This Week’s Haul

It’s the last comics haul of 2010! And… it’s the last entry in this series I’m going to do. I’ve been writing this column almost-weekly for over four years, and my enthusiasm for it has flagged over the past year. I’ve decided it’s time to turn my attention to other things and not worry about getting in a column each week. I hope those of you who have followed my ramblings have enjoyed them. I do plan to write about comics from time to time, but probably in a different format.

  • Action Comics #896, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Green Lantern #61, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #46, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #4 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Captain America #613, by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Stefano Gaudiano & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #5, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
  • Echo #27, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead #1 of 2, by Mike Mignola & Scott Hampton (Dark Horse)
  • The Royal Historian of Oz #3, by Tommy Kovac & Andy Hirsch (SLG)
I’ve been reviewing each issue of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis mainly because Kaare Andrews’ covers have been so awful – comically so, really. But this cover is not bad, even if it is another take on the old “warrior with babe hanging onto his leg” image.

Warren Ellis’ story is gelling into a new reworking of Alan Moore’s great Captain Britain storyline involving Jim Jaspers, a mutant who can bend reality, the Furies, unbeatable killing machines, and Warpies, mutant-like babies with destructive powers. Other than tying into his invention of universe-hopping Ghost Boxes, Ellis hasn’t really done much very new with the pieces; an army of Furies is even more unbeatable than the original one was, and it’s kind of amazing that none of the X-Men have been outright killed as yet. And it’s hard to see exactly how the story’s going to wrap up in just one more issues.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run has been fairly interesting, and it feels like it’s gradually building towards something, but it’s been very frustrating that it’s been so plagued by delays. I don’t know if it’s Ellis’ scripts running behind, or the musical chairs among the artists, or that all of the artists have fallen behind, or if editorial is just asleep at the switch (or doesn’t care), but this run really needed to stay on a decent schedule to work. Long delays are a good recipe for fan apathy, and it’s hard for me to work up much enthusiasm for what Ellis is doing here anymore.

Strangely, this month’s Captain America is “The Trial of Captain America” part three, and yet the cover (at left) says “It begins!” Huh? The cover is accurate, since the actual trial starts in this issue.

Those details aside, it’s another good issue. The Red Skull’s daughter throws a big wrench into the works of the defense, in a typically Brubakeran clever way – she planned ahead. (If you think about it, in comics villains are proactive and heroes are reactive.) I’m not quite sure how Cap’s going to get out of this one, especially since the usual comic book cliché of doing a good deed so that all is forgiven is just not Brubaker’s style. Brubaker’s probably got more tricks up his sleeve, though. (Of course, the most straightforward solution to the problem – that Cap, currently Bucky Barnes, was a foreign agent during the Cold War – is to find a former-Soviet official who can actually testify that Cap was brainwashed into acting as the Winter Soldier. In some ways that seems too simple, yet in others it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in keeping with Brubaker’s writing style.)

All things considered, I think Steve Rogers is more interesting as Cap than Bucky is, but I’m not sure where Bucky really fits in in the modern Marvel universe otherwise. No doubt Steve will take up the mantle again eventually, though.

Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. has been getting good word-of-mouth, but I’ve found it pretty tedious. It’s a combination shadow history/conspiracy book: S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around for thousands of years protecting the world against amazing threats (like Galactus). In the 1950s, a young man named Leonid is being inducted, but his father, the Night Machine, tries to stop it. He in turn is stopped by Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards, and the three disappear. Leonid then learns that he’s in the middle of a power struggle between S.H.I.E.L.D. leaders Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, both of whom (along with Nostradamus) seem to be immortal.

Aside from feeling that another “everything you know is wrong” story set in the Marvel Universe seems like overkill, the presence of all these real-life figures, still living centuries after their supposed deaths, seems basically ridiculous. Basically the series hasn’t sold me on any of its core elements, and the story itself has been pretty ponderous.

That said, this issue is better than the ones that have gone before, as we find that Stark, Richards and the Night Machine have been thrown hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where Earth seems to be devoid of humanity. But they come across the remnants of a city (beautifully depicted in a 2-page spread by Dustin Weaver) strongly reminiscent of the age of Rama-Tut (one of the Fantastic Four’s old foes). Of course, it’s not entirely clear how this diversion fits into the main story, but it is the most gosh-wow moment in the series so far. (It has an appearance at the end by someone whom I infer is Snowbird of Alpha Flight. And the revelation that the Night Machine is in fact Nikola Tesla, which is rather less cool a fact.)

The rest of the issue furthers Leonid’s introduction to the Newton/Da Vinci backstory, as well as filling in some of Stark and Richards’ backstory. Decent enough stuff, but still a lot more telling than doing, which is standard for this series. Overall S.H.I.E.L.D. could be really good, but it would have to be really different for that to happen. Unless all of this is the barest introduction to a long arc – which picks up fairly soon – I expect I’ll get bored and drop the series. (And it’s even slower than I’d thought, because it’s being published bimonthly!)

