at all.

On the one hand it’s sad that Phonogram didn’t make it because Gillen and McKelvie were clearly trying to hard, and they’re both so talented. But on the other hand, The Singles Club was really not a good vehicle to try to build an audience for the series, so I’m not surprised at the outcome. If they try again in a few years, I hope they’ll return to something in the Rue Britannia mold.

John Scalzi: Zoë's Tale

Zoë’s Tale can be read on its own, but it fits better as a companion novel to Scalzi’s previous book, The Last Colony. It follows the events of that novel through the eyes of Zoë, the teenaged adoptive daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, the protagonists of the first three of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels. Scalzi writes in the afterward that he was moved to write this novel partly to illuminate the character of Zoë, who plays a pivotal role in the story despite not being the protagonist, and to fill in some perceived gaps in the story, particularly Zoë’s role in the climax, which happens off-stage. I was skeptical of a companion book like this, in part because I think The Last Colony is fine as it is, but Zoë’s Tale is actually perfectly entertaining on its own.

You can read the synopsis of the overall plot in my review of The Last Colony, and it serves largely as backdrop here: The nitty-gritty details of colonizing a hostile world, the living in fear of being discovered by hostile aliens, and the duplicity of the human government are downplayed: They’re all elements on the minds of Zoë and other colonists, but they’re not things they have to grapple with every minute, because they’re not the colony’s leaders. Instead the book is about Zoë and her perceptions as all this is going on, and particularly her journey to discover her role in the universe. And it’s a big role, because a friendly alien race, the Obin, revere her as the daughter of the human scientist who gave them consciousness, and two of them, Hickory and Dickory, are her bodyguards and watchers. She was eight when all this started, but as she’s grown up she’s stopped seeing it as some cool thing that makes her special and started wondering why she should be so special, and found that being followed around by two overprotective aliens is in fact a little bit annoying, especially since – other than keeping her safe (which until this adventure has not been a big issue) – it doesn’t really benefit her or anyone she knows very much. Well, other than that this situation is a condition of the peace treaty between humanity and the Obin. But that’s not a very personal sort of benefit.

Zoë is a very likable character, although she becomes a little annoying since she sees a little too transparently to be a vehicle for Scalzi to express his own considerable facility for sarcasm. I’m as big a fan (and fount) of sarcasm as anyone, but her interactions with John and with her best friend Gretchen seemed a little too cute and too perfect, and this made the first third of a book hard going at times, especially since the other events in this period were basically a recapitulation of The Last Colony. Zoë and her friends become much more interesting once the colony is abandoned on the planet Roanoke and the tensions become ratcheted up: Then it becomes more of a tale of people (some smart, some rather stupid) dealing with exceptional situations, where Zoë is sometimes the voice of reason and sometimes one of the rebellious kids.

So the enjoyment of the story mainly comes from seeing Zoë grow from this sarcastic kid into a responsible young woman, a growth forced by her love of her family and friends and recognition that she has resources that no one else has. She demonstrates that she’s responsible and smart when she helps save two of her friends from the local alien race on Roanoke through cleverness and bravery. And she demonstrates a deeper level of responsibility when we follow her into space to meet with several races who are involved in the drama that John and (through him) the rest of humanity is playing out. In some ways that meeting is the most compelling development in the book, as she befriends the leader of the group who plan to wipe out their colony (getting involved in their own political battles), and also resolves her position with the Obin as a means of getting a boon from the much more powerful race of the Consu. On the other hand, the direct meeting with the Consu feels a little too much like a pivotal scene in Old Man’s War, only without the denouement of the actual combat, and the three lines that punctuate that climax feel too abrupt. I see that Scalzi felt that the key moment had already been written and everything else was not essential, but it still felt awkward and pulled me out of the story.

Zoë’s Tale moves the tone of the Old Man’s War stories away from more “serious” military/political SF and toward purely humanistic SF (in the Kim Stanley Robinson mode). On the one hand it’s a welcome evolution (one I appreciate a lot more than the farcical style of the unrelated The Android’s Dream), but on the other hand I think Scalzi is at his best when he’s writing a story about plans-within-plans, or the people trying to figure out and foil those plans, which means this novel has less of Scalzi’s best stuff in it. As I said, it’s a companion volume, and ultimately not as good as The Last Colony (which, to be fair, is quite good), and it does little to advance our understanding of the OMW universe, which is a bit disappointing. It’s an enjoyable read, and while Scalzi had developed a lot as a writer since Old Man’s War, but I don’t think it measures up to the first three.

