Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 008: The Tombs of Atuan

Much like A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan is a story about growing up, about learning right from wrong and the importance of truly knowing yourself. The twist is that Ursula K. Le Guin tells the story from many different perspectives. The second book in the Earthsea series tells the story of Tenar, a young girl who is taken to the Tombs at the age of six to be the next reincarnation of the One Priestess in service of the Nameless One. The focus is on her, no characters or places from the first book make an appearance until nearly the hallway mark. Le Guin restricts our second stay in Earthsea to the grounds and undergrounds of the Tombs in much the same way Tenar, now known as Arha, is physically confined on this desert corner of the isle of Atuan.

Much less epic in scope, The Tombs of Atuan has a very different feel to it than the first book. Arha doesn’t seem to be destined for greatness and adventure. On the contrary, she seems to be condemned to the dark world of a cult to Nameless (and most probably faceless) powers. Her days are filled with dancing and sacrifice and countless hours of tedium. Once her duties as One Priestess led her to the Undertomb and the Labyrinth, she went on to explore these pitch dark passages in great detail until one day she encounters a wizard whose come to rob one of the greatest treasures in all of Earthsea. It’s at that point that the novel really kicks off into high gear and Le Guin entertained me endlessly.

This wizard, of course, is Ged from the first book. Now that he’s encountered and accepted the evil that is part of him, he’s become incredibly wise, patient and powerful. For anybody who’s read A Wizard of Earthsea, we know how this story ends but it doesn’t matter. Le Guin makes the events happen in such a beautiful and organic way that I didn’t care that I knew the outcome. Ged and Tenar’s interactions were a joy to read. How can she sacrifice such a powerful wizard from the outside world to the Nameless powers? She’s become far too bored and spiteful of her life as the One Priestes to ever entertain the thought for too long. Instead of ending in violence, their time together slowly built into a friendship based on trust and a mutual desire to be saved. Tenar is no damsel in distress. She’s a young woman who has been far too well protected to the point where it’s stunted her growth as a person. Her inquisitive nature and desire for freedom eventually resurfaced after years of forceful repression. What she learns in company with Ged is just extraordinary and Le Guin’s sure hand and masterful writing made it all feel, well, magical.

Ged and Tenar contrast in nearly everything,
even the colour of their skin which is
representative of their upbringing. One out
on the ocean at the mercy of the sun and
the other buried and hidden in the dark
of the Tombs of Atuan.
As I mentioned earlier, The Tombs of Atuan is an Earthsea tale told in a completely different perspective than the first novel. It’s not grand and mythic, it’s small and personal. There are no dragons in this book, but Ged defeats a foe equally powerful as a dragon (a bored Priestess) and he does it with style and a quiet confidence that was a sheer pleasure to read about. If you weren’t convince of Ged’s greatest and power at the end of the first book, seeing him through Tenar’s eyes will surely help in convincing you now.

Magic in Earthsea:
Le Guin gives us a different perspective on magic in Earthsea. It’s not just about names, that’s the basics of it but it’s by no means the source of a wizard’s power. That comes from trust, friendship and compassion. The greatest act of wizardry by Ged in Atuan was rescuing Tenar and in turn being rescued by her. It’s a beautiful journey of self-discovery by two strangers who, despite the evil that could be found in their hearts and in the land find a way to free themselves and each other of dark responsibilities. It means nothing that you know the language of magic if you don’t have the sense to use it properly.

Le Guin shares with her readers that magic in Earthsea is not about having the power to do anything. It’s about having the power to do anything and doing the best thing. When travelling through the mountains, half starved, Tenar asks Ged if he can conjure any food. He could, but it would be all illusion, leaving them hungrier than they were. What about real food? He could call a rabbit to them but using its true name but would you then be able to kill the rabbit and eat it if you called it by its true name? It would be breaking an important trust between the rabbit and the one who knows its name.

Magic isn’t really used for everyday things. Wizards and Mages do not go around unlocking doors with magic. Tenar says to Ged about magic: “‘Your Magic is peculiar,’ she said, with little dignity of equals, Priestess addressing Mage. ‘It appears to be useful only for large matter.’” That may well be true but Ged goes on to inform her that “large matters” can wary in size and form. Stopping an earthquake, defeating dragons, those are clearly large matters, but maintaining trust between two beings despite the difficulties they must face is another type of “large matter”.

