Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book Report: I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President

Like Jon Stewart (the Daily Show host whose blurb appears on the cover--not the Green Lantern), I loved this book. It's got a very PS238 feel, albeit on a smaller scale. Author Josh Lieb does a nice job of balancing standard super-villain tropes and a genuinely touching personal story.

Writer's note: this book is written in first-person, present tense, which some people dislike, but it works here. Also, this novel extends the usual narrative conceit by having the protagonist address a non-specific audience. The character would have no reason to say any of this to anyone in the world of the novel, but it's used as an effective way to deliver the story to the reader, and allows the writer to "cheat" certain expository bits into the flow of the prose.

Buy the book: Powell's, Amazon


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Monday, March 08, 2010

Comic Book Report: World War Hulk (Various)

That's it? Really?

The above is my overall reaction to this recent Marvel line-wide crossover event. I mean, first of all, the title is completely misleading. The story doesn't involve the whole world (it's only Manhattan), and it's not actually a war (just a couple days of superheroes clobberin' each other).

It's not even really about the Hulk, come to think of it. I mean, yes, he is the inciting event which causes all this mayhem, but in the end, it's not really about the not-so-jolly green giant or Bruce Banner. There are a few good moments here and there, but in the end, we gain no real insight into either character.

And the way in which Earth's heroes finally stop Hulk is almost a literal deus ex machina--even Marvel's editors acknowledge this, in a Mad Libs-style interstitial page in the Damage Control collection. But hanging a lantern on a weak third act doesn't make it any less of a cheat.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Comic Book Report: Batman: False Faces

As comic book writers go, Brian K. Vaughan has a pretty solid batting average. He created the Eisner Award-winning Y: The Last Man, the singular Ex Machina, and Marvel's Runaways, all of which are great titles. (I have some quibbles with the current state of affairs on Runaways--and, to a lesser degree, Ex Machina--but I'll save that for another post.)

This book collects some of BKV's earlier work in the DC universe. As he says in the introduction, all these stories were designed to be "standalone," so they could be dropped into a monthly title without affecting continuity too much. That doesn't necessarily limit a storyteller's choices, and in some ways, it can help to sharpen the focus on the most fundamental, unchanging aspects of an established character.

All these stories deal with identity in some way. The opening tale, comprising three issues of Batman, is the strongest, telling how Bruce Wayne dons a disguise to infiltrate Gotham's criminal underground, and the consequences of doing that long-term. It treads some familiar superhero ground with the question of which identity is the "real" one--Batman, or Bruce?--but manages to spin it in an interesting way.

The closing tale is the weakest, despite having a killer premise: Clayface, a clay-based Batman villain, versus Wonder Woman, a heroine born from magical clay! But the payoff doesn't quite match the setup. To be fair, it's always been hard to write Wonder Woman; there's the costume, and the magic, and the entire Greek pantheon to deal with. Even Greg Rucka and Joss Whedon couldn't quite get it.

Overall, Batman: False Faces is worth a read, especially if you're a Batman fan or interested in seeing how Vaughan's writing has improved since he wrote these stories.

Buy this book: Powell's, Amazon


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Friday, February 12, 2010

Comic Book Report: Planet Hulk

I'll be honest: I was never really into Marvel comics. I don't have anything against them; they just never spoke to me in the same way the mythic characters of the DC universe did. So it doesn't bother me as much when, for example, new writers reboot or retcon characters to explore new storytelling avenues.

In the "Planet Hulk" storyline, writer Greg Pak (auteur of the impressive-if-uneven 2003 anthology film Robot Stories) drops the Hulk--quite literally--into an epic fantasy/space opera. This isn't the monosyllabic "Hulk smash" monster I remember from my childhood; this Hulk speaks in complete sentences, even formulates strategy, and more than anything reminds me of Wolverine.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As mentioned above, I have nothing invested in these characters, so I was able to go along with the story--which shamelessly recycles a tonne of archetypes, tropes, and clichés in service of a tall tale that gets progressively more ridiculous and unexpectedly touching. Pak doesn't manage to totally pull off the third act, but to be fair, it would probably have required a multi-bookstop novel series to do the concept justice.

There's a lot to like here, and I'm curious to see what happens next in "World War Hulk," and how the movie adaptation plays.

Recommended. Buy this book from Powell's or Amazon.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Comic Book Report: Scalped Vol. 4

Kurt Busiek himself recommended Scalped to me last year, and he was not wrong. (That in itself is a bit of a story--he was signing at Excalibur Comics on Free Comic Book Day, and when I stopped by during a lunch break from BarCampPortland 3, I was the only customer in the store and thus able to actually have a substantial chat with him and some of the very friendly staffers. I also picked up a copy of Arrowsmith.)

Every trade paperback collection of a monthly comic needs a title--usually taken from the main storyline therein. "The Gravel in Your Guts" arc comprises the last four issues in this collection, which focus on the "big bad" of the story, Chief Lincoln Red Crow. Previous issues have referenced his backstory, especially his connection to the protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse, but here we see things from Red Crow's perspective in the present day.

