Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Four New Stories in Old Worlds

By Sharon Shinn

This volume contains four novellas, each one revisiting one of the worlds Shinn has created for other tales.

"Flight" is set in Samaria, roughly in the same time period as "Archangel," the first of the series of novels set in the world where Angels rule. Salome is a former angel-seeker who wants nothing more to do with them, and tries to keep her niece from making the same mistakes she did.

"Blood" is set in the same world as "Heart of Gold," where patriarchal golden-skinned and matriarchal blue-skinned people live mostly segregated, but uneasily share a large metropolis. A gulden man comes to a city ruled by the indigo to find his mother, who abandoned him when he was just a boy.

"Gold" revisits the world of "Summers at Castle Auburn," taking place sometime later, though not really a sequel to the novel. A princess is sent by her parents to a place of safety during an uprising by a rebellious noble, but the refuge has it's own dangers. The only story that actually centers on a main character from a previous book is

"Flame," in which Senneth, the mystic at the center of "Mystic and Rider" and indeed the entire Twelve Houses series, is shown in a small adventure - though it turns out quite a dangerous one - just before that grand one begins.

Each of these stories has its own charms. I think my favorite might be "Blood," but there aren't any I didn't enjoy. Fans will certainly enjoy revisiting these places, and all of them are complete stories that someone unfamiliar with Shinn's work could also enjoy them. For myself, I'm thinking seriously of going back and rereading all the other books in these worlds

Monday, June 21, 2010

Growing Up Chinese in America

I first encountered Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" as a webcomic several years ago on Modern Tales -- although even then it was clear that he was posting pages of a specific project that would be a book, not just doing a comic for the web that might or might not be collected.

Since then, it has not only been published in book form but has received much acclaim, including being a finalist for the National Book Award in the category of young people's literature. It was the first graphic novel to be honored by the National Book Foundation that sponsors the Natonal Book Award, and the following year became the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult literature given out by the American Library

It's easy to see why the literary establishment that has come only late and grudgingly to an appreciation of works in comics form embraced this particular effort. It has a sensitive treatment of an ethnic issue, an intricate narrative structure, and an uplifting moral theme, combined with a deceptively simple surface and an excellent sense of design that draws the reader in effortlessly.

The book opens with three chapters of what seem to be three very different and completely unrelated stories. First, we meet the Monkey King, who tries to attend a dinner party in Heaven, but is denied entrance because he's a monkee and doesn't wear shoes. Next, we meet Jin Wang, an ethnic Chinese boy born in the U.S. who moves to a new town, where the teacher mispronounces his name and the kids make fun of him. The third story is presented in the format of a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track. It follows a character named Danny, who is drawn without any Asian features, whose life is disrupted by the annual visit of his cousin, Chin-kee. Chin-kee is presented as a blatant racial stereotype, with buck teeth, pigtails and pale yellow skin. His behavior, indeed his very existence, is a terrible embarrasment to Danny.

It would be spoiling a good deal of a first-time reader's enjoyment of the book to explain how these three stories become one story, but they do come together in an ingenious and satisfying way

The Monkey King segments are based on an authentic Chinese folk tale. Chin-kee is obviously modeled on generations of racist cartoons Yang would have been exposed to as a fan of the medium. And it's hard not to assume that the similarity of "Gene Yang" and "Jin Wang" is not accidental. A very personal work then, apparently, and as strongly told as it was no doubt felt.

Five of five stars - promises to be a classic

By Gene Luen Yang
Color by Lark Pien
First Second, 238 pages, $16.95 TPB

Originally published 2006

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, June 04, 2010

Gaiman and Zulli Craft Unconventional Fantasy

The story begins at the end - or after the end, actually. Three friends, one of whom is our narrator, are eating sushi. A woman they call Miss Finch - though that is *not* her name - has disappeared. They all agree that the circumstances of her disappearance make it unlikely that anyone would believe them if they reported it, so they decide they have not choice but to let it go.

Anyone familiar with Neil Gaiman's work will expect that the story of Miss Finch's "departure" (as the title puts it) will be strange and wondrous. And of course it is. But up until the climactic moment things all the strange and wondrous atmosphere is consistently undercut and we are assured that this is just ordinary, mundane reality we're dealing with. Until it isn't.

