Weekend Roundup

We had a nice quiet weekend, highlighted by joining our friends Lisa and Michel and their daughter for lunch (after Lisa and Debbi went shopping). I have this bizarre ability to charm young kids (“cats and small children love Michael”, says Debbi), and their daughter is apparently always excited to see me. I think Debbi feels a little left out sometimes.

Sunday I was feeling a bit blah all day. Maybe because it was raining, even though I usually like the rain. Or maybe the time change threw me off.

I’ve started running again now that biking season is basically over, so we got up and jogged a mile and a half (people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook are probably well acquainted with my running progress and lack-of-prowess). After running errands in the morning we stayed inside and watched football for the rest of the day, catching up on a few things around the house. Though we forgot to do a few chores in the bedroom (rotating the mattress, painting over the holes from the mounted shelf we moved last weekend). Maybe next weekend. For dinner I grilled hamburgers, and of course the rains returned for exactly the span of time I was grilling!

I’ve actually been very busy lately but have not felt much like updating. My plan is to push through some accumulated book reviews (sorry, everyone who can’t stand my book reviews) and then do some shorter-but-more-frequent updates on other subjects.

Matthew Hughes: Hespira

Hespira is the third in Matthew Hughes’ novels of his Sherlock Holmes-like protagonist Henghis Hapthorn, the greatest discriminator of his age, but an age of science which is drawing to a close, to be replaced by an age of magic. The book opens with Hapthorn getting involved in a dispute between a rich collector and a criminal overlord, at which point the chief of police (the Scrutinizers or “Scroots”) suggests that Hapthorn take a vacation until it all blows over. Conveniently, Hapthorn has recently run into a young woman, Hespira, who has lost her memory. Hapthorn seizes this opportunity to get off-planet while also pursuing a case that seems likely to challenge his mental abilities (even if it might not pay very much; then again, he’s rather taken with the woman). Hapthorn and Hespira journey far down the Spray of human civilization to a remote world in search of her origin.

Although not short on ideas content, a lot of the fun of the Hapthorn novels is Hughes’ witty writing. Hapthorn himself is always conscious of protocol and propriety, given the rich and powerful people who employ him, yet his chosen profession frequently takes him outside of his comfort zone where has must improvise in dealing with other people. Early on in Hespira there’s a paragraph which I’ve been reading to friends as representative of the narrative style. In it, Hapthorn is visiting a new restaurant while waiting for someone on his current engagement:

When she had brought me the platter of pastes, the server had pointed out to me the different strengths of the eighteen sauces, advising me to save for last the meat puree doused in Sheeshah’s Nine Dragons Sauce, predicting that one it struck my palate, the dish’s other, subtler flavors would be unable to register. I now scooped up a good pinch of the stuff, made sure my tumbler of improved water was full and to hand, and popped the laden bread into my mouth. There was a pause – my taste buds may well have gone into shock for a moment – then the full weight of Master Jho-su’s genius crashed upon my senses. My eyes widened, simultaneously flinging a gush of tears down my cheeks, my tongue desperately sought an exit from my mouth, and my nose and sinuses reported that they had been suddenly and inexplicably connected to a volcanic flume.

I groped for the tumbler and took a healthy gulp, but the water seemed to evaporate before it even reached my throat. I drank more, my free hand finding the carafe even as I dained the glass. I could scarcely see to pour a refill and ended up drinking directly from the larger container. Gradually, the inferno in my mouth subsided to a banked fire. I wiped my streaing eyes and sucked in a great breath and would not have been surprised, when I exhaled to have emitted clouds of steam.

(If this piques your interest, you can read the entire first chapter at Hughes’ web site.)

Throughout Hapthorn’s adventures, Hughes has changed the status quo of his hero’s life several times. Hespira opens with Hapthorn in a period of relative calm, without the disruptive presence of his doppelganger, Osk Rievor, who is Hapthorn’s intuition given form and who now lives separately. The adventure in the meat of the book is clever and entertaining, with Hespira an unusual foil for Hapthorn since he’s attracted to her, and she’s amnesiac but strong-willed. Untangling the threads of her life is what Hapthorn does best, even without his intuition, and seeing him at his best once more makes for fine reading.

