Sunday, August 31, 2014

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman, art by Andy Kubert and others, 128 pages

Five years ago, DC decided to kill Batman. Like with every superhero, he really didn't die, but it gave us this excellent story by Neil Gaiman in the same vein as Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? story about Superman. Here we see all of the superheroes and supervillains gather to pay their final respects to Batman, each telling a different story of how he died (it's very reminiscent of the Batman: the Animated Series episode "Legends of the Dark Knight" where a group of kids each tell a story where they supposedly meet Batman). Meanwhile, Batman is somewhere offstage, trying to make sense of it all. He knows that this isn't how he died, yet all their stories seem real. Gaiman manages to take all the different versions of Batman, his rogues gallery, essentially the whole mythology of Batman and pay homage to all of it. Batman is eternal. He's as much of a myth as any of the classical ones we learn about in school, and each new iteration of him only adds to his lore. It's a fantastic story, especially for anyone who loves Batman. Included in this collection are several other Gaiman penned Batman stories, including one he wrote for the Batman: Black and White occasional series. A great addition to anyone's Bat-collection, and one that definitely needs to be read when reading Grant Morrison's run.

Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, 434 pages.

Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, 434 pages.

Rulers of the Tearling tend to die young, usually assassinated by members of their court, or their own guard. If duplicitous subjects don’t do the ruler in, agents of the Red Queen, ruler of the neighboring Mortmesne do the deed. That was apparently what happened to the late Queen Elyssa. Elyssa was known for her looks, but was by all accounts, not much of a ruler. She was at least aware enough of the overall situation to prepare something more hopeful for her daughter

 Her daughter, Kelsea, has been raised and trained in hiding for the past years. The expectation being that if anyone knew where she was she would be dead long before her coronation. The Red Queen, Kelsea’s uncle, ruling as regent since his sister’s death, and the Caden, a consortium of professional assassins, all want Kelsea dead. Her training has been thorough, and she has a good heart. If she can make it to the capitol,New London, get herself crowned, and keep the allegiance of her Queen’s guard, then she might live long enough to start to address some of the many ills and abuses suffered by her subjects. 

The Kills: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and the Hit by Richard House

The Kills: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and the Hit by Richard House, 1003 pages.

Sprawling account of bad deeds at home and abroad. HOSCO, the largest civilian contractor to the U. S. military during the Iraq war, provides the soldiers fighting there with everything from styrofoam plates to body armor and bullets. They also build the camps and take out the trash. When HOSCO and government employees decide to divert some of the gigantic stream of funds flowing through the desert, it all gets so complicated, that not even those most closely involved know exactly what's going on.

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Black Orchid

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean, 176 pages

Black Orchid is a DC Comics superhero from the seventies, who originally had no origin until Neil Gaiman gave her one in 1988 with this miniseries. A master of disguise with some super powers, Susan Linden excels in infiltrating criminal organizations and then taking them down from the inside. This goes great, until a mission goes wrong and she's killed. Then, in Phillip Sylvain's greenhouse, another Black Orchid awakes. Searching for her identity, she learns from Phil that Susan was childhood friends with him. Suffering from her father's abuse, she ran away and eventually married Carl Thorne, who later killed her. "But didn't she just die?" you might ask. And the answer would be yes, which is when you realize that the Black Orchid we met in the beginning wasn't originally Susan, but a plant-human hybrid created by Phil to essentially keep her alive. I won't give away anymore, but Gaiman manages to deftly insert Susan into the world of capes and tights. We see familiar faces like Lex Luthor, Batman, and Poison Ivy, and go to familiar locations like Gotham City. But the best part about this book is Dave McKean's absolutely stunning artwork. This is not your typical comic book art, with its lettered sound effects and motion lines. McKean applies a paint-like effect (and really, for all I know, maybe he did paint these panels) to our characters, giving them an ethereal quality, especially in the early moments of the comic when the first Black Orchid is killed and when the new Black Orchid meets with Poison Ivy. It's simply gorgeous. While this story is great, the downside is that it's probably going to be the most appealing to veteran comics readers. Black Orchid is a fairly minor character (the fact that she was around for fifteen years before someone decided to give her a definitive back story says a lot), and unless you've encountered her elsewhere, this story probably isn't going to mean much to you. But the art alone is enough to merit checking it out.

