Disneyland at Halloweentime

Last weekend we made our annual trip to Disneyland. I’d advocated that we go sometime other than our usual December trip so that we can see the park when it’s not decked out for Christmas.

Of course, it was decked out for Halloween instead, but that’s actually less of a change than Christmas. I was a little disappointed that the Haunted Mansion had already switched to the decor for The Nightmare Before Christmas as I’d looked forward to seeing the base Mansion for a change, but oh well. Even more disappointing was the “Ghost Galaxy” decor for Space Mountain, which has terrible music and ridiculous imagery – Space Mountain is a fine roller coaster, but this decor was so awful we decided only to ride it once. I hope they rethink this in future years.

The trip was a little bittersweet because one of the couples we went with got ill and had to bow out on Monday, while the other is buying a house in southern California and left on Monday to deal with that. So we were on our own on Monday. On the other hand, it is generally easier for two people to make decisions about what to do in the park than six people, but still, it wasn’t what we’d planned.

We did get optimal weather on Monday, though: Rain in the morning to scare away the locals, and then warm and sunny the rest of the day!

We did a few things I’d never done before: Saw Great Moments with Mister Lincoln, which is shorter and lighter than I’d expected (though the animatronics are impressive). It made me want to watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War sometime (since I don’t think I’m up for reading actual books about the event). We also went to Tom Sawyer Island; I hadn’t realize just how much stuff there is over there, lots of little tunnels and ladders to follow, it’s probably great fun for kids.

The renovation of California Adventure continues. The metal structures for Cars Land are going up, the World of Color is live (it’s pretty good, but really just a higher-tech Fantasmic without a storyline), and Mulholland Madness is being redressed as a Goofy character ride. I’ll be sad when all the northern California bits have been ripped out and replaced with character bits, but as long as they still have California Screamin’ I won’t complain too much. (We rode it 3 times.)

We ended up hitching a ride home on Tuesday with a different friend due to the one couple getting ill, but it was fun to spend some time with him (and that way he didn’t have to drive back alone). We had a good time overall, even though things didn’t really go as planned.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #894, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #44, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #28, by Matt Wagner & Marian Churchland (DC/Vertigo)
  • Time Masters: Vanishing Point #4 of 6, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Wonder Woman #604, by J. Michael Straczynski, Don Kramer, Eduardo Pansica & Jay Leisten (DC)
  • Zatanna #6, by Paul Dini & Jesus Saiz (DC)
  • Captain America #611, by Ed Brubaker & Daniel Acuña (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #584, by Jonathan Hickman & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Incognito: Bad Influences #1 of 6, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Incorruptible #11, by Mark Waid & Marcio Takara (Boom)
  • Hellboy/Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice #1, by Evan Dorkin, Mike Mignola & Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)
  • Dynamo 5: Sins of the Father #5 of 5, by Jat Faerber & Júlio Brilha (Image Comics)
This month’s Action Comics has gotten a lot of press because it features a rare appearance by a Neil Gaiman character – in this case, Death – in a mainstream DC Universe title. Word is that Gaiman helped script her appearance, although oddly the character doesn’t really “feel” like the Death from Gaiman’s Sandman: She feels a little too much like a teenager, and a little too vague and mysterious than the character we’ve seen before. Yes yes, the whole joke about Death is that she’s a cheerful teenage girl doing this somewhat melancholy job, but the point is that it feels like her portrayal here misses the mark. Whether or not Gaiman wrote her, it feels like someone else. Not that what we have here is unlikeable, it just feels off.

Though Pete Woods does do a boffo job of drawing her.

What of the story itself? Lex Luthor has become so hard-headed these days that it’s basically a case of his irresistible force meeting Death’s immovable object – and she prevails, of course. It’s entertaining, but unfortunately the illumination it shines on Luthor’s character is that he’s pretty one-dimensional these days: Rather than the monomania about Superman that the silver age Luthor had, now he’s got a monomania about acquiring power. It’s unfortunate because it makes me a little more pessimistic that Luthor can really carry the title for much longer, unless Paul Cornell makes him a more nuanced figure.

