Archive for February, 2012

New DC Comics, Part 7 – More Superheroes

It’s the end of February, and now the sixth issues have come out for all of DC’s new titles. I started out the month with some superhero titles that I was ready to review after issue #5. Here are the remaining ones.

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New DC Comics, Part 6 – The Big Three

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are sometimes referred to as the “big three” superheroes, because they are the only ones who have had a series stretching back continuously since before 1950. The distinction is a bit misleading, since it’s often obvious that DC only keeps a Wonder Woman comic going due to that history. It’s been rebooted and renumbered frequently as they try to work out what to do with her character, while Superman and Batman have both supported two ongoing series as well as frequent others dedicated to supporting characters.

Still, the recent DC relaunch is one time where the status of these three characters is obvious. The company assigned high-profile talent to all of them. I’m reading four of the five core books for these characters (I skipped Batman’s Detective Comics, and from what I’ve heard, it’s generally considered to be awful). Here are the reviews.

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Alex Kotlowitz – The Other Side of the River (Book Review)

The Other Side of the River cover

Alex Kotlowitz - The Other Side of the River

Alex Kotlowitz’s The Other Side of the River is a disturbing look at race relations in America. Set in both the picturesque white town of St. Joseph and its poor black neighbor, Benton Harbor, it portrays a culture where tension and mistrust are always threatening to boil over. It’s specifically about Eric McGinnis, a black teenager who was found dead in the river that separates the two towns, but it takes the time to cover other events both large (police violence and near-riots) and small (threats and ruined meals). If this weren’t non-fiction, the extremes of these two towns would seem way too exaggerated to take seriously.

The book covers McGinnis’ death and the unresolved investigation out of chronological order, but in a natural way. There are many layers to the case, especially when it relates to the larger issue of race, and Kotlowitz makes an excellent guide through the twists and turns. This control over the information is occasionally frustrating – many chapters end on cliffhangers that feel more forced than the rest of the content, and I wish it hadn’t taken the entire book before it mentioned natural explanations for the hints of foul play at the start. Still, this sticks out mainly because the author successfully uses such a light touch most of the time.

Almost every stereotype you may have, good and bad, about either race can be confirmed by some passages of the book and challenged by others. Casual racism, community spirit, and an ignorance of the other town permeate both sides of the river. McGinnis himself seemed to be at a crossroads before he died, with plenty of signs that he was a petty thief balanced out by a clowning good nature and the universal teenage longing to belong.

The Other Side of the River’s inconclusiveness is both its strongest and weakest point. By refusing to draw any conclusions, or even state non-obvious opinions about the people who appear in the book, Kotlowitz very accurately captures the uncertainty around the issue. Americans have no answers about the state of race relations, and rarely manage to even put the current status quo into words. The book’s power doesn’t lie in the truth of what happened, but in the fact that almost all white people are convinced that the death was an accidental drowning while almost all black people believe it was a murder. Sometimes Kotlowitz’s insistence on sticking to the facts is frustrating. He refuses to call out police incompetence, but also doesn’t push back against those who insist that there must be a huge conspiracy to cover up a murder. The dry, unsensationalistic approach to such hot-button issues paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind, though, and allows them to examine the situation without knee-jerk responses.

It’s difficult to tell how much the author’s point of view influences the portrayal. Many of the stories here will be shocking to readers who aren’t used to thinking about race as such a prominent factor in our culture. But then, most of the people in the book are also surprised by what happens, and they frequently say that race is not a big deal there. In this context, those claims appear naïve if not willfully ignorant, but maybe it’s just because their life does not share the single-minded focus of the book. As an example, Kotlowitz explains about the absolute taboo on interracial dating there (one theory is that McGinnis was murdered for dating a white girl), but he immediately follows up with interviews from a large group of white girls who were dating black boys at the time. Following a standard set by one of the most popular girls in school, they didn’t seem to have much trouble with their choice.

Written during the days of the Rodney King trial and President Clinton’s call for a national conversation on race, The Other Side of the River takes an unflinching look at these issues in a much more effective, and healthy, way than either of those events managed. If it occasionally seems inconsistent, incomplete, or just plain unsatisfying, that’s an appropriate depiction of our time. It’s not intended to provide final answers, but to be a conversation-starter.

Grade: B

New DC Comics, Part 5 – The Dark Series

DC’s relaunch has involved a surprising number of “dark” books. There’s a lot of variety in this, from true horror to dangerous magic to pulpy monster hunting, but it definitely is distinct from the classic view of moral heroes and ineffectual villains. Maybe it’s surprising that DC would go in this direction right when they are aiming for new readers, but maybe they expect that new readers will be intrigued to see a different side of superheroes. Either way, here are reviews of three of the new darker series.