I picked up the first two issues of The Royal Historian of Oz at the SLG booth at APE in the fall. Although I’m hardly an Oz fanatic, I enjoyed the Baum books when I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed some of the spin-off titles that have been published in the last 20 years. (Indeed, I think they’re a strong argument for letting creations fall into the public domain once their creators die.) I think my favorite was Oz Squad, which started as a dark take on the series (Tik Tok comes to Earth and his morality spring runs down, causing him to become a psychopath, and the “original four” Oz characters have to take him down and bring him back), but toned down the darkness in later issues in an entertaining time travel story.

Royal Historian takes place in a dystopian future in which Jasper Fizzle writes new Oz stories (despite having no talent), and is branded an outlaw by the keepers of Oz lore. But then Jasper finds a way to get to Oz itself, and brings back some of its wonders to put on display. His son, Frank, is the book’s hero, having been embarrassed by his father’s obsession, but then amazed at what Frank brings back from Oz. However Frank is then captured by Ozma and her citizens to be held hostage until Jasper returns the items he’s stolen.

This issue focuses on Frank’s reactions to actually being in Oz, and takes the interesting approach of overwhelming him with characters in very short order – also overwhelming me, the reader, as I don’t remember half the characters who show up here. Jellia Jamb I kind of remember, but Button-Bright? The Glass Cat? At first I found it too much to take in, but then I figured that was kind of the point: Given Oz’s substantial backstory and large cast, a real person being thrown into it might be similarly overwhelmed. Kind of clever, if that’s what writer Tommy Kovac intended. After a mishap in the castle, Frank is sent with the Tin Woodsman to live in the countryside, where he gets a more measured exposure to some of the wonders of Oz.

The story has been a little slow so far, but it’s getting more entertaining now that we’re in Oz and not on the dreary Earth that Kovacs and artist Andy Hirsch have come up with. Hirsch has a cartoony style (somewhat similar to that of Rob Guillory on Chew), but his panels are pretty complex. It’s always interesting to see how different artists take on the Oz characters, and Hirsch makes the Scarecrow look kind of creepy, while the Woodsman is downright inhuman, albeit likable in his way.

I think the biggest drawback to the book is that few characters in it are likable: Jasper is a talentless obsessive, and now a thief. Frank is a bit of a blank slate, largely defined by his frustrating with his father. Most of the Oz characters shown in this issue seem mentally unbalanced at best, and as creepy as the Scarecrow in many ways. The book really needs Frank to become better-defined and his own man. Otherwise it’s hard to find someone to root for, or a cause I can believe they’d get behind. If the creators keep publishing (always a risky proposition for small-press comics) and can work out some of these issues, then this could be a lot of fun. But it’s not there yet.

That’s all for this year! Thanks for reading!

Disposal Day

Today we made the long, long overdue trip to the SMaRT Station to get rid of a bunch of stuff. We’ve been dutifully collecting old light bulbs and batteries rather than tossing them in the trash, and last month I went through a bunch of electronic junk and filled a box with cables, peripherals, and even two laptops (whose hard drives I completely wiped) to get rid of.

Dumping the stuff turned out to be trivial: The woman working the public disposal site pointed us at the correct bins, and we chucked it all. The electronics bin had an amusing sign, “No scavenging”. Considering the station is near Weird Stuff and right in Silicon Valley, I imagine plenty of people come by to collect old electronics for free. I was amused at some of the ancient crap people had chucked (wow, people are still getting rid of ancient computer tape drives in 2010), but I certainly didn’t want to scavenge any of it!

Debbi noticed that they also accept old paint cans there, and since I have a whole bunch of old paint cans in the garage – inherited from the previous owner – almost none of which are any good anymore, I’m sure (or even relevant, since the exterior has since been painted in new colors), I should go through them and take them in for disposal, too.

Afterwards we walked a little on the nearby San Francisco Bay Trail, hoping to spot the extension they just finished building behind Moffett Field, but we weren’t close enough to see it, and it was too cold and windy to walk that far given how we were dressed. However, I was disappointed to see that the trail at that point isn’t paved, which means no biking on it for me with my road bike. Too bad.

We discovered several wonderful new smells, some at the station and some at the salt ponds by the bay trail. Whee! All that wind is good for something after all.

This Week’s Haul

Quite a large week this week – with no collections! And I think every Image comic I buy came out this week. Weird.