Dave Sim once said that the essence of storytelling is two people talking in a room. I don’t recall that ever being presented so beautifully than by Le Guin in The Tombs of Atuan. She harnesses this idea by having significant portions of the book be Lenar and Ged talking in near complete darkness in the underground labyrinth. The things they discover about each other and about themselves by simply conversing were impressive to witness. A trues tour de force by Le Guin, she’s a master of her craft.

A Wizard of Earthsea was about discovering yourself by accepting who you are, the good with the bad. The Tombs of Atuan is learning to free yourself by discovering who you are through your interactions with someone else. It’s much harder to help someone out of their misery than it is to condemn them to it, but it’s much more rewarding for both parties involved, when you talk it out and decide to risk it all by trusting your enemy to be the one to help you through tough times.  

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 007: Dragonflight review

The lame cover of my edition of

Wheel and turn
Or bleed and burn.
Fly between,
Blue and green.
Soar, dive down,
Bronze and brown
Dragonmen must fly
When Threads are in the sky.

I read a half dozen or so Pern novels when I was a young teenager. I remember Dragonsdawn and one about a Harper (but I don't think it was the Harper Hall trilogy). One of them was The Dolphins of Pern. I can't say I remember too much about them. I remember that the dolphins were very smart, I remember that the beginning of man's colonization of Pern had a strong science fiction edge to it but that most of the books taking place later in its history were essentially fantasy novels. There was one story that featured spaceships and smuggling but I can't seem to remember the name. Anyway, I've always wanted to start reading Anne McCaffrey famous Pern series from the start. Not the start chronologically, I already undertook that when I was younger and I think that’s one of the reasons I stopped. Approaching the series that way didn’t really seem to work for more than two books. I’ve since learned that the best way to read a multi-part series is to do so by order of publication which is what McCaffrey has often suggested readers do (though I completely disregarded this self-imposed rule with The Wheel of Time). Still, I’m adamant to stick to it with the Pern novels because I always enjoyed them but I've always been confused about the internal history and chronology of the series, mostly because I picked the books at random after reading Dragonsdawn.

This time around I decided to read the first book which is a collection of three novellas which surprised me a bit because the book works pretty well as a whole. I really liked Dragonflight but I can’t help but feel disappointed because there are some serious things that simply do not work. I’ve essentially rediscovered Pern with this book. I remember very little from the books I’ve read before and that’s probably one of the contributing factors to my disappointment. In short though, I can summarize things quite simply by saying that Dragonflight seriously lacks any emotion. Before I get into that, here’s a bit of plot.

Pern has fallen on hard times. Every two hundred years, a Red Star passes in Pern’s orbit and in doing so releases an interstellar pest that feeds on most things biological. The Threads are silvery-grey worms that fall from the Red Star encased in eggs which break away in Pern’s atmosphere. They fall from the sky in clusters and, when they land, burrow deep into the Earth where they breed before setting out to devour all plants and wildlife they can touch. In order to survive the Pernese, earth men and women who colonized this distant planet, ride fire-breathing dragons and burn the Thread right out of the sky! Man and dragon working together to fight a common enemy, in truth, fighting for their very survival. That’s what makes Pern an enduring series in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

The Red Star’s passing happens between such lengthy intervals that the very culture and tradition of Pernese society has the chance of dissipating and leaving all of Pern unprepared for the Thread’s next deadly arrival. It’s during the end of one particularly lengthy absence of the Red Star (four hundred years) that the story begins. There is but one Weyr (a dragon fortress) functional on Pern and its men and women are left scrambling to equip themselves for survival amidst popular belief that Thread and the Red Star are nothing but bedtime stories.