The story is adapted from a short story that was originally written for a convention program book and appeared in a previous collection of short stories (though which one depends on which side of the Atlantic you're on - "Smoke and Mirrors" in the UK, "Fragile Things" in the US). Like several of Gaiman's shorter works, it features a narrator who seems to be Gaiman himself. He's an expat Brit living in the US, visiting London incognito to hole up in a hotel and write a film script. Despite his supposed anonymity, a couple of old friends manage to track him down and invite him out for dinner and a show to alleviate their own discomfort with a person they've been saddled with. Enhancing the identification with the author, the characters later make jokes alluding to specific works by Gaiman.

The person the friends are saddled with is Miss Finch. Or rather, she is not Miss Finch. That is not her name, but that is what the friends call her. Jonathan keeps referring to her as Jane's friend, but Jane insists that she is not her friend. Who exactly Miss Finch is and why they are "lumbered" with her (as Jane puts it) is never explained.

The play they were going to see has been canceled, so Jane decides they should go to a new unusual circus. Miss Finch disapproves of circuses, but agrees to go when she is told this one doesn't feature animals. The circus members try to evoke an air of magic and wonder, but the narrator consistently undercuts it by observing the ordinary nature of things around him and their poor attempts to make it seem outre.

I won't give away what happens. It's a light little story, but it has a definite chill of the strange about it. And of course anytime you're given the opportunity of reading a comic drawn by Michael Zulli, you should take it. One of his previous collaborations with Gaiman, "Men of Good Fortune," an early issue in the Sandman run, is my favorite single issue from that entire series (yes, even more than "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). His art is itself a wondrous thing, as usual.

Four stars out of five.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of
Story by Neil Gaiman
Art by Michael Zulli
Lettering and Script Adaptation by Todd Klein
Dark Horse, 56 pp., $13.95 hardcover
originally published January 2008

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pride and Prejudice (Without Zombies)

I have a shameful secret to confess: until a few weeks ago, I had never read anything by Jane Austen.

This wouldn't be a shameful secret for everyone, but I was an Honors English major at Kenyon College thirty years ago or so, which meant, among other things, that I had to pass a six-hour comprehensive examination on all of English literature. Plus, I do in fact regularly read 18th and 19th Century novels for pleasure. About ten or twenty years ago, there was a huge surge in interest in Austen's work, so that a literary-minded person could hardly turn around without bumping into her somewhere.

This popularity has waned a bit, but it may now be renewed by the recent parody mixing her gentle romantic comedy with the tropes of the horror genre, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Indeed, that work has itself become so popular that it has created a new sub-genre all its own, and compelled me to title this review in such a way that readers would know right off the bat that I was speaking of the original.

So, after all this time I finally decided to pick up a Jane Austen novel. The verdict? I liked it. I liked it quite a bit, actually. I can't imagine it being improved by the injection of zombies.

Austen's novels are generally classed as comedies, which is true enough but the modern reader should be warned that this is primarily in the classical sense of the difference between tragedies and comedies being that in a tragedy everyone ends up dead and in a comedy everyone ends up married.

This is not to say that there is no humor in "Pride and Prejudice." There is quite a lot of humor, some of it quite pointed. The book is full of satirical wit, and indeed it is just such wit on the part of the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, that captivates the heart of the aloof Mr. Darcy. But it's humor of the nodding and smiling variety. You probably won't find yourself laughing out loud.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of humor, and some even prefer it, but in this era of jaded tastes and television laugh tracks many expect anything labeled a "comedy" to deliver more-or-less constant belly laughs, and you certainly won't find that here. That said, there are plenty of smiles.

Feminists have adopted Ms. Austen as one of there own, which has no doubt helped the popularity of her novels. Elizabeth is, however, at best a problematic exemplar of feminist ideals. It's true that she does twice turn down proposals of marriage. But it's not as if she does anything to indicate that she contemplates a career, or any other kind of future other than eventually being a wife and homemaker.

And despite the fact that her pushy mother, Mrs. Bennet, trying desperately to get her girls not just married but married "well," is subject to at times vicious satire and presented as at best a buffoon and at worst a thoroughly despicable person, her values are not so much rejected as they are tempered and slightly redirected by the books plot and what constitutes a happy ending for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth refuses to marry for money, and a friend who has no such scruples is thereby diminished in her eyes. But the book is hardly an encouragement to follow one's hear with no thought of practicality. The one impulsive union based purely on emotion with no calculation for the future that we see in the book is presented as a complete disaster.

