This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #865, by Geoff Johns & Jesus Moreno (DC)
  • All-Star Superman #11, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Final Crisis #1 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Fables #73, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #42, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Starman Omnibus vol 1 HC, by James Robinson, Tony Harris & Wade Con Grawbadger and others (DC)
  • Thor #9, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
Final Crisis #1 I have a post languishing in my FP drafts which partly has the theme that “Grant Morrison’s writing isn’t all that” (I later published it here). Still, Morrison is one of the hottest writers in comics today, so it’s not surprising that DC tapped him to write their big event mini-series of 2008, Final Crisis. In theory, it’s the culmination of several years worth of storylines, from Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis through Countdown to Final Crisis and its attendant spin-offs.

The days when event mini-series could be more than a cynical corporate-driven production seem to be far behind us, and Final Crisis #1 seems to demonstrate this. The issue is a series of vignettes setting up the larger story – a tried-and-true but overused device. But the story seems completely disconnected from what was purportedly the set-up for this very series: A group of villains have a sinister gathering, but with no apparent reference to Salvation Run (whose final issue hasn’t shipped yet). A New God is found dead on Earth, but there’s no reference to Death of the New Gods, even though Superman was a key player in that story and he’s present here. And it can’t be that this sequence is a flashback, because the dead New God is a key player in Death. There’s a scene with the Monitors which feels at odds with Countdown, and another with Terrible Turpin which also seems in conflict with Death of the New Gods. (Graeme McMillan has noticed all this, too.)

So either Morrison is playing a deep game – and I wouldn’t put it past him, because he can be a crafty writer, albeit sometimes too crafty for his own good – or he’s pretty much ignoring all the set-up, either for his own purposes, or because DC editorial decided to cut their losses on the Countdown and make Final Crisis stand on its own. Which isn’t a bad idea given how ineptly plotted Countdown was, but it makes for a bizarre read.

Anyway, it’s far too early to tell whether all of this is going anywhere at all, because this is just the tip of the beginning of a story. “In medias res” seems like a lost concept in mainstream comics these days.

J.G. Jones’ artwork is good, although I wasn’t bowled over it like Valerie D’Orazio was. I found his layouts to be very stiff, and his finishes a little too slick. Tony Harris is the master of this quasi-photo-realistic style of comics art, and it’s extremely hard to pull off. I think Jones’ art here would have been better if he’d let a little Kirby dynamism (or even Sekowski quirkiness) creep into his layouts.

In sum, is it a good start? Well, it would be if I wasn’t so cynical about the whole thing, which seems like little more than an endeavor to separate customers from their money more than anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if, two years from now, Final Crisis proved to be as forgettable as both Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis are today.

Starman omnibus volume 1 James Robinson’s Starman was one of the best comics series of the 1990s. In fact, I’ve found that people who liked Neil Gaiman’s Sandman often also enjoyed Starman. Oddly, although most of Starman has been collected in trade paperbacks, there were a few stray issues which were never collected. But the answer to that problem has arrived in the form of the Starman omnibus series, which apparently will collect the entire 80-issue series, plus annuals, crossovers and other major appearances of the character, in six high-quality hardcover volumes. This first volume collects the first 18 issues, which fully establishes the main character and his world.

Starman was originally a golden age superhero, Ted Knight, who invented a “gravity rod” which gave him powers somewhat similar to Green Lantern’s, later refined to a “cosmic rod”. In Robinson’s “alternate world” graphic novel, The Golden Age (also well worth reading), he portrayed Knight as having become mentally unstable after he saw that his contributions to physics helped create the atom bomb. Robinson retained that element for the in-continuity series, and also revealed that he’d gotten married and had two children, Jack and David. Jack was a rebel and wanted to tread his own path, completely separate from his father’s career, while David was all-too-happy to take on the mantle of Starman when Ted retired.

Unfortunately David’s career lasted only a couple of adventures, and this volume opens with David being killed as the opening gambit of a crime wave masterminded by Ted’s old nemesis, the Mist. Reluctantly, Jack employs his father’s cosmic rod to stop the bad guys, eventually ending up with a distinctive staff, and eschewing the usual superhero costume in favor of a leather jacket and stylish goggles, with no secret identity. Along the way he gathers his own arch-enemy in the form of the Mist’s daughter, Nash.

Starman is the very best sort of continuity-laden story: Rather than expecting you to know about the character’s background or have read about all the other figures who populate the book, Robinson simply draws together the interesting figures with their own unique histories and employs them as he would supporting characters in any other story. He explains their stories where appropriate, and completely ignores them where they’re not relevant. It’s truly a novel (or series of novels) which just happens to feature characters who have also appeared elsewhere.