  • American Vampire #10, by Scott Snyder & Mateus Sontolouco (DC/Vertigo)
  • DC Universe: Legacies #8 of 10, by Len Wein, Scott Kolins, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #55, by Tony Bedard, Tyler Kirkham & Batt (DC)
  • Green Lantern: Larfleeze Christmas Special #1, by Geoff Johns & Brett Booth (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #8, by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Daniel HDR, Wayne Faucher & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Power Girl #19, by Judd Winick & Sami Basri (DC)
  • Zatanna #8, by Paul Dini & Cliff Chiang (DC)
  • Fantastic Four #586, by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Incognito: Bad Influences #2 of 6, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Incorruptible #13, by Mark Waid & Marcio Takara (Boom)
  • Chew #16, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
  • Dynamo 5 Holiday Special 2010 #1, by Jay Faerber & Marcio Takara (Image)
  • Invincible #76, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)
  • Morning Glories #5, by Nick Spencer & Joe Eisma (Image)
  • The Sixth Gun #7, by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt (Oni)
I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that DC Universe: Legacies is structurally the same as the 1999 mini-series Superman and Batman: World’s Finest. In fact, this issue walks the same ground as issue #9 of that series, the replacement Superman and Batman from the mid-1990s (plus the Green Lantern/Parallax development). I’ve always had a soft spot for the World Series series, which had an understated story exploring the development of Superman and Batman’s friendship (which started off strained) and some surprisingly good artwork from artists I was not generally familiar with.

Despite having higher-profile artists, including some of my favorites, Legacies is not as good a series. The framing story of a Metropolis policeman watching the DC Universe develop from the late 1930s to today is pretty generic and progressing slowly, and not as strong as the (still fairly loose) background story in World’s Finest. Plus, another survey of DC’s history doesn’t really seem necessary; I’d been hoping this series would be more than that.

With 2 issues left, there’s time for writer Len Wein to pull a rabbit out of his hat and make this series something surprising. But after 8 issues, it looks like what we see is what we get. It’s okay, but nothing special.

Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four is on the cusp of its first big development, the death of one of the team members. While I’ve felt the series has been rather slow and even dull so far, his manipulation of the build-up to “Three” has been pretty good, putting the heroes into perilous situations where any of the might die: The Thing has reverted to human form for a month, just as some minions of Annihilus attack the Baxter Building, which he, the Human Torch and the kids must defend. Mister Fantastic has gone into space with Galactus to find the corpse of the world-devourer’s future self, and Reed is trying to evacuate the remaining inhabitants of an artificial world before Galactus destroys it. (This is a pretty clever extension of a story laid down by Mark Millar in his run on the book.) And the Invisible Woman is trying to stave off a war between the Sub-Mariner and his kingdom and the more-sinister-than-they-appear (according to Namor) prehistoric Atlanteans who have recently reappeared.

While I’ve been skeptical of Hickman as a master-planner so far (his S.H.I.E.L.D. series has been pretty unconvincing as a millennia-long-global-conspiracy yarn), how he’s assembled the pieces here is actually pretty impressive now that I see it. This is hardly the first time one of the FF has died (or at least been pronounced dead) – it feels almost as old hat as the team breaking up – but it’s how the ramifications of the death are handled which will make or break the event.

And of course Steve Epting’s art is always a joy to see. He’s got everything Brian Hitch brings to the table, but with superior layouts faces that seem more realistic. How this guy isn’t a superstar by now, I don’t know.

Since I last checked in with Dynamo 5 in my blog, there’s been a mini-series (Sins of the Father) and now this holiday special. The characters have recently had their powers switched around among them, a gimmick I’m not really a fan of: It always seems to suggest that the writer either has run out of ideas for the original set-up, or he decided that the original arrangement was the wrong one, and in this case I think the new arrangement is a definitely downgrade to the original. That aside, the story in Sins was pretty solid, leading up to a big cathartic moment for Smasher, the team’s strong-man, who in everyday life is a wimpy kid.

This one-shot involves the team trying to track down an escaped super-villain, who seems to have attacked two teenage girls. Not all it what it seems, of course, but unfortunately the heartwarming holiday payoff isn’t really plausible or satisfying. Moreover, I’m not real big on artist Marcia Takara (who also draws Incorruptible for Boom, where I’m also not a fan of his), as I find his sketchy finishes, simple layouts, and minimal backgrounds really make the book not very attractive.

I’d say to give this one a miss, except that it wraps up with five short epilogues portending future story directions, and they’re pretty good. But then, I expect what we learn here will be recapitulated when the plot points come to fruition. So yeah, the holiday special isn’t required reading unless you’re already on-board the Dynamo 5 train. If you’re not, either wait for the next mini-series, or pick up Sins when it arrives in trade paperback.

…And To All A Good Week!

If it’s the holiday season, then it must be holiday break time for me and Debbi, since both our companies shut down from Christmas Eve to New Year’s.

Work was jam-packed right up to the break. In addition to my own work, I’ve been getting several newer employees up to speed on area I work on, used to work on, or just have some general familiarity with. (“How does that work again? Oh yeah… no wait… hmm. Let me check the source code.”) It sure is nice to have more people contributing to my area, but coordinating with multiple people at once takes plenty of time on its own!

