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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reading railroad

Okay, I've knocked quite a lot of material out of my In Stack lately. In no particular order --

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman - all of Haldeman's stuff is intensely readable; his writing style pulls you forward through his narrative like a torpedo you've been inadvertently handcuffed to. However, Haldeman's plotting quality went spectacularly south right after ALL MY SINS REMEMBERED, and while occasionally he manages to recover his senses for the length of a book (as in BUYING TIME or TOOL OF THE TRADE), a solidly good Haldeman book that one cannot immediately look back on and see several enormous problem areas in upon closing the back cover is a rare gem indeed.

Unfortunately, this latest one also falls pretty badly short of the heights Haldeman manages to achieve in his better books.

Haldeman pretty obviously plotted this one as he was typing it. Several times in the book it's clear he changed his mind about the where he wanted the story to go and, rather than toss out anything he'd already written, he just decided he'd, well, make it so that the stuff we pretty clearly thought had happened, actually didn't.

Combine this with a central character who has essentially no discernible personality whatsoever (he, basically, just thinks, feels, and does whatever the plot requires him to think, feel, or do at any given moment, even or especially when the plot requires him to think, feel, or do something entirely contradictory to something else he felt, thought, or did at a previous point in the narrative), a plot that is full of essential plot devices that do what they do for no reason Haldeman ever troubles himself to explain in any more than the vaguest terms, and a string of future human societies that are tediously cliche, and, frankly, unbelievably stupid (14,000 years in the future, people still speak recognizable 20th Century English, and why? Because everybody watches 20th Century movies and tv shows, of course), and you've got a book that never really seems to go anywhere or do anything, full of characters you find impossible to care about in the slightest.

Books like this -- and the last four or five Haldeman books I've read have been 'books like this' -- really make me want to rethink my blind presumption that Haldeman is one of my favorite writers. It's pretty much the Zelazney Effect; THE FOREVER WAR and MINDBRIDGE were so good that they've blinded me to Haldeman's subsequent inadequacies. But when you stack up a great many completely inadequate books in one place -- HEMINGWAY HOAX, WORLDS, WORLDS APART, WORLDS ENOUGH AND TIME, FOREVER PEACE, 1968, THE COMING, CAMOUFLAGE, OLD TWENTIETH, and now this one -- well, the impact of even stuff as brilliant as Haldeman's first two SF novels gets a little dissipated. I want Joe Haldeman to give me another brilliant SF novel, I really, really do. I'm just really starting to think it's never, ever going to happen.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS feating THE HULK/MARVEL MASTERWORKS feating CAPTAIN AMERICA:

The Hulk volume reprints the first 6 issues of the Hulk's original series, which got cancelled at that point. After that, the Hulk moved into a long running spot sharing TALES TO ASTONISH with, first, Giant-Man, and after a few issues, the Sub-Mariner. But these first six issues of Hulk's run I had never read, although they introduce characters and concepts that cast shadows and sent ripples all through the Marvel Universe and which were frequently referred back to in later appearances of the character, and even other, related characters.

Similarly, the CAPTAIN AMERICA volume reprints the first 23 Cap stories published after Cap got his own spot in TALES OF SUSPENSE, which he shared with Iron Man. These stories, from TALES OF SUSPENSE 59 through 84, also depict seminal Cap adventures and antagonists that future issues I had read frequently referred back to.

To a Modern Age fan determined to loathe everything about pre-Modern Age superhero comics, these stories would present plenty of vindication for their disrespect and opprobrium, as characterizations are crude and plots are often ridiculous. To a Silver Age Marvel fan who had never previously read these stories, however, they were a wonder and a delight.

The Captain America volume makes me yearn to pick up the parallel publication for Iron Man, so I can see the stories referred to by the TALES OF SUSPENSE covers faithfully reproduced throughout. And as I'm starting a new job soon, hopefully I'll be able to snatch that up with little difficulty in the near future.

Facilitated by a recent Bane visit and comics loan/swap, I've also gotten to read THE SINESTRO WAR, THE LIGHTNING SAGA, and the first four parts of Geoff Johns SUPERMAN AND THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES. In reverse order --

* SUPERMAN AND THE LOSH -- an interesting story with some decent characterizations, but (a) I cannot stand Gary Franks' interpretation of Superman and the Legion, and (b) if this story doesn't end with some kind of time travel paradox wiping out every single event that takes place within it, I will be entirely aggravated. Some retarded Legion reject gets enormous powers and manages to turn all of Earth-native humanity against, you know, other Earth-descended humans who were born on other planets? I find this so ridiculous that I'm only going to accept it in an alternate future that never actually happens. If these events become future DC canon, well... um... well... I guess I'll just wait for Mark Waid or somebody to ret-con it away again. Yeah, yeah, that works.