The reason all this works so well is that fundamentally Starman is about family and friendships. Jack comes to appreciate and love his father, and his father comes to understand Jack’s need for a distinctive identity. Robinson brings back three other characters who have had the name Starman, turning one of them – a blue-skinned alien named Mikaal – into one of Jack’s closest friends. He creates a fictional setting, Opal City, in which Starman is a valued protector and hero, and whose police force befriends and supports Jack not just for his father’s sake, but in his own right. And Robinson especially has fun with the villains who aren’t really villains, taking pains to examine the motivations of what makes these people do bad things. Some of them are simply insane or avaricious, of course, but his most complex character, the Shade, is sometimes a villain and sometimes a hero and has his own deep motivations and feelings about what he does. The Shade stories are among the best episodes of the series. And there are many other characters who appear later in the series, too.

This theme of family and friendship is one thing that makes Starman similar to Sandman. Also like Gaiman, Robinson has an ear for realistic dialogue, especially for people thrown into the fantastic situations both series naturally feature. (People often praise Brian Michael Bendis’ ear for dialogue in the same way; I find Bendis’ dialogue to sound extremely stilted and unnatural, about as far removed in its way from Gaiman and Robinson as that written by Stan Lee.) Also like Sandman Starman took about a year to really find its footing and feel confident and consistent, and it also has stretches in the middle where it drags on. Nonetheless, it’s every bit the equal of Gaiman’s masterpiece, while remaining a unique voice in its own right.

The first half of the series was illustrated by Tony Harris, whom I mentioned in the Final Crisis piece above. This is some of Harris’ early work, and the first story arc feels rather unpolished, further held back by some very flat and unsympathetic coloring. But the “Talking With David” episode in the middle of the volume shows Harris making a quantum leap in his style and rendering, and by the end of the book the art looks basically the way I remembered it; his growth as an artist is that significant. Harris is such a distinct artist that I don’t really know how great an effect his inker, Wad Von Grawbadger, has on his style. I think Harris is such a strong artist that few inkers could really affect his style in a significant way.

In sum, this is an excellent series which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it before. At 50 bucks a pop this omnibus set will not be a cheap way to read it, but you will get the whole story in a high-quality package. I’m personally going to enjoy the whole thing.

Welcome Ajay!

Subrata and Susan’s son Akash (Ajay, or maybe A.J.) arrived on Thursday. We visited them in the hospital last night and got the whole scoop; it sounds like things went quite smoothly, and I expect they’ve probably gone home already as I type this.

Ajay seemed surprisingly aware of things going on in the room around him, as he locked eyes with me and with Debbi, and watched the nurse avidly when she came in. I don’t know much about kids, but that seems pretty perceptive for a 24-hour-old kid! His parents would be bouncing off the walls if they weren’t as tired as they are; give ’em a couple of days and they probably will be!

Conservatory of Flowers III: Butterflies

One room at the Conservatory of Flowers is filled with butterflies. Well, “filled” may be too strong a term; in fact, when we first walked in and I saw a butterfly flitting away from me, I was disappointed that it seemed to be the only one.

Then I noticed one on the windows.

And another one.

And then I realized there were dozens – maybe hundreds – of them in there, but only a few were in the air at any one time. And they were all different colors and sizes. Very impressive!

There’s also has a case in which butterflies in chrysalis were evolving from their caterpillar forms, some of them having already emerged.

A few of the many colorful butterflies we saw:



Another butterfly!

My favorite butterfly!

Naturally, I highly recommend visiting the Conservatory if you have the chance. It’s great!

Grease Monkey Book 2

I’m a huge fan of Tim Eldred’s Grease Monkey, and was floored when the whole story came out in hardcover from Tor a few years back, after a couple of aborted attempts to publish it as a comic book in the 1990s.

It looks like Eldred’s working on a sequel, and he’s posting the chapters one-a-month at the Grease Monkey web site. Awesome! Since new comics are delayed until tomorrow due to Memorial Day, maybe tonight I’ll read the chapters he’s published so far!