Friday we drove around picking up food for Christmas dinner, and then I did a draft on Magic Online. I’d set up a Windows machine a few months ago for just this purpose, and finally made time to play. It was a Scars of Mirrodin draft, and I didn’t do very well, ended up White/Black (not really a solid archetype) with some Metalcrafting, won my first game, lost my next two, and thus was out in the first round of the single-elimination tournament. Bummer. But, now I know how it works, so I can play again!

Then we tidied up the guest room and a little after 4 pm our friend Karen arrived. She’s visiting for the weekend and part of the week, as she did last year, having driven down from the Northwest.

Since it was Christmas Eve we didn’t make solid plans for dinner, and decided to go out to a Mexican restaurant in town. It was dark, so we headed out towards an Italian place. I commented that a nearby strip mall was darker than I’d ever seen it. And then the next block was dark, too. And we realized the street lights were out. Yes, there was a many-blocks-long blackout along El Camino Real in Mountain View, covering the Italian restaurant too. Not really an obstacle we’d expected to have to deal with on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, downtown still had power, so we had dinner at Cascal, even getting there in time for happy hour!

We spent a quiet Christmas at home, opening presents, talking to family, and listening to Christmas music. Oh, and listening to the occasional rain. I made dinner in the late afternoon: Bacon-wrapped meatloaf, potatoes gratin, and Debbi steamed some carrots. It all came out very yummy! I got to use the combination infrared/probe thermometer Debbi got me for Christmas on the meatloaf. In the evening we played Tetris on the Wii and had cheesecake for dessert.

Today we had reservations for dinner at the Moss Beach Distillery, which was yummy as always. And sunny and almost warm, too! After a short walk along the coast, we drove up to San Francisco where we went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum since Karen wanted to see their exhibit about Curious George. After a walk around Union Square, we then dropped in on Borderlands Books where, alas, we failed to see any kitties. And then we headed home, had dinner at Su Hong, and rounded out the day with more Tetris.

More planned for the first half of the week, before Karen heads out.

How was your Christmas weekend?

This Week’s Haul

  • Green Lantern #60, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Keith Champagne (DC)
  • Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #5, by Peter J. Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Cam Smith (DC)
  • Time Masters: Vanishing Point #5 of 6, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • The Unwritten #20, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula #2 of 6, by Ian Edginton & Davide Fabbri (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Captain America: Man Out of Time #2 of 5, by Mark Waid, Jorge Molina & Karl Kesel (Marvel)
  • Powers: The Definitive Hardcover Collection vol 4, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • Mouse Guard: The Black Axe #1 of 6, by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Next Men #1, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Atomic Robo and the Deadly Art of Science #2 of 5, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
The latest hardcover collection of Powers is out, and it’s a big one, collecting the first eighteen issues of the second series. It’s actually a reasonable jumping-on point for the series, but, you know, why “jump on” with a $35 hardcover collection when you can either buy the first such volume, or just buy the currently-ongoing third series in single-issue form?

That aside, the second volume of the series is much more ambitious, and much darker, than the first. Writer Brian Michael Bendis doesn’t spell out such details, but clearly several years have passed since the first issue of the first series. The events of “The Sellouts” have led the United States to outlaw the use of powers, and require people who have them to register them. As you might expect, this means that supervillains go to town (because why should they care of their powers are outlawed), and law enforcement is badly outgunned since all the heroes have retired to comply with the law. The city of Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim is being divided up by three crime lords.

This volume is intense: Deena gets captured by one of the crime lords, leading to a huge and unwelcome change in her life. Walker discovers that a girl he’s taken under his wing since her parents were killed has powers – very surprising powers. Becoming her mentor, she leads other heroes to reconsider their decision to retire. And the case of a man killed by a flying man leads to a big change in Walker’s life. This volume of Powers is about secrets, people who keep them, people who learn about them, and what people do to keep them hidden or when they’re revealed. It remains true to its noir-detective roots, while expanding the cast and setting and raising the stakes.

The second series is basically one long story, and it’s really excellent. Thumbing through this made me go back and read the conclusion again. I recommend it highly, as taken as a whole it’s probably the best thing Bendis has ever written.

Oh yeah, and Michael Avon Oeming’s art is quite good, too. I admire how he takes the animation-style simplicity he works with and adapts it to a very sophisticated and not-at-all-for-kids story. The incongruity has long since passed, and now it’s just very good artwork in support of a very good story – and that’s a very good thing.

After a 4-issue fill-in series of short stories by other creators, David Petersen’s back with a new Mouse Guard series, The Black Axe. The title character was introduced in the second series as the nigh-legendary champion of mousekind. As this series starts 37 years before the previous series, I think we’re seeing the Black Axe of that series being born, or maybe a broader exploration of his legend. I’m not sure.

Sometimes I get a little frustrated with the pace of the series, as there seem to be so many tantalizing details of mouse culture and history, which only get parceled out a tiny bit at a time. But it’s still a fun series, and Petersen’s artwork is lovely, worth the price of admission by itself.