I don't read a lot of crime fiction or watch much film noir, so maybe a lot of the stuff here is playing off standard genre tropes. It still works. I suspect this story would work just as well if it were set in an urban ghetto instead of a South Dakota Indian reservation, but there are certain things you could only do with these particular characters and this particular history.

It's dark and raw and sometimes tough to read, but always compelling. Check it out: Scalped web site, Vol.4 Amazon link


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Monday, February 08, 2010

Comic Book Report: Star Trek New Frontier

I cannot recommend this book.

It collects "Turnaround," a five-issue miniseries published by IDW in 2008. And while I realize it's part of an ongoing storyline, there's just too much "continuity bingo"--which is a phrase I just made up to describe the apparent need of many tie-in writers to include every single character from an existing series, even if there's no good story reason for those people to show up in a particular work. This often results in convoluted, nonsensical, and/or irrelevant plot twists.

All that aside, this book features not one, but two dei ex machina. Two. That's about two more than any reasonable story needs.

Oh yeah, and also? The Vulcan mind-meld does not work through walls. I don't care if the character happens to be half-Romulan. Both of those races are touch-telepaths. I don't mind it when writers make shit up, but you can't make up shit which contradicts existing shit.

More generally, I have issues with Peter David's writing. I know a lot of people love him, and I'll grant that he's good with plot and dialogue, but too many of his scenes play as overly colloquial or--in the worst case--juvenile. Sometimes I just couldn't believe these people were professional, career military officers and not teenagers.

And some scenes seem to have been written just because the writer thought they were funny, not because they fit into the narrative. There's a good scene in which viewing someone's vacation photos is compared to literal torture, but it's totally anachronistic here.

Finally: One layout idiosyncrasy that bugged me throughout the book was the lack of any thought bubbles or narration captions. Absolutely every piece of information was delivered through dialogue, even if it was a character talking to herself in a situation where that would make no sense. Which is weird, because Peter David has made quite a name for himself in comics.

That is all.


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Monday, December 28, 2009

Like Netflix for Books

I just finished reading The Life And Times Of Martha Washington In The Twenty-First Century, the oversized hardback edition of the epic comic book series by Frank "300" Miller and Dave "Watchmen" Gibbons. This book has a cover price of $100. It's 600 pages long and weighs over seven pounds without the slipcase.

(photo from BoingBoing)

It's a good book, and I never would have bought it myself, but I got to read it and enjoy it for free, thanks to my local public library.

My wife and I live in the Portland (Oregon) metropolitan area, which means we have access to the Multnomah County Library in Portland proper and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library, just across the river in Washington state. Even better, both library systems have online catalogs, so you can search for the exact book you want.

The best part is that both libraries allow patrons to place any book "on hold." Back in Mountain View, the library would only allow you to put something on hold if it was checked out--if the book was on the shelf, you had to go find it yourself. Not here. Even if a book is shelved, tireless Portland and Vancouver library staff will retrieve it for you--from anywhere in their system--and send it to the "hold" shelf at your preferred branch.

Once that's happened, you'll get an e-mail telling you the book is "on hold"--only your library card can check it out--as long as you pick it up soon (within ten days in Vancouver; seven in Portland). After you've got it, you can also renew it online, unless someone else has put it on hold after you.

The only way this could be more convenient is if, like Netflix, the libraries mailed books directly to us. And they actually do offer that service--in Vancouver, you need special approval; anyone can request it in Portland for $2 per book plus return shipping costs. But it just seems wrong for us to be that lazy, especially when running errands is one of the few things that gets us out of the house these days.

The big advantage for us is being able to create something akin to a Netflix "queue." We tell the library what books we want to read, and they tell us when those books are available. I put Superfreakonomics on hold in Vancouver last month, and I'm now up to #20 on the list, but I'm in no hurry. Portland has a great graphic novel collection, and I was able to catch up with DC's insanely insane Final Crisis stuff without having to track down individual issues at comic shops or spend money on trade paperback collections that I'd only read once.

This also makes for some pleasant surprises, when we get pickup notices for books that we'd put on hold months ago and then forgotten about. I've currently got two books on hold that the library hasn't even purchased, because they haven't been published yet. But I know I'll be able to read them when they are.

None of this takes away from the fact that I love owning books. It still requires non-trivial self-control to limit my purchases every time we hit Powell's. It's just really nice to feel like at least some of my local tax dollars are going to support a great service that we use quite a bit, and from which we derive great personal benefit. I didn't ask my country to do this for me, but I'll take it!


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Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"

Just in case you've never read any DC Comics and have no idea what I'm talking about, here are a few hints to orient yourself for this week's story:

Lois' last name is "Lane."

Clark's last name is "Kent."

"Zee" often wears a top hat and fishnet stockings.

And all of the events depicted occur outside any established continuity.

Read "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" at 512 Words or Fewer


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