Bat-Timeline Archeology

Monday, August 30, 2010

A month or so ago we went to a back issue sale at a local comic shop.  The deal was that you could fill a box with whichever issues you wanted out of these huge boxes for $25.  It was a pretty great deal.  We ended up with a lot of scattered issues of various titles, and reading through some of them, I had a thought. 

I understand the feeling that it can be hard to get into comics, that the history is too long or too complicated to just jump in.  But the core of a major character hardly ever changes, and one can easily piece together the history with just a little enjoyable comic archeology.

In the box o'comics, I have 7 issues of standard DC comics with Batman in the title.  I'm going to look at 4 today.

In date order:

July 93 Batman 496 (subtitle: Knightfall 9)
July 93 Detective Comics featuring Batman 663 (subtitle: Knightfall 10)
Dec 94 Batman 513 (subtitle: Prodigal 5)
Aug 98 Batman 557 (subtitle: Aftershock)

Here we go:

Batman 496 (Knightfall 9)

Plot: Joker and Scarecrow have the mayor prisoner, Batman and cops are trying to save him.  Straightforward for the most part.  Batman suspects that Bane is behind the trouble.

Bat-Timeline Artifacts:
  • If you missed that there have been three Robins, well, two get name-checked here. 

    • Sometime before this issue, the Joker killed Robin #2, Jason Todd.  Batman has a flashback to this, and punches the Joker.  A lot.
    • Tim Drake appears for a panel as the current Robin.

  • Batman is in sorry shape in this issue.  Everyone seems worried.

Detective Comics Featuring Batman 663 (Knightfall 10)

Plot: Follows directly from last issue, Batman rescues the mayor, then has to fight a bunch of guys who I guess are Bane's lackeys while growing more injured and exhausted.  Ends with a cliffhanger, Batman facing Bane.

Bat-Timeline Artifacts:
  • Even if I had never heard of this plotline, there is a very large ad in this issue for "Knightfall 11" that indicates where this is going.  Batman is in serious painful trouble. 
  • Five seconds at Wikipedia will give you: "Batman: Knightfall is the title given to a major Batman story arc published by DC Comics that dominated Batman-related serial comic books in the spring and summer of 1993 .... Bruce Wayne (Batman) suffers burnout and is systematically assaulted and crippled by a "super steroid"-enhanced genius named Bane." There you go.

Now jump a year and a half of comics to

Batman 513 (Prodigal 5)

Plot: Batman (Dick Grayson) and Robin (Tim Drake) face off against Two-Face and a bunch of escaped prisoners.

Bat-Timeline Artifacts:
  • Well, apparently Bane didn't kill Bruce, (Tim refers to Dick's decision to be Batman as “helping Bruce”) but he must still be laid up or something.
  • They had a Subway Rocket-mobile?  That's...odd.
  • References to some times where Dick failed to stop Two-Face in the past.
  • Some talk about someone named Jean Paul.  Just from this issue I can deduce that he must have been Batman briefly.  

    • Tim makes a joke about Dick being the only Batman who can do laundry.  
    • Extra evidence: Commissioner Gordon thinks of Dick as “the third one”.

  • Letters column gives Jean Paul his code-name: Azrael.  Oh, I've heard of him.  Know nothing about him, but I've heard of him as a Bat-character.

Now a big jump, almost 4 years of comics to

Batman 557 (Aftershock)

Plot: Batman teams up with a vigilante named Ballistic to recover a suitcase from the ruins of a building.

Bat-Timeline Artifacts:
  • Bruce is Batman again
  • A terrible earthquake has hit Gotham.

    • Ballistic makes a joke about the good money being on California.
    • Seems to be chaos and rubble everywhere.

  • Another reference to Jean Paul as temporary Bat: Ballistic previously met Jean Paul, not Bruce, and is surprised by our standard Bat's aversion to guns.

Now, while not getting any full stories, except maybe in that last short one, I got a lot of painless information about continuity through the era.  Mainly that Bruce got seriously injured and other guys stepped up as Batman for a while, with varying success, but we also got some background on Jason Todd, and some on Dick Grayson.  (Also a few other issues we have in the box indicate that the earthquake and aftermath was a long storyline, although I did know that going in.)

