“Well he said, ‘One thing, before I graduate / Never let your fear decide your fate.'”
The fine folk at Andrews McMeel sent this to me, and I’d like to thank them for it. I’m not sure there’s a ton to say about it, though – it’s a gag strip, and if you find it amusing, you can read it on-line. This collection is about the various sports strips that Pierce has done, and it’s a fairly typical comic strip – it’s very much influenced by Calvin & Hobbes, both in art style and in the character of Nate (who doesn’t have a stuffed sidekick), so if you enjoyed that strip, you’ll probably enjoy this one, although it’s a lesser strip, certainly (and I’m saying this as someone who is not the biggest fan of C & H). Nate, like most comic-strip kids, is far more precocious than you’d expect him to be in real life, and he’s kind of obnoxious but he always gets his comeuppance, albeit in fairly gentle ways. It’s a predictable strip, but Pierce’s light-hearted style is easy to take, and while he telegraphs things well, at least most of the stuff is amusing, unlike so much of what passes for “comics” in the newspapers these days. One thing did bug me, though: In one “storyline” – such as it is – Nate gains a “nemesis” in soccer – a foreign exchange student named Artur. Artur is, of course, nothing but nice to Nate, but Nate thinks he’s a nemesis, and he talks trash about Artur to the coach one day, and Artur overhears. In this book, the “storyline” ends with Artur crying because he thought Nate was his friend, and Nate going to the coach to talk about it. We never get a resolution, however, which is weird. Was the “storyline” resolved in a “non-sports” setting, and so it wasn’t included in this book? It was kind of annoying, because Nate is, as I noted, kind of a jerk sometimes, but he’s never really cruel, and this is one instance of him being so and it never gets resolved. Weird.
Anyway, it’s kind of hard to review this. It’s a mildly amusing comic strip. I’ve never seen it in a newspaper, but I guess it’s in a lot, and if you want to read it, you can do so on-line. Sorry I can’t really say much more about it!
Rating: Beats me. I wouldn’t recommend buying this, but it’s not something that makes me mad when it shows up in the newspaper, like almost everything that’s in comics section of the Arizona Republic (which I read every single day, in the hopes that something will be amusing – and yeah, I’m usually disappointed). So who knows?
Action Comics volume 1: Superman and the Men of Steel by Grant “What Am I Going To Do Now?” Morrison (writer), Sholly Fisch (back-up stories writer), Rags Morales (penciller), Brent Anderson (artist), Gene Ha (artist), Brad Walker (penciller), Andy Kubert (penciller), ChrisCross (artist), Rick Bryant (inker), Sean Parsons (inker), Bob McLeod (inker), Jesse Delperdang (inker), John Dell (inker), Brad Anderson (colorist), Art Lyon (colorist), David Curiel (colorist), Jay David Ramos (colorist), José Villarrubia (colorist), Patrick Brosseau (letterer), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), and Peter Hamboussi (editor). $16.99, 211 pgs, FC, DC.
I dropped Action Comics after three issues, which shocked me quite a bit, as I think it was the first time I had ever given up on a Morrison comic, and the reason I did was because it was just boring. Morrison being boring is something I’m not really accustomed to – even his comics that I don’t like (like, say, The Filth) are interesting in one way or another. But Action was just dull, and so I bagged it. Then DC didn’t release an actual (softcover) trade until he was done with his run, and I kept reading that it was a big, 19-issue extravaganza, so when I saw the trade (which I hadn’t pre-ordered), I decided to give it a chance. So here we are.
It’s still pretty boring, at least in the main arc, which was interrupted by issues #5 and 6, the Legion of Super-Heroes story that featured some interesting Morrisonian constructs. (This two-part story comes at the end of the collected edition, masking the fact that for whatever reason – Morrison’s and/or Morales’s slowness? – the Legion story interrupted the main story.) The main “arc,” such as it is, continues to be deathly, with Morrison trotting out every Superman cliché he can think of and making the characters say some absolutely painful dialogue. It’s a poorly decompressed story, as Brainiac steals part of Metropolis, shrinks it, and then dares Superman to save it or Kandor in some bizarre “nurture-vs.-nature” argument. Morrison actually doesn’t show us if Superman saves Kandor or not, which is odd. Brainiac is trying to “collect” parts of each world and then destroy the rest of it in order to save some cultural residue of worlds that are going to be wiped out by some impending alien invasion, which doesn’t make a lick of sense but sounds cool. Lurking on the fringes of the comic are some interesting characters, like the short dude who shows up on Page 1, but he doesn’t do much and I assume he’ll show up more in later issues.
