This Week’s Haul

A light week, for a change:

  • Justice Society of America Annual #2, by Keith Giffen, Matthew Sturges, Tom Derenick & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Criminal #4, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Nova #34, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Mahmud A. Asrar & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The Boys #39, by Garth Ennis, John McCrea & Keith Burns (Dynamite)
The early contender for “worst comic book of 2010” is Justice Society of America Annual #2. This thing was terrible.

The cover is awful. The characters’ faces look grotesque. The prominent feature of the cover is Power Girl’s breasts (really?? That never happens!). And although it’s presumably depicting the other characters’ disgust for Magog (a disgust which, frankly, I share), the composition is such that it’s not portrayed very clearly (at first I thought it was a standard “team vs. team” cover).

The interior art is a little better, but nothing special. The story, though, is truly terrible. The way the JSA has split into two teams was handled ham-handedly, and this story features the spin-off team, the All-Stars, showing up at a prison (a large, rather palatial prison, it seems) to deal with a riot purportedly started by Magog. None of the team (his own team!) really trusts Magog – especially Power Girl – even though these are supposedly the characters who left the core JSA with him to form their own team, seemingly because they sympathized with his outlook. Then the villains in the prison show up and it turns into an all-out fight, between the heroes and the villains, and between Magog and his supposed teammates. Then the other JSA team shows up and everything gets thrown even more into chaos. Meanwhile, some apparently-villainous group I’ve never heard of is using the prison as a lab facility, which is why Magog went there in the first place.

None of this makes even the first lick of sense. Magog seems about as bright as a couple bags of hammers, but his communication skills are near zero. How’d he find out about the prison being a cover? Why did he go in alone? Why was his own team so willing to believe the worst about him? And the fight isn’t even well choreographed.

The point of the story seems to be to get Magog off the All-Stars team, to which I say: Good riddance to bad rubbish. But almost all of the characters behave badly, the plot is nonsensical, the art isn’t much to look at, and it feels like a routine 2-issue story for some reason shoved into an annual. Was it really necessary? Haven’t there been plenty of opportunities to show Magog the door in the last six months?

The regular JSA book has been rather dour since Bill Willingham started writing it – it’s been well over a decade since someone’s done a JSA series which captures the spirit of the team – and this annual piles a muddled story on top of that feeling. It may be time to bail on this series.

Jack McDevitt: The Devil’s Eye

Why is it that Jack McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War, is one of my favorite books, but the others I’ve read by him have been merely… okay? Talent starred antiquities dealer Alex Benedict, a resident of human space in the far future, unraveling a mystery of the great war between humans and the only other sentient species we’d discovered. The other Benedict novels – there are three more – follow a similar pattern, of Benedict and his aide/pilot Chase Kolpath traveling around the galaxy to unearth clues to a historical mystery, yet none of them worked nearly as well for me as Talent did.

The Devil’s Eye is the latest Benedict novel, and it covers similar ground: On the way back from a visit to Earth, Alex receives a message from popular horror novelist Vicki Greene asking for help, with the cryptic line that “They’re all dead”. But when they get back home, they find that Greene has had her personality wiped after transferring a large sum of money to Alex’s account. Feeling honor-bound to figure out what drove her to this extreme, Alex and Chase follow up on her recent activities, travelling to the isolated world of Salud Afar, a planet rich in ghost and horror stories, in addition to having come out from under the yoke of a brutal dictatorship just a few decades earlier. And they do discover what happened to Ms. Greene, about halfway through the book, at which point it becomes a very different story, one of moral conflicts and government cover-ups and appeals for help in the face of impending tragedy.

A Talent For War was a game-changing novel for Alex’s universe, and it’s difficult to do that in every story (and to his credit, McDevitt hasn’t tried), but it also makes it a tough act to follow. More importantly, Talent was both a portrait of a flawed hero – a hero of the past war, whose nature Alex had to figure out – and a story in which Alex had to make some tough choices for himself, even though there were some clues that maybe the mystery were better left unsolved. Talent is more of a character drama than the other McDevitt novels I’ve read, in addition to being an exciting adventure, and having some compelling vignettes sprinkled through it. It works because it’s the complete package, and McDevitt pulled it off with unusual subtlety.