But the impending end of his age of science and reason worries at Hapthorn’s soul, and while the adventure here is a distraction from his problems (and, amusingly enough, a distraction in other ways as we find out in the novel’s climax), eventually he returns to the problem of what to do about, well, the transition he can’t do anything about.

The book ends in a somber note, which is a bit disappointing if this really is the last Hapthorn novel. On the other hand, Hapthorn has never been a very heroic figure; while he’s not simply a mercenary, he’s always been timid and even a little craven, so the decision he faces at the end of the book and the fact that he can’t actually decide is (unfortunately) in keeping with his character. But it’s always been a little ambiguous as to when the turn of the wheel is going to descend, so it’s sad to leave him at this point, not sure if he’s going to give up, or give in, but in any event ending his career with a personal whimper rather than a bang. But, I guess there are people who do that.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #16, by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Secret Six #27, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #6 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/America’s Best Comics)
  • Captain America: Man Out of Time #1 of 5, by Mark Waid, Jorge Molina & Karl Kesel (Marvel)
  • Scarlet #3, by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev (Marvel/Icon)
  • Squadron Supreme Omnibus HC, by Mark Gruenwald, Bob Hall, Paul Ryan, John Buscema, Paul Neary, John Beatty, Sam De La Rosa, and others (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #19, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Boys #48, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
  • The Mystery Society #4 of 5, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
  • Invincible #75, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)
Even though The Return of Bruce Wayne hasn’t finished yet (and despite it being written by the same author), Bruce Wayne is back in this month’s Batman and Robin, to help clean up the disaster in Gotham City that Dick Grayson (the new Batman) and Damian Wayne (the current Robin) couldn’t stop. Seems like someone at DC had trouble with scheduling.

The issue is pretty good. Naturally I much prefer Cameron Stewart’s art to Frazer Irving’s – my exposure to Irving so far is such that I’ll be wary of buying any comics he illustrates in the future, because I really don’t care for his style. The story involves Bruce facing off against the man claiming to be his father, Thomas Wayne. In the minimalist style he’s employing these days, Grant Morrison makes it more-or-less clear what’s really going on (the man is an impostor with a supernatural background), but he isn’t really a very scary villain, just another blustering idiot who’s stumbled into Gotham not realizing how dangerous it is. His final encounter with the Joker demonstrates that. But as I’ve said, Morrison has never been very strong at characterization, so stories which might otherwise be character-based tend to fall a bit (or a bit more) flat.

That’s been the downfall of Batman and Robin as a series: Dick was never portrayed as a very strong Batman (despite having been a very strong character when Marv Wolfman wrote him as one of the Teen Titans, and one quite different from Batman), and while there were hints of an unusual tension between him and Damian-as-Robin, it never came to any fruition, it all felt mechanical and not very important. A writer with a better notion of how to handle characters would have been able to make their relationship the foundation of the series, but instead it ended up being another wacky Morrison plot-fest, which seemed to work against what the series wanted to be.

I think this is Morrison’s last issue of the series, and after Return wraps up we’ll be getting a new Batman status quo, “Batman Incorporated”, with multiple Batmen keeping the peace (and/or busting heads) around the world. It’s certainly a Morrisonesque idea, but again it’s quite far removed from any promise of strong characterization, and frankly I think this exhausts my interest in Morrison’s take on Batman, so I think this will be it for me. It’s been a decidedly mediocre run.

Mark Waid takes on the first few days of Captain America in the modern era, after having been in suspended animation for decades following World War II, in Captain America: Man Out of Time. This issue takes place mainly in those dying days of the Second World War, explaining who Cap and Bucky were as people (Cap the strong silent type, Bucky a bit of a clown – the latter a little at odds with Ed Brubaker’s portrayal in his ongoing Cap series, but there’s enough room for both portrayals, really), before their ill-fated final mission. Waid shifts to a first-person perspective of Cap being knocked unconscious by the blast that kills his partner, and then waking up in the Avengers’ submarine decades later, with a first-person narrative (as a letter to an army general) of his reactions to the Avengers themselves, and their arrival in New York. It’s quite well done, worth the price of admission all by itself.

