Monday, March 6, 2023

It’s Superman by Tom De Haven

I never thought I would rate a licensed Superman novel as high as this one, it’s right up there with Kavalier & Clay for me. It’s Superman by Tom De Haven was published in 2006 and it never registered on my radar until a few years ago, when Howard Chaykin (on his Facebook) recommended this - more than once!

If you’re a Superman fan and are okay with a revisionist take, this novel is for you. We’ve seen Superman as a young man in the Smallville TV show as well as in DC’s Superboy comics, where he was a teenager in the 1940s or 1950s. This novel places his teenage/early adulthood years in the late 1920s / 1930s, which lines up perfectly with the debut of Action Comics 1 in 1938. This is quite a mature and well researched novel; the author knows a tremendous amount of that era, from how people went to the movies on Saturdays to what they listened to on the radio. (I didn’t know, for example, that Les Paul sang under the name Rhubarb Red.) I laughed during one chapter where an inept kidnapper is frustrated finding a phone booth that works in these small towns. Clark Kent is the protagonist, a loving son and wannabe reporter, a country bumpkin once he leaves Smallville. During Clark’s early years we see Lex Luthor & Lois Lane, in New York City, where they bump into famous historical figures such as Mayor La Guardia. Lex has his own story arc, from small time criminal to becoming an NYC Alderman and an even bigger criminal mastermind. Willi Berg, a photographer who gets himself into more trouble than he can handle, is the first of Lois Lane’s boyfriends that we meet; if you’re into a saintly version of Lois, this will probably offend you, but it is a portrait of a very determined reporter. The Depression is plainly evident after Clark leaves Smallville and travels to other states, including Texas & California. There’s a slow burn before Clark flies or puts on a costume; the story is more about the Odyssey he goes on, but it still forges the same New Deal American hero that Siegel and Shuster created. 

Scott Brick does a superb job on the audiobook, telling this story with different accents. I thought this is one of the very best novels I’ve listened to. 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Nine Great Comic Book Artists from Silver/Bronze Age eras

 I saw this on Facebook and had to save it for posterity...

These are the artists of my formative years as a comic book fan, from 1969 to 1979. I shared this in the Jim Aparo Facebook group and people really went crazy for it. I am not sure who did the portraits, was it Alex Ross? I was very happy indeed to see Jim Aparo on this list, I loved his Batman in Brave and the Bold, and also his depictions of the Spectre and the Phantom Stranger.

Each of these creators are depicted with their most famous creations. Curt Swan may have drawn the first comic I had ever read - I was crazy about Superman as a kid and picked up Action Comics after seeing the Superman cartoon show. Neal Adams was not only famous for Batman but he was drawing tons of DC Comics covers, especially on Superman/Action Comics. Gil Kane was drawing Green Lantern for years, but I especially remembered seeing his covers on it when Donovan's Sunshine Superman was playing on the radio. And of course, I knew Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko from Marvel Comics, more so from the reprint comics that had early Fantastic Four and Spider-Man tales. John Buscema I knew from the FF and Conan. Joe Kubert was more of an acquired tasted as a young kid, but I got into him when DC took over the Tarzan license.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Batman - Adam West vs Robert Pattinson

I watched The Batman on HBO Max. I enjoyed it. The cinematography was superb and I loved the Riddler taken seriously. I liked the portrayal of Catwoman. Batman has never used his detective skills better than he does here. It had some elements from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman Year Zero and other things from The Long Halloween. Some stuff from Geoff Johns' Batman Earth One graphic novel as well.

I remember when the Christian Bale/Dark Knight Rises movie came out and Dial B for Blog photoshopped all these great posters featuring Caesar Romero as the Joker. Here's a great take on that theme, with Adam West in the new movie. 


Afterward I thought that Batman is not really that effective in the movie; he doesn't really trigger any meaningful change as he does in Year One, where he and Gordon partially clean up the Gotham police. What does the Batman really accomplish? The Riddler is more of a hero than Batman is, if we factor out his terrorist methodology, because he exposed the corruption and got rid of Falcone, Maroni and Colson. Batman punched a few criminals, helped Catwoman and saved people from drowning in the end. Once again, the villain is more important than Batman in this movie.