Speaking of books I’m pessimistic about, the new JSA creative team arrives this month, and the results are not pretty.

I must admit I’m not really a fan of Scott Kolins’ art style these days: The overuse of gray tones, mixed with the painterly coloring job that accompanies it just feels overly rendered for the fairly straightforward books he’s illustrated. Honestly I liked the work he did on his run on The Flash with Geoff Johns a decade a ago better: Stylized, but with more interesting linework.

Marc Guggenheim’s story, for me, got a reaction of, “What, this again?” Jay Garrick – the original Flash – is considering retirement, to become mayor of a small city. An immensely powerful individual shows up to threaten that city, kicks the JSA’s ass until they get it together to put him down, but the victory is pyrrhic. The downer tone continues the feeling that Bill Willingham brought to the book, and I didn’t think it worked then, either. And it seems like we’re constantly seeing the golden age JSAers consider retiring, or coming out of retirement, or whatever. The whole issue felt tremendously manipulative and it was difficult to care about any of it, because it felt like the writer didn’t really understand or care about the characters.

Honestly I’m not sure why I’m even buying the book these days, as the team has really not been worth much since most of the golden age members were killed off in the 90s. It’s a sad thing when Geoff Johns’ run on the book looks like the good old days, because they really weren’t much good. With half a year left until issue #50, I’ll likely stick around that long to see if Guggenheim has something interesting planned for the landmark, but I think that’ll be it for me.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips bring us the first issue of the sequel to Incognito, a series I struggled enjoying at first, but which won me over completely in the final issue. This issue takes a step back from that last issue, being perhaps a little too cynical. It also feels like it’s treading on ground Brubaker previously covered in his outstanding series Sleeper (also with Phillips).

So that’s all a little disappointing, but Brubaker is too good a writer to let that keep him down: Zack Overkill is still trying to figure out his purpose in life now that he knows where he came from, and now that he’s working for a superspy-type organization. He has a tragic encounter from a figure from his past (well, not quite his past, but, well, you’ll see), and then gets assigned to infiltrate a villainous organization.

Incognito has struggled to make Zack someone the viewer can really feel for, but it mostly makes up for it in action, suspense, and clever plots. It’s probably the weakest of the Brubaker/Phillips books because of this character deficit, but it’s still quite good and decidedly different from most other superhero comics. If you enjoy a little pulp and noir in your action stories, check it out.

Astro City: The Dark Age

Astro City:
The Dark Age

The Dark Age is the longest Astro City story to date, running 16 issues plus a prologue (now collected in books one and two) – more than twice as long as any earlier story. Chronicling the era in Kurt Busiek’s creation from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, the story has some interesting backstory: First, when it started running back in 2005, I recall it was heralded as the story that would reveal what happened to the Silver Agent, who was one of Astro City’s greatest heroes back in the day, but whose fate left the city ashamed of its behavior. Second – and this didn’t come out until later – Busiek had originally pitched The Dark Age as a sequel to his seminal series with Alex Ross, Marvels, and ended up reworking it for Astro City instead, later writing a different sequel to Marvels (Eye of the Camera).

There are some spoilers below, so if you want to read the whole thing with every little surprise, then I suggest doing so first. But the story is so sprawling that there is plenty I won’t reveal even if you do forge onwards.

The prologue takes place in 1959, where two children, Royal and Charles Williams, witness a fight between the Honor Guard and a high-tech gang named Pyramid. The younger one, Charles, is shown stealing an apple, but the pair are shamed later when they encounter the Black Badge, one of the few black superheroes. The pair go home to their family, and we learn only later that that evening, in the aftermath of the big battle, that their parents are killed when the Silver Agent pursues a Pyramid agent through their building.