* THE LIGHTNING SAGA - as a vehicle for a lot of really cool Johns and Meltzer character interaction, explication, and dialogue, this was a smashing success. On the other hand, as an actual story with an actual resolution, this one kinda blows. The Legion sent 7 members back into the past to hold up lightning rods so Wally West and his entire family (the twins now, conveniently, old enough to be interesting) could come back to life? What? Why did they have to do this in the past? Why couldn't they do it in the future and then send Wally and Co. back into the past? And, frankly, any time a plot requires every single one of its 30-odd characters to rote-repeat at some point "It's 30th Century technology; it isn't supposed to make sense", that plot needs a LOT more work.

I enjoyed seeing many aspects of Silver Age LOSH lore validated in this story, including the original, extremely wonky resurrection of Lightning Lad -- but there's no way I believe that resurrection process could ever work without someone dying. If all you have to do is hold up a lightning rod and then get out of the way when the lightning strikes, well, it would be easier to just mount seven lightning rods on steel arms all around whatever corpse it is you want to revive and never endanger anyone in the first place.

Also, since when does Wildfire have an android body, much less, Red Tornado's body? That's just stupid.

All of which boils down to, I greatly enjoyed this story up until its conclusion, but its conclusion was vastly unsatisfying.

* THE SINESTRO WAR - It's up, it's down, it's all around. There were times when I was reading this that I thought it was the most brilliant thing ever scripted and drawn; there were other times when I thought it was appallingly idiotic, and the vast majority of the time, I was just bored. All I remember from the whole thing is that Sinestro is very, very bad, and Green Lanterns can kill now, and Arisia apparently cannot move without exposing most of her boobs, and Sodom Yat is a jerk, and boy, Geoff Johns really likes that story about Abin Sur that Alan Moore wrote one time, and, oh yeah, the Guardians are still all idiots... and, wait, why is there a little blue female Guardian when we found out twenty years ago that the Zamorans were actually the female half of the Guardian race?

Well, never mind.

I'm starting to think, though, that some time in the last couple of years, Geoff Johns pretty much went into a steady creative decline. Occasionally he seems to spike up in quality again, but, overall, I've seen nothing that makes me want to start buying comics again.

* And that would include BLUE BEETLE 1-12, which I recently read after finding the issues collected in two volumes at the local library. As I read John Rogers' blog regularly, and as I have a casual interest in how the various Charlton derived franchises are doing in their adoptive universe, I'd been curious about the new series, which features a teenage Hispanic boy taking over the 'mantle', as it were, of Blue Beetle from predecessors Ted Kord and Dan Garrett.

One of the major differences between the Modern Age of Comics and its predecessors is pacing and plot density per issue. In the Silver Age, at least, Stan Lee and any of his various artistic collaborators (Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Gene Colan, etc) would generally manage to compact an enormous amount of eventful action, accompanied by much emotional characterization and plot development, into 22 or 23 pages of story. Even the comics that were divided between two characters, generally resulting in only 11 or 12 pages of story per issue per character, had much much more story content packed between their covers than one generally gets in a Modern Age comic.

Reasons for this vary, but I suspect it largely comes down to the way storytelling conventions have devolved from Silver to Modern Age. As the Modern Age has tried to more and more reflect something like 'real life' (whatever the hell that may mean given the deliberately and inescapably fantastic parameters of the superhero milieu) within its pages, so too have 'intrusive' and 'unrealistic' storytelling tools like captions and thought balloons been largely removed from the Modern Age writer's tool kit. This leaves the Modern Age writer with few colors on his or her storytelling palette to work with other than spoken words (dialogue), pictures, and the occasional sound effect. This means that, like movies and television, Modern Age comic book narratives largely unfold in 'real time'. As the Modern Age fan still demands plenty of highly emotional, melodramatic character interaction and heaping gobs of (often violent) super powered action in each issue, this leaves little room for actual plot development.

Thus, in Modern Age superhero comics, plots advance and unfold slowly and incrementally from one issue to another, and if a particular comic book has a large and varied cast of characters, well, even very obvious relationship dynamics can take very very long periods of time to develop. Thus, in the Silver Age, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would introduce a romantic interest for Peter Parker on page 4 of a story, have Peter Parker go on a date with her on page 6, have her kidnapped by the Green Goblin or Dr. Octopus on page 7, have Spider-Man rescue her on page 9, have her express scorn with Peter Parker's cowardice and timidity (as compared to Spider-Man's dreamy heroism, or, in a typical Marvel change up, have her express relief that Petey is 'a normal, sweet guy' as opposed to Spider-Man's creepiness) on Page 10, and then, somewhere around page 14, introduce a rival for said romantic interest's affection, and intimate strongly that said rival is, himself, some sort of secretive organized crime figure, requiring investigation for the remaining eight or nine pages of story.

In the Modern Age, by contrast, Giffen and Rogers design a teenage superhero in the Spider-Man mold (which was, itself, largely derived from Archie comics formulas) and give him a similar supporting cast, which includes a fairly obvious potential romantic interest... and in the first 12 issues, that romantic relationship has remained entirely potential, advancing maybe a Silver Age panel's worth of distance in all that time. (Which is to say, one character has advised the girl in question that "it's obvious" she has a crush on the protagonist, which she has loudly protested, but then, later, in private, wondered to herself if it might not be true.)

