Saturday, to My Immediate Right

It was kind of a rough week here in our household-- nothing terrible, just stupid work stuff and car trouble and a concurrent inability to shake any money out of the seven different establishments that owe us some. And then there's all the news, about equal parts beloved celebrities dying and political things that give a fellow the "warm sweet urge to hit congresscritters repeatedly in the face," as one friend of mine Tweeted. So this week I figured on something short and cheerful, and then it occurred to me that maybe some of you would like to play along at home.

It's one of those meme questionnaires that show up in my inbox every so often. I generally skip the ones about which house you'd end up in at Hogwarts or who you want on your zombie-killing squad, but this one was book-related, and I always enjoy applying those to comics and seeing what I get.

So here we go!

It started with this:

Pick up the closest book to your right. It has to be fiction.

This made me laugh. Seriously? Like there's ONE? Here is my immediate right.

If I did the questionnaire for every one of those, I'd be here a month and the column itself would be another book for the pile. Even just comics and comics-related, it's a lot, and that's not even including the longboxes of comics they're all sitting on.

So for the sake of simplicity, we'll take the top two of them. That would be these: SUPERMAN: Dark Knight Over Metropolis....

So just for the hell of it, I'll do the questionnaire for both of these. We'll start with the Superman book.

How long have you owned this book?

Hmp. Well, in this particular edition, not that long. But it's a collection of individual comic books that I had once owned and then let go of. This has the Action Comics Annual I bought off the stands back in the eighties, and also the three-parter "Dark Knight Over Metropolis," which I caught up with as back issues at a show about seven years ago or so, I think.

This particular book also includes the two issues that led up to that story, which I'd never read. So that value-add was enough to seal the deal.

What caught your eye about this book? Why'd you buy it?

Well, I have this ongoing sort of project I pick at where I trade up from individual comics issues to book collections. Realistically, I almost never reread the comics once they're in the longboxes. I am much more likely to pull a book off the shelf if I want to re-visit something. So generally I will replace loose issues with a book collection when the chance comes up to do it for not very much money, and then we give the individual issues to kids who will enjoy them. In this particular case, the replaced comics went into a big pile of Superman stuff I gave Julie to take to the juvenile rehab where she works, and she assured me the boys in the cottage were all over that action. The trouble with us letting go of old books and comics is that we think of them like puppies, we want them to go to good homes. So I was pleased the Superman pile was appreciated.

Moreover, I approve of DC's trade paperback program where they are putting shorter arcs and interesting theme collections into these $14.99 paperbacks, I like supporting that. And rereading the stories in this book, I was reminded how much I enjoyed the late eighties-early nineties Superman comics-- when the triangle-numbered serialized approach was really working for them. It wasn't "my" Superman-- I talked about mine here-- but it was a GOOD one, and ironically, though it was all born out of John Byrne's much-publicized revamp of Superman, it was after Byrne left the books that this version really grew on me.

Who's the main character? What do you like about him or her?

The main characters are Superman and Batman. I've probably written several miles of column inches about why I like each of them and I won't rehash it here. But I don't know if I've ever talked about why I like stories about the two of them having an adventure together.... and I must like those, because I've got a lot of those books here and they keep surviving the bookshelf purges.

In my youth, I just was in it for the extra bang for the buck you got with a team-up story. As I got older, I think I kind of liked the idea that these essentially isolated guys had found friendship-- and I imagine that was a big selling point for a lot of kids, considering how many covers turned on the idea of that friendship being threatened somehow.

Frank Miller really screwed that up for all of us, though. After he did his version of the Batman-Superman relationship in The Dark Knight Returns, suddenly it wasn't okay for the two of them to be pals any more. I think it really hurt both characters in the long run-- not so much because of Miller's own story but because everyone at DC in the eighties thought his one-off, maybe-someday take on the two heroes was the new bible for the characters. In particular, John Byrne co-signed this new take on them in his Superman revamp that was happening more or less simultaneously with Miller's book, but there was a lot of support for it across the board. The idea seemed to be that Batman was too cool to hang out with a naive do-gooder like Superman. So forty-plus years of friendship stories were instantly jettisoned in favor of not only showing Superman and Batman being overtly hostile to each other, but being sure we all knew the writers totally sided with Batman and that Superman was a naive Kansas hick who deserved all the contempt Batman heaped on him.

Eventually DC figured out that perhaps that was a bit too much and started walking back the hostility, and one of the reasons I always liked Dark Knight Over Metropolis was that it seemed to be hitting a really nice balance between the two extremes. Superman's not a tool and Batman's not a jerk.

What don't you like about the lead character?

Asked and answered, I think. I don't like Batman acting like a sneering superior prick and I don't like Superman portrayed as a naive doofus. Fortunately, that dynamic is not much in evidence in this particular collection. Would you buy more books like this?