The awesome full cover of Dragonflight by Michael Whelan. These gorgeous covers are one of the reasons
I liked Pern as a teen. I'm very sad the bookstore only had the new, ultra-lame cover shown at the top.
This particular story sounds great when summarized like this but McCaffrey’s storytelling left much to be desired. Her storytelling is mechanical and overtly practical. Her characters face problem after problem and they meet them head on with solution after solution. There is a lot of discussion and strategizing but it’s too neatly organized and nearly no mistakes are made which leads to disbelief on the readers part. Quite honestly, I will believe the fictional world you’ve created, even if it includes telepathic and teleporting dragons but it’s impossible for me to believe that in a time of such dire crisis, humanity will make practically no serious mistakes. Despite that important flaw, McCaffrey does succeed in creating a palpable sense of dread.

So far I can live with these mistakes but it’s difficult to pardon the lack of any engaging characters. McCaffrey doesn’t even provide a single main character the reader can relate to or root for. I was far more interested in discovering the mysteries of Pern (how did Pernese of the past fight the Threads?) than I was interested in knowing what Lessa and F'lar were up to. Their relationship is frightening to behold. I’m quite surprised that a woman could have written this book because of the way the female characters are written. Lessa is continuously treated like a child by F'lar who is like an angry father to her. More disturbing is their sexual relationship which I'm sure is tinged with violence based on how F'lar grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her whenever he gets angry with Lessa. It's weird and it prevents me from getting emotionally invested in the characters because I don't like them. As if that wasn’t enough, because of the emotional bond riders share with their dragons, when Lessa and F’lar’s dragons mate the two humans are taken over by a sense of dragonlust and also have sex. It’s written in a sense that makes it seem like the magic of their connection to their dragons is what makes them do it but I can’t help but interpret this as F’lar imposing himself sexually on the younger Lessa. I’m not even reading between the lines, I got this feeling from reading any of their scenes and interactions together. There is no warmth in their relationship, neither is there any warmth in the relationship of any of the other characters.

Dragonflight has very little emotion in it and scenes between Lessa and F'lar are not only an example of this lack of emotion but they make me feel queasy in their portrayal of a couples. As Weyrleaders of Benden Weyr, these two are Pern's best chance at survival? It’s not just Lessa and F’lar though, none of the characters really show emotion. Many of them have drive and ambition and a will to succeed, to survive but they all do so in a cold and emotionless way.

Gender roles are also messed up and very uneven. Again, this is surprising because McCaffrey is a woman, I wouldn’t have expected this of her and my young teenage self either didn’t pick up on it or I simply don’t remember these elements. In the last fifteen pages, we discover that what we thought were the old ways, the ways long forgotten, aren’t quite the ways that F’lar and Lessa have interpreted from their limited sources. Gender roles aren’t as uneven as they’ve been portrayed thus far in the story and it give me a bit of hope for the other books in the series. Still, Lessa still acts like a child in F’lar’s presence, she’s nearly completely dominated. Near the end of the book she even mentions to other characters that she’s frightened of F’lar and McCaffrey has F’lar describe Lessa as docile while he’s thinking about her on many occasions.

The world of Pern:
Where McCaffrey failed with character and emotionally charged storytelling, she makes up for it in world building. I’m convinced that it’s because of the fully realized world of Pern that the Dragonriders of Pern series has endured.

There are many things I like about the world of Pern. One of them is that riders have to take care of their dragons. They have to bathe them, oil their skin, be concerned about how, what and when they eat. They’re not just awesome fire breathing lizards with wings; they’re animals that require care and nurturing. Despite being mostly a fantasy story, McCaffrey approaches many elements that make Pern in a scientific way. I’ve already mentioned one example in the care of dragons but she explains other things like how they breathe flame. In a true fantasy book you do not need to explain or even question this. It’s a basic characteristic of a dragon. But on the dragons of Pern can only breath fire when they chew and eat firestones that, combined with the acid in their stomachs, produces a phosphine gas that ignites when combined with the oxygen in the air.

While things are explained in scientific terms, there isn’t a whole lot of technology on Pern. For all intents and purposes, Pernese live in a world were technology is at the same level of progression as it was during Europe’s medieval times. This is particularly interesting (and important to Pern as a series) when considering how the Holds and Weyrs keep track of their history and traditions. Paper isn’t a commodity on Pern. Written words are poorly preserved on animal hide and their history and traditions are mostly kept alive through songs and ballads by Harpers. Similarly to Harpers, weavers are also instructed to make tapestries for posterity which also serve a dual purpose by covering the stone walls during the winter months in order to keep out the cold.  