In the Silver Age, after 12 issues, the protagonist and his romantic interest would have had several dates, fallen madly and melodramatically in love with each other, she would have had to be rescued at least nine or ten times from various perils and/or villains, they would have broken up and gotten back together again at least once, and by this point, the hero would probably have met another girl and started to become interested in her.

Beyond the glacial pace of the characterization, what I remember of the new BLUE BEETLE is a jumble. There's something about a super powered street gang that isn't actually a street gang, or even entirely super powered, a fast, contemptuous (and contemptible) diss of DC's previous Hispanic superhero El Diablo, some New Gods characters we've never previously seen, a grand niece of Dan Garrett's who wonders why the Blue Beetle scarab never did any of that stuff for her great uncle (a good question that, now that it's been raised, I myself wonder at the answer to), some pretty good dialogue for Batman, and I honestly can't remember what the hell all else.

Suffice to say, I wasn't overly impressed with what I read.

One reason -- probably the BIG reason -- that I did not buy this comic on its own merits when it first came out was that I have absolutely no respect for Keith Giffen as a writer at all. John Rogers has been extravagant in his praise of Giffen's contributions to this comic, both as plotter and layout artist, on his own blog, but my experiences with other comics pros have taught me that few comics pros will publicly bad mouth other comics pros, especially their creative collaborators, and in fact, most comics 'rookies' are boisterous to the point of fawning sycophancy over any better established professionals they work with early in their careers. Sometimes that fawning sycophancy is genuine, as when my old buddy Slappy was fortunate enough to draw Don Heck as penciller for one of his TALES OF THE GREEN LANTERN CORPS. Other times, it's rather more calculated, as when Slappy worked with... well... other, less talented artists, and praised them fulsomely in public, while expressing rather different feelings in private about the visual gibberish he was required to somehow paste over with descriptive captions and evocative word balloons in such a way that a reader would be able to in some way discern some vague idea of what was actually supposed to be happening on the page.

So I don't know. Rogers is a helluva smart guy, and is certainly capable of seeing shortcomings in his commenters and fellow bloggers that he does not hesitate to point out on his own blog, at great length and in very explicit, occasionally profane, detail. And one of the real problems I had in reading BLUE BEETLE 1-12 is the artwork, very specifically the layouts that Giffen was apparently responsible for, where, more often that not, when the action starts up and energy effects are going off and things are blowing up and people are flying up into the air and then falling down into dumpsters or on top of other gang members or through inexplicably appearing circus tents or what have you, I cannot tell for the life of me exactly WHAT is happening (although often times Rogers, apparently realizing this problem, will try to help a brother out with a few descriptive word balloons).

So I presume Rogers is aware of Giffens' actual deficiencies as a plotter and an artist, as he himself spent much of the first 12 issues of this series hewing wood and hauling water in their service. Rogers' apparent awe of Giffen may well be gunuine, as Giffen is still regarded as something of an icon in the industry at this point, and it's very possible that Rogers, as a younger comics fan, found Giffen's takes on LSH, JL, and various other concepts (including the truly appalling Ambush Bug) to be as enthralling as I thought they were alternately grotesque, misbegotten, and noisome. So maybe he's genuinely thrilled to be carrying the old man's colostomy bag, I don't know.

(I myself have to dig back in my memory all the way to Giffen's first appearance as an artist, on a wonky Bill Mantlo one shot in MARVEL PREMIERE named Woodgod, to rediscover any fond feeling for the man at all, and any I might have had way back when was ignominiously murdered and buried with a stake through its heart at the crossroads of his pre-CRISIS work on LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, only to have its rotting corpse dug up and repeatedly violated since that time by Giffen's increasingly more loathsome and execrable work on post-CRISIS Legion reboots as well as the entirely repulsive JUSTICE LEAGUE variants and offshoots that Giffen and his various co-conspirators inflicted on the DC Universe throughout the late 80s and early 90s.)

Whatever the case may be, though, BLUE BEETLE hasn't overly impressed me, and certainly isn't any reason for me to start buying comics again. I will say this for Rogers, though -- at the point where Giffen stops plotting the comic and Rogers take over the writing duties in their entirety, the story quality makes a quantum leap upward. It's still very light in plot specifics, and there's only so much even a decent writer can do with the underlying mess Giffen designed, but the book did become more readable and even enjoyable once Giffen largely took his chitinous hooks out of it.

Probably the central problem Rogers is going to run into (or, perhaps, already has) is that the character is almost entirely undefined -- the scarab is some sort of 'advanced alien technology' that is apparently capable of enclosing its symbiotic host in some kind of protective body armor that can mold itself into any of an innumerable number of advanced alien high tech artifacts, like jet packs and shields and blaster cannon and what have you. This is fine as long as the central character has no real idea how the hell to use the armor, but once he figures stuff out, he's going to very quickly become invincible, and the book is very quickly going to become even more boring than it already is.

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