Full Weekend

We’re finishing up a full weekend around here.

Friday night we got together with our friends Chad and Camille for dinner at Cascal, the popular tapas restaurant downtown which we finally discovered a few months ago. C&C used to live in Mountain View, but moved further into the valley around the time I moved here, so we also walked around downtown so they could see what had changed since they were last here.

Saturday I got a much-needed haircut, and then we met up with Subrata and Susan for lunch, Magic and dominoes. Subrata and I played some more Shadowmoor-Eventide sealed deck, and our games took quite a while since we each kept drawing most of our removal and other tricky spells, so we had lots of maneuvering to do. I eventually prevailed 2 games to 1 with my white-blue deck over his black-red deck. Ironically, I put together my own black-red deck which had most of my rares in it – my blue-white deck had none – but didn’t get to play it. I’m not sure it would have been very consistent anyway.

Today we had a relatively lazy day, watching football and the James Bond film License to Kill (1989), the Dalton film I hadn’t seen before. It’s not as bad as I’d feared, but it’s lackluster at best. The acting is often atrocious, with Dalton a shining star next to anyone – indeed, everyone – else.

The painting around here is just about done, so I put the furniture back on the upstairs porch. I’ll move the plants back there over the next week or so. I’m so glad it’s nearly over. It’s been quite a haul to get it all done. (I’m sure the painter feels the same way times ten. I think it’s been a bigger job than he expected. It looks like he did a really good job, though!)

One good anecdote before I finish up: This past week I was sitting for my friend Josh’s cats. (He and his fiancée went to Hawaii, the lucky ducks.) Thursday night I went up to find his one cat who usually hangs out under the bed. Sure enough, there he was, and I went around to the other side to pet him and coax him out. While I rubbed his chin I looked to the side, and…

…well, I went downstairs and said to Debbi, “Either Josh has the most realistic cat toy ever, or there’s a dead sparrow under his bed.”

Sure enough, it was a dead sparrow – still warm, even – and I threw it outside. I suspect it came into one of the enclosed porches somehow – one with a cat door leading out to it – and one of the cats dispatched it and brought it inside to, uh, enjoy. Fortunately, it was still basically intact, rather than being a mess. I sent Josh a text message and he replied that he was sorry I had to deal with that, but that he thinks it’s happened once before.

The things we put up with for our furry friends!

Karl Schroeder: Pirate Sun

Last time we saw Admiral Chaison Fanning, he had successfully defeated the fleet of Falcon Formation thanks to his wife Venera managing to shut down Candesce, the sun of the artificial system Virga, which actively suppresses certain technologies within the system. That was at the end of the first volume Sun of Suns, and in this third volume, we catch up with Fanning who is in ongoing interrogation in a Falcon prison. (The second volume follows Venera’s adventures.)

Someone breaks Fanning out of prison, along with two companions from his home nation of Slipstream: The young man Darius Martor, and the former ambassador Richard Reiss. But rather than hooking up with their benefactor, they’re picked up by Antaea Argyre, a member of the Home Guard, a mysterious group dedicated to preventing things from outside the balloon – the forces of what’s referred to as Artificial Nature – from getting in. The four of them hide out on a city in Falcon and spend much of the book playing cat-and-mouse with Falcon’s police forces – who are being aided by Slipstream’s people, since Fanning has been declared a traitor for attacking Falcon in defiance of Slipstream’s Pilot – while gradually making their way back to Slipstream.

I didn’t see how Schroeder was going to top the second volume in the Virga series, Queen of Candesce, which was full of exotic wondrousness set around a compelling central character in Venera Fanning. And indeed, Schroder doesn’t top it, but Pirate Sun is still a very good book.

The book is divided into three parts, the first involving the escape from prison and search for safe haven; the second an effort to defend the Falcon city of Stonecloud from being taken over by the rival nation of Gretel; and finally the party returning to Slipstream and dealing with a complicated situation there. The book’s biggest problem is that the first two parts are mostly a big lead-in to the third part, and much of it feels superfluous, especially the second part. The second part could have been much more interesting: The notion of a city in free-fall absorbing another city, and the tactics that might bs used in defense of that city, is pretty interesting, and the man leading the defense – an enhanced strongman – is also pretty interesting. But the battle rather splutters out at the end, and it felt like all the build-up had no pay-off.

The first two parts mostly serve to build up the subplots which pay off in the third part, but the structure of a running chase sequence makes those parts feel thin. There is some well-executed sense of wonder throughout it, regarding the tactics that Gretel uses to attack Falcon, but it’s not quite enough to carry the story.