I find this fascinating because the existence of an oral history on Pern makes the battle for survival something continuous, even when the planet and its inhabitants aren’t immediately threatened by Threads. Their history is kept alive by Harpers who write songs to educate and entertain all of Pern. Their jobs is crucial to everyone’s survival, particularly during the two hundred years where no Threads are seen. They have to make sure tradition and routine proceedings are maintained to ensure that they will be ready by the next time the Red Star passes.

For many, many years now McCaffrey has been called the “Queen of Dragons” and you don’t need to wonder why. With her Dragonriders of Pern series (which, oddly enough, used to simply be call the Dragon series) McCaffrey has created an entire world with a culture that revolves around dragons and their abilities that help them protect their planet from Threads. Everything is structured based on dragons and their importance to the survival of Pern. What's interesting is that the threat of Thread occurs regularly but with a significant amount of time between each occurrence that Pernese tradition and culture relaxes and changes. Cultural changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing in our world. Modern life becomes increasingly complex as time passes and change is inevitable. In the world of Pern however, too much change to tradition can lead to the destruction of the human colony. The organization of the Weyrs and Holds was such as to protect mankind.

Harpers are supposed to be the teachers of tradition by the singing ballads that tell stories of the past. The problem with this oral tradition is that when three, four, five or more generations have never lived through one of the Red Star's passes, these stories and ballads appear to be much more fictitious than they really are. Tradition must remain rigid and unchanging in order for Pernese to survive and thrive but the world's technological limitations at recording and teaching these traditions is so limited that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain a single way of life. Despite the willingness to maintain tradition that witnessing the fall of Thread may have on a person, it quickly goes away when the threat is absent for generations at a time. What I don't understand is how people refuse to believe the songs and stories about Threads when their main defence against it, dragons, remains a staple of Pernese wildlife. 

Rediscovering the world of Pern wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought for sure that I would love Dragonflight from start to finish. That wasn’t entirely the case since I discovered quite a bit that disappointed me or simply disturbed me a little. But there was a lot that I enjoyed that making a return trip to Pern with Dragonquest is a sure thing at this point.  I’m optimistic for the second book in the series. The world has been more or less established and the book is revitalized by the arrival of several new characters by the book’s end. Along with these new characters is the promise of more gender balance in the book’s characters as well as in Pernese society. Although Pern seems to be an exciting fantasy world in this introductory book to the Dragonriders of Pern series, it’s a cold, emotionless place. Now that Lessa, F’lar and all of Pern’s survival is guaranteed, I’m hoping McCaffrey provides a story that goes beyond that and explores some characters and stories that are less practical and machine-like in their execution. I need some emotional investment to go along with the awesome world building.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Conan Saga #1 review

Conan Saga #1 (published in 1987) reprints material previously published as Conan the Barbarian issues #1-3 (published in 1979-1971). Included are various supplementary materials such as a rather detailed map of Hyboria and a short essay on the visual imagination of Robert E. Howard titled "Wind Chimes in Hyboria" written by Alan Zelenetz. More extras included comprise of the original covers of Conan the Barbarian in black and white and a black and white version of the cover of Conan Saga #1. Finally, there is a sketch on the inside back cover depicting a large winged beast from the first story flying towards Conan and a seemingly nude women in his arms. Each issue of Conan the Barbarian is written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith with Dan Adkins and Sal Buscema as inkers or "embellishers". The whole thing is lettered by Sam Rosen.

The most enjoyable thing in this first reprint issue is Barry Windsor-Smith's art. It’s well suited to Conan's world. His anatomy and musculature are top notch. Conan doesn't have the muscle build of the Hulk, it's all pretty realistic. Windsor-Smith gives him a very toned and muscled body comparable to real-world athletes and that suits the Cimmerian just fine. The stories in this collection all take place when Conan was still a young man and again, the artist demonstrates this in the way he draws Conan.