The art is inconsistent, as Morales couldn’t finish too much of the arc and several other artists to step in and do parts of it. I’m not a fan of Morales, and I can’t quite put my finger on why – he draws a pretty good Lex Luthor, and there’s nothing really wrong with his art, but something, to me, is just off about it. Kubert isn’t significantly better, but his art feels more dynamic to me. They’re both perfectly fine superhero artists, and while they can’t quite capture the weird vibe that it seems like Morrison wants, that’s just something Morrison has had to deal with throughout a large part of his career, so there it is.
I’m torn about picking up the next trade (which will either be really short so that the rest of the run is split into two trades or really big to collect the rest of it), because while I don’t think it could get any duller than this, I’m not sure if I trust people who think it really gets good. This is just a fairly inert retelling of Superman’s early years without any of the wit that Morrison has brought to Superman in the past, and that’s a shame. Maybe Morrison just doesn’t have anything left to say about superheroes?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Spencer writes a lot of comics, and some have been better than others, but he is a fairly good “idea” guy, so his books are always worth checking out, at least. I missed the first issue of Bedlam when it came out (I could have sworn I ordered it, but I guess I missed it), and then it sold out like lightning, so I figured I’d wait for the trade. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Bedlam is the tale of Madder Red, a supervillain in the inexplicably-named city of Bedlam (given the history of the word, why would anyone name a city that?), who in the first issue – which begins 10 years ago – is holding a bunch of kids and their teachers hostage and casually killing them while he waits for the city’s superhero – The First, who has to be the single worst superhero in creation – to show up and stop him. When The First does arrive, Madder Red surrenders, but that’s only the first part of his plan. He apparently dies in police custody, but in the present, we’re introduced to a curious dude named Fillmore who seems to be connected to Madder Red somehow (we never see the villain’s face, so it remains a mystery). Fillmore is, well, crazy, but he seems to know quite a bit about some gruesome murders in the city, and he manages to get to talk to Ramira Acevedo, a detective who worked on the original Madder Red case, and convince her that he can help her. She, naturally, thinks that he’s committing the crimes, but she soon realizes he’s just a bit crazy and she really does need his help. And so a crime-fighting duo is born!
So far, this book is really good. Spencer does a really nice job with the terrifying aspects of both Madder Red and the new murderers, and he gives us an interesting journey – told in flashback – as an odd doctor tries to “cure” Madder Red through some interesting therapeutic techniques. It’s a tense six issues, as we’re never sure if Fillmore is going to snap or if he’s telling the truth about why he’s helping the police. I’m a bit disappointed that the promotional material for the book says that Fillmore is actually Madder Red, because Spencer does a pretty good job of keeping it ambiguous – we never actually see Madder Red’s face underneath his mask, and Spencer could be setting us up for a big twist about the main character. There are some strange incongruities in the book – the murder mystery seems to be about one thing, but suddenly it’s about something else, and Acevedo picks up a crucial clue about the age of a victim seemingly through telepathy – but the way Spencer resolves the murder mystery is quite keen and sets up future issues pretty well. He really does manage to make this a brutal, horrifying comic that plumbs some interesting psychological depths, which is always nice to see.
Rossmo is stellar as usual, as his scratchy, frenetic style is perfect for a messy city like Bedlam and for messy characters like these. His design for Madder Red is creepy, but his “regular” people are very well done, too – Fillmore just looks like a nervous wreck from how Rossmo draws him, and his depiction of the murderer is even scarier than his design of Madder Red. Csuka’s colors are superb, too, as he makes the “past” stark black and white with bright patches of red, making Madder Red’s outfit stand out even more and providing a nice contrast with the more mundane present. Red is obviously an important component in the comic, and Csuka uses it very well.
Bedlam has been getting some nice reviews around yonder Internets, and I’m here to add my voice to the chorus. It’s a very cool comic – creepy, scary, disturbing, fascinating, and beautiful to look at. I’m looking forward to seeing where Spencer and Rossmo go from here.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Blackacre volume 1: An Errand into the Wilderness by Duffy Boudreau (writer), Wendell Cavalcanti (penciler), Sergio Abad (inker), Antonia Fabela (colorist), and Aaron Walker (letterer). $9.99, 112 pgs, FC, Image.