The other thing is going down the well-trod path of making his parents flawed. This also happened a few years ago in the Superman comics, where we found out Jor-El was a bit flawed.

Thomas Wayne was a billionaire, ergo, he must be slightly crooked? Thomas was a surgeon as well as a rich guy; I think when Batman started he was referred to more as a doctor with a trust fund, but the wealth grew as Batman was reinvented so many times. My first thought was, if I was Bruce Wayne - who idolized his parents and mourned them - and I just learned my father was working with gangsters, wouldn't that take away some of my motivation to be Batman? 

After thinking of some of these elements that bothered me, I went and re-read Batman Year One again. What a masterpiece! Nuff Said.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dresden Files: King-Size Deus Ex Machina special review

Looking back here on my blog, I see that I discovered Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series back in 2010. At that point, it felt like modern/urban fantasy comfort food. A private detective who was a wizard, solving supernatural mysteries and fighting monsters. With a literal talking head, a skeleton named Bob, in Harry's basement, which Butcher created out of frustration in his creative writing class. I devoured the first ten novels the way a vampire might attack a blood bank. They had weaknesses for sure, namely that nearly every woman character central to the plot is described as hot as a Maxim model, and magical Deus Ex Machinas that arise to help Harry Dresden win big battles. But it was still fun, dumb fun to be sure, the equivalent of a comic book series, and I like comics!

But the latest Dresden novel, Battle Ground, may be the last one I read, because the cracks in the mystical armor are just too wide for me to ignore.

Fair Warning: There will be spoilers from here on out!

2020 was a long awaited year for Dresden fans. The last full length novel, Skin Game, was published in 2014; up to that point the fans were spoiled by having a new novel nearly every year. This year we had two new novels, the long awaited Peace Talks, followed by Battle Ground. After I had finished Peace Talks, I had the suspicion that both of these were conceived as one big novel, and split into two books, probably at the suggestion of Butcher's editor.

I enjoyed Peace Talks, perhaps more for seeing an old friend like Harry, after a six year absence. I had to look up things I forgot on the Dresden Files Wiki, like what was the name of that hitman who protected the Archive? (Answer: Kincaid)

There is one startling thing that happens early in Peace Talks: Harry finally has sex with Karrin Murphy, an ex-cop, who became his love interest over the last half dozen novels. My Spidey-Sense was activated when this happened. You may remember the ending of Changes, when it looked like Harry and Murphy would finally have a date (hey, forget about Susan, the mother of my child who just perished!) before Harry was shot. Now it finally happened, although poor Murphy was so injured after the events of Skin Game.

The main problem with Peace Talks is the heist sub-plot in the middle of the story, which is reminiscent of the previous novel, Skin Game. Instead of stealing an artifact, Harry smuggles his white vampire half-brother, Thomas (in prison for attempting to assassinate the Svartalf leader), out of Marcone's castle, with the goal of reaching sanctuary on his island in Lake Michigan, Demon Reach. It ends with a terrific battle between Harry and his grandfather, Ebenezar McCoy, except it isn't a real battle at all, but a fake-out straight from Rian Johnson's Last Jedi movie. It ends on a cliffhanger: Ethniu, the Last Titan, who made a startling appearance at Marcone's castle during the Peace Talks, is coming to lay waste to the city of Chicago.

Battle Ground takes place literally right afterward, as Harry makes his way back to Chicago from his island. The majority of the novel's events take place in the next 12 hours, one battle after another. There is an alliance of mystical forces, from Harry's own Winter Queen Mab, his arch enemy Marcone, the White Court of Vampires, the Council of Wizards, etc. On the enemy's side, it's the Fomor (aquatic beings), Ethniu the Last Titan (equipped with a nuke called the Eye of Balor), Black Court Vampires, Asgardian giants, etc - an overwhelming force, naturally. They are all fighting each other on the streets of Chicago. This becomes a bit tedious as it seems to be a loop of big battles, with this makeup:

  • Harry is tired, injured, still able to fight because the Winter Mantle dulls his pain.
  • A new enemy appears with powers far beyond Harry's level.
  • Harry gets tossed around like an old dishrag.
  • Some other character attacks and gives Harry a reprieve.
  • Harry makes a wisecrack.
  • Harry summons a Deus Ex Machina to vanquish the foe.
Rinse and Repeat for a dozen or so enemies. There are some variations, but that is the majority of the novel. Battle Ground is like a Marvel Comics King-Size annual where big things happen with guest stars galore. Many characters from previous novels show up here. It's appropriate to compare the Dresden Files to a comic book series, because Butcher often references Marvel Comics characters in the novel. Some people have compared it to Avengers: Endgame, but this book doesn't conclude anything like that film did.

The one superlative thing I'm going to say about Battle Ground is the audiobook version, narrated by James Marsters. He delivers an award winning performance here, with many different accents for the various characters. He elevates the pulp material with a layer of gravitas from his performance. If I continue on with Dresden it will be to hear Marsters again.

Somewhere in the middle of Battle Ground, Karrin Murphy dies. It's very upsetting; the emotion in Marsters' voice during these chapters is quite affecting. She dies after saving Harry, naturally, but killed not by the giant she slayed with a rocket launcher, but by a frightened police officer. It's a random, dumb death out of nowhere, a shocking moment, which is what Butcher probably wanted to achieve. Harry grieves for Murphy for a while, but a few chapters later, Harry is back to wisecracking again, which cheapens the trauma of Murphy's death.

What is more problematic is that you can see the writer's machinations behind Murphy's death and patterns emerging. Harry had a previous girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, who perished (in a more epic way) in the novel Changes. Harry had been intimate with her as well and they have a child together, Maggie. The problem with a long running series is keeping things interesting and not having the main character romantically tied down. Most writers don't know how to make an ongoing relationship interesting in a story. The easy plot device is making characters attracted to each other, keeping them apart, getting them together and making the split apart, to pursue another love interest. We've seen this time and again on TV shows like Cheers or Moonlighting. Only on those shows, they don't kill someone off just to remove them as a romantic partner.

Butcher has lined up women for Harry already. One of them is Lara, head of the White Court Vampires (not blood suckers but emotion suckers), who practically gives Harry a dry hump in Peace Talks. In another scene Lara helps rescue Thomas (her half-brother as well) by stripping off her clothes; Harry is nearly overcome by lust, but he's not sure if it's because Lara is a vampire or because she has a smokin hot body. The other one is Molly Carpenter, Harry's former apprentice and now the Winter Lady. Harry has known Molly since she was a teenager, but there is an attraction between them which seems, well, just yucky.

As I read towards the end of Battle Ground, it seemed like Butcher removed Murphy to clear the playing field for Lara and Molly; that is exactly what happened in the end. Queen Mab, the Winter Queen, orders Harry to marry Lara, in order to cement the alliance between Winter and the White Court. Whether Harry complies or not remains to be seen, he has one year to decide. We see a touch of the Molly/Harry spark before the novel ends. We also get the foreshadowing that Murphy will return one day as a Valkyrie, which is kind of a consolation prize.

By the end of Battle Ground, I didn't feel like I had a true fictionally satisfying experience. Instead it felt like I watched someone play an RPG and move figures around on a board.

I think this series jumped the shark after Changes, which sets events in motion for Harry to become the Winter Knight. As the novels progressed, Butcher probably didn't want to write Harry as a private detective-wizard, or he was creating enemies for Harry that a normal wizard couldn't cope with. Butcher had to amp up the power level and the threat level as well. I preferred the earlier Dresden Files novels, because while the stories were fantastic, they felt more grounded in reality.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Booksellers | Official Trailer

This documentary about booksellers in New York City is now available for free on Amazon Prime. I've been tracking this since last year, glad to finally view it. I hope some of these people are still in business in 2020. While they are not all the books I like to collect, it is kind of a psychological study of why people collect books; the sellers are just as compelled as the buyers. There is a great quote from one seller about the nature of collectors:
"The world is divided into people who collect things and people who don't know what the hell these people are doing collecting things. If you're a collector you're a sick obsessive compulsive person, who would sell their grandmother to buy something they really like, even if it's an Elvis plate."