Conservatory of Flowers II: Water Plants

More photos from the Conservatory of Flowers. One of the far rooms (well, there are only five rooms, but still) mainly features water plants. As you can see from these photos, this room features some metal railings and artwork, which I presume are a century or more old:

Water plants at the Conservatory of Flowers

More water plants at the Conservatory of Flowers

In addition to orchids, this room contains quite a few pitcher plants, carnivorous plants hanging from a variety of pots:

Pitcher plants at the Conservatory of Flowers

More pitcher plants at the Conservatory of Flowers

There was also this oddity, which resembles a bird of paradise, but I’ve never seen one with the green fronds fanning out like this, so I’m not certain what exactly it is:

Birds of Paradise - maybe?

Conservatory of Flowers I: Orchids

The Conservatory of Flowers is located in a late-19th-century building in Golden Gate Park, and is full of wonderful and fascinating plants. The building apparently has been quite resistant to earthquakes, except that of course it’s covered in glass, and that glass has to be replaced from time to time. (Still, this is less maintenance than some historic buildings require!) It re-opened a few years ago after a major renovation.

I took so many photos when Dad and I visited last week that I’m going to split them up into several posts.

As you can see, the Conservatory is a beautiful building with lovely grounds – and that’s without the summer planting being in place (or so I infer, from the strips of empty dirt amongst the grass):

Exterior of the Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco
(Click for a larger image)

The whole interior of the buildings is used for exhibits, by the way. I presume they store maintenance equipment elsewhere nearby.

There are orchids throughout the building, in different rooms with different temperatures and climates, and many of them were blooming:

Orchids at the Conservatory of Flowers

Orchids at the Conservatory of Flowers

There are many other plants, too, some of them more exotic-looking than others. I don’t generally expect spiny-looking plants like this one to be so colorful:

Purple plant at the Conservatory of Flowers

I don’t know what that last plant is, though.

Best Name for a Cat I’ve Seen Recently

The feline-in-residence at Recycle Book Store West in Campbell is named Isbn (pronounced “IZZ-bin”):

Isbn at Recycle Book Store West

Recycle West moved to a larger venue a block down the street from where it used to be, which threw us for a minute when we went there today; I was on autopilot and walked almost to the door before Debbi stopped me. The new store a much nicer place, though. I’m glad they’re doing well!

SAGE & Babbage

Here’s a photo of Dad standing in front of the control console and some banks of hardware from the SAGE system at the Computer History Museum last weekend:

Dad standing in front of the SAGE system at the Computer History Museum

You can’t see the cigarette lighter on the console, which is a feature Apple somehow never puts in its iMacs.

Dad says he contributed to the SAGE project in some capacity back in the day, I guess on the software end. Whenever I hear about the SAGE project it always sounds like this big boondoggle which was obsolete by the time it was deployed, but nonetheless was maintained for decades thereafter.

Here I am in front of one of two completed versions of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, also at the museum:

Me in front of Babbage Engine #2 at the Computer History Museum

Unfortunately it wasn’t in operation when we were there. It’s a very impressive aggregation of metal, though; I can see why Babbage was unable to complete it in his own era.

Año Nuevo Elephant Seals

Some photos from our trip to Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve last Friday with my Dad.

These little guys kept flying up to us when we were in a shelter/information hut halfway to the viewing site, hovering briefly, and then flying away. Then they’d do it again. Eventually I realized they must have a nest inside the shelter, and they flew in and landed when we stepped out the other end:

Birds at the Ano Nuevo shelter

One of the seals had tracking devices glued to her head and back, as you can see here. The docents told us that scientists shave their fur to glue these devices to them. Apparently they sometimes fall off on their own, though:

Elephant seal with tracking devices

A few seals were wrestling in the water, while others were galumphing around the shore, like this guy (or gal):

Alert elephant seal

But mostly everyone was asleep, basking in the sun, as you can see in the background of the pictures above.

This Week’s Haul

  • The Brave and the Bold #13, by Mark Waid, Jerry Ordway, Scott Koblish & Bob McLeod (DC)
  • Countdown to Mystery #8 of 8, by Matthew Sturges, Chad Hardin & Robert Campanella, and Adam Beechen & Stephen Jorge Segovia, and Mark Evanier, Joe Bennett & Belardino Brabo, and Mark Waid, Michael O’Hare & John Floyd, and Gail Simone, Chad Hardin & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #15, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham & Prentis Rollins (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #3 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Jamal Ingle & Robin Riggs (DC)
  • Echo #3, by Terry Moore (Abstract Studios)
  • The End League #3, by Rick Remender, Mat Broome & Sean Parsons (Dark Horse)
  • Grendel: Devil Quest HC, by Matt Wagner (Dark Horse)
  • Star Trek: Assignment: Earth #1 of 12, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • The Perhapanauts #2, by Todd Dezago & Craig Rousseau (Image)
Countdown to Mystery #8 We’ll probably never know what Steve Gerber had in mind for the conclusion to his Doctor Fate story in Countdown to Mystery before he died. Four 4-page entries written by four different writers probably wasn’t it, and consequently the story comes to a rather abrupt end (several of them) with none of the delicacy it really required, as Gerber was always walking on the knife-edge of making the thing work anyway. Of the four, Mark Evanier’s version feels most true to Gerber’s style, while Gail Simone’s feels the least. But all of them are too short, too simplistic. Gerber’s writing has always (well, that I’ve seen) had a strong psychological component, not only having quirky characters but exploring what their quirks mean and where they come from. Although this facet of his work was often the most uneven part, it’s also a tack that few other comics writers ever take, and unfortunately what there is of that facet in these four endings tends to be far more heavy-handed than Gerber would have used.