The bulk of the story takes place in four parts, each keyed by one of the four seasons. Summer, 1972, sees Charles having grown to become a policeman, while Royal is now a small-time crook. Viet Nam is raging, a crazy variety of heroes are showing up (including the Apollo Eleven, human spacemen who now resemble aliens), and the Blue Knight is stalking and executing criminals. Royal and Charles barely speak to one another until Royal is tagged for execution by the Knight. Meanwhile, the Silver Agent is arrested for murdering a super villain and is sentenced to death. The sentence is carried out at the end of this part – at the same time the Silver Agent is seen saving the city from an enemy of the First Family.

Part two, Fall, 1976, shows how the city has gotten darker and more dangerous in the years since the Agent’s execution (symbolizing the end of the silver age of heroes): Villains turned heroes, heroes turned vigilantes, or tortured by inner demons. Charles has married a gold-digger, and she’s constantly pushing him to get “on the take” on the force, like his partner and several others, but Charles refuses. Royal hooks up with one of the underworld lords in the city thanks to his cool head and clear thinking under pressure, and learns that his boss has called in Pyramid to help. He realizes after a while that the Pyramid liaison is the man who killed his parents. It all comes to a head at the end of the chapter, when a heroine’s powers go awry causing chaos in the city, the Silver Agent shows up to save the day, and Royal has to make a decision to save Charles’ life.

Winter, 1982, is filled with dark events, but it focuses mainly on Charles and Royal putting their differences behind them to pursue their parents’ killer: Charles becomes a member of the international peacekeeping force E.A.G.L.E., while Royal infiltrates Pyramid, who are interested in capturing the Apollo Eleven to tap the power of their unified entity, the Incarnate. The pair are right in the middle of the final showdown between Pyramid and the Honor Guard, which goes wrong when a reckless hero fires a powerful weapon at the possessed Incarnate in order to destroy him, which rends a hole in the fabric of spacetime.

Spring, 1984, shows the Williams brothers as having put together a collection of high-tech equipment to pursue their foe, hounding him again and again but never quite catching him. They encounter a number of bizarre heroes, while their quarry feels cornered and makes a leap to gain powers himself, succeeding but at great cost, The brothers confront him in the final issue with the help of the Silver Agent, who arrives to seal the rift from part three, but the showdown is bittersweet for Royal and Charles.

The story ends with an epilogue in which the dark age comes to an end with the appearance of the Samaritan, and where we learn what happened to Charles and Royal.

The Dark Age is a big, sprawling story chronicling over a decade in the history of Astro City, a period which mirrors the explosion of diversity in superhero comics of the 1970s, as well as the darkening of those comics as not only did heroes change and get weirder (the new X-Men, and depowered Wonder Woman), but DC and Marvel experimented more with non-superhero books, especially horror titles. The decade seemed to have few keynote series (sure, the X-Men are lauded today but they weren’t really big until the early 80s), any of the creators of the big Marvel books of the 60s had left, and small-press and creator-owned titles were starting to appear. It was a weird decade, and I think that’s what Busiek is getting at in the almost-anything-goes nature of the heroes and villains in Astro City in this story.

The problem is that the magnitude of the setting makes the story feel less focused than past stories, and the setting – which has always been as much a character in Astro City as the people themselves – feels too diffuse, no elements given enough screen time to really satisfy. This is true even of the Silver Agent thread: Even though he’s integral to the progress of the story, what we see is still more tantalizing than satisfying, and at the end we feel like we’ve learned a little more, but not nearly enough. (The rest of the Agent’s story is being filled in via the 2-part specials, the first of which came out last week. But still, that didn’t really help The Dark Age, of which my frustration over the Agent’s part was merely exemplary of my frustration with other little pieces we saw.)

Busiek was consistent in saying that The Dark Age is the story of Royal and Charles Williams, and while it’s true that much of the focus lay on them, it got spread around a lot too. And the problem with them is that they don’t number among the most interesting characters we’ve seen in Astro City. I can’t say that they’re ciphers, but their story arc just ended up being disappointing. I think the problem came mid-way through the series, after the brothers had essentially cut ties with the police and the underworld in order to pursue the killer of their parents. Normally leaving your life behind to pursue your own goals would be a defining moment, but instead it feels like they become less men than just overriding drives, making them less interesting to follow. I think to some degree this is the point of their evolution, but in the climax things just abruptly come to an end, and while it’s clearly frustrating to the Williams brothers how things turn out, it’s also a letdown to the reader, where it’s not clear what the dramatic point of it all was.