No, Austen's contribution to the social system she found herself in, the social system dominated on the female side by figures like Mrs. Bennet, is to insist that, at least as an ideal, the calculations involved in making a marriage should *include* the congeniality of temperaments, and not *just* be a calculation of how much a suitor is worth a year.

This is hardly a feminist or even an overly Romantic stance, and it is a reflection of how banal and mercenary the society she depicts in her novels was that in her hands it does indeed seem almost revolutionary.

The title of this book might seem to refer to negative qualities one might attribute to each of the main characters - Pride would be associated with Darcy, obviously, and Prejudice with Elizabeth, who assumes much about him that turns out not to be true. In fact, both of them display both of these characteristics, and both need to learn to overcome their pride and prejudice and see each other with new eyes, before the inevitable happy ending can occur.

This novel was published almost 200 years ago. The society it depicts is, in its protocols and details, gone forever. But venality and greed, fondness and passion, maternal calculation and obsequious favor-currying all will be with us forever, and all are on display here, observed with a keen eye and depictged with a lively wit that indeed makes this book timeless.

I intend to rectify my decades-old error and begin searching for other Jane Austen books directly.

By Jane Austen
Penguin Classics, 480 pp., $8.00
This edition published 2002
Originally published 1813

Friday, May 21, 2010

Very Logical

I don't usually "give away the ending" of a book I'm reviewing. However, it's very hard to review this book sensibly without touching on things that come up near the end, including some things that might be thought of as "spoilers" in a more conventional book. I honestly don't think they would spoil your enjoyment of the book. The plot is hardly the main point here, although it is in fact a gripping story.

Would it really spoil a James Bond movie for you if I leaned over and whispered in your ear, "Bond gets the villain in the end."? Of course not.

Still, if that sort of thing bothers you, if you hate reading any review that reveals anything other than stuff that happens in the first few pages, then you might want to skip the rest of this review and just take away would normally be the last paragraph, moved up here for your convenience:

Read this book! It's surprisingly engaging and enjoyable, despite being based on a subject matter that would put many people to sleep if handled conventionally. This most unconventional narrative with enthrall even the most anti-mathematical soul.

And now that we've had the ending, let's start at the beginning:

This book is about the fundamental quest for certainty, the nature of truth and how we can be sure that we know what it is that we think we know.

That sounds like a treatise, a philosophical essay of the time most would probably find boring, but this is in fact a fascinating story, presented through the lives of some of the foremost philosophers and mathematicians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, focusing primarily on the late Bertrand Russell.

It's also a dialogue between the two writers and the artists who drew the pictures. Indeed, the book opens with Apostolos Doxiadis speaking directly to the audience. If you don't like that sort of thing, you probably won't like this book, because the whole thing goes back and forth like that. In fact, most of the book is presented as being told by Doxiadis to co-writer Christos Papadimitriou, with the artists occasionally entering into the conversation.

The heart of the book is a lecture by Russell at "an American University," supposedly given on September 4, 1939, the day after England declared war on Germany in response to Hitler's September 1 invasion of Poland.

(I say "supposedly: because it's pretty clear that this event is at least fictionalized, if not completely made up. In the course of it, Russell recalls meeting people that he never met, or meeting people decades earlier than he actually met them. However, the authors assure us that the *ideas* presented are faithfully presented as are those associated with them, and the way these ideas clashed and developed on each other is real.)

When Russell arrives the way to the lecture hall is blocked by protesters, who demand that Russell call off his lecture and join them in their protest against this new war, reminding him that he spent time in prison as a pacifist during World War I. Instead, Russell advises them that the theme of his lecture, "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs," will touch on their concerns and invites them all in to listen, and then make up their own minds.

After joking that a lecture on the role logic has actually played in determining human affairs in history would be very short, Russell makes it clear that his subject is the role logic should play, and as the lecture develops we see that it is also about the role logic can play, the extent to which human beings are even capable of acting logically, and finally, on the very existence of logic as a reality outside the abstractions of philosophers and mathematicians.

Russell proceeds to give his audience an autobiography, which means, of course, that Doxiadis is giving Papadimitriou a biography of Russell, which of course also means that the team of creators responsible for the book is telling us Russell's life story. This Russian doll structure of the story is, I think, an important part of what makes the story work, and also makes a subtle commentary on the subject matter.