This is another hip, hot Image book, but it’s not quite as good as Bedlam, although it’s not bad. Boudreau gives us a post-apocalyptic world (sigh) in which a group of rich people bought land from the federal government because they saw that the country was going to collapse and then created Blackacre, a community of the elite that survived the inevitable destruction of the country. A century later, we discover that there are small communities living on the outside of Blackacre, including a religious sect run by some mysterious individual called “The Prophet.” One of the elite, Sinclair, asks Hull, a soldier who just got out of the service, to join his super-secret force and go out into the wilderness to find Greene, one of his old friends. Greene is also an ex-soldier who joined this secret group, but he disappeared a few weeks earlier and Sinclair wants Hull to go get him. We find out pretty quickly – at the end of the first issue – that Sinclair has planted a bomb on Hull in a communication device, and it will explode when Hull finds Greene and calls to get picked up. Greene obviously knows something about Sinclair that Sinclair doesn’t want known. But what is it?!?!?!?
So the rest of the trade is Hull tracking Greene, first with the help of Bird, one of Sinclair’s agents, but then on his own when he discovers Sinclair’s betrayal and the fact that Bird’s in on it. Of course he finds himself among the religious sect, and of course The Prophet shows up, and this drives the story forward. Sinclair has to deal with the politics of Blackacre itself, while Hull has to survive and figure out why Sinclair wants to kill him and Greene. And, of course, there’s the actual religious sect, which is very severe and forces its young girls to marry the older men in the community. There’s a lot going on.
The biggest problem with Blackacre is that it feels awfully familiar. It’s not a bad book at all, but Boudreau really doesn’t put too much of a cool spin on it. He tells the story in a very straight-forward manner, and while that’s fine, it becomes just a somewhat simplistic post-apocalyptic story. The characters are okay – they do their things, and everyone kind of moves through the book and it works okay, but it’s kind of forgettable.
The fact that Brian Churilla does the covers of the comic is interesting because Cavalcanti has a lot of Churilla in him, which isn’t a bad thing. He has a good style, slightly cartoony but still detailed enough to give us a good contrast between the fancy world of Blackacre and the rough frontier world of the “outside.” As with many artists, his people living in the rural areas are far too clean, but he does make them look a bit rougher than those living in Blackacre. Fabela’s coloring is quite good, as he uses cooler colors in Blackacre and more earthy colors in the rustic areas, which makes sense but also provides a good balance between the way the people live. It’s logical but also ties into the grander theme of the book.
Blackacre is a solid book, but nothing more. I’m vaguely curious about what’s going to happen going forward, but I’m not automatically going to pick up the next trade. I’ll just have to wait and decide later.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Brisson is a pretty good writer, and I heard some good things about Comeback, so I figured I’d pick it up even though it’s – gulp! – a time travel story. Oh, time travel stories and me – so much horror! But I don’t hate time travel stories just as a matter of principle, I just don’t often think they hold together very well and they make my head hurt. If they’re good, though, they can be quite cool. But is Comeback one of those?!?!?
It’s pretty good, I must say. Brisson does, I think, a wise thing in that he just assumes that time travel exists, so he doesn’t need to try to explain it (which is where it often breaks down for me). Time travel is just a part of life, and while I think it does help, it’s a bit strange that we don’t know the background, not of how it works but why it’s so closely regulated. But that’s just a minor point, and the fact that Brisson simply assumes the existence of time travel and that it’s illegal. Let’s move on!
So what Brisson does is set up a story where people can pay a company to send people back in time and “rescue” their loved ones just before they die. It’s a clever hook, and of course Brisson introduces some problems – the agents can only go back in time about two months, and time travel isn’t always exactly safe for one’s health. So one of the agents, Seth, decides that he has to do something about it, and the main character, Mark, thinks he’s gone a bit crazy but soon realizes he probably should listen to him. And, of course, the FBI is tracking the company, which adds a nice element of danger to the proceedings. And the company might not be on the up-and-up, either! Holy double-cross, Batman!
As we jump back and forth from the “present” to two months in the past, a few things do get a bit weird and I’m not sure if I quite get it. I don’t really want to spoil anything, but when you can jump around in time, some people can get killed but then later be alive. The big ending of issue #2, in which someone is dead, doesn’t seem to make much sense to me, and then later, things get a bit complicated and I’m not sure if it really works. But I’m sure if I wanted to, I could sit down and track everything down and make sure that Brisson has it all figured out, and for the most part, it fits together pretty well. I do like the way issue #4 ends and leads into issue #5, which winds up the book – Brisson ties everything up fairly well. It’s a time travel book, sure, but it’s more of a noir thriller that happens to feature time travel. That’s not a bad way to do it.