Not bad for 4 issues.  Comics today no longer all have a page at the start that says “Last time, this happened...”, and there have been a few issues in the sale box that needed that.  (Looking at you, Legion of Superheroes)  But generally, it's not hard to pick up.  And if you're not up for the puzzle, you can just ask the internet.

The Best of C. L. Moore

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Best of C. L. Moore
Compilation and introduction 1975, stories originally published 1933-1946

I grabbed this volume from the library when I was researching early fantasy a few months back, and have to return it soon, so I had to read it now.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that I may not have come to this book with a wholly charitable attitude.

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the leading lights of early sci-fi and fantasy, and her prose is lovely.  However, I was never quite blown away by the stories.  I think I was expecting too much.

According to the introduction, Moore was one of the first (or the first) to write sci-fi from a more emotional perspective. "Her early stories were notable for their emphasis on the senses and emotions, which was highly unusual at the time."  -Wikipedia  Also she is lauded for her very alien aliens and her use of romance.

While I appreciate the stories for how groundbreaking they were, I must admit I was not that impressed by what they are.  I've read too much that took her work as inspiration and spun off into further realms.  I find these stories good, even very good, just not amazing.  And I was really hoping for amazing.

The first two stories star her space outlaw, Northwest Smith.  Each story is solid, creepy, well plotted, but the themes are so similar that I think they suffer by juxtaposition.

There are a selection of other sci-fi stories on various subjects: potential futures, time travelers of multiple stripes, cyborgs, alien worlds, and more.  There's an odd spin on the Lillith story, and my favorite story is "Daemon", a unconventional fantasy piece about the nature of souls.

The main problem I kept running into while reading isn't Moore's fault at all.  Sci-fi just doesn't always age quite as well as fantasy/historical fiction.  So each story has strong points, bits of amazing description:
This bewilderingly beloved face that had darkened with mystical brooding, flashed suddenly alight again with swift laughter, and hearing it, catching a lift of the brows that was his and a quirk of the soft lips that was Sallie's own, Bill made no effort to stem the tide of warm affection rising higher and higher in him.  It was himself looking out of the cube through Sallie's brown eyes - himself exultant in achievement for the simple sake of achieving.  She had called him father.  Was this a father's love, selfless, unfathomable, for a lovely and beloved daughter? - "Greater Than Gods"
and then moments that fling me right out, purely because they are so dated:
The two crystal cubes on the desk were three dimensional photographs of a sort undreamed of before the Twenty-third century dawned.
The first woman president won her office on a platform that promised no war as long as a woman dwelt in the White House...Women as a sex are not scientists, not inventors...
- "Greater Than Gods" 
The story I am the most conflicted about is "Black God's Kiss", which is the first story starring Jirel of Joiry.  She is the first published female lead character in sword and sorcery. Jirel's introduction is fantastic, her story dark and surreal and intriguing.  But I could have done without the explanatory narrative asides (pseudoscience notes about the supernatural setting she voyages through) and I personally could have done without the ending.  Again, great, just not amazing.

I don't fault Moore that I am born too late to fully appreciate much of this volume.  I am thankful that I have read so many great books inspired by her work.  Nowadays almost all work integrates the emotional into the SF, but I suppose it didn't have to be that way.  Someone had to be the first.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

On hating a fictional character

Friday, August 20, 2010

I've been thinking recently about hating fictional people.  Generally, of course, characters fall into protagonists and antagonists.  (And bit players, but only seldom would the unnamed shop vendor arouse the kind of passion I'm talking about.)

Generally, if I hate a protagonist, it is for not being what I want him/her to be.  Which might simply mean the author has written a book I do not wish to read.  I might hate a protagonist for being stupid, or annoying, or cloying, or insufficiently feminist, or too superficially feminist.  I think I hated the protagonists of The Lightstone just for being cliche, although I've repressed most of that idiotic book.  I sometimes become irritated at the main characters for the resolution of the plot, if they screw up or otherwise act like idiots. 