Russell's account of his life focuses on his life-long quest for verifiable truth. At first, he was attracted to mathematics because it seemed so objective and absolute. Eventually, however, he discovered that it was built on a set of axioms, which were basically nothing more than assumptions, unsupported and unprovable. He began to search for something that would ground mathematics in a provable way, a search that led him to philosophy.

With A.N. Whitehead, he began to work on what would become a massive multi-volume Principia Mathematica, which ran to thousands of pages. In the first volume, the authors spent 362 pages proving that 1+1=1.

In the lecture, Russell is confessionally frank about his own failings, and also of those he encountered along his journey, which includes a veritable Who's Who of the most important mathematicians and philosophers of his time, a few of whom ended up in asylums. Indeed, the authors belabor this point perhaps too strongly, wondering if there may be some kind of link between logic and madness.

To me, the real point is not that geniuses are susceptible to madness -- that is so commonplace an observation as to be cliché, though some might find it surprising that geniuses of a logical and mathematical cast of mind may be just as susceptible to it as artists and poets. No, the truly meaningful insight provided by Russell's lecture is hinted at in his opening joke: even among those most devoted to it, logic doesn't guarantee actually making correct decisions in life. Not only do many of its most devoted advocates find it difficult to actually apply to their own lives, but even seemingly logical decisions can turn out to be disastrously wrong. Russell's decisions regarding the experimental upbringing of his son lead to bitter resentment on the son's part later in life.

Russell ends by challenging the audience to examine their own axioms and assumptions, to question their own certainty. He leaves no doubt about his own stance, but at the same time insists that it must be an individual decision.

By Apostolos Doxiadis
and Christos Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos
Colors by Annie Di Donna

Published in the U.S. October 2009
Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $22.95, trade paperback

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, May 14, 2010

World War II Is Background for Spy Tale

Evelyn is a ten-year-old girl with an active imagination and an artistic flair who is staying with her aunt in New York City in the summer of 1942. She spends much of her time writing and drawing in her notebook. She writes comic book stories about Zirconium Man and his sidekick Scooter. They always manage to save the day, even while being threatened by black tendrils that seem to grow out of everywhere and fill the panels.

Evelyn, who looks quite a bit like Scooter, wants to be a hero, too. "Maybe not yet," she says, "but one day."

Evelyn's aunt is not exactly the best choice for being responsible for a child. A rich girl who fancies herself an artist, she lives a hedonistic life and at first barely pays attention to her niece. Evelyn's father has sent her there so he can honeymoon with his new wife - the fifth or sixth, according to Evelyn, since her mother died. "The new one looks exactly like Lana Turner. And the one before that looked like Ginger Rogers. And the one before that looked like Veronica Lake ... and the one before *that* looked like -- "

Her litany is interrupted by the mother of her confidant and only friend - the only other kid, in fact, living in the building. Tony is the son of the building super, and she meets him when he comes to help his dad fix a leak in their bathroom.

Tony and Evelyn go to a movie, where they see a public service announcement warning about Nazi spies. "Citizens of New York City are being asked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. " Soon the two would-be spycatchers are prowling the streets looking for people with foreign accents - which are plentiful, since the apartment is in Germantown, where lots of German immigrants have recently renamed their stores things like "USA Meats" and "Uncle Sam Donut Shop." Tony sees a man who looks quite a bit like Adolf Hitler himself getting his shoes shined, but Evelyn is convinced he's a real American because his pants don't have cuffs. "Straight legs are American-style. Dope."

Evelyn and Tony finally decide that the doorman of their building is a Nazi spy. They see him take a ticking package out of his locker, and hear him on the phone with someone:

Hello? Ja, it's me. I've got something for you. Something I think you're gonna like. Where should we meet? All right ... half an hour, above the yards. Ya, gut. Bis bald. Seien Sie night spat."

Evelyn decides that "the yards" must mean the Brooklyn Naval Yards, and they find a policeman, who happens to be with his friend a reporter, and they find the doorman still walking, and follow him to a building and bust into the room - to find him in bed with a woman for whom he has brought a cuckoo clock.

This actually makes the newspaper and both children - not to mention the cop - end up in serious trouble.