To boil it down even more, ultimately the story is more that of Royal than of Charles. Charles essentially “grows up” at the very beginning, in the prologue, then he becomes a cop, and is put in an untenable situation and is forced essentially to regress because everything he’s believed in has been torn down. His arc is especially unsatisfying because there isn’t the corresponding build-up at the climax making him into a new mature person; he’s just left dangling (and the epilogue doesn’t really do justice to him, either). Royal has a more traditional arc, of being a crook who finds redemption by helping his brother find purpose after he leaves the police, and then helping his brother see what their quest for vengeance has turned them into. It’s not a bad arc, really, but it feels so understated, so overwhelmed by the other elements in the story, even up to the climax, that it’s not enough to really build the meaning of the story around.

To be fair, one of the big frustrations with The Dark Age is that the series came out very gradually over about five years, which meant it was difficult to really care about it when you’re in part 10 of 16 and it’s not clear how long it will be until the next issue arrives. I re-read the whole thing after the final part came out, and while it holds up better on re-reading, it’s still nowhere near as good as earlier long-form stories in the series (of which Confession is in my opinion the gold standard). There’s too much… and yet not enough of any one (or two or three) things.

Fundamentally, I think the problem is that The Dark Age really did turn out to be about the age and not about the characters. Confession and The Tarnished Angel are both unequivocally about their protagonists, and Busiek throws in characters and background and situations and history as needs dictate. The climax of Confession suffers a little from not going into some of the background of its players (E.A.G.L.E., and the other heroes who join in the fight) enough, and The Tarnished Angel has an awkward twist in the middle before coming back to the main story, but both largely stay focused on their main arc. The Dark Age runs here and runs there, comes back to visit the main characters, then covers some more territory, and keeps going back to show how dark everything’s gotten.

I haven’t said much about the art, and that’s because Brent Anderson is one of the most consistent – and consistently good – artists in comics today, so if you’re familiar with his work on the series in the past, then you have a good idea what you’ll be getting here. He’s not especially flashy, and his work doesn’t gosh-wow me the way George Pérez’s or Jerry Ordway’s does, but you have to give him props in that he draws both the heroes and the ordinary folks, the fantastic landscapes and the mundane cityscapes, and pulls it all together into a coherent visual whole. The book would be a very different thing without him, with someone else on the art chores.

In the end I admit some of my disappointment in The Dark Age is that it was very ambitious and didn’t really achieve its ambitions, to my mind, and also that its emphasis (the Williams brothers rather than the Silver Agent) wasn’t what I’d been hoping to read. But I think it had some real problems in focus and storytelling, too.

This Week’s Haul

  • Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 HC, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Batman Beyond #5 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • Batman and Robin #15, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • DC Universe: Legacies #6 of 10, by Len Wein, Scott Kolins, Jerry Ordway, George Pérez, Scott Koblish, Keith Giffen & Al Milgrom (DC)
  • Fables #99, by Bill Willingham & Inaki Miranda (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #53, by Tony Bedard, Tyler Kirkham & Batt (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #6, by Paul Levitz, Francis Portela, Phil Jimenez, Scott Koblish, Yildiray Cinar & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Power Girl #17, by Judd Winick & Sami Basri (DC)
  • Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #4 of 4, by Ed Brubaker & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • Morning Glories #3, by Nick Spencer & Joe Eisma (Image)
  • The Sixth Gun #5, by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt (Oni)
I was rather perplexed at the end of the previous issue of Batman Beyond, but this issue does a fine job in clearing up my confusion, and making sense of the identity of the new Hush – he’s a clone of Dick Grayson, the same way Terry McGinnis is a clone of Bruce Wayne. Part of the problem is that Ryan Benjamin and John Stanisci’s art is often not very clear, trying to look a little like the cartoon series but with a heavy dose of latter-day Frank Miller in their style (which in my opinion is not a good thing). In this issue they draw Hush in a strong Miller-esque style, which makes his emotions and identity very difficult to read. It just seems sloppy, really.