It’s not really anybody’s fault, and I appreciate that DC and the four writers wanted to pay a little tribute to Gerber, but I think the story and the readers would have been better served to have picked one ending and done that one the best they could. Ah well.

The other half of the comics, the Eclipso yarn, ended up being slightly more meaningful than I’d expected, comparing the similarities between Eclipso and the Spectre. The thing was still pretty superfluous, though, as nearly everything tied in to Countdown to Final Crisis has been. Just think: If DC had gone with Plan A and just done a Doctor Fate mini-series (which they had solicited and then cancelled), we could have avoided this whole Eclipso rubbish and Gerber might have been able to finish the story in his lifetime. Sheesh.

Echo #3 Things really pick up in the third issue of Echo, which encourages me enormously: We find out something about
‘s family, and why her husband is divorcing her. We find out something about the metal suit that’s partially grafted itself onto her body. And there’s an odd scene at the end which I expect will be explained in the coming months. Suddenly this is feeling like a much less generic indy comic. Which is good.
Grendel: Devil Quest HC Matt Wagner’s Grendel series is one of my favorites. It didn’t start out that way, though, as its first volume, Devil by the Deed concerned a crime lord named Hunter Rose. Wagner has revisited the Rose character from time to time, but I’ve pretty much given up on those, as it’s the least interesting slice of the Grendel story. Much more interesting are the stories which concern how Grendel – a spirit of aggression – affects the history of Earth over the next few hundred years, expanding from profoundly affecting a few influential individuals, to eventually helping to craft a global empire under the rule of Emperor Orion Assante several hundred years from now.

This volume, Devil Quest, takes place several generations after the excellent War Child story – which is about Orion’s son, Jupiter – concerning several interested parties trying to locate the Grendel cyborg who had helped Jupiter establish his own rule after his father died. The cyborg Grendel-Prime is on his own mission trying to strengthen the Empire, too, and his quest leads directly into the second half of the Batman/Grendel volume (the better half, as the first half involves Hunter Rose meeting Batman).

Written and drawn by Wagner, the art is superb. The story is eccentric and sometimes violently brutal, which I think is intentional; Wagner was trying to shock and push the envelope a little. Unfortunately it also comes to an ending which feels unfinished – even with the Batman story factored in – which makes it a disappointing read in total. Though the trip to get there is quite interesting.

Anyway, I did enjoy it enough to pick up this new hardcover collection. But your mileage may vary. I keep waiting for Wagner to do another Grendel sequence carrying the future history beyond this volume, but it seems like Wagner’s done as much as he plans to with the tale and he’s otherwise just poking around in the side corridors of the earlier stories, which doesn’t interest me as much. Alas.

Star Trek: Assignment: Earth #1 “Assignment: Earth” was an episode of the original Star Trek series which was intended as a pilot for a new TV series. The series didn’t sell, which isn’t surprising because it was a pretty wan, unimaginative episode. Nonetheless, IDW’s current renaissance of Star Trek comic books has resulted in a series based on the episode, written and drawn by John Byrne! As he’s done elsewhere, Byrne is using an unorthodox storytelling technique of having each issue take place a year later than the first one. Although not everything Byrne does works for me, I do usually enjoy his stories which are structurally adventurous like this, so I was moved to buy it.

It’s not bad, although it doesn’t go much past the TV episode. But then, it’s basically trying to lay the groundwork for the overall arc, which will I guess run through about 1980. He obviously has a lot of fun writing Roberta Lincoln (the Teri Garr role), as well as drawing Gary Seven (the Robert Lansing role) whose character he expands a little bit here. So it’s a decent start, and I’m curious to see where Byrne goes with it.