I'm not too well versed when it comes to talking about art and I haven't read piles and piles and comics that harken from the seventies and so it's difficult for me to talk about why I like Barry Windsor-Smith's art. I just finished looking at the pages for a few minutes and the only thing I can think of to say is that his art looks like a more realistic style of Jack Kirby minus the crackling cosmic energy elements. But writing that I don’t think that’s accurate. There is a lot of movement and action in these issue and Windsor-Smith makes you see the action and feel it, too. It's a visual feast of fantasy action! I'm going to have to work on this because Barry Windsor-Smith did much more art on Conan the Barbarian and I plan on reviewing more of these since I’ve got a decent sack of Conan Saga.

Roy Thomas is an author I'm not too familiar with. I've read a few Avengers issues of his and I enjoyed them but I can't really name anything he's written which is a bit of a shame since he's done a lot of work for Marvel for years and years. He’s also no stranger to Conan. He’s written dozens of issues of various Conan titles and he’s also co-written the script for Conan the Destroyer with Gerry Conway.

The first two stories in this reprint issue are not adaptations of specific stories by Robert E. Howard. In the first story, "The Coming of Conan", our hero is in Vanaheim and he's become a mercenary fighting for the Aesir in their war against the Vanir. Conan is captured by a shaman who wishes to use him in one of his magic rituals. It's not a really engaging or entertaining story but Barry Windsor-Smith draws it with verve and energy. 

In "Lair of the Beast-Men", Conan is in Aesgaard and, again, he gets captured except this time it's by large ape-like men. They take him to their hidden city below the ground where they want to make him a slave. Conan resists this and in doing so he inspires the "manlings" (descendents of enslaved men that have been born into slavery and have never seen the sun). Thomas tells a good story that sheds some light on the importance of freedom and how it relates to a man being "truly" alive. 

"The Grey God Passes" is the only story based on a story by Howard. Conan fights in a border war and witnesses the work of the Grey God. For some, he is Borri the god of war but for all, he is death. Aided by the Choosers of the Slain, twelve beautiful women riding winged horses, the Grey God collects the souls of mighty men and rings them through the mist. It's a pretty good story, with a god, vengeful kings, war, treachery, lost love and Conan fighting in battle with nothing more than a rusty chain, surviving the battle and witnesses the work of the Grey God. 

There’s more to this Marvel Magazine than the reprints. There are also the extras and I enjoyed them. It's nice that the original covers were includes and I particularly like the inclusion of a black and white version of the front cover. The cover of Conan Saga #1 is by a more mature and skilled Windsor-Smith than what can be found in the reprints. Part of me wishes it’s this older artist who would have drawn these issues. His cover is just excellent. I love the slightly strange colouring, the fearsome Conan, the wall behind him and the scattered armour and skulls. I also like that this scene obviously takes place somewhere cold or during the winter season because of the snow on the ground. Conan's got a heavy cloak but he doesn't even seem to feel the cold standing there with bare shoulders, torso and legs. If I ever saw such a thing in real life I'd be absolutely terrified and I'm certain I would remember it vividly until the end of my days.

It's a one page visual feast. I can't help but wonder what the scene depicts. Is the wall the wall of a village? Conan looks protective, is his protecting the inhabitants of the village? If so, against who? If he is protecting the village I can't imagine the skulls were there before he arrived. Maybe Conan's been at his post for several days already and he's started to use scare tactics against the ennemies trying to infiltrate the village. I bet you Conan stole a weapon and a shield from a fallen foe from the armour and weapons at his feet and that’s why he’s got a sword along with an axe. Look at his weapons, they're clean, there's no blood on them. The colouring suggests that the sun has just recently risen and Conan's gone out to meet his opponents. He, one man standing alone against a many, is ready before they are. His hands and his weapons are clean. He probably cleans his weapons at the end of every day of battle. His cloak is over his shoulders and out of his way in order not to impede his movements. It's undoubtedly cold but he's not there to stand around warm and cozy. He has a job to do. Conan's face is serene; he knows he will survive this. He knows he'll be the victor and that the village behind him will remain unmolested because he held his guard.