Walsh is a solid, gritty artist who fits the style well – he has a lot of characters to work with, but he designs them well so that it’s easy to tell who everyone is. He’s helped nicely by Bellaire, who is, of course, excellent – she adds the right touch of sci-fi weirdness to some parts of the book, which stays grounded thanks to Walsh’s solid work. There’s a wonderful scene with Mark and another character in a twilit room with the noir cliché of Venetian blinds striping the people, and Bellaire uses pink and blue to wonderful effect to make the scene extremely moody. When Brisson gets to the end of issue #4 and the “big event,” Walsh does a fantastic job keeping the style “realistic” while showing how the world is getting strange. Brisson’s story, which is as “realistic” as possible given that it’s about time travel, is helped nicely by Walsh’s solid artwork.
Comeback is a solid thriller that didn’t make my head hurt, which is as good as it gets when I deal with time travel. So that’s pretty cool! It’s a nice story, so feel free to check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
For those of us who don’t read digital comics, the fact that DC publishes them eventually is pretty keen. Then they collected this story, which shared space with other stories in the single issue format, into a nifty trade, which was also awfully jake of them. As long-time readers of the blog just might recall, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Breyfogle, so the fact that he was drawing a Batman book – even if it’s not the “real” Batman – was a good thing, and while Beechen has written some dreadful comics in the past, he’s also written some good ones, and I figured this book might be more in his comfort zone and that DC might leave him alone a bit. Luckily, I was right.
The book has a basic through-line, even though Beechen does bring a lot of other stuff into it. A mysterious villain is organizing the various gangs of “Jokerz” from around the country and unleashing them on Gotham City. Everything about the character of Terry McGinnis, the future world of Gotham, and the various other characters is in this book – Beechen doesn’t do an info-dumb, but he makes sure that we get what we need to know through the interactions of the characters. For instance, I have read very, very little about Terry McGinnis and I never watched the cartoon, but I was never lost. It helps that he’s Batman, so we can bring that cultural baggage with us to the future, but Beechen also does a rather deft job of introducing a bunch of different characters.
The story is pretty good, too. We find out the identity of the mystery villain – the Joker King – pretty early on, but I’m not going to spoil it. It’s the tiniest bit forced, but not so much that it’s too bothersome. There are a few other stories to fill out the running time, but Beechen does a good job bringing some of their elements back around to the main story. Beechen also creates a new “Vigilante,” which is pretty keen, too. Presumably the subplot with Max, Terry’s “Oracle,” is something that Beechen planned to develop later, but I’m not sure if he’s done that or even if the book has continued (has it?). (Max, by the way, is totally Mary Stuart Masterson to Terry’s Eric Stoltz and Dana’s Lea Thompson. Beechen is a few years older than I am, so I have to believe the parallels are deliberate.) Beechen gives us plenty of action, but he also delves into the characters quite well, from the person who becomes the new Vigilante to Tim Drake to Bruce Wayne to Terry and Dana and their tortured relationship (they’re not dating anymore, but she still trusts him to help her when she needs it). He builds nicely to the final showdown between Terry and the Joker King, and while the book feels influenced by The Dark Knight, Beechen pushes the idea of the Joker as a force for chaos even further, and that makes the ending even more ambiguous than the movie’s. It’s a remarkably disturbing story, at the end, which makes it more interesting than it might have been otherwise.
The fact that Breyfogle draws it makes the story more interesting, too. Breyfogle was, obviously, once on the cutting edge, but his work these days feels hopelessly old-fashioned, but not in a bad way at all. With regard to Beechen’s story, it means that despite the dark subject matter, the art makes this feel more universal, because Breyfogle is smart enough to keep it “clean,” for lack of a better word. There’s plenty of fisticuffs and explosions and even death, but Breyfogle keeps the goriest stuff off-panel, so despite the dark subject matter, the book never turns unpleasant. Obviously, from what I read, I have no problem with brutality in my comics, but as I’ve often pointed out, mainstream superhero books should try to avoid that, especially those starring a lot of teenagers. Breyfogle and Beechen are smart enough to make sure that the book doesn’t become a gore-fest so that Beechen’s dark themes can stand on their own without being drowned in blood.