Waid has an interesting challenge from here on out, though. First of all, given that “today” is now 2010, Cap clearly didn’t wake up in 1963 as he did in the silver age, since he’d be 70 years old now. Therefore he probably woke up around 2000 or so (Brubaker’s run basically says as much), yet we have the Avengers in their goofy 1960s costumes, and I’m sure there are more bits of societal contrasts to come. Also, the story in which Cap was originally found had a pretty awkward strong of coincidences – such as the Avengers being turned to stone, as is alluded to here – which is tricky to write around. Waid heads off the reservation in pretty short order by having Cap have a new encounter at the end of this issue, with a cliffhanger ending. Waid is clearly going to be focusing on Cap all the way, but Cap’s identity after his return quickly became closely tied to that of the Avengers, so I’m wondering what Waid will do there. I could see this series going in any of several different directions, so the question is: What is Waid ultimately trying to accomplish with this story? We’ll see.

The art is quite good, Jorge Molina’s style feeling a bit like Oliver Coipel’s, while Karl Kesel’s inks give it a little more depth and form. The excellent art on Brubaker’s Cap run is a tough act to follow, but these guys do a pretty good job of evoking that feel while having a slightly more superheroic style.

With a new Squadron Supreme hardcover collection out this month, a new generation could discover the late Mark Gruenwald’s magnum opus. On the other hand, it costs $75, so that new generation might not be able to afford it, but us old fogeys enjoy getting a nice repackaging of this story.

It is important to put the book in perspective, though: When this series originally came out, it was contemporary with DC’s 50th anniversary series Crisis on Infinite Earths as well as (at its end) The Dark Knight Returns, and came near the end of the Jim Shooter era at Marvel. It predated Alan Moore’s Watchmen by a few years, and covered similar ground: Superheroes who come to dominate their world. But Mark Gruenwald was working with characters – and within a framework – that still saw them as Justice League-type heroes, flawed in the Marvel sense but essentially heroic. The theme of the series was one of characters doing what they believe is right, in the selfless way that comic book heroes do, but disagreeing with what needs to be done in the wake of a national disaster. While there’s plenty of carnage, betrayal, and death in the series, but it feels tame compared to series that followed it.

Still, it’s quite a good series, dealing with its characters and their differences honestly, especially as various wrenches get through into their plans to save America by instituting a utopian program, even as one former member assembles a team to bring them down. While I’d say it’s not quite as good as Gruenwald’s earlier series, Hawkeye, it’s clearly the one he’s going to be remembered for. The art is also some of the best at Marvel for its era, with the quirky pencils by Bob Hall in the early issues, and the much slicker, more mainstream-Marvel Paul Ryan in the later ones.

Reading it again today, I’d say it’s biggest flaw is that it lacks a denouement: Some individual issues end abruptly (like an issue which ends with the Whizzer thinking, “How can any of them ever trust me again?”, a thought which is ignored for the rest of the series), and the finale of the 12-issue limited series involves a big battle royale between the two sides, but very little examination of why the characters choose the course they do once the battle is over. It feels shallow. The sequel graphic novel, “Death of a Universe”, involves yet more devastation, some of it without meaning (such as one hero who dies just as the mission to save the world is literally taking off), and with a transformative ending which also ends too abruptly. There’s been so much change throughout this series, and no real effort to show how the world assimilates it.

Ultimately the biggest disappointment in the series is that this is all there is, and it feels like there should have been a little bit more. (Later Squadron stories have very little resemblance to those in this volume, although Kurt Busiek tried to evoke Gruenwald’s Squadron when they appeared in his early 2000s Avengers run.) But it laid the groundwork for stories like Watchmen even as it became resoundingly eclipsed by them, and it’s worth reading for that historical context as well as being an interesting take on mainstream superheroes which has not been often attempted in quite the same way.