Though the sixth issue has come out for all of these titles, the reviews are based on the first five. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. begins a new storyline with issue #6, so I am putting it off until after this review, and I disliked the other two enough to stop reading them. Well, I guess that gives you a hint of what these reviews will be like. (I should say that I certainly don’t dislike comics just for being dark. For example, see yesterday’s review of Animal Man and Swamp Thing.)

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New DC Comics, Part 4 – Animal Man and Swamp Thing

cover to Swamp Thing #1

Swamp Thing

cover to Animal Man #1

Animal Man

Two of the most intriguing titles of the DC relaunch have been reinterpretations of classic Vertigo characters: Animal Man and Swamp Thing. Not only are the interesting on their own, but they are setting the stage for a shared story: While one hero is the avatar of The Green (or plant life), and the other is in touch with The Red (animal life), they are both at odds with the death-forces of “The Rot”.

One noteworthy thing about these series is how eager they seem to be to distance themselves from the old stories. In direct opposition to the classic Alan Moore status quo, this Swamp Thing starts with Alec Holland as a human, horrified by his memories of being the avatar of The Green. The first time he meets his old love Abby, she points a gun at him. Animal Man, meanwhile, undoes Buddy Baker’s alien-based origin story to make The Red into an elemental force like The Green. However, both still have a lot of obvious love for the classic stories, and there’s arguably nothing more that can be done with the characters without going back to basics here. Both titles have a history of author-mandated changes, anyway: The alterations being made to Swamp Thing now mirror the ones that Moore made when he began his stories, and the classic Animal Man run was a metatextual commentary on how the author can mold the character as desired. So really, I’m happy to judge these by their story quality.

That quality is very good. Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man had the best opening issue of any new DC title, managing to establish characters, explain the backstory (without boring readers who already knew it), and lead to the creepy shock that kickstarts this conflict with The Rot. Buddy Baker’s status as a family man is as important to the story as his powers, and the plot has combined those aspects in a way that brings out Animal Man’s strengths. Swamp Thing, meanwhile, is handled by hot new horror writer Scott Snyder, and he mixes in some tense pacing and genuinely disturbing moments with the introductions of the opening issues. A common theme is that the plant world is much more violent and destructive than we give it credit for, but it’s still easy to root for them against some evil agents of The Rot.

The art quality definitely separates the two of them, though. Swamp Thing has lush, beautiful art from Yanick Paquette. Expressive and often featuring creative page compositions, it is appropriate to both the human characters and the plant-based scenes. Animal Man, on the other hand, has sparse, dry artwork by Travel Foreman. The “everyday” scenes are bare and flat to the point of boredom, and sometimes the shapes of the people just feel unnatural. The weirder scenes, as Buddy goes into The Red or the evil “Hunters Three” shift bodies, are mixed. Sometimes they are appropriately strange and visceral, capturing the wet, meaty essence of animal spirits. Other times, though, those images seem incomplete and slightly off.

Animal Man is still worth reading on its own, and the connection to the excellent Swamp Thing makes it an obvious choice. I’ve found Foreman’s art to be more frustrating as the series goes on, but he is soon being replaced. Meanwhile, issues like #6 are a reminder that Lemire has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Composed mostly of a scene from a movie that the hero starred in, it develops the series’ themes of family and responsibility from a different angle, while providing a respite from the impending doom of the main story. Swamp Thing, on the other hand, lets the doom build remorselessly, but it’s appropriate to the horror legacy of the character. These first six issues have featured a slightly standard introduction to the tale of a reluctant hero, but the scope and power of the threat have been shocking enough to make it feel new.

If you’re only going to read one of these series, it should be Swamp Thing. (In fact, if you’re choosing only one DC series to read at all, Swamp Thing would be a top contender.) Animal Man, though, is a very original twist to the standard superhero stories, and it seems that the connection between the two comics will strengthen them both.

Grades, based on issues #1-6:

Animal Man: B-

Swamp Thing: A-

Neal Stephenson – Anathem (Book Review)

Anathem cover

Neal Stephenson - Anathem

I gave up on Neal Stephenson sometime during his Baroque Cycle. That ponderous history tome took pages to explain some concepts, but other times assumed the audience was already familiar with the same things as Stephenson. After several years away, though, I’m very glad that I finally tried his novel Anathem. I can see how many readers would have issues with it similar to my problems with the Baroque Cycle, but I can also say that for the right people, this is a masterpiece.