Breyfogle is old-fashioned in other ways, some of which work well and some of which don’t. He’s still excellent at fluid action scenes, so the book is never boring. He’s never going to be the most detailed artist, but his cartoony style means that his characters often have a wider range of facial expressions than more “realistic” artists, even if Breyfogle’s faces are more “simplistic.” Where Breyfogle’s art suffers is probably not his fault, and it has to do with the advances in coloring and paper stock. Breyfogle’s rather fluid, angular style tends to clash with the modern coloring techniques, which soften his faces and make them less expressive, while the glossy paper in use these days tends to exaggerate his lack of details. He’s still a fine artist and the fact that he’s not working more at DC or Marvel is a travesty (even if, as he has pointed out in the past, he’s been working steadily for years), but the technological changes over the past 20 years haven’t been for the best for all artists, and it seems like Breyfogle might be one of them. There’s a smoothness to his art that doesn’t look quite right. All that being said, however, it’s still a nicely-drawn comic, with a lot of interesting layouts, tense action, and nicely designed characters. If you’re a fan of Breyfogle, this is a nice addition to your collection.
I like this trade quite a bit – it definitely feels “old-school” even though it’s set in the future, but in a good way, in that Beechen and Breyfogle are just telling a good story that feels more important than a lot of comics that are churned out by the Big Two these days. DC’s digital comics are quite good, because it seems like they leave the creators alone. What a concept!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Spider-Man 2099 volume 1 by Peter David (writer), Rick Leonardi (penciler), Kelley Jones (penciler), Al Williamson (inker), Mark McKenna (inker), Steve Buccellato (colorist), Noelle Giddings (colorist), Rick Parker (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (editor, special projects). $24.99, 239 pgs, FC, Marvel.
When it first came out, I completely missed Spider-Man 2099. I’m not sure why – it was pretty much at the height of my superhero-buying days, and I’ve always liked Spider-Man, so maybe I was one of those people who thought it didn’t “count” so I didn’t care. Now I disdain those people, of course, like any good comic book snob, and I don’t care if this “counts” or not – it’s Peter David and Rick Leonardi, and that’s really all I need to know.
This trade collects the first ten issues of the ongoing, which includes the Kelley Jones-drawn issue #9, which is as odd as any other Kelley Jones-drawn superhero issue, but I like Jones’s art, so there’s that. David, as is his wont, chucks us into the deep end right away, with Spider-Man showing up on pages 2 and 3 (it’s a double-page splash) and only later going back and showing how we got to this point. The entire idea of the “2099 Universe” is that corporations pretty much run everything, so we get Miguel O’Hara, a brilliant scientist at Alchemax, which does … well, a lot of things. Miguel is working on a “corporate raider” program that’s supposed to enhance humans with special powers, but he’s not terribly comfortable with his boss speeding up the timetable on human testing. He tries to quit, but his boss, Tyler Stone, gets him hooked on a highly addictive drug (Stone puts it in his coffee), a drug only Alchemax is allowed to sell, so that Miguel can’t quit. Miguel believes that if he gets into his own machine, he can “encode” his non-addicted DNA on his now-addicted body, but a rival sees him and tries to kill him by adding some spider DNA. I bet you can’t guess how that works out!
David jams quite a bit into this book, not really taking a breath until issue #10, and even then it’s not very long. Miguel has to figure out what’s happened to him, fight people that Alchemax and Stone have sent to find him, deal with the suspicions of his brother about his new identity, try to figure out what to do with his fiancée, escape from the slums of the New York and its downtrodden citizens, and realize that he’s maybe been a bit of a jerk and that the utopia he lives in might be a bit darker than he thought. I’d say it’s impressive that David manages to get all of this into the book, but it’s really only impressive if we compare to the kind of comics we get today, with their often-glacial pace. This is the way comics were written until the Age of Bendis, and while David is certainly better at it than most writers, it’s not like this was all that shocking at the time. David creates a bunch of characters and puts them through their paces, and while the characterization is often a bit shallow, that’s a way to keep the pace fastfastFAST!!!! At least David slows it down in issue #10 and focuses a bit more on Miguel and Gabriel, his brother, and their dysfunctional relationship with their parents.