(Although, I wonder if the Miller-like art is an homage to The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in which an older Bruce Wayne deals with a psychotic Dick Grayson. The parallel is passingly interesting, but since TDKSA was basically self-indulgent drek, it’s not really a selling point for this series.)

The series has been something of a mixed bag, but ultimately it’s been fun despite its flaws. I look forward to the wrap-up next month.

That cover has almost nothing to do with the latest issue of Legion of Super-Heroes, just a couple of pages where people talk about the fact that Shadow Lass slept with Earth-Man (is she not still with Mon-El? How confusing). But otherwise it features two stories, one mostly involving moving characters around (Levitz loves writing these little in-between bits which don’t really advance the plot), and the other featuring members of the Legion Academy. It’s a filler issue.

But then there’s the last page:

So whom should I vote for in the Legion leader election? Element Lad’s always been my favorite – except I can’t stand his pink costume, especially since it replaced the excellent Dave Cockrum-designed blue-and-green one. Among the candidates, I think I’d go with either Mon-El or Dawnstar.

Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier wraps up with a nifty confrontation between Steve and Machinesmith, and a neat coda which puts a rather different spin on the rest of the series, leaving our hero confused as to what exactly was going on. As with Brubaker’s Captain America run, this has been quite good. But it kind of underscores that Steve Rogers really needs to be Cap; Bucky has been a decent fill-in, but it’s becoming clear that he doesn’t have the temperament or skills to really be Cap, that his road leads elsewhere.

With “The Trial of Captain America” right around the corner, I hope these points get handled over the next year.

This Week’s Haul

Actually not this week’s haul (which came out today), but the last two weeks’ hauls. You know how it goes…

Two Weeks Ago:

  • American Vampire #7, by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque (DC/Vertigo)
  • Madame Xanadu #27, by Matt Wagner & Celia Calle (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six #26, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #5 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/America’s Best Comics)
  • Captain America: Forever Allies #3 of 4, by Roger Stern, Nick Dragotta & Marco Santucci (Marvel)
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #4, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #10, by Mark Waid, Horacio Domingues, Juan Castro & Michael Babinski (Boom)
  • The Boys #47, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)

Last Week:

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5 of 6, by Grant Morrison, Ryan Sook, Pere Pérez & Mick Gray (DC)
  • Green Lantern #58, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #3, by Peter J. Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Cam Smith (DC)
  • Knight & Squire #1 of 6, by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton (DC)
  • Superman #703, by J. Michael Straczynski, Eddy Barrows & J.P. Mayer (DC)
  • The Unwritten #18, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes vs. Jeckyll/Hyde special, by Ian Edginton & Horacio Domingues (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Casanova #4, by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá (Marvel/Icon)
  • Echo #25, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Irredeemable #18, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
I’m not entirely sure what to make of Paul Cornell. He’s a very inventive writer, but his plotting is rather scattershot, and more portentous than meaningful. I had this feeling when I read his novel Something More, and the first episode of Doctor Who he wrote, “Father’s Day” (though he did get the emotional center of that one right, even if the story didn’t make a lot of sense). His current run on Action Comics is in a similar vein. In a way he seems like Grant Morrison lite: An idea man, but his execution can feel haphazard and unsatisfying.

In fact, he’s picking up a couple of Grant Morrison creations in this new mini-series, Knight and Squire (okay, they first appeared in the silver age, but Morrison basically recreated them from whole cloth, since it’s not like “the English Batman and Robin” is a concept with legs all by itself), and Cornell reintroduces them here in a pub where heroes and villains gather to hang out, compelled by the magic of the place not to fight. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s an awkward way to introduce the main characters, throwing them into an Alan-Moore-esque “let’s introduce a hodge-podge of British heroes and villains all at once” story, characters that the reader really has no investment in. It’s more of a neat concept than a story – which again feels very Morrison-like.