That's the freaking story I wanted to read in these reprinted issues! Instead I got some good run of the mill sword and sorcery tales. It's not all bad though, the art was pretty good throughout except for the occasional awkward pose of facial expression. Overall this is something any fans of Conan could enjoy. As a side note, it's weird that the essay included in this issue of Conan Saga focuses on a comic book adaptation of Howard’s story “Red Nails” since it doesn’t appear in any of these reprinted issues. Still, the way Zelenetz talks about, I really hope I find that comic adaptation someday and get a chance to read it.

Bigger is better when it comes to Barry Windsor-Smith drawing Conan. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

OMAC by Jack Kirby review

Jack Kirby sure loves his flying chairs.

I had to learn how to like Jack Kirby as a creator. In a medium where he’s quite realistically dominated for several decades, its understandable why he’s known as Jack “The King” Kirby in comics circle. The sheer volume of output he’s had since he started making comics in the forties and the impressive versatility of genre he’s worked in. He’s also the co-creator of a significant portion of the Marvel Universe but despite all these accomplishments, Kirby’s had the short end of the stick for most of his career which also corresponds to most of his life. I get rather bitter when I consider the success of people who worked with Kirby throughout the years compare to the wealth and fame he’s accumulated. It all just seems unfair. I think that’s one of the reasons I gave him a second chance and that’s why I continue to explore his work. 

This is my second time reading OMAC and although I really liked it during my first reading I absolutely loved it the second time around. The same goes for the introduction by Mark Evanier. In his introduction, Evanier points out how OMAC is almost prophetic in its story about the future. He’s had a chance to read all eight issues every few years since it was first published and he’s personally noted just how closely Kirby got it right on so many different aspects of what our future would be like. I didn’t really see the same thing while reading OMAC for the first time. The world OMAC inhabits is so drastically different from our own. There’s one important thing I’ve learn about Kirby though. His ideas are really big ideas. He doesn’t think in small scale. When he chose the future as the setting of his new comic, he chose the far, far flung future. Not something that was going to happen in twenty or thirty years. But you know what? Mark Evanier was right. The prophetic quality of these OMAC issues is utterly impressive it not always accurate.

Jack Kirby created OMAC to fill his weekly quota of pages for DC Comics. According to Evanier’s introduction (and that’s a pretty good source since Evanier has worked closely with Kirby for many years and has even written a biography of the man) he mentions that Kirby was contracted to put out fifteen pages of comics per week. That’s insane! And you know what? Kirby did so by creating insane comics. OMAC lasted eight issues after which it was cancelled. I’m not so sure why but OMAC’s definitively endured as a comic. John Byrne did a four issue limited series on it. Paul Pope had an OMAC story in his issue of Solo. OMAC was even one of the New 52 titles from DC’s reboot of a little while back (unfortunately only lasting eight issues as well). It’s survive and rightfully so. OMAC is perhaps my second favourite of all of Kirby’s comics that I’ve had a pleasure of reading.

Those fish of the future look
like fish form the past!
In short, OMAC is the story of a man who undergoes long range molecular surgery to transform his being into a One Man Army Corp unbeknownst to himself. Buddy Blank doesn’t coexist with OMAC; one replaces the other. OMAC was created by the Global Peace Agency (GPA) an international organization that works in complete anonymity (they are nameless and faceless; they can be from any nation and thus represent all nations). Members of the GPA don’t carry weapons and act entirely without harming others. They have created for that purpose. In the future world where large armies are outlawed, OMAC is there to fight on behave of the GPA and serve as some sort of futuristic cop. There is so much that can be written about just the first issue of OMAC but what I’m going to focus on is the portrayal of the future. That’s one of the things I found the most interesting about this short lived series.  

In the future that can be found in the pages of OMAC, large armies are outlawed, cities have continued to grow and have become immense. The rich have continued to get richer and some people are now so wealthy they can rent and entire city for 24 hours if they so wish (and they do). Movies have become virtual space video games that people experience instead of viewing in passivity. Computerized dating (did this even exist in the 70s? I have no idea where Kirby got this idea) has evolved into a way for people to construct their entire families. “Packaged Living” as it’s called is responsible for giving OMAC new parents, assigned to him by a computer! There are ecological terrorists; the most villainous of all being Dr. Skuba who uses his mastery of the atom to compress huge quantities of water from lakes into brick sized cubes. He plans to blackmail the world into making him stupidly wealthy. One of the creepiest ideas from OMAC and one of my favourites is that there is a black market for young attractive bodies. These people are kidnapped, induced into a comatose state and sold to rich individuals who would like younger bodies. It’s one of the darker takes on immortality that I’ve encountered. That all sounds crazy right? Well there are more ideas and snippets into our future that what I’ve presented and it all takes place in eight issues. The more impressive feat is that Kirby doesn’t make it seem to unrealistic. Well, I didn’t think so the second time I read it.
The villainous Dr. Skuba!