Leonardi is a very good artist for this kind of comic, because he seems to draw futuristic stuff quite well. His sharp, crisp lines are good for a technocratic kind of world, and he loves drawing flying machines, so David lets him. He also draws a nice Spider-Man – Miguel is a muscular hero, sure, but Leonardi gives him some sharp angles that makes him a bit more spidery. This was in the early “excess hatching” era, but Williamson’s delicate inks are restrained, giving some nice definition to Leonardi’s pencils without overwhelming them. This era – the late 1980s/early 1990s – was when I first heard of Williamson, and even though I had no idea who he was, I always noticed how well he inked pencilers. It would have been nice if DC or Marvel would have let him draw something instead of just inking it, but oh well.
Spider-Man 2099 came out just as the “Image Age” was building toward its peak, in 1992/1993, and while it’s a bit ridiculous, both in writing and art, it’s certainly not even close to as goofy as so many other comics coming out at the time, because David presumably had enough juice to keep the Marvel editors at bay and Leonardi was a distinctive enough artist that he didn’t feel like he had to adapt his style to look more “Image.” That makes this a nice superhero book, one that powers along a bit more than it might need to, but which is still pretty entertaining. If you missed it the first time, here’s your chance to remedy that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Ultimate Comics X-Men by Brian Wood volume 1 by some guy (writer), Nathan Edmondson (writer), Filipe Andrade (artist), Paco Medina (penciler), Carlo Barberi (penciler), Juan Vlasco (inker), Jordi Tarragona (inker), Don Ho (inker), Jean-Francois Beaulieu (colorist), Jesus Aburtov (colorist), Javier Tartaglia (colorist), Joe Sabino (letterer), and Cory Levine (collections editor). $19.99, 120 pgs, FC, Marvel.
With all the kerfuffle over Brian Wood’s new X-Men, we shouldn’t forget that Marvel released a trade of some of his other X-Men work, from the Ultimate Universe. It’s been several years since I cared about the Ultimate Universe, but I had heard good things about Wood’s work on the title, so I figured I could check it out.
It’s a bit weird that I got to read two “#1” issues this week by Wood, as issue #18.1 of Ultimate Comics X-Men is his first on the title, and it’s quite a bit better than X-Men #1. Where I felt that he didn’t do a very good job with the characters in X-Men #1, he does a very good job with the characters in #18.1, and he’s working with more characters, as well. Maybe because the characters in X-Men #1 are more known, he feels like he can rely on our own histories with the characters to “fill in the blanks,” so to speak, but with the Ultimate characters, he sets up the entire “Reservation X” story, gives us very good insight into Kitty Pryde, does some nice work with Bobby Drake, Paige Guthrie, and Nomi Blume. The mandate of the “.1” issues was to provide a jumping-on point for new readers, true, but shouldn’t a #1 issue do that, too? Wood does it much better in this trade than I thought he did in X-Men #1. The fact that Marvel provides a recap page is nice, too. I dig recap pages.
The rest of the collection is pretty good, too. President Captain America decides to give the remaining mutants a choice between being “cured” of their mutation or settling on some absolutely shitty Utah land, the aforementioned Reservation X (which the mutants ironically name Utopia). Kitty chooses the reservation, and she’s joined by only 19 other mutants, some of whom – led by Nomi – don’t really like her. So Wood quickly sets up two sides on the reservation, and that drives the book pretty well. Of course, these are mutants, so they figure out pretty quickly a way to make the land work for them, which, of course, makes the rest of the world hate them even more. Kitty has to figure out how to keep the angry mutants from destroying their struggling new home and keep the rest of humanity off her backs. Wood writes her almost Gandhi-like, which is pretty interesting, because it sets up a situation where we wonder if she’s onto something or if she’s just that naïve. Wood doesn’t resolve the division in the mutant camp, but he does set a future conflict up well.
This is the kind of story that Wood does well, and why I hope Marvel gives him a long leash on the “real” X-Men. There’s no reason why mutants (or Reed Richards, or Tony Stark, or any other hero in the Marvel Universe) couldn’t change the world the way the X-Men almost do in this trade, and Wood is smart enough to consider all the implications of that action. Meanwhile, Nomi and her group might not like Kitty, but they’re not necessarily villains, and even the more evil of the group – Nomi and Psylocke are probably the most evil (and didn’t Psylocke die a long time ago in Ultimate X-Men?) – aren’t cardboard bad guys. Wood gives us interesting characters who bounce off each other in interesting ways, and he also gets into the politics of the Ultimate Universe, another thing he’s quite good at (I don’t always agree with his viewpoints, but I appreciate that he thinks about these things, because so many writers either don’t or just pay lip service). This is a fascinating look at how a shattered but still standing country might treat people when they desperately need a scapegoat, which makes it more relevant than we might want to admit.