Antagonists get more complicated.  I can hate an antagonist in the healthy way, the "how could you do such a horrible thing to this protagonist I like" kind of way, but a deep-down hatred takes a bit more.  Some antagonists are hated for many of the same reasons as protagonists: poor writing, annoying characterization, sheer stupidity.

Excessively incompetent antagonists bring the story down, and often deserve to be hated for that.

More troubling to me are excessively competent antagonists.  David Weber, for example, writes these guys in a way that pushes all my buttons.  They are despicable human beings, careful plotters, often smarter than the protagonists, often blind zealots for a hateful cause, they utterly believe they are doing the right thing... and so they are terrifying.

Stephen King is prone to writing a similar type.  The believable madmen, the unsuspected killers, the solipsists for whom the humanity of anyone else has long vanished. 

It's sometimes enough to encourage me to relish honestly villainous villains.  Villains who rob banks, steal princesses, and plot to carve their names into the moon.

I love reading both Weber and King, but I do often have to break it up with other things.  Because antagonists who I hate so fiercely I could spit, antagonists who make my skin crawl and my bile rise, antagonists who risk having their very books subjected to physical violence, too much of them can, ah, make me rather cynical and angry in day-to-day life.

And when my reading habit starts dragging down the rest of my life, instead of enhancing it, that's when I know I need to take a break.

Lord of the Isles

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lord of the IslesDavid Drake, 1997

A few weeks back, I bought a big pile of interesting-looking fantasy novels on the cheap at a local comic shop.  This is the one of those novels I stuck in my bag before leaving on vacation, so I read most of it on an airplane.

I have a mixed track record with David Drake, and this book does nothing to solve it.  I've liked some various space marines stories, didn't enjoy the RCN volume I read as much.  This is the first fantasy I've read by him, and I found it strong in technique, but light on style and follow through.

The world-building seems decent at first glance, but it didn't feel like there was enough to it. You have your generic euro-fantasy peasants and traders and politicians, and a handful of "foreign" cultures.  The most inventive part was the various jellyfish-looking monsters, shaped like giant alligators or made out of dead people.  I felt that I was supposed to think there was some greater history behind what was shown, but that it was just a facade.  The various human cultures didn't quite feel real, and I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to see an Earth parallel or not.

It bothered me that as I learned more about each character, it began to seem that theirs had been a whole village of secret changelings with special powers.  It ended up a little silly, and I couldn't bring myself to care about them as much. After each revelation, I was a little more frustrated that most of the characters were only able to survive or accomplish their goals because of the specialness (seee-cret specialness!) of their parents.  With few exceptions, Drake never convinced me that their success was due to anything in themselves.

I liked all the female characters quite a bit, except Liane, who was just okay. However, I felt that some of them were poorly used.  Particularly Ilna, whose no-nonsense demeanor and dedication to purpose made her... stereotypically obsessive as well as prone to manipulation by evil forces?  That's a shame.  Then she got powers, which was cool, but her plotline just fizzled and wandered.  Tenoctris the elderly wizard is pretty fantastic, but I wish I'd seen more validation of her main principle (that a little magic used precisely is safer and more effective than large amounts of power used haphazardly).  That theme was there, but almost entirely demonstrated through big magic going wrong rather than the positive potential of careful work.

Final judgment:  Not terrible, well written, some interesting parts, might pick up the next one from the library, but not compelling enough to go out of my way for.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Under the Dome

Monday, August 9, 2010

Under the Dome
Stephen King, 2009

Under the Dome was mostly your basic modern Stephen King.  Rag-tag protagonists, including the wandering hero and the smart kid, some bat-shit crazy, just-barely-realistic-enough-to-be-scary antagonists, sense of creeping doom, scenes of shocking brutality and visceral descriptions of unpleasant things: check check and doublecheck.  The sci-fi aspects seemed mostly peripheral to the plot, and the climax wasn't all that special, it didn't really stay with me.  The theme was well carried through, but not as interesting as it wishes it were.  The beginning was well done, but only echoes of the sheer awesome that is the beginning of The Strand.  Overall I found it a bit too long for its premise. 