The crux of the story involves Antaea, who latches on to Fanning in hopes of finding the Key to Candesce, which Venera used to shut down the sun in the first book. But the reason she’s interested has to do with what the Home Guard had to deal with during the brief outage. As a result, we learn what Artifical Nature is (and it’s cool! But frightening!) and why the book is entitled Pirate Sun (which is less cool – titles are not the series’ strong suit).

As a protagonist, Chaison is okay, but a lot less interesting than his wife. He’s sort of like Captain Sheridan in Babylon 5: A hugely competent leader with a strong sense of morality, whose sense of the right thing to do pits him against his own government, but makes him a hero to some of his subordinates. This means Fanning spends a lot of time agonizing over whether he’s done the right thing in following his instincts, but unable to reach closure until he gets back to Slipstream. Fortunately, his take-charge attitude serves him and his companions well in dealing with the challenges along the way. But his conflicts and character arc are far more vanilla than those of his more complex wife.

The story really takes off in the third part, when we meet the Pilot of Slipstream, who is both hugely annoying and yet quite capable in his own area of expertise (that being politics). With the Pilot and Antaea working against him, as well as two other interested parties who show up for the finale, Chaison has quite a minefield to navigate, and Schroeder pulls it all off adroitly, almost making up for the shortcomings of the earlier parts.

The book’s ending has an unusual quality about it: It’s not clear to me whether it’s the end of the story or not. If Schroeder decides to leave Virga as a trilogy, then that works well enough, but there also seems to be plenty of additional territory to explore, and a rich world to mine for more material. (And unless I missed something, we never did learn the origin of the bullet that hit Venera years ago.) In either case, Virga stands right now as Schroeder’s best work, a mix of cool ideas and traditional adventure storytelling adding up to really good stuff, just as challenging as his earlier books while being better written to boot. I look forward to what he comes up with next.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #870, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #5 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • The Twelve #8 of 12, by J. Michael Straczynski & Chris Weston (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #4 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The End League #5, by Rick Remender & Eric Canete (Dark Horse)
Action Comics #870 This month’s Action Comics wraps up the “Brainiac” story. And boy howdy did it limp to the finish.

I haven’t really paid much attention to Superman’s continuity since the days when Mike Carlin was editing the series (once Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, George Pérez and Jerry Ordway left the series, there wasn’t much left to keep me around), but this story returns Brainiac to something close to his Silver Age self: He’s not truly a robot anymore, but he’s still an alien who goes around shrinking and collecting cities from different worlds to own their knowledge – and then destroying that world afterwards. (How this jibes with other recent incarnations of Brainiac – which are mentioned in the story – I don’t know.) Here he comes to Earth and shrinks Metropolis before Superman stops him and rescues the city. He also rescues the Kryptonian city of Kandor, which grows to full size in the Arctic.

Where to begin with what a misfire this whole story was? It consisted of about eight scenes stretched over five issues – an example of “decompressed storytelling” taken to an absurd extreme. In days past, this story could have easily been told in a single issue, or maybe two issues, with some extra character development thrown in. Today you pay 15 bucks for all five issues, which might be worth it if you really love Gary Frank’s artwork. (I think Frank can be great, but his work on Superman has been a mixed bag.) But it’s basically Frank’s art with a sentence or two of story every 3 or 4 pages.

There’s not much original or inventive here, either: It’s really just Superman fighting Brainiac and finally taking him out. It feels like – and basically is – just a lead-in to the next Superman story, “New Krypton”, about what happens when thousands of Kryptonians arrive on Earth, courtesy of Kandor. That’s the sort of story which could be very interesting if kept to a small enough scope, but it looks like it’s going to be a big “event” story across multiple titles, which interests me not at all, so this might be it for me reading Action Comics. What little characterization there is comes in Supergirl’s few scenes, where she’s scared spitless by the arrival of the creature which stole Kandor, yet still has to pitch in to stop him.

Finally, as has been widely rumored, the issue ends with the apparent death of Jonathan Kent (what, again?). I find the depictions of the Kents in this story to be very weird: Neither Jonathan nor Martha looks anything like they have back when I read the books; they both seem younger and fitter. And Jonathan’s death here seems gratuitous at best, and also nonsensical (why would Brainiac care?). Is it trying to dovetail with the Smallville TV series? And if so, why bother, since that series ran off the rails several years ago and seems to be limping towards its own cancellation.