Set in a world where scholarly types remain cloistered in systems that are half-convent and half-university, this features a complex and initially confusing culture. The book is filled with slightly awkward people who like nothing more than to learn and debate each other. (They even have a formal system of “Dialog” reminiscent of Socrates.) Much of the pleasure of the book, especially at the beginning, comes from geeky characters simply talking and going about their lives. This system is low-tech, but it’s still recognizably the place where our world’s computer programmers and philosophers would end up.

The religious and academic development of this world is very different from ours, but some ideas are familiar, with direct parallels for everything from the Holocaust to Occam’s Razor. Other concepts, such as Plato’s Theory of Forms, are twisted into something recognizable but different. There is a lot to learn, but the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar makes it go smoothly. In such a setting, the hints found in the wordplay (“anathem”, for example, being a ritual that is both “anthem” and “anathema”) are helpful rather than cloying.

The book doesn’t intentionally hold things back; Despite some of the complaints I’ve heard, it starts describing things right away, and sets up situations (such as the once-per-decade festival in which the sheltered characters can mix with civilians) that are designed to explain the system to outsiders. There is a lot to learn, though, and the bulky 900 pages is just barely enough for the novel to cover all of its material. If that scares you away, then this is not for you. However, if you enjoy genre fiction, at least part of that is probably the joy of understanding new worlds. Anathem is just an especially heady version of that experience. I think a large part of the reason that this worked for me where the Baroque Cycle failed is that Stephenson couldn’t make assumptions about which parts of this world I already knew. He (eventually) had to explain everything the reader was supposed to appreciate.

Stephenson’s flaws are still evident, but he has found a perfect vehicle for them. If the characters are sometimes simplistic, it helps that they are various types of nerds safe in a culture devoted to abstract learning. The multi-page lessons for the reader are easier to swallow in dialog format. And if obscure topics that come up in passing always become vital later on, at least the epic length of the story gives them a chance to develop naturally. Happily, at least one of Stephenson’s weak points has been addressed, as this is his first novel to feature a satisfying ending.

I can’t really say much about the plot. In my mind, avoiding spoilers means that I shouldn’t talk about the things that come up after the reader has put effort into the book, and in this case, that covers at least 80% of the story. Suffice to say that Anathem begins with a simple world seen through the eyes of youth, but quickly grows to encompass mysteries and political intrigue. It gets exciting, too: despite Stephenson’s reputation for long, dense books, he has a gift for page-turning adventure. The scope is way beyond what might be expected from the closed society of the early chapters, and by the end, the novel has developed themes even bolder than the fascinating culture it started with. The changes aren’t always welcome at the time, as I felt that I could have stayed immersed in the narrator’s initial boyhood innocence forever. But that, too, worked to the novel’s advantage, because I felt the same nostalgia he did as the situation became progressively stranger. Also, the alternate world isn’t just a clever gimmick. By the end of the story, its quirks have been justified, and it becomes clear that the differences from our reality were all in service to the story and Stephenson’s ideas.

The worst thing I can say about a novel is that only some people will consider it a work of genius. Rich and complex, taking full advantage of its 900-page length to make very foreign systems come alive, Stephenson has mixed his love of geek culture and appreciation for history into his first alternate world. It’s the sort that most writers would spend a lifetime trying to create.

Grade: A-

New DC Comics, Part 3 – The Unexpected Titles

DC’s comics are based on superheroes, but the fifty-two relaunched titles allow a lot of room to experiment. Here are three of the series that go furthest beyond the standard expectations of a DC story. Don’t expect realism, romance, or anything too different, of course, but these show that there is some territory at a major comics company beyond men in tights punching each other.

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Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Unentitled (Music Review)

Unentitled cover

Slim Cessna's Auto Club - Unentitled

The gothic Americana of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club seems to be both authentic and an affectation. Intelligent, literate, and often unforgiving of the simple country characters who populate their songs, the lyrics nonetheless have an honesty that could only come from living the lives they deconstruct. Cessna’s adenoidal voice has a great range, but is not easy for country music fans to embrace. Like their previous releases, Unentitled will find devoted fans and rabid haters.