After a long, long wait, John Byrne has returned to his creator-owned project of the 1990s, Next Men. The first series ran for 31 issues (more or less), and IDW has collected the series in recent years in both black-and-white paperback volumes, and a set of three color hardcover volumes. (Strangely, the first volume is a smaller form factor then the other two; wonder what idiot at IDW came up with that bright idea? But anyway.)

This new series picks up after the rather abrupt end of the first one, and includes an 8-page recap of what’s gone before, so you can just jump on here, although I do recommend the earlier series, as it’s excellent. But to put it briefly: The Next Men are five people engineered by a secret government project to give them super powers. Following various adventures in the modern day – during which one of then left the group to join a religious clan – they’ve apparently been pulled back to prehistoric times, where one of them is having lucid dreams involving different twists on their previous exploits, and two of them have disappeared. And from the last page and the cover of next issue, it looks like this series is going to involve a heavy dose of time travel, into the past, which would be rather the flip side of the first issue which involved time travel from the future.

The first Next Men series took quite a while to develop, whereas Byrne seems to be trying to hook the reader with the cool stuff up front, and that’s probably a good idea. But I expect there will be plenty of twists and turns while Byrne pilots the story to its ultimate conclusion.

The first Next Men series also fell at a time when Byrne was experimenting with his art style quite a bit, and the art in the series changed and evolved in pretty substantial ways during its run (not all of it working for me; in particular some of his characters’ faces and expressions looks kind of weird in the middle of the run). But Byrne’s style has remained largely the same for the last decade or so, so I expect we’ll see more consistency this time around. While I’m among those who preferred his style in the 70s and early 80s to his newer style, he’s still a very good, very imaginative artist, and working at IDW seems to have reenergized him as a comics creator overall (as I’ve said before, his Star Trek work for them has been a lot of fun).

All-in-all, while I personally could have done without the big story recap in the middle, I understand why it’s there, and this first issue is very promising. I’m very much looking forward to more.

(By the way, the John Byrne forum has a FAQ about Next Men and the new series.)

Lois McMaster Bujold: Cryoburn

It’s been 8 years since Bujold last published a Miles Vorkosigan novel – long before I started this current journal (my reviews of the earlier books are still on my old site). Cryoburn returns to the adventures of her quirky hero, after an identical gap in his own life: Now 39, Miles is happily married with children, but we see little of that, because this adventure takes place on the world Kibou-daini, a Japanese-populated planet whose inhabitants are obsessed with staving off death, and where cryo-freezing of the sick of elderly – or just people afraid of becoming sick or elderly – is common, and a dominating chunk of the economy.

I felt the series was flagging before the hiatus (admittedly a big part of the reason is that I didn’t care for Miles’ wife, in much the same way I wasn’t fond of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and those last novels revolved around their courtship and wedding), but unfortunately Cryoburn is anything but a return to the series’ previous form.

The book opens with Miles wandering, drugged and thirsty, through the catacombs filled with cryogenic units. His bodyguard, Armsman Roic, and several other attendees of a cryogenic conference, have been captured by a radical group protesting the widespread use of cryogenics, but Miles had an adverse reaction to the drugs (as he often does) and is released into the catacombs. He manages to stumble to safety, where he’s rescued by an 11-year-old boy named Jin, who lives in a small commune taking care of a menagerie of animals on the roof of one of the building.

Roic and the other abductees, including cyrogenics expert and friend-of-Miles Dr. Raven Durona, escape from their captors, and Miles gets back in touch with the Barrayaran embassy. Then it turns out that Jin’s mother was the leader of a different protest group who disappeared 18 months earlier, under mysterious circumstances. Miles feels curious – and perhaps a bit obligated – to find out what happened to her, though this is a distraction his main mission of investigating one of the cryogenic companies and their interest in setting up a large facility on one of Barrayar’s subject planets, but it forms the core of the story.

Cryoburn mainly involves chunks of sleuthing (what happened to Jin’s mother and her group, who might be connected to their disappearance) mixed with chunks of cloak-and-dagger (stealing bodies from the catacombs, tailing persons of interest, snooping around buildings). The stakes are high for Barrayar’s subject world, but Miles really makes short work of that project, focusing most of his effort on Jin’s mother, whose story presents even greater implications for the future of Kibou-daini.

But on the whole the book is an unambitious story of running around, Miles showing off his stuff, and making his opponents look impotent by comparison, despite operating on a planet where he doesn’t have any actual authority. A friend of mine commented that one of the problems with the Miles books is that his Imperial Auditor’s position combined with his formidable intellect and large network of capable friends and allies means that few problems are large enough to really give him a challenge, and certainly Cryoburn doesn’t really give him one: There are a few speed bumps along the way, but I kept waiting for “the other shoe to drop”, where the people he’s after launch a significant counter-attack, but what eventually materializes is almost comically incompetent. Basically, the “bad guys” have barely any idea that Miles is even after them, so he’s able to poke into their affairs nearly unmolested, and certainly Roic and the embassy’s armsman are more than up to the task of dealing with the obstacles they do encounter. The outcome never really seems in doubt.