Rebuilding Downtowns

Interesting article at the San Jose Mercury News today on the rebuilding of Sunnyvale Town Center having stalled out, and how the only piece that’s thriving – and having a hard time of it even then because of all the surrounding construction – is the one block of Murphy Street. A few choice quotes:

In the 1970s, Sunnyvale razed its downtown and built a shopping mall, complete with a Macy’s. It kept one block of Murphy Avenue intact, and that street—crowded with cafes and boutiques—thrived, becoming one of the valley’s coolest hangouts while people bypassed the sun-starved mall.

and:

Now the mayor and council have to deal with one of the largest redevelopment fiascoes after the half-completed project fell into foreclosure proceedings and contractors walked off the job last year.

Today, Murphy Avenue sits next to a mishmash of vacant lots, nearly completed buildings and the steel skeletons of others. Orange tape stops shoppers from pulling into never-finished parking lots.

I think my own city of Mountain View really dodged a bullet regarding its own downtown. It probably helped that in the 1970s and early 1980s Mountain View had not one, not two, but three malls: The huge strip mall San Antonio Center (which still exists today and even thrives despite seeming hopeless outdated in its layout), the Mayfield Mall (now a defunct office building and itself the subject of ongoing redevelopment efforts), and the Old Mill (now the site of two townhome complexes), so turning Mountain View’s downtown Castro Street – which at the time I hear was a wasteland – into another large mall would have been redundant. Castro Street’s renaissance apparently came from redevelopment funds in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when it was turned from a 4-lane thoroughfare to a 2-lane pedestrian shopping district.

Mountain View has been one of the smarter cities I know of about land use (no doubt some would disagree, but looking at some other cities the bar has been set pretty low), and development of downtown has been gradual and considered. Castro Street has three forms of public transit (bus, light rail, and CalTrain) that stop at one end of the street, and there is a huge amount of lot and garage parking behind the storefronts, avoiding that strip mall look. Castro Street has become a lot more interesting just in the 10 years I’ve lived here, as the vast numbers of Asian restaurants which supposedly kept the area afloat in the 80s have thinned out and been replaced by a more diverse selection. It’s very nice.

But then there’s Sunnyvale.

Sunnyvale’s main shopping district other than downtown is El Camino Real, and without a large mall as a shopping anchor it’s perhaps no surprise that the city decided to redevelop downtown into a mall in the 70s. But large malls have large problems as the years wear on: They’re not modular, like downtowns are, so renovating and updating them is difficult (and expensive, if the whole mall has to be updated at once). And if the mall falls so far behind the times that no one wants to renovate it, then your only option is to bulldoze it (wasteful) and redevelop it (expensive), possibly as another large mall project (really expensive). This could be the ultimate fate of other nearby large malls, such as Westfield Valley Fair (a traditional indoor mall) and Santana Row (an outdoor pedestrian mall with housing on the upper floors), although Westfield has worked hard to keep Valley Fair up-to-date, and Santana Row is less than 10 years old. Also-nearby Cupertino Square (formerly Vallco) is also a traditional indoor mall, and it’s been struggling to stay afloat as long as I’ve been here. The current owners are making a good go of it, but I wouldn’t lay money that it will still be open in another decade.

So Sunnyvale’s decision to redevelop downtown as a second mall is expensive, risky, and probably dooms the city to having to go through the whole thing again in another generation. Now, they do seem to be trying to apply the Santana Row model (or something closer to it) this time, but it’s yet to be seen whether that model will be more durable over the long haul.

Meanwhile, Murphy Street is already an unqualified success (its biggest problem is not enough parking – and it’s only one block long!), and redeveloping the mall space as a traditional pedestrian street-oriented shopping center might be less expensive (or at least the expense could be amortized over time as the streets are built out gradually), less risky, and more enduring, while perhaps being more successful in the long run. Sunnyvale does have a problem in that it has few places to locate large anchor stores like Macy’s, but it’s not too hard to envision a creative solution that places a large department store venue in the midst of smaller stores.

Given the straits that Sunnyvale seems to be in now, I wonder whether they might be better off razing large chunks of the work that’s already been done, and heading in a completely different direction. Of course, I don’t know what financial problems that might raise for the city, given the money that’s already been borrowed for the current project, but at some point they may have to just see that as a sunk cost and that the current project just isn’t worth pursuing.

I would be amazed if they pursued that route, and no doubt they’ll at least wait until the economy improves to see if the current project becomes viable again (although the Merc article says they might consider going partway on that). But ultimately I think it’s a shame that they went the mall route at all, since traditional downtowns are now in vogue, and have shown themselves to be enduring over long spans of time through changing demographics – a feat that few malls have managed to achieve.