The Devil’s Eye feels like it’s trying to recapture the power of Talent (the intervening two Benedict novels have been essentially straight-up mysteries), and mixing things up a bit by using the mystery to get into the larger story, in which Alex and Chase have to decide whether to reveal what they’ve learned, and then whether they can do more to help. (It’s difficult to describe the second half of the story without ruining the surprises of first half.) But unfortunately the second half is not nearly as interesting as the first half, and it felt very heavy-handed. There are some good moments in it, in particular Chase ends up being the hero of the day in the way that Alex usually is, but the machinations of the characters in the second half often felt routine to me, and the outcome seemed fairly clear from the outset. The first half, with its mysteries and atmosphere and moments of adventure, is much more intriguing and exciting.

McDevitt’s strength in the latter Benedict novels is that atmosphere, which is grounded in the settings of the places the characters visit, and their histories. That’s the case here, too, as the mysterious locales of Salud Afar are a little bit corny, and a little bit spooky, which I think is the intention. It’s the SF equivalent of a haunted house, or a local legend where no one’s quite sure whether it has any basis in truth or not. For example, the isolated village where a cyborg is reputedly buried and who rises from the grave to claim new victims, or the mysterious light in the Haunted Forest. The book’s strength is all the more impressive since Benedict’s universe is pretty low-tech for a far future novel (at least, a modern one), being of about the same tech level as Asimov’s Foundation books (McDevitt’s writing reminds me of Asimov’s from time to time, actually). The sense of wonder is in the world building, not the tech.

One of the weaknesses of the Benedict novels after Talent is that they’re narrated by Chase, whose voice never really rings true to me, and who I think is a much less interesting character than Alex. And Alex isn’t even a Sherlock Holmes type who’s best revealed through an everyman narrative; he’s rich and smart, but not truly exceptional, and being inside his head in Talent was much more interesting than seeing him from Chase’s point of view.

(Unsurprisingly, I said many of the same things in my review of the previous Benedict novel, Seeker.)

The book overall rates for me as “pretty good”, but at this point I don’t think McDevitt’s going to recapture the excellence of Talent. The Devil’s Eye has its moments, and the series is entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading them – mainly for the setting and the mystery (I think space opera mystery is an underexplored genre, and I wish more writers were working this territory). But his writing seems more geared for the mainstream than for the high tech SF fan, which isn’t bad, but I often think it could be more than it is.

Vivid Dreams

I’ve had three nights in a row of strong, vivid dreams. They’ve been pretty nonsensical, but powerful, considering that I rarely remember my dreams. I rarely write about them when I do remember them (because reading about other peoples’ dreams is pretty boring, I think), but after three nights in a row, I wanted to note this down:

  • Friday night the dream involved cleaning a large house, though one I didn’t recognize. Somehow that mutated into the house being on top of a tall tree (or something like that), and swinging on vines to clean up dead pieces in the tree. And somehow that ended with me landing on a street corner (which I also didn’t recognize) to watch a performance put on by a group of actors. The actors were three former actors to play Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee (who is deceased), Tom Baker, and Colin Baker, plus someone I didn’t recognize who apparently had played Mister Fantastic back in the 70s or 80s (as he appeared much older now). What exactly they were doing I’m not sure, but I had a lengthy conversation with Jon Pertwee in the dream (which I don’t recall).

    Dreams involving heights are a recurring theme for me, probably because I have mild acrophobia, so that’s not unusual. The presence of Mister Fantastic was probably because we watched Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer on Friday night (not recommended). The rest of it is a mystery.

  • Saturday night I had a dream involving zombies. You’d think this was because I just took the first volume of The Walking Dead out of the library, but in fact I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know where this dream came from. It mostly involved me watching several young teenagers walking back and forth between two points in a small town, including going through a shotgun house in which an old man lived. Obviously at some point they were going to find that the old man became a zombie. When the inevitable happened, one of the kids – or maybe me, since my point of view had merged with them by then – let out with a “Nooooo….!”

    This was so powerful a moment that I actually let out with a loud moan in real life, waking up Debbi and scaring all the cats off the bed. I wasn’t particularly frightened by the dream when I woke up – it didn’t feel like a true nightmare – but I was embarrassed that the dream crept out into real life like that.

  • Last night the dream involved going to the ocean and finding that it had risen quite a few feet, swamping the shore. I met an old girlfriend of mine there, and she was apparently swimming around collecting large sea shells. I think this was the tail of a longer dream, which mostly involved getting to the ocean, but I don’t remember anything but the end of it.

I guess my mind must have a bunch of stuff it’s trying to work through, but it’s certainly not any clearer from all of this nocturnal activity. I’d be just as happy to not remember any of these dreams, because they don’t feel helpful at all.