So, it’s an okay beginning, but felt kind of inconsequential. Broxton’s art is nice, sort of Alan Davis crossed with Ed McGuinness. If this series is just going to be six cute vignettes, though, then I think it’ll be a disappointment. Hopefully Cornell’s got something larger planned, and something that focuses on the main characters.

Last month Mark Waid tweeted:

"In stores today: IRREDEEMABLE #17 -- maybe my favorite cliffhanger I've ever written, and @petergkrause nails it."

While it was a pretty good cliffhanger, honestly I’d kind of seen it coming. Partly as a result, I think both of Waid’s cliffhangers in this month’s books are better than that one: Incorruptible sees our villain-turned-hero and new sidekick rescuing (after a fashion) the Plutonian’s former girlfriend, and learning what her captors had planned – a plan which they apparently execute on the last page. Irredeemable builds a new plot thread out of whole cloth – plausibly, since it revolves around the world’s Batman-type character – with truly world-changing consequences (even by the standards of a Superman figure turned evil) on the final page.

Irredeemable has been consistently solid, but it felt like it was marking time until artist Peter Krause returned, and now it’s kicking into high gear. Incorruptible has been thrashing a bit, trying to find its voice and purpose (and it hasn’t really done so yet), being somewhat overwhelmed by the events in its companion title that the main character hasn’t really had much of a chance to shine, but it’s still got some good stuff, and I think it still has a good chance to improve – I’m just not quite sure what I want to see it do that would make it better. I think I’d like more of a focus on Max and the implications of his decision to turn good, since so far it mostly seems like a lot of adventuring and those implications are dealt with almost incidentally.

Going (to) APE

Yesterday I went up to the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco. I’ve known about it for years, but I’ve never gone; it seems like every year someone at the comics shop would ask if I was going, and I’d say, “Oh, is that this weekend? I already have plans…” But this year I planned ahead and put it on my calendar. It helps that you don’t have to preregister to attend (if you arrive just as the doors open, it doesn’t even really save you much time in line).

When I arrived, I wondered how long it had been since I’d gone to a comics convention. As best I can recall, I haven’t actually been to one since a little convention in New Orleans back in college, around 1989. Madison didn’t have any, and I know I didn’t go out of town for them, and I’ve never gone to any of the local cons (although I hope to get to Wonder Con next spring).

APE is being held in the Concourse Exhibition Center, which is in a part of town I’d never been to before. It’s about 4 blocks from the CalTrain station, in an area that seems to have been renovated since AT&T Park as built 10 years ago, but which still has some older buildings. It’s across from the “San Francisco Fashion Collective”, which seems like an “only in the first world” sort of organization.

The con itself is primarily a large showroom of vendors and artists, with some programming and some sessions on creating and producing comics. As the name says, the con is geared towards independent comics companies, not the major ones. The “big name” publishers at APE are Fantagraphics, Slave Labor Graphics (SLG), Last Gasp and Top Shelf. So my goal in going up to the con was to find some comics to read that I wasn’t familiar with, and get exposed to some new stuff. On the other hand, I’m not really a fan of “slice of life” comics which have been hallmarks of independent comics over the last 20 years (the sorts of books by APE guests Lynda Barry and Daniel Clowes), and I also have a strong preference for polished artwork and a mild preference for colored artwork. So, would APE be for me?

Going to conventions is always a little awkward for me anyway, since I’m never really sure how to approach them, and it reminds me that I am, at heart, not very social, so I feel uncomfortable chatting with the people in the booths. I also feel awkward around actual writers and artists, partly because I don’t want to offend them, by looking at their wares and not buying them or by saying that I’ve never seen their work before. APE worked both in my favor and against it, since I assumed that most creators at the con were there in large part to get their work in front of a larger audience who’d never seen it before, but on the other hand most of the people behind the booths were the actual creators and not, say, staffers from a retail store.