Overall, this was an exceedingly weak story, and everything it accomplished I don’t care about anyway, as it seems gratuitous, or pointless, or a set-up for another story that I really don’t care about. Any dramatic potential in this story was completely squandered. Honestly it makes me regret continuing following the series after “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes”. What a waste.

The Twelve #8 Somewhere along the way, Garry Leach stopped inking Chris Weston’s pencils on The Twelve, but I only noticed it this month while typing in the credits above. Having Weston ink himself doesn’t really affect the art, which you could argue meant Leach didn’t really contribute anything, or you could argue that Leach did the job an inker should do and let Weston’s talents show through. I guess it depends what you think the job of an inker is. Anyway, I think each Weston and Leach are fine artists, and I’m happy for new material from either one. So really, no complaints from me either way.

All that aside, The Twelve is one of the best comics Marvel’s publishing, and one of J. Michael Straczynski’s best comic book stories to date, as well. We’re now two-thirds of the way through the story and some of the mysteries behind the characters are starting to come together. It looks like Master Mind Excello is starting to manipulate things, but to what end we don’t know. And the Black Widow’s back story, presented here, is quite good. Straczynski’s stories have a tendency to sputter out amongst a lot of cutesy dialogue, but none of his frequently weaknesses are apparent here, and I’m enthusiastic to see where this is going.

The End League #5 Speaking of comics which have gone off the rails, I just don’t get Rick Remender’s series The End League Okay, I get the premise: A large fraction of the world gets super-powers (this was back in the 60s), only most people aren’t really interested in using them for good, and in the ensuing series of world wars among evil or corrupt super-humans, the few heroes ultimately lose. It’s a solid premise and the first two issues – concerning Astonishman’s remaining group of superheroes and their futile war against Dead Lexington’s empire – were pretty good. But since then it’s meandered all over the place without a storyline I can follow, and jumping from one character to another.

As a series of vignettes, each slice is not bad, but where’s it going? What’s the point? This issue starts with a flashback to World War II, and then flashes forward to another hero entering a city in yet another attempt to reclaim the Hammer of Thor, this time with a Batman-vs.-Joker spin on things. I’m not sure if this means that the last of the End League got killed off after the events of issue #4, or what. But there are no characters here who provide a consistent point of view for me to plug in to; it’s more like an ongoing travelogue of the broken world through the eyes of many different characters, none of whom stick around long enough to be more than stereotypes. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

This issue also marks the change of the artists from Mat Broome to Eric Canete. Broome had a fairly realistic and detailed style, while Canete’s is more stylized and sketchy. My preference is for Broome, so I don’t see this as an improvement.

So, not being sure where this is going, and not being convinced that it’s even going anywhere, I don’t know how much longer I’ll stick with it.

This Week’s Haul

Top 10: Season Two #1 Top 10: Season Two is a sequel to Alan Moore’s earlier series, which was drawn by Ha and Cannon. The weird thing is, there already was a sequel: Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct, which was an uneven but enjoyable series by Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway. That series was apparently set 5 years after the first series, although the exact timeline didn’t really matter for the series. Season Two is set shortly after the first series. Does it matter? Hard to say. It does make it a little more difficult to get enthused about this one.

The story involves a new commissioner taking over at the precinct – a guy from another parallel who doesn’t want to leave his world, so manages through a robot which displays his image. He also believes in keeping close to the rules, so he wants all the officers to wear standard uniforms and carry standard weaponry, which naturally doesn’t go over so well. He also sends along a new officer for the precinct, Slipstream Phoenix, who is immediately tagged by the local officers as a snitch. Meanwhile the usual case load starts up, most strangely with a dozen young women suddenly appearing, dead, in the pool outside headquarters.

The original Top 10 was written to feel like a TV police procedural with a large cast, only in a world of fantastic happenings. Basically, it was Hill Street Blues with superpowers, with a variety of cases and quirky personalities leading up to a major case to be addressed at the end. This issue has much the same feel, which means it’s similarly difficult to get into since everything feels like it’s happening at a distance; it took quite a while for the original series to make us really relate to any of the characters. Unfortunately, the two main characters from the original series, Smax and Toybox, don’t get much screen time here, so it again feels rather distant.

This is further hampered by the artwork, which has indistinct linework and a weird colored-pencil look to it, which feels out of place for this series. Ha’s layouts are rather understated themselves (he and Michael Zulli have very similar styles), and the washed-out look doesn’t help.

So the series is something of a mixed bag, less immediately engaging than Beyond the Farthest Precinct was. The first series was slow to get moving as well, so I’m prepared to be patient with this one, but the style of artwork really doesn’t work for me, so that doesn’t make me optimistic.