The length is only a problem for me because some Stephen King books I need to read all in one sitting if possible, because if I don't, as was the case here, I risk nightmares.  Like almost all of his stuff, it's eminently readable, flows well, etc. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with Mr. King's work.  I like reading it, but sometimes it sticks with me longer than I'm comfortable with.  Especially when he bucks his own instinct to keep things fundamentally optimistic.  This book had a slight problem with that, but not as bad as some I've read. 

Also I was more interested in the physics of the Dome environment than in the super-fast degradation of society.  Not because it necessarily rang too false, but because it was dependent on a certain level of crazy and corruption preexisting in the town.  You could make the case that most any small town has its secret megalomaniacs, but the worst-case scenario explored here is less interesting to me than the idea of normally sane, kind people going off the deep end, which I felt wasn't explored enough.  Also the beings who set the Dome didn't seem to have any reason to have picked this town.  In other words, they didn't choose it specifically for its opportunities for catastrophe, so that's just a coincidence, and a fairly irritating one.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The God of the Hive

Monday, August 2, 2010

Laurie R. King, 2010

I read the last Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees, slightly over a year ago.  I remember that at the time I was a bit disappointed that it ended on a cliffhanger, so I would have to wait to see what happened next.  This is the sequel, as promised.  The two books connect; do not attempt to read this one without the other.

I'm conflicted about this book, overall.  After finishing it, I didn't much like it.  I felt that the style had drifted too far from the early books, that the plot disappointed, and the writing was thin.  Then I took a breath, went back in and re-read several sections that I knew I had been reading very quickly (in order to get to the plot.)

And just like that, I fell in love with the prose again.  There are some great lines, and some interesting themes explored.  The voice I remember and love is in there.  I still think the plot is severely lacking, and some of the writing tactics are trite beyond belief, but I'm more sanguine about the book now than I was upon first finishing it.

Specific Criticisms (i.e. SPOILERS) Below

My first problem with the book is with the secondary characters, namely the villain and Goodman.  Goodman is an interesting character, but for someone whose actual effect on the plot is largely peripheral and could have been dispensed with, far too much of the book is about him.  Especially since this feels like the second half of the Language of Bees, and he's introduced randomly in this volume.  I'd have rather he have his own book, rather than being shoehorned into this one.  He could have matched thematically, had the themes followed through (more on that below.)

The villain was pathetic.  I never understood his plan, and he would have been much more compelling if what he thought of himself had been closer to the truth.  He could have been interesting, clever, could have easily had a point, but instead he was stupid and venal and so shallowly evil he should have had a mustache to twirl.

The book shifted perspective far too often, and chose too many perspectives to shift between.  I'd looked the other way until now, but for a series that started strictly limited first-person to have mutated into having more than five characters being followed separately is annoying.  It takes away some of what has made the series special, and overall this one feels more like a generic historical thriller than previous volumes.

The short chapters with tons of white space constantly broke the flow and the cutesy repeated word motif (i.e. ending a chapter and beginning the following unrelated chapter with the same word or phrase) grated on me.

My largest problem is actually the themes.  The themes were great, fascinating, wonderful.  There was so much about dragging these characters into a future that didn't want them, aging out of joint with time.  I loved it.
Once, he'd lived in a world where one could tell a man's profession and history by a glance at his hands and the turn of his collar, but now every other man spent his days in an anonymous office, and even shopkeepers wore bespoke suits.
Unfortunately, the plot didn't follow through.  Nothing changed in the status quo.  Nothing the villain did had any effect that was really felt.  King didn't support the theme by having the characters lose anything, or refute the theme by beating the villain through anything other than dumb luck.  No mystery, just a lot of running around, with no consequences for mistakes.  This could have actually been a great final book if the plot had supported the themes.  As it is, it feels disjointed.

Also, fake-out cliffhangers?  Really?

Now it says a lot for the writing style and my adoration of the previous books that I can actually, to a degree, look past all the problems I have with it.

To sum up: Good Writing, Poor Structure, but I will read the next one.

2 Stars - An Okay Book (really most like 2.5...)