No, that's not the end of the story. Before long, the children do in fact get themselves involved with a real spy, and get themselves in even more serious trouble - and danger. It's a very entertaining tale with lots of angles and layers and some real psychological depth, all packed into less than 200 pages of words and pictures. A very fun read.

Published May 2010
Written by Suan Kim & Lawrence Klavan
Artwork by Pascal Dizin
First Second, 172 pp., $16.99 trade paperback

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid
By Howard J. Morris & Jenny Lee
246 pp., Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $22.99 (hardback)

At first glace, this book seems like a hipper, wittier version of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus." And indeed, that's basically what it is. But despite its slim size, it manages to be quite a bit more than just that.

First, the fact that the book is co-authored by an actual couple gives it greater depth and credibility than the original, and an ability to express itself and fresher and more honest language. If John Gray had said that women were "crazy," instead of just "from Venus" (whatever that means), he would have been pilloried as a misogynist. Yet Howard J. Morris can get away with it because his girlfriend Jenny Lee is standing right there beside him (figuratively speaking) saying the same thing.

I was first attracted to this book by that provocative title and the romance comic cover, but I stayed with it because it is funny, insightful, and compelling. The basic structure is a chapter written by Howard, followed by a response from Jenny, but both of them often quote conversations with each other and occasionally one or the other will intrude into the other's part of the book, so that the whole thing essentially plays out as a dialogue, which is appropriate, as both writers have done television comedy.

For TV comedy writers, they have a remarkable ability to confront serious matters head-on. Yes, they do it primarily through the lens of humor, but don't think this book is a series of Tim Allen one-liners (even though Howard did use to write for "Home Improvement"). Both writers seriously address problems they had in previous relationships, for instance (both are divorced).

The most refreshing thing is the relative even-handedness evident from the title. When I tried to read Gray's book (and I'll cop to never being able to finish it), it seemed that he was mostly reassuring "Venus" people that they were perfectly OK, that it was the flawed "Mars" people they had to learn to put up with -- or even better, learn to manipulate into being "better." Meanwhile, any men reading the book were generally exhorted to see things from the Venus point of view.

There is, to be truthful, a bit of that attitude here, that "stupid" is somehow worse than "crazy," that indeed to some extent it's men's stupidity that sometimes drives women crazy. But it's amazing, frankly, to see Jenny cop to being crazy, to say that women, or at least most women, are overemotional (what she sees as the source of the craziness) and to admit that she occasionally does things that she knows are crazy when she does them, like buying a hideously expensive pair of boots. Even more importantly, she describes an occasion where she was able to see her craziness for what it was while it was taking hold of her, and managed to clamp it down before the blowup it threatened could develop.

Sure, a lot of the book is coaching men how to put up with women's craziness and how to be less stupid, but a significant amount - maybe not half, but not just a smattering here and there, either - is telling women how to put up with men's stupidity and how to be less crazy. In an era when relationship books nearly always place almost all the blame on men, this is a breakthrough. Having a woman actually describe a conscious effort to change her own behavior in the process is almost a miracle.

The book ends with a defense of both women's craziness and men's stupidity, arguing that what makes us attracted to each other in the first place is inextricably linked with what sometimes tears us apart. Women are magical, says Howard, and their magic is bound up with what men see as craziness. Jenny says that what women think of as "stupidity" in their men is in fact one of the sources of their strength, their ability to be the rock of stability that women need. We complain about each other, but in fact we wouldn't want it any other way.

I've saved the best for last. Although presented as a series of essays that becomes a dialogue, despite being a incisive analysis of one of the most serious and important subjects we can discuss, by the time you reach the end of the book you realize it's actually a story, the love story of Howard and Jenny, and if it's not quite "happily ever after" (because both of these people are grownups who recognize that nobody can ever know the future), it's definitely "happy for now and as far into the future as we can see clearly." Which is pretty damned happy, for my money, and about as good an ending as you can expect from a love story that is intellectual, realistic, and ruthlessly honest, as well as being romantic and, yes, magical.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Painful Journey Toward the Truth

The Impostor's Daughter
By Laurie Sandell
Little, Brown & Co., 247 pages, $24.99

Laurie Sandell's father was a former Green Beret who'd served in Vietnam. He had a law degree and a Ph.D. Although in her earliest memories he was teaching at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, he had once taught at Stanford, and while there had become an adviser to President Richard and a friend of Henry Kissinger. As a young girl, she worshiped her father, and drew pictures of him as one of the faces carved into Mt. Rushmore.