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Supreme 50 and the Meta Commentary on Superhero Love

I've been re-reading Alan Moore's Supreme run from the 1990s. If you're a Superman fan like me, who often wondered what would have happened if DC Comics let Moore run the Superman franchise instead of John Byrne, this series is in your wheelhouse.

Although I'm sure it benefits from Moore's hindsight, these stories are a salute to the era of Silver Age Superman. For the first nine issues, Moore doesn't get an artist worthy of his writing (for the present day sequences, Rick Veitch did a nice job on the flashback stories). Until issue 50, in 1997, when Chris Sprouse takes over.

Supreme's secret identity is Ethan, a comic book artist working on Omni-Man for Dazzle comics. His super speed powers are a huge benefit that any comics artist would love--it only takes him a few minutes to pencil an entire issue. Diana is the new writer assigned to Omni-Man, taking over for Billy Friday, a British writer resembling Grant Morrison. Moore has long had problems with Morrison, who he felt had stolen many things from Moore and his friend, Michael Moorcock. Friday, through his own Jimmy Olsen like incompetence is trapped in a prison of light, leaving the writing job free for Diana.

Diana and Ethan have been flirting for a few issues, leading up to this, their story conference which is also kind of a date. Moore gets to do this meta-commentary of superhero romance tropes, through Diana's voice, as Ethan struggles with how to make his first romantic move on Diana.

This is played between three flashback sequences, drawn by Veitch, basically showing you what would happen if Superman married Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and Lori Lemaris. None of these end in contentment! In the case of the latter two women, marrying another super powered being results in super problems.

Diana speculates on the best love interest for Omni-Man, while Ethan tells her about Supreme's misadventures. On this page, Ethan is about to finally make his move, but Diana mentions the dishonesty of the hero keeping his identity secret. Diana also mentions the love scene that Steranko put into SHIELD, which was altered by Marvel editorial.

Buying these original issues in the 1990s, you had to be either a real die hard Moore fan or a Liefeld/Supreme fan. It was especially challenging if you were ordering from a mail order service and tracking these in Diamond Previews: Supreme 41-42 were published by Image Comics; Supreme 43-48 were published by Maximum Press; Supreme 49-56 were from Awesome Entertainment; after a publishing gap came Supreme the Return, issues 1-6.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Story recap pages from Marvel and DC Comics, from 1960s to 2018

Recap pages! Those introductory splash pages that try to summarize the continuing story for a new reader.

In earlier eras, comics were bound to a single story per issue, often there were 2 or 3 short tales per comic. When comic book stories became more serialized, editors were always afraid a new reader would be lost and stop buying that comic. In the modern era where a story arc goes over 6 issues minimum this has gone away. Starting in the Silver Age there have been a number of ways to catch the reader up on a story.

Stan Lee tried to do it in captions or thought balloons in Amazing Spider-Man 33 (1965, concluding chapter of the Master Planner story, see image on top of this post) and here with Amazing Spider-Man 109 (1972, second part of a story involving Flash Thompson). The captions have arrows showing you how to read them.

Jim Starlin used a new character called Sphinxor to retell the lengthy history of Adam Warlock in several pages of Strange Tales 179 (1975) - the first issue of his Warlock opus. Each issue of Strange Tales would have a dense recap page, which probably drove Starlin crazy to have to include.

In the late 1990s almost every Marvel Comic had a "Previously in..." page, sometimes on the inside front cover: Avengers v3 2 (1998). These were done using text and taking captions of artwork from previous issues.

Dark Knight over Metropolis, a DC story arc which crossed over between Action Comics, Superman and Adventures of Superman, each issue had a splash page with a dossier of memos explaining the story thus far. This was taken from Action Comics 654 (1990).

In Brian Bendis Action Comics he started off the first few stories with an image of papers/notes on the desk of a different character. This worked as both a recap and an insight to the particular character. It also has inside jokes and hints of things to come. This was taken from Action Comics 1002 (2018). This image is what prompted me to write this article - as I re-read the 1990s Action run I realized this new recap page had some elements in common with the old one.

Nuff Said!

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