In short, Miles just seems too capable, too powerful, for anything less than planetary-level adversaries to give him much of a challenge. And that makes for dull plotting.

The long-running pattern of the Miles books is the adding of new characters, who have varying degrees of sympathy with Miles, and having him either win them over to his side, or make their lives better (often by playing inadvertent matchmaker), and there’s plenty of that here. Sometimes it gets a little tiresome and repetitive seeing these ordinary people dragged along in Miles’ overpowering wake (Roic is keenly aware that he’s a supporting character and bears the role stoically; Raven is immensely capable in his own ways, and mostly gets out of the way to let Miles do his thing), although it can still be entertaining: Seeing Miles evaluate and win over Consul Vorlynkin – a man who, after all, has been posted to a relative backwater and perhaps for good reason for all Miles knows at first – is rather clever. But still, the series seems to have sunk deeply into formula.

While Cryoburn is entertainingly written, with a number of quotable lines, it unfortunately doesn’t feel like 8 years’ absence has recharged Bujold’s batteries from similarly-bland few novels prior to the interregnum.

My best guess is that Cryoburn the novel to refamiliarize readers with Miles after his long hiatus, before launching into a more substantial story. But man, this is a really weak way to lead into such an arc: a rather trivial story with a surprisingly weak by-the-numbers plot. I’d rather Bujold had just gone for the gusto and leaped into the next story with both feet from the outset. Because overall, this book is pretty forgettable.

Spoiler Warning! After the jump I discuss the end of the novel.

Continue reading “Lois McMaster Bujold: Cryoburn”

Run Run Run

So biking season ended when Daylight Savings Time did – mainly because I don’t like biking home in the dark. But I didn’t want to be a slug all winter (even if I do play frisbee once a week), so I’ve taken up running.

Now, you have to understand: I hate running. I think it’s boring, and it doesn’t have the advantage of biking in being able to go fast. Plus I’ve had shin splints for years, and this year I’ve mixed in problems with my right heel. So, really not a lot of fun all around.

But one of my cow-orkers suggested I try running so I land on the balls of my feet, rather than my heels. It’s weird to change my gait, and whenever I start out I feel like I’m leaning backwards and leaping into a ballet recital. But I get used to it surprisingly quickly, and I don’t even have to focus on maintaining the gait. Well, once I’ve run far enough that I start getting tired I need to concentrate a little, but that’s not bad.

But more importantly, neither my shins nor my heel have hurt much since I started, which makes getting up in the morning to go running a lot less dreadful.

I’m currently running about 1-3/4 miles every other day, and averaging between an 11 and an 11:30 minute mile. I guess I’d like to get up to about 3 miles, and then try to increase my speed, because I don’t think I could stand to run for more than about 30 minutes at a stretch.

I’ll be happy when biking season rolls back around, too.

This Week’s Haul

  • Fables #100, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Chrissie Zullo & others (DC/Vertigo)
  • First Wave #5 of 6, by Brian Azzarello, Rags Morales & Rick Bryant (DC)
  • Knight and Squire #3 of 6, by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton (DC)
  • Echo #26, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Lady Mechanika #1, by Joe Benitez (Aspen)
  • The Mystery Society #5 of 5, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
Fables reaches the big one-zero-zero this month – quite a milestone for a comic that features no superheroes at all. I’ve been on board since the beginning, and while it’s had its ups and downs, it’s been quite a fun ride.

Since the war against The Adversary wrapped up in #75, the book has taken an even darker turn (and considering the book’s first story arc was entitled “Legends in Exile”, that’s saying something): A powerful entity named Mister Dark (whom some compare to Neil Gaiman’s character Morpheus, but I think the similarity is superficial at best) destroyed Fabletown, forcing the surviving fables to flee to The Farm in upstate New York. Mister Dark has been building his own edifice atop the remains of Fabletown, but finally someone has dared to challenge him: Frau Totenkinder, having been reborn as a young woman and calling herself Bellflower, engages him in a duel to the death of one of them in this issue.

The Mister Dark storyline has had some gripping moments, but overall the series has felt somewhat adrift, much like the Fables themselves. The most recent story arc highlighted the backstory of Rose Red, and her getting her act together to be a leader on the Farm again. But since Bellflower is the one who actually brings the fight to Mister Dark, that arc now feels a little superfluous. Fables has always tended to take a circuitous route to the end of its stories, but whether they end up being fun has depended more on the characters involved than anything else; Bigby Wolf, Snow White and Boy Blue carried the first 75 issues, but the recent focus on Rose Red and the witches has been a lot less successful, as none of them have really been sympathetic characters. More to the point, they’re all fairly inwardly-turned characters, so their interactions with the other Fables tend to be not very entertaining.