But her father had secrets. In fact, as it turns out, only the last sentence above is true. Everything Laurie thought she knew about her father turned out to be an elaborate concoction of lies.

The book opens with a chapter called "Secrets," that starts like this:

Whenever my father went out of town, he had the mail stopped. It didn't matter if he was gone for one, two, or ten days - if my father wasn't home, the mail didn't come.
A few times, Laurie tells us that she did manage to get to the mail before her father did, and saw every letter was addressed to a different name. Once, she answered the phone and told some who asked for a "Winston Rambleau" that they must have the wrong number. Her father later was angry with her because that call was for him. "After that," she reports, "whatever name they gave, I just yelled for my dad."

Given the title and this opening, you can see that I did not really give away anything by opening this review the way I did. It's clear from the outset that something is very wrong with Laurie's father, and her shocking discoveries that her father is not what she believes seem unsurprising and almost inevitable to the reader - not that they are any less heart-rending for that.

When her father went out and bought her a bunch of brownie-scout badges she hadn't earned and had her wear them, did that plant a seed of doubt in her mind then? Or was it only on reflection, years later, in putting together this story, that she realized what an obvious symbol of his own life that moment was?

This is one of those "graphic novels" that definitely is not a novel. It is almost aggressively anti-fictional, dedicated to "the truth tellers" and looking at the past as honestly as possible, sparing neither her own nor others feelings along the way. It's a fascinating book that I highly recommend.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Before Age of Bronze or Sandman or even Cerebus, before anyone else (in North America, at least) even conceived of the possibility of a long-running comic that would tell a single story and be collected in bound volumes to be read as literature for years to come, Jack Kirby created the Fourth World.

It was an ambitious plan, spread over three bi-monthly comic book series plus one monthly, an incredible pace. Most comic book pencilers are lucky if they can do a complete book every month, much less two or three, much less writing and plotting all of them as well. And yet, the art never looks rushed. And lest one suspect that Kirby did "loose" pencils, leaving much of the detail to be added by the inker, this set includes reproductions of many of Kirby's original penciled pages, which are astonishing.

The new mythos Kirby created for the series involved new gods -- indeed, one of the new series was called "The New Gods" -- superpowered beings who rose from the ashes of what is obviously a reference to Ragnarok of Norse mythology. Kirby's fascination with Norse mythology had been evident in his depiction of Thor as a superhero for Marvel, but this was something new. There were two groups of gods, inhabitants of two different worlds, New Genesis and Apokolips, who have been at war since their new beginning. An uneasy truce, a cold war, has been in effect for some time, but as the series begins war is breaking out in earnest again, with Earth as the primary battleground.

In addition to "The New Gods" Kirby created "The Forever People," which followed a group of younger gods who were more or less Kirby's tribute to the hippies and flower people of the 1960s, and "Mister Miracle," about an escape artist extraordinaire named Scott Free, who we soon learn has himself already escaped from Apokolips itself. Incongruously enough, the fourth book in the series, in fact the one in whose pages the Fourth World was first launched, was "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen," which had long been an offbeat, often whacky vehicle for lighthearted fun. Kirby not only continued but even extended this tradition, giving us Don Rickles, a giant de-evolutionized Jimmy and featuring through most of his run a new young cloned version of his 1940s group of scrappy heroes, the Newsboy Legion. The Jimmy Olsen comics are mostly tangential to the main story, but definitely connected. One might think of them as similar to the clown scenes in Shakespeare's tragedies.

The books never met with the commercial success DC had hoped for. They seemed to think that by luring Kirby away from Marvel he would be able to spark for them the kind of explosion that company had experienced in the 1960s. This was unrealistic -- aside from the extremely important roles others like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had played in the Marvel explosion, it ignores two important facts: a) it's easier to "explode" a tiny company reinventing itself with mostly new characters and complete revisions of a few existing ones than it is a behemoth whose own success is largely based on the familiarity of its hugely successful franchise stars like Superman and Batman; and b) the 1960s were a unique period in American history primed for cultural change, reflected in many different fashions across nearly all available popular media, including comic books, and by the time Jack Kirby came to DC that period was already waning. It would have been impossible for anyone to do for DC in the '70s what Kirby and others had done for Marvel in the '60s.