Absolute Death and Absolute Sandman

The Absolute Death, 360 pages
The Absolute Sandman, volume 5, 519 pages, both by Neil Gaiman, art by various artists

After reading all of the initial run of The Sandman, I figured I should finally get around to reading the two Death miniseries, collected in premium format in one of DC Comics' Absolute editions. And then, when borrowing Absolute Death from my brother, I remembered that they put out a fifth Absolute volume for Sandman, which collected all of the Sandman stories that Gaiman wrote after completing the series.

So, as a reminder, Death and her younger brother Dream are two of the Endless, those personifications of traits found in any and all universes. In the Death collection, we get the two issues of Sandman where she features prominently ("The Sound of Her Wings" and "Fa├žade"), as well as a few shorter stories, including "Death Talks About Life," a short comic about practicing safe sex that was released during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and "Death and Venice" that was originally printed in the Endless Nights collection of stories. But the focal point of this collection are the two miniseries, which really work to flesh out Death as a character. In "Death: the High Cost of Living," suicidal sixteen year old Sexton Furnival meets Death, but in human form as a girl named Didi. You see, Death has to take mortal form for one day each century so that she can be reminded of what life is like and what death does to that. This requirement is explained a little further in "A Winter's Tale," also in this Absolute collection, where we learn that Death wasn't always the perky, wise girl that we know today. In "Death: The Time of Your Life," we reencounter Hazel and Foxglove, last seen in A Game of You. Hazel has had her baby, a boy named Alvie, and Foxglove has become an incredibly popular musician. Other than the glimpse we see of the Sunless Lands, which is Death's domain, this story is more about the effects of celebrity than it is about Death, but it's still pretty good.

In Absolute Sandman, vol. 5, we get the Sandman stories that Gaiman wrote after the series was over. Bookended by both versions of "The Dream Hunters," this collection includes the Endless Nights stories, as well as the collaboration between Gaiman and Matt Wagner, "Sandman Midnight Theatre," where the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, meets the modern Sandman, Dream. I've read the P. Craig Russell adaptation of "The Dream Hunters" before, so I enjoyed the chance to read the original prose version with Yoshitaka Amano's art. But my favorite part of this collection is the Endless Nights stories. Each of the Endless get their own story, and the results are great, especially Dream's story. In this story, we meet a younger Endless as they appear at a meeting of stars and other mythical beings. We learn why Dream and Desire are at odds with each other, meet Delight before she became Delirium, and even manage to add a little more lore to the mainstream DC characters. Despair's "Fifteen Portraits of Despair" is also fantastic, if only for its absolutely creepy format.

So now I can say I've read pretty much everything Sandman. I don't know if I would say that these two collections are absolutely necessary for your understanding of the world Gaiman has built, but, like any good comic, they only enhance and enrich your knowledge of that world. If you're a completist like me, then you'll definitely want to read these.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch by George Eliot
It was a lot of fun discussing this great book with lots of people this summer. A lot of reflective characters, and a lot of people (in Middlemarch) worrying what their neighbors think. I liked how Ladislaw, Dorothea, Mary, and Fred all end up. And I was surprised about the end of the relationship between Raffles and Bulstrode.
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Fun Home

Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, 234 pages

Growing up in the Bechdel household wasn't always easy. Alison's father, Bruce, was often distant, more preoccupied with renovating their old home or gardening than with being an involved parent. So when Alison comes out in college, it comes as a surprise when her mother calls her later to tell her that her father has had affairs with other men. And it comes as a shock when, a few weeks later, she gets a call saying her father has been killed in an apparent car accident. In this graphic memoir, Alison examines her childhood and her father, discussing her journey to coming out, and how growing up and living in a small town kept her father in the closet. This part is especially important, as the Bechdels owned the funeral home (the eponymous fun home) in town, which helped keep her father in Beech Creek. This was one I had been meaning to read for awhile, especially since it's been challenged a lot (reading banned books is almost a requirement for being a librarian, y'know), and I enjoyed it. It's interesting how Alison examines her father, their relationship, and their shared sexual identity. While there's a sense of melancholy throughout the book, you definitely get a sense of love there, even if it's buried deep. A perfect choice for anyone who enjoys memoirs and biographies, especially told in comic format.