The conclusion of this issue is disappointing since it’s more of a transition than an end to the Mister Dark story, and I was really ready for his story to be over. The big fight in the issue is quite well done, but I’d been hoping for a different outcome.

The issue contains lots of extras – short stories, even paper doll cut-outs – which feels like an anniversary issue or giant-sized “annual” of years past. Certainly a nice package. I’d just been hoping for more out of the main story.

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything rom Aspen Comics before – they seem to largely specialize in ladies-in-skimpy-costumes fare with run-of-the-mill stories. But Joe Benitez’ new steampunk series Lady Mechanika interested me. (That cover on the left, by the way, is by J. Scott Campbell, and is awful. The main cover, which you can see here is much better. But the Campbell cover is the only one my retailer still had in stock when I was there.) Certainly steampunk doesn’t have a shortage of improbably-skin-baring Victorian ladieswear, and Lady Mechanika‘s interiors seem right in keeping with the genre as I’ve seen it otherwise.

The story is okay: Lady Mechanika is an almost-legendary vigilante in the English city of Mechanika, a woman who’s left-machine, but whose role in the city’s life seems vague (is she a protector or avenger like Batman, or just someone investigating other unusual creatures like herself?). In this issue she’s looking into a report of another woman who’s turned up in the city with mechanical limbs, who promptly died after her arrival. The story and art are long on atmosphere, but short on plot advancement or characterization. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s lightweight. I’m not familiar with Joe Benitez’ work, but he’s a pretty good artist, definitely a cut above the typical Image-style artist.

The book has some promise, but it’s also at great risk of being an ordinary steampunk adventure. Time will tell which direction it heads.

Steve Niles’ The Mystery Society wraps up this month. As a new entry in the monster-hunter adventure genre (alongside Hellboy and The Perhapanauts), it holds up quite well, with a strong dose of The Thin Man-inspired marital intrigue between Nick and Anastasia Mystery, with several peculiar characters joining them in their quest to investigate strange occurrences and liberate mysterious objects from around the world. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s fun and funny.

The best part, I think, has been watching artist Fiona Staples develop, expanding her range of expressions and poses. Her biggest drawback as an artist is that her backgrounds tend to be sketchy-to-nonexistent, which makes the book feel like it’s taking place in a multicolored mist at times. Hopefully she’ll flesh out that part of her skill set on her next project.

I don’t know that The Mystery Society has a huge amount of long-term potential, but I’d read another series about these characters. Whether I’d go beyond that depends on whether Niles has some solid character surprises up his sleeve.

This Week’s Haul

Despite having Thanksgiving week off, I never did an entry for that week, so here’s the catch-up:

Last Week:

  • Action Comics #895, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Batman Beyond #6 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #45, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #29, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Captain America #612, by Ed Brubaker & Butch Guice (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #585, by Jonathan Hickman & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Chip: Second Crack #2 of 3, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Incorruptible #12, by Mark Waid & Marcio Takara (Boom)

This Week:

  • Action Comics Annual #12, by Paul Cornell, Marco Rudy & Ed Benes (DC)
  • American Vampire #9, by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque & Mateus Santolouco (DC/Vertigo)
  • Fables: Witches TPB, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, David Lapham, Andrew Pepoy, Jim Fern & Craig Hamilton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six #28, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Irredeemable #20, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • RASL #9, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
  • The Boys #49, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
The Batman Beyond mini-series has been fairly clever and entertaining, sitting sort of in-between the kids books that DC publishes based on its animated properties, and the more serious mainstream fare. This one attempts to bridge the two continuities – comic book Batman and animated Batman Beyond – and does a pretty good job. I’m not really a fan of Ryan Benjamin’s artwork, which also tries to bridge the styles between the two continuities and I thought just looks kind of weird, the characters not having much emotional range beyond a grimace or a scowl. But it’s okay.

The series has apparently been successful enough to warrant a new ongoing series, but while this was a cute little series I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to jump on-board for a longer-term commitment. One of the problems with Batman Beyond was that it never managed to establish itself as a series with a purpose; the best episodes tended to be ones revolving around Bruce Wayne’s past, and while Terry McGinnis – the Batman of the future – is an enjoyable character, he’s not strong enough to carry the series himself. I just don’t see that an ongoing series will provide a satisfying payoff, especially given that the mini-series was fairly light and by-the-numbers.

In the “light entertainment” department, this is a pretty good series and the ongoing series may be just as good. But for me, I think I get the idea and that’s enough.

Madame Xanadu comes to a close with this issue, with Amy Reeder (formerly Amy Reeder Hadley) coming back for the denouement.

The series has been erratic, starting with Madame Xanadu’s origins in the days of King Arthur (who is revealed as being Nimue, who in DC continuity is the woman responsible – tragically, in this instance – for imprisoning Merlin prior to the fall of Camelot, and also Morgan Le Fey’s sister), and progressing up through the 1960s. So it’s basically been a big retrospective, since the character is well-established (albeit as a mysterious individual without any personality) in present-day continuity.