OMAC, like many Jack Kirby comics, is filled with high adventure, science fiction gadgets, explosion and incredibly energetic art. I actually feel bad that I’ve neglected to talk about his art on OMAC because it’s very, very good. It blows my mind that Kirby could produce such great art under such tight deadlines. Kirby regularly draws ugly faces and characters that have faces like those of a prehistoric humans but that’s his style and they’re meant to be ugly. OMAC’s got a normal face, so do many of the other characters (well, those who have faces, I’m talking about you GPA). I feel bad but I feel like I need to explore OMAC more in depth some other time. To try and make up for it, I’ve included several pages of art from OMAC that I’ve found online (I’m too lazy to scan some pages). What impressed me the most about this little comic is it’s depiction of the future in a way that was close to reality (or the reality that will someday exist) thing without being preachy. Kirby has managed to excite me and worry me about the days of tomorrow and that’s alright. It’s good to have action comics that provide food for thought and OMAC is a damn nutritious read.

OMAC walks on the bottom of a lake that was emptied by Dr. Skuba. That lake look so otherworldly.
Do you think it was pollution that mutated those fish and those plants?

Kirby loves to draw monsters. OMAC while "watching" a movie. 
Crazy satellite science! I completely forgot to mention that Kirby predicts are heavy use and dependence on
satellites orbiting the Earth in our daily lives. Sure, it doesn't transform us all into OMACs but
it helps me navigate the city using my GPS. Crazy stuff but remarkably on point. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Army@Love volume 1 & 2 review

Rick Veitch has made a career out of writing satire comics. I find most of these satires are actually some of his best comics. What makes them so good is that Veitch understands and often loves his subject and that’s what enables him to write a successful comic that also serves as poignant satire. That dual relationship of love and hate is what fuels powerful criticism. I remember the first time reading Brat Pack, Veitch shattered an important part of superhero comics. He was able to do so effectively because he understood superhero comics so well. It’s with that realization, that he knows his subject; you can really understand the satire for what it is. It’s too bad that Veitch doesn’t seem to understand love and war as much as he does superheroes and Army@Love suffers because of it.

The first volume, collection issues #1-5 is actually a pretty good start to a series. The problem is that the seven remaining issues, collected in volume 2, can’t keep up with what came previously. Veitch can’t follow his own act and its damn shame because, for a while at least, he had something interesting to say about the American military, modern warfare and the media. What began as the exploration of our near future devolved into a shock and awe tactic that only left the narrative (and the reader) feeling hollow and spent.

The first volume begins with a woman fighting somewhere in the Middle East. She’s in the middle of combat talking to her husband in America on her cellphone. In the next few pages we see her join the Hot Zone Club. It’s a spin on the Mile High Club in which active soldiers have sex in the middle of combat, combining the adrenaline of combat with the pleasures of sex for the ultimate high.

The Hot Zone Club is the product of one man, Colonel Haley. Colonel Haley used to be a corporate man, working in marketing and specializing in consumer profiling. Haley ended up in the military after congress passed a corporate level draft. They began enlisting older men with job market skills and work experience in an effort to revitalize their military. People like Haley, having a specific set of skills, were able to apply them directly to certain areas of the military. After doing a deep-psyche consumer profile, Haley discovered that young Americans who indulged in movies and video games have developed an addiction to low levels of adrenaline. Based on his research and analysis, Haley has coined the phrase "peak life experience". He recruits huge numbers of young Americans by selling them peak life experience which they can find in the combat hot zone in the Middle Eastern theatre.