Probably. I hung in there with Superman/Batman for its entire run and mostly enjoyed it. I haven't tried the New 52 version of the title; largely because DC seems to be returning to its crusade to make Batman a superhero for those fans who thought the Dark Knight trilogy of movies was too lighthearted and upbeat, and that's not for me. I always enjoy Greg Pak's writing though, so I might be persuaded to try a trade collection of the new series if I see one cheap.

So there you go. Let's try it with Red Sonja and see what we get.


How long have you owned this book?

Couple of months, or thereabouts. I tend to lose track of them when they go into The Pile.

What caught your eye about this book? Why'd you buy it?

Oh, about equal parts nostalgia and curiosity, I guess. I was never that into Marvel's Red Sonja comics when they first appeared-- in fact, I wasn't that interested in the monthly Conan comics they were spun out of either.

But I adored Marvel's Savage Sword, and that magazine ended up being my gateway drug to the Conan prose paperbacks, Robert E. Howard, and sword-and-sorcery in general.

You know how people today find a TV show they like and go on Netflix binges? That was me with sword-and-sorcery paperbacks in the mid-seventies. I cleaned up the Conan books after cheerfully blowing about a month's worth of lawn-mowing money on the set and was hungry for more. So I was all over the Zebra editions of Robert E. Howard as soon as I found out they existed. One of my very favorites of those was the paperback edition of The Sowers of the Thunder. The last story in the book is "Shadow of the Vulture," featuring Red Sonya of Rogatino, the prototype for the Marvel version.

That was in fact a reprint of the really stunning Donald F. Grant limited-edition hardcover, with all the great illustrations by Roy Krenkel.

(I still lust for the Grant hardcover Howards... so far we've found Tigers of the Sea, Worms of the Earth, and Almuric. But I digress.) The point is, I knew that Marvel's Red Sonja was sort of a version of Howard's original Red Sonya of Rogatino, but it wasn't enough to get me interested in the comics.

I knew that Frank Thorne had sort of taken custody of the character and though I'm not a Howard purist, his schticky dirty-old-man take on the whole thing put me off a little whenever the cosplay con photos would show up in Savage Sword.

I assumed the comics would turn out the same way, and I wasn't really interested. (And, in fairness, from what I saw in Savage Sword they kind of did.)

But I've lightened up in the years since, and when this Red Sonja collection turned up for relatively cheap, I picked it up as an impulse buy. I love these new collections of the Marvel Robert E. Howard comics, especially when they get Roy Thomas to come and write a reminiscence about how the stories came about. The stories in this volume are mostly written by Roy Thomas and Bruce Jones, and in addition to Frank Thorne there's also art from Dick Giordano and Esteban Maroto on a couple of them.

Who's the main character? What do you like about him or her?

I like the idea of someone besides Conan getting to star in a series set during the Hyborian Age, and I like the idea of a woman warrior getting to headline. I love the original Red Sonya story from The Sowers of the Thunder.

What don't you like about the lead character?

...although, well, I don't know if I'm really interested in THIS version of Red Sonja. It's almost impossible for me to get past the steel bikini outfit, especially as it gets skimpier and skimpier as the years go on.

I think I'd have much rather had a series about the pirate queen Belit, or Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. They're just as interesting as Red Sonja and they are also dressed somewhat more practically for battling guys with swords and axes-- not a LOT more, but more than Red Sonja with her G-string made of nickels. In fact, I always wondered why Roy Thomas didn't go with one of those two ladies when he was trying to reverse-engineer a female warrior lead out of the Howard originals. (Well, he did end up making Belit a co-star in the book for quite a while, but I don't think she ever got to solo.)

I also never cared for Sonja's whole backstory where the attack on her in her youth caused her to take up the sword and adopt the philosophy of "I can only belong to a man who can best me in battle." I'm absolutely certain that all Roy Thomas intended was for the character to be strong-willed and to show that she wasn't going to take a back seat to Conan or anyone else, but what he actually put on the page, as Peter David pointed out in a column years ago, was someone who said, I can only respect a man who is capable of re-creating my most traumatic experience. Which is really pretty damaged and co-dependent and creepy. And between that and leering Frank Thorne taking charge, well, Sonja left me cold.

But I still enjoyed this first volume okay, especially seeing the earliest solo stories and Roy Thomas' extensive look behind the scenes. A little Red Sonja goes a long way for me, though.

Would you buy more books like this?


...probably, yeah.


So now it's your turn. If you feel like playing along at home, sound off in the comments section below... though of course you don't need to ramble on like I usually do unless you really want to. Here are the questions again:

Pick up the closest book to your right. It has to be fiction.How long have you owned this book?What caught your eye about this book? Why'd you buy it?Who's the main character? What do you like about him or her?What don't you like about the lead character?Would you buy more books like this?

Have fun, and I'll see you next week.

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