The art on the book doesn’t quite measure up, unfortunately. It’s not terrible, but it falls short of Wood’s somewhat lofty themes. Andrade’s scratchy work on issue #18.1 would be better if his faces weren’t so alien-looking, but he does get the location – the desert – well. Medina and Barberi tell the story, but their smooth lines and exaggerated anatomy feel out of place with a story in which mutants are living on the edge of extinction. Beaulieu, who’s quite a good colorist, assists Andrade nicely in making the desert look scruffy, dusty, and generally unpleasant, while Aburtov and Tartaglia simply lay down a layer of gray color without definition so that the ground looks like a granite counter top in many panels. I understand taking shortcuts, but it does hurt the tone of the book quite a bit.
I don’t know where Wood is going with X-Men, but I wonder if Marvel will let him become the subversive writer he can often be and which he shows in this trade. That would be nice, but if not, I can read the trades of this title. That should be fun!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher. 189 pgs, Henry Holt and Company, 1992.
Richard Fletcher is a pretty good writer and his specialty was medieval Spain, so it’s not surprising that this is a decent book. I’ve read two other books by Fletcher, and his biography of El Cid is probably still the definitive one. I’ve been interested in Al-Andalus for years (yeah, I’m interested in a lot of historical eras and such, so this isn’t a surprise), but it’s interesting how little popular history there is about the 700 years the Muslims spent in Iberia. When you read European histories, the writers always mention the influence of the Muslims in bringing Greek culture to the continent and helping drag the northerners out of the Dark Ages, but as far as a solid historical survey, it seems like there aren’t a lot. Maybe I’ve just missed them.
Fletcher’s book alleviates that, because although it’s far less in-depth than I would have liked (the 189 pages includes the index; the actual text ends on page 175), it’s not a bad place to start. The book jacket compares it to Runciman’s Crusade histories and Norwich’s Byzantine histories, and as I’ve read those, I can say it’s not even close to those in terms of depth. But Fletcher does a nice job going over the general history of Muslim Spain, illuminating some things that I didn’t know and giving us a pretty good overall view. For instance, I didn’t realize how fractured the political history of Al-Andalus was – the high point of Muslim rule was the caliphate of Córdoba, but its dominance lasted only about a century – almost the exact tenth century, in fact. Prior to 900, the Muslims fought each other with gusto as well as the various northern Christian states which formed almost immediately after the invasion of 711, and the caliphate declined precipitously after 1008, when various kinglets sprang up. In the twelfth century two different Muslim fundamentalist groups from Morocco – first the Almoravids and then the Almohads – rose to prominence in Al-Andalus, and for the final two hundred years of the Muslim presence in the peninsula they were confined to Grenada while the Christian states slowly took over. Fletcher puts a lie to the great Spanish myth of the “Reconquista,” as well – it’s not a big surprise that the Christians often allied with the Muslims to fight other Christians, or that someone like El Cid was a mercenary who hired himself out to any Christian or Muslim lord who could afford him.
Fletcher also goes over the artistic, intellectual, and cultural achievements of the Muslims in Spain, although, again, it’s much more of a survey than anything in-depth. One thing that is probably a bit more fascinating is that Muslims writers were just as philosophical and questioning about their religion as Christian writers were. Modern “thinkers” who know very little of Islam believe that it’s always been a monolithic religion, but while anyone with a brain can probably suss out that that’s not true, Fletcher does a nice job showing the many commentaries on Islam and how to be a good Muslim and how they affected the way Islam changed over the centuries. Al-Andalus was a place where scholars gathered and found an environment that stimulated discussion of the great questions of the day, and because the Muslim rulers were never able to completely impose their will, the scholars there were able to debate with Jewish and Christian thinkers far more than they could in other parts of the Muslim world. The lack of a strong leadership meant the cultural stew of Al-Andalus was a bit more suited for philosophical discussion.
Fletcher does zip over quite a bit, mainly because, as he puts it, it’s just not important. The politics of the time period, especially after the fall of Córdoba, are confused and tangled and often minor, so it’s not surprising that Fletcher skims them. It does give the book a bit of a lightweight feel, though. In his biography of El Cid, Fletcher did penetrate the convoluted politics of the late eleventh century, and while it was a mess, it also gave some interesting context to his time. I wonder if it would have provided some of that in this book. But that’s a minor point – if you’re interested in Al-Andalus or even if you just want to know a little about Islam, this is a fine place to start.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
A few years ago, FotB Rob Schmidt asked me if I had ever read Eifelheim. I, being a putz, said no. He ordered me to read it, and when Rob Schmidt orders you to do something, boy howdy you better get to it! Actually, it sounded pretty keen, so I bought it. Of course, due to my odd penchant of reading my books in alphabetical order by author, it took me a few years to get to “Flynn” in my book list, but I finally did, and I read it! Huzzah!