One could argue that Kirby's ambitious plan was just too grand to be understood and appreciated by the comic book audience of the time. On the other hand, one could also argue that Kirby's reach exceeded his grasp, and his own artistic failings, especially as a writer, doomed the comics.

A good representative example of both Kirby's strengths and weaknesses are visible in two adjacent pages of the recent reprinting of the entire saga as "Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus," a four-volume set. This is from volume 2, pp.46-47, reprint pp. 10-11 from "The New Gods" #4. On the first page, we have a close-up of Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips. He had just witnessed Orion, champion of New Genesis, shouting his defiance and fury to the skies at the death of one of his fellow new gods, one who was killed by Darkseid's forces, and speak about bravery and glory and how his death will not have been in vain. Among the thoughts of Darkseid's presented to us on the page is the following:

"Oh, how heroes love to flaunt their nobility in the face of death! Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher!"

If you ignore the over-wrought exclamation marks (ubiquitous in the medium and possibly added by the letterer), this is actually a deeper thought than most folks in 1971 would have expected from a comic book, and it's also well expressed, almost poetic. On the very next page, however, the effect is seriously marred by some extremely clumsy expository dialogue:

DAVE LINCOLN: I tell you, I saw it with my own eyes! We're in a war! It's hidden -- but it's very real!

VICTOR LANZA: B-But why us? We're just ordinary people!

CLAUDIA SHANE: Oh, yeah? How many just plain folks have been abducted to a weird world like Apokolips!

HARVEY LOCKMAN: Orion got us back here! We owe him that!

DAVE LINCOLN: We owe him that, Mister Lanza! Such as we are -- we may have to tackle super-beings!

VICTOR LANZA: But I'm Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains!

VICTOR LANZA (cont., new panel): And now, this! New Genesis! Apokolips! And things that would scare John Wayne!

CLAUDIA SHANE: What about it, Lincoln? I'm Claudia Shane, simple but worried secretary! What am I involved in this time? --

HARVEY LOCKMAN: And me, young but cool, Harvey Lockman!

Aside from the unlikely nature of this conversation, or the absurd notion that people who already know each other well would blurt out both first and last names in the course of it, I find it literally impossible to believe that anyone would introduce himself, either on first acquaintance or later, as "young but cool Harvey Lockman!"

(And of course, the inevitable exclamation points -- no one in American comics ever says anything, it is either declaimed, shrieked or simply yelled, apparently -- make the whole thing even sillier.)

In this, Kirby was no worse than many comic book writers who got paid only for their ability with words and couldn't draw at all. And while the dialogue is sometimes contrived or hokey, his conception and plotting is excellent, at least until near the end, when commercial considerations caused a hurried climax that was left unresolved. Years later he came back and finished the tale in a graphic novel, also collected in this edition, but even that ending doesn't ring quite true, as if it's not quite the ending originally planned. Reading the whole series collected in these four volumes, one gets the feeling that at least another volume, maybe even another three or four volumes, would have been needed to complete the story as originally conceived.

Despite all these problems, I think the work generally stands the test of time. It is obviously an important work that should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of American comics, but more importantly it's an enjoyable reading experience that I would recommend to many people with no such interest.

I would not recommend it to those who disdain superheroes, and certainly this is not the book to convince someone with a poor opinion of comics that they can be of real artistic value. Not that it doesn't *have* real artistic value, mind you. But it's of a type that such a person would be unlikely to see.

For it's own sake, just as a reading experience, the series probably rates a 3-1/2 or 4 on a 5-pt scale. If you care anything at all about the history of the medium or the development of mega-novels like the ones mentioned in the first paragraph, it's a 5, an absolute must-read.


Volumes 1-4

Jack Kirby and others

DC Comics

Vol. 1, 296 pages, $49.99

Vol. 2, 396 pages, $49.99

Vol. 3, 396 pages, $49.99

Vol. 4, 424 pages, $49.99

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A New Beginning

I'm trying something new here - starting this blog over again and posting this new start from my new iPhone.

I will probably get around to doing more on religion and Cerebus one of these days, but for the nest few weeks I'm planning to concentrate on doing some reviews, which is going to be the main purpose for the site, I think.