I got to the con shortly after opening and spent the first couple of hours walking around looking fairly briefly at each booth, planning to look at the ones that looked interesting to me in more detail later. Some of the vendors had “sales pitches” as you walked by, while others didn’t (perhaps unsurprisingly, the degree of personal outgoingness among these folks who are writers and artists varied widely). My first purchase was from Barry Deutsch, creator of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, largely because he did have a witty sales pitch, asking if you’ve been looking for a young adult story of an orthodox Jewish girl who really wants to go off on fantasy adventures. It’s a nice hardcover with attractive artwork, so I picked up a copy (here it is at Amazon).

The next artist to grab me was nearly the last one I walked by: He had a set of nice color art prints up, and one titled “The Adventurers” attracted my attention because it was large and colorful and extremely detailed, but the one underneath it, “Wishing Well”, really sucked me in because it had a terrific color scheme, beautiful execution, and a really neat idea behind it. The artist was Travis Hanson, who specializes in fantasy art focused on children and young teenagers, and who also does free sketches – lots and lots of free sketches – a sketch in every book you buy from him, and an additional free sketch on sketch paper. His sign said he’s done over 900 sketches at some conventions! He and his friend who was working the booth were both friendly and talkative and very approachable. I picked up all 6 issues (to date) of his series The Bean, and went back later for some of the prints. Really nice stuff.

Other things I bought:

A pretty good haul, all things considered. For the most part I picked books which initially attracted me with art styles I liked, and which seemed to have interesting stories too on closer inspection. There were a few books that had nice-looking art, but whose stories didn’t grab me when I thumbed through them, and one or two others which had stories that seemed interesting but the art just wasn’t for me. Given how much I picked up, I don’t feel like I really missed out on anything. Two books I arguably “should” have picked up, but which I decided instead to read first in their Webcomic form, were Templar, Arizona (which I’m already part-way through) and Family Man.

A friend of mine, Becky, also went up to the con, and we had lunch together, and later rode the train home. (Well, I got off a little early to meet Debbi for dinner in Menlo Park.) I don’t see her very often, so it was fun to hang out and chat with her.

All-in-all I had fun, even if I did feel awkward for much of the con. Despite being a life-long comic book fan, I’ve never really felt connected to the larger comic book community, other than occasionally chatting with folks at my local store. But I found a lot of neat stuff at APE, and I certainly hope to go back next year!

China Miéville: The City & The City

  • The City & The City

    • by China Miéville
    • TPB, Ballantine/Del Rey, © 2009, 312 pp, ISBN 978-0-345-49752-9

I read this year’s co-winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel back to back, starting with China Miéville’s The City & The City. Fundamentally, the novel is a mystery: In the eastern European city of Beszel, a woman’s body is found dumped in the trash. Inspector Tyador Borlú investigates her murder, but quickly runs into a problem: not only does no one know who she is, but she appears to have been murdered in Beszel’s sister city of Ul Quoma and her body brought back. But Ul Qoma occupies the same physical space as Beszel, only slightly shifted in dimensions. The two cities are separated by language and culture, and despite “crosshatchings” where the two cities bleed together, their separation is reinforced by a mysterious organization called Breach, which monitors people violating the laws of both cities.

The dead woman is eventually revealed to be a foreigner, and Borlú follows her trail through the fringes of society, groups who champion their own city’s individuality, and those which want to bring the two together. Eventually Borlú travels to Ul Quoma, where he works with detective Qussim Dhatt to track down the killer from that side.

The book is rich in the mechanics of how the two cities stay separate, yet interact through well-defined channels, but how it plays with its premise is ultimately unsatisfying. Hints of the origins of the split between the two cities are dropped, but the truth is lost to antiquity. I understand that Miéville decided that this book wouldn’t be backwards-looking, but the story doesn’t really develop its premise, keeping it constrained to the basic set-up of the divided sister cities, not really expanding on the theme, developing it, or transforming it or the cities through the progress of the plot. While in a way Miéville’s restraint and discipline is admirable – sticking strictly to the plot of the murder mystery, not using it as a vehicle to explore the fantastic premise as the premise as a backdrop to the story – it’s disappointing that such a rich idea isn’t developed more fully.