The series has been an extended story of Xanadu’s maturity, starting as a credulous girl who encounters the Phantom Stranger, meeting him again through the centuries to her frequent regret (it’s also implied that the Stranger is living his life backwards through time, and interesting nugget which isn’t really explored), and also manipulated by her sister, but who gradually gains maturity, wisdom and knowledge to become a powerful sorceress. She’s certainly a more interesting character here than she’s ever been before.

Yet the series never really gelled for me, as it frequently wandered away from its main story arc, and seemed to lack focus. I think Wagner was enjoying playing around in the corners of the DC Universe, in much the way Neil Gaiman did in Sandman, but I don’t think he was nearly as effective in doing so; he doesn’t have the same touch for the fabulous that Gaiman does. I often find Wagner’s writing to be rather distant, more interesting for the complex and subtle mechanics of his plots and less for his characters, who tend to be rather flat (I love both Grendel and Mage, but neither is really memorable for its characters). Madame Xanadu is one of his stronger characters, but he seems to struggle with how to develop her in a satisfying manner, especially since the stories have been so low-key in nature. Seen in hindsight it’s clearer how he was building the character, but the emotional impact was often muted. The most effective issue on that score was a 1950s housewife who finds her body being creepily transformed, but I didn’t think the follow-up (after our heroine dealt with the problem) provided a satisfying resolution for the character; Wagner follows up on her here, but her story, although it has a happy outcome, is seen from a distance and doesn’t feel very rewarding for the reader.

Amy Reeder’s artwork has been the real strength of the series, channeling a bit of Charles Vess in her designs and layouts, and delivering most of the emotional impact the series did have. I sometimes wished she had an inker who would soften her lines, someone like Joe Rubenstein or even Tom Palmer, but certainly she’s quite a find and I hope she gets more work in the future.

Overall, though, Madame Xanadu has been a bit disappointing; I suspect DC hoped it would build a following more in line with Sandman or Starman, but it was never really that kind of book. Really it was just the sort of book that would slip under the radar in today’s market, and it didn’t have any developments or twists that made me want to tell people that they must read this book. 28 issues is a good run for a low-profile book like this, but it feels like Wagner should somehow have gone for the splashier storyline so it could be more high profile. In that way, the series feels like a missed opportunity.

Richard Moore’s plan seems to be to corner the “cute, sexy, and a little scary” comic book market. He did a great job on this in his regular comic Boneyard, which he wrapped up a while back since I guess it wasn’t making much money. Now he’s been doing a number of little side projects for Antarctic Press, one of which is Chip. This comic features a 4-inch gargoyle who is determined to show he can be just as scary as his brethren, with the help of his pixie friend Ash. He’s not very successful, though. Second Crack is his second series, in which Chip and Ash are trying to capture the Jersey Devil.

The thing is, Moore’s gone way too far into the “cute” realm for my tastes, and Chip is a pretty slight book in both plot and characters. His writing style works better when he can develop things over a period of time as in Boneyard, or his more serious wild west fantasy Far West. Moore has a pretty wry sense of humor, but the jokes here seem cheap.

Heck, I somehow missed the first issue of this series, and I don’t feel like I missed very much. Hopefully he’ll have the time to do something more ambitious sometime soon.

I think I’m running out of gas on Gail Simone’s Secret Six. Part of it is that Jim Calafiore has replaced Nicola Scott as the regular artist, and he seems like the go-to guy for second-tier series who need a reliable artist: But while he’s reliable, his figures are too stiff and generic for my tastes. I had the same problem when he was drawing Marvel’s Exiles series.

But part of it is that the series has been floundering around, losing its focus, that being a group of mercenaries with extreme personalities who have trouble getting along. The team broke up and splintered into two factions, both of whom ended up in the underground primeval world of Skartaris, fighting each other and the locals, a story which wraps up in this issue. I wasn’t quite clear what they were supposed to be doing there – I think one group was being manipulated by a rogue element inside the US government, while the other was sent by Amanda Waller, but no one seemed to be keeping their eyes on the prize, whatever it was. It seemed like an excuse to have the protagonists beat up on one another.

The series has been at its best when it puts its characters – who have questionable morals – in situations which challenge both their well-being and what sense of right and wrong they have. But such stories usually require a pretty strong focus, especially with a large-and-growing cast of characters as exists here, particularly when the characters are a group of anti-heroes at best, and the reader won’t always relate to them. Throwing in an exotic land and a confusing mission as this story featured throws off the balance of the story and makes it difficult to figure out what the story is trying to accomplish.

Series about villains are difficult to keep going, especially characters who aren’t ones who naturally tend to work together, and Secret Six is probably the most successful such comic in history (Suicide Squad, remember, was anchored by several clear-cut heroes; Secret Six is more like trying to write a series about The Joker or Lex Luthor). But it feels like it’s spiraling out of control.