Eifelheim is a pretty darned cool book, when it’s all said and done. Rob thought I’d like it because a majority of it takes place in the Black Forest in 1348/49, but it’s much more than just a historical thriller. It’s not giving too much away to say that it’s about aliens landing in the Black Forest in 1348 and interacting with the inhabitants of a town called Oberhochwald (why it’s later called Eifelheim is something you’ll have to discover for yourself!). The main character, Dietrich, is the village priest, and he’s the main point of contact between the aliens – whom he calls the Krenken – and the humans. Flynn examines how these people react to this unusual presence in their midst, as Dietrich eventually baptizes some of them while others are convinced they’re demons. Obviously, the entire story plays out with the threat of the bubonic plague hanging over the town, as the disease stalks the land before, ultimately, finding its way to Oberhochwald. Flynn has done a nice job by that time of creating a lot of interesting and diverse characters, so while we would expect the villagers to blame the Krenken, many of them don’t because they’re aware enough to realize that the arrival of the aliens didn’t bring the plague, so why would it suddenly arrive? Of course, some people do blame the aliens, but Flynn has done a good job showing why they might think that way. He presents a very complex society of individuals, each with their own motivations and agendas, from the lord of the village, Manfred, who wants to turn the Krenken into vassals and use them in warfare, to Dietrich and Joachim – a monk – who want to save their souls. Flynn also presents an interesting contrast to what we think of as “the Dark Ages” – pre-Renaissance, many people think of Europeans as ignorant idiots, but they really weren’t, and in many places, they were far more tolerant than in later, more “enlightened” times. The Inquisition existed at this time (it was founded in the early thirteenth century to deal with intransigent Cathars), but it wasn’t as powerful as it would be in later centuries, and “natural philosophers” often debated many things about the world that might surprise us. Dietrich is a smart guy, and Flynn writes many good scenes in which he discusses the way the world works with the Krenken, who obviously are technologically superior to the medieval Europeans. While Dietrich doesn’t believe in a heliocentric solar system, for instance, he doesn’t dismiss it out of hand, just tries to “prove” why it’s not credible. When he begins to convert the Krenken, the book becomes even more philosophical, as Flynn dives into the nature of sentience and what makes a good Christian and the nature of humanity itself. It never becomes too heavy, but it’s pretty deep.
There’s another, shorter thread in the book, and that takes place in the present, as two lovers, Tom and Sharon, are trying to figure wildly different things out that end up being far more connected than they know. Sharon is a physicist who’s dealing with studying deviations in the speed of light and what it means and ends up making a breathtaking discovery. Tom, meanwhile, is a “cliologist,” meaning a historian who studies history as a mathematical construct that will help make predictions about the future. He’s trying to figure out why the site of Eifelheim was depopulated and never resettled – places that disappeared during the plague years were eventually resettled, but not that particular place. So he’s studying that, and his research is pretty interesting, placing things the reader finds out in “real time” in a warped context that historians must always deal with – deeds and odd laws and random references are always confounding historians who try to tell the story of the past. The only tough thing to believe about the book, in fact (well, once you accept that aliens certainly could have landed in the Black Forest in 1348) is how Tom and his research assistant make some marvelous leaps of logic from what evidence they have, but it’s not that big a deal. The present stuff, while far less a part of the book than the stuff set in the past, is as gripping as the fourteenth-century chronicle, and it complements the main story really well.
This is a really keen book, and I’m glad Rob told me about it, because I’m terrible at finding good novels these days (I used to be better at it, but these days I’m better at finding good history books). It’s the kind of science fiction I like – I’ve always been more partial to “hard” sci-fi than more speculative/fantastical stuff, so this was a good book to read. It’s a big chunk of book, but it zips right along even when Flynn gets into theoretical physics, which makes my head hurt. And that’s as good a compliment I can give it!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
All righty-o, that’s all I have for this month. I’m already deep into an incendiary political book, so that should be fun to write about next month! Until then, have fun reading!