Miéville is a strong “colorist”, excellent at crafting a world in minute detail and bringing it to life, but his plot and characters tend to be dry, and the story develops slowly, and this book fits right in with Perdido Street Station and The Scar in that regard. Even when the story finally heats up in the final third, it seems to lope along without a sense of urgency, or with much concern that the events at hand are going to have a big impact on the characters.

Overall The City & The City is frustrating for its lack of ambition – not that Miéville doesn’t do his usual strong job of painting the world, but that he doesn’t really do very much with it. Certainly nothing like, say, a Vernor Vinge might. It feels like a very small story in a world the author seems to be actively fighting to keep under control. And unfortunately that just makes the novel feel like much less than it should have been.

Book Discussion Prologue

At last night’s book discussion, I sat down between L, the moderator, and N, another attendee. Then the following exchange took place:

Me (just being a goofball): Wow, now I’m between a rock and a hard place.


L: Hey!

N: Wait… which of us is which?

Me: I’m going to let you work that out between the two of you.


Me: Wait, I’m between the two of you!

Not Quite The Weekend(s) I’d Planned On

Last weekend wasn’t the weekend I’d planned on because I spent most of it at work. It was, at least, a very productive weekend at work (and we got lunch delivered), but still, not really what I’d planned on.

This weekend was at least not spent at work. Unfortunately, I’d planned to go to a Magic draft yesterday afternoon (I’m trying to do one per month, since I really enjoy doing them but it’s hard to set aside the time), but when I showed up at the store it turned out they were doing a different sort of tournament and not a draft. So away I went disappointed. Though I did swing by Comics Conspiracy for their fall sale and found a few things. I spent the afternoon organizing stuff in the front room instead, which wasn’t really bad, but not what I’d wanted to do.

Today we went to the Moss Beach Distillery for their Sunday champagne brunch. I was disappointed to see they no longer had their gingerbread pancakes, although their french toast is quite good itself. And we sat on their patio and enjoyed the (foggy, but warm) weather afterwards. But this trip wasn’t quite what we planned since we got stuck in massive traffic both going and coming back due to all the pumpkin patches in Half Moon Bay. It wasn’t a total drag, but still.

All of these I guess are “first world problems”, but I’m still bummed about the draft – I’d been looking forward to it all week. Ah well.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #893, by Paul Cornell, Sean Chen & Wayne Faucher, and Nick Spencer & RB Silva (DC)
  • First Wave #4 of 6, by Brian Azzarello, Rags Morales & Rick Bryant (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #43, by James Robinson, Jesus Merino & Jesse Delperdang (DC)
  • Time Masters: Vanishing Point #3 of 6, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Wonder Woman #603, by J. Michael Straczynski, Don Kramer, Eduardo Pansica, Allan Goldman, Jay Leisten & Scott Koblish (DC)
  • Captain America #610, by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Casanova #3, by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá (Marvel/Icon)
  • Powers #6, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • Chew #14, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
In Action Comics Lex Luthor outthinks Gorilla Grodd, but later events set up next issue’s much-heralded story with Death from Sandman appearing in the DC Universe. Of more significance (to my mind) is that the fill-in artist is Sean Chen, whose work I’ve enjoyed ever since he illustrated Kurt Busiek’s Iron Man series a decade ago. Unfortunately he hasn’t regularly drawn a comic since then, so we only see him for a few issues at a time.

The back-up story has gotten some advance press because it introduces Chloe Sullivan (from Smallville) into the DCU, as a rather grumpy ex-girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy’s now being portrayed as something of a slacker, compared to more successful members of his generation, and his friendship with Superman being a bit overblown. It’s rather the opposite of what Grant Morrison did with the character in All-Star Superman, and though I give Morrison a hard time these days, I much prefer his take on Olsen. So the story is actually rather depressing, and the sudden reverse at the end (in which Jimmy seems a bit more heroic, albeit contingent on him actually doing something) just makes it seem ridiculous on top of that. One wonders what the point of this exercise is – I’d rather see Cornell write a companion story to the lead, as I’m sure he’s got plenty of ideas in his head. But this Olson story is not really much fun, so why bother?