There are haunting, almost baroque ideas throughout. In Cessna’s world, problems with childbirth are a source of family shame, folksingers are ritually castrated, and finding the right dog to guard your property can become a consuming, self-destructive quest. The song quality varies widely, though. For example, “Three Bloodhounds, Two Shepherds, One Fila Brasileiro,” that song about finding the right dog, has little to offer on repeated listens. “United Brethren,” on the other hand, stays interesting due to its simple style and guilt-ridden vocals (in this story, the townspeople convert between Christian denominations in hopes of ending a drought). “The Unballed Ballad of the New Folksinger” has a menacing air appropriate to a song about castration, but “Thy Will Be Done” is simply monotonous and plodding. On balance, fortunately, there are more good moments than bad: Whispered chants of “dig the pit, fill the pit” and a militaristic call-and-response of “do you know the enemy?/yes we know it truthfully” provide the hooks for a band that refuses to simply make catchy music.

The gem of Unentitled is “Hallelujah Anyway”, a seven-minute story about a corrupt town leader demanding grandchildren, even though their birth would mean his daughter’s death. Told by the hapless fool who is being pressured to father a child, it takes on an air of impending tragedy. “Hallelujah Anyway” has scene changes, singers for the multiple characters, and an uncomfortably vague moral lesson.

Unentitled is worth hearing, though it demands effort of the audience before it can be appreciated. Its chief failing is that not all songs continue to reward that attention after the initial listen, but the ones that do provide an experience that no other band can offer. Not everyone will love Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but everyone should have an opinion on them.

Grade: B-

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (Book Review)

“Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.”

The Magicians cover

Lev Grossman - The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a deconstructionist, more realistic take on the tropes of Harry Potter and Narnia. Magic is dangerous and mysterious, and the faux-Latin wand-waving is replaced by borderline autistic kids in a boring, demanding school. However, The Magicians isn’t just designed to make Harry Potter seem ridiculous. It’s a complex, exciting story in its own right, and while it’s aimed at an audience tired of fantasy clichés, what it offers in the end is still a fantasy tale.

What Grossman does right, he does very right. The world of magic feels consistent and thought-through in a way that Harry Potter, with its arbitrary spells and inconsistencies, never approaches. Magic is a dangerous, unknown force, and if the school’s body count is low, that’s only because the students are studying for tests instead of fighting dark lords. The fundamentals of magic are still undefined, though; The Magicians wins the reader’s acceptance partly by being more glib than other stories. Where Harry Potter spent hundreds of pages on each school year, The Magicians covers Quentin’s entire young adulthood in the stretch of one book. Many elements do feel like they would fall apart on closer examination (such as the workings of the wider magical community), and a few items (like the Quidditch equivalent) are unnecessary additions just to draw parallels to Harry Potter.

I’d hate to think that the only way to make good adult fantasy seem consistent is with Grossman’s fast pace and lack of details. In this case, at least, it works because we want to see the passage of time. The Magicians is a strong character-based book, and Quentin and his friends evolve considerably over the years. The writing doesn’t dwell on this, but the characters do change slowly but noticeably, and believably, as they age. Once the world and plot are established, Grossman often uses a single scene to stand in for an entire stretch of months or even a year. That one scene will have the detail needed both to paint a picture of the characters’ current lives and to give some assurance that the magical system is rich and consistent, even if the reader can’t stop to learn everything.

The Magicians is an exploration of aimless young adulthood. Magic is tempting, but it doesn’t automatically give meaning to life, and the power it offers can be a dangerous distraction from the concerns that keep mundane people grounded. Just as in real life, these people need to find their own way, and the latter part of the book actually becomes laugh-out-loud funny when the more stubborn believers in fairy tales try to live to those expectations. The most common criticism of this book is that the characters are whiny and unlikeable, though I always found them to be so believable that that wasn’t a concern. The conclusion offers some resolution to this, but is also a little frustrating: There are at least three scenes that feel like the set-up to a final status quo, and every one is suddenly reversed by the next. The actual ending feels a little arbitrary, as it’s the least satisfying and the best for a sequel, but at least it promises that the sequel will be a very different story. Quentin grows up more over the course of this book than Harry Potter does in seven, and that’s a great argument for why his story should be allowed to continue.

Grade: B+

New DC Comics, Part 2 – Keeping the Backstory

While most of the new DC titles tried to be “new reader friendly”, they definitely approached it in different ways. A few seemed to ignore the concept entirely, and just slapped a “#1” label on top of a story that had been going on for some time now. I’m told the most obvious example was the Green Lantern titles, but I haven’t been reading those. Here are the three series I am reading that would be challenging for a new reader to start with. Ironically, two of them were new to me with this relaunch.

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