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree, 362 pages.
Jay Barbree was a reporter during the Apollo program, and talks about his friendship with the astronaut.
Barbree mentions how he had long ago promised not to write anything about Armstrong that Neil would not approve of, so it's not a tell-all. Not the most exciting book about the American space program.

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Paula by Isabel Allende  368 pp.

In 1991 Isabel Allende's daughter, Paula, went into a coma from complications from Porphyria. Allende began writing what was to be a letter to her daughter for her to read when she woke up. The plan was to let her know what went on while she was comatose. What resulted was a tale of Paula's illness, memoirs of Isabel's life including a cast of interesting family members. And tales of how the family coped with the CIA backed coup that caused the death of her cousin and Chilean President Salvador Allende and the exile of her diplomat father. Allende did her best to hold on to the hope that Paula would once again regain consciousness until the point where she had to accept the inevitable. Paula died in December of 1992.

One plus one, by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes elevates “chick-lit” to a new standard.  Her absolutely amazing Me before you made me a fan and I thoroughly enjoyed her newest book.  More formulaic than the earlier title, it still boasts flawed but wonderful and fully-developed characters, social commentary, and a plot that keeps you turning the pages.  Jess is a young single mother of two children.  Her troubled teen-aged stepson, Nicky, keeps getting beat up by the odious Fisher boys; her gifted little daughter, Tanzie, longs to attend a school that will challenge her mathematical talents instead of the local one where she will inevitably be next up in the Fishers’ sights.  The biological father of both, Jess’s husband, Marty, left the family two years previously to hole up at his mother’s house and nurse his depression.  Money is a constant worry.  Into the plot steps Ed Nicholls, a technology wiz who has parlayed his former geekiness into founding a very successful company which has been recently acquired by “suits”  – unfortunately, he has just, through almost no fault of his own, been accused of insider trading.  Jess cleans his vacation house in the town where her family lives.  An epic road trip to Scotland unites this odd band – and let’s not forget Norman, the huge, smelly mixed breed dog who adds so much to the ambiance, already fouled by Tanzie’s propensity to carsickness at speeds over 40 mph and the effects of a dubious take-away kebab on Ed.  So who are we casting in the movie?  368 pp. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

Those of us in St. Louis particularly remember when a young Shawn Hornbeck, who disappeared without a trace as a child, was miraculously found in Kirkwood, the victim of a local pizza delivery man.  In many ways, this could be his story, and that of his family.  It is every parent’s worst nightmare.  Justin disappears at 11, leaving his mother Laura, father Eric, and younger brother Griffin devastated.  About half of the novel deals with the strains on the family during his four year absence.  When he is found nearby and returns home, different tensions inevitably arise as both he and each of his family members struggle to walk a careful line between knowing exactly what happened to him and reintegrating him into their lives.  One of the many strengths of the book is that the only real description of what went on during the four years he lived with Dwight Buford is given in a single line of dialog.  It doesn’t dwell on the horror but leaves it to the reader’s imagination.  Well done.  361 pp.

The invention of exile, by Vanessa Manko

A quiet but affecting novel based on the author’s family history.  Austin, born Ustin Alexandrovich Voronkov, arrives in the United States in 1913.   When he moves to a boardinghouse, he meets Julia, one of two daughters of the owner, and they fall in love. Although Austin is apolitical, if anything anti-political, hunger for Russian companionship leads him to associate with a group that has anarchist leanings.  Caught up in a raid against of the group, he and his new wife, who weds him on Ellis Island, are deported to Russia, which is in the throes of revolution.  Not much of the story is about their years there or their years after they escape to the continent.  Ultimately they go to Mexico, where the young family, now including three children, hope to be able to petition to return to the United States.  Julia is repatriated not long afterwards, along with the children, but for the next decades, Austin is stuck in in Mexico where he works at low-level jobs.  An engineer by training, he spends his free time inventing devices and sending his plans off to the U. S. Patent Office, convinced that this will help his case to return to the US and his family.  In interesting depiction of what it is like to be stranded in exile by the larger forces at work in the world, but only Austin is a fully realized character.  291 pp.