Colonel Haley's Motivation and Morale (or MoMo as the soldier's call it) has combined the adrenaline inducing experience of military combat with other experiences, most notably soldiers have sex while under fire. Soldiers are also allowed cell phones in combat and female recruitment has been increase to further exploit sexual tension in military settings. If that wasn't enough, MoMo organizes regular Retreats, which are essentially orgies that take place in controlled environments.
Army@Love did have some fun covers.
Veitch based his covers on
magazine advertisements. 
Army@Love outgrows its premise early on. Outgrows might be the wrong word. It's more of an issue that Veitch reveals too much too soon and it affects the potential growth of the story. In very little time the comic becomes a satire and a mockery of religion, witchcraft, romance, corporate America, magazine ads, various cultures as well as future technologies both near and far. The military satire stops developing in the third or fourth issue. The satire is still present but its repeated ad nauseum. It doesn’t change. The story doesn’t really evolve either. Veitch should have put sex somewhere in the title because we get far more of that than we get love. Quite a few issues revolve around discovering who’s sleeping with who and I stopped caring before the end of the first volume.

Army@Love could have benefitted from a shorter length and tighter focus. Like the Middle Eastern war it's commenting on, it's grown into a self-parody. I don't think Veitch pulled any punches in his commentary but he did run out of breath. Still, I enjoyed Army@Love but not in the form it was originally intended. I really liked it because of the funny melodrama and for seeing the artistic collaboration between Veitch and inner Gary Erskine. I don't think Veitch's art has ever looked better. It's too bad the story only required they draw the same small core of characters and military vehicles over and over. As much as I enjoyed it, it seems the art just like the story was destined to repeat itself without really adding anything new to the mix.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art review

Understanding Comics was written and drawn by Scott McCloud and it’s an excellent analysis of the comics medium. At first, Understanding Comics can seem like an unnecessary endeavour. What’s so difficult about comics that warrants a whole book be written on it? Aren’t comics just garishly coloured superhero stories where people wearing long underwear beat each other over the head? Of course not everybody thinks this way but many people still do and McCloud addresses this. More importantly, he also addresses long time comics readers and that’s part of the strength of this comic.

Understanding Comics is very close to universal in its appeal to potential readers because it doesn’t focus on the analysis of specific comics, classic or otherwise (unless it’s to illustrate a point). McCloud opts for an analysis of the form of storytelling that is the comic book. He doesn’t limit himself to genre or specific creators. He doesn’t even limit himself to the geographical belongings of certain works. He uses American comics, European comics and Japanese manga to illustrate many of the different topics his discuses in his book and it results in two different effects. The first is providing a very wide definition of what comics are, thus showing new readers that comic book are not limited to superheroes or other genre stories. The second is providing long time readers of comics many new works to explore. I had a quite a bit of fun spotting references and characters in McCloud’s background or in the charts. I particularly enjoyed seeing Arale from Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump manga, one of the funniest manga (or comics, for that matter) that I’ve ever read.

McCloud’s analysis of the comics medium was both very broad and, at times, very in depth and specific. He clearly had a lot of other ideas in his head since he published a second book, Reinventing Comics, a few years after this one. His subjects of analysis were many and included visual iconography, reader participation (especially in between panels), the structure and effects of combining words and pictures, the visualization of time and movement, the artistic effects of different styles and colouring palettes as well as the creative process of comics. The most interesting parts for me were in the chapter analyzing how words and picture can combine to transfer information more successfully than either words or pictures separately. His understanding of artistic techniques and their effects of the participation of the reader are nothing short of revelatory.

The comic isn’t without its faults, however. McCloud starts off completely on the wrong foot. He wants people to accept comic as the superb art form he believes it to be but he’s unrefined in his arguments and the whole section reeks of desperation. McCloud seems to be arguing with defenders of literary works, high art and cinema while using an “I’m as good as you are” argument. I think it’s more effective to lead the readers to conclude for themselves that comics are as worthy of attention and praise than any other form of storytelling. Bashing the reader over the head with a heavy handed approach will only result in alienating your reader.

Another fault of Understanding Comics isn’t that big a fault at all. This is a work of a young man and a young comics creator. If you look at it from a certain perspective, it actually makes Understanding Comics that much more impressive and McCloud that much more worthy of praise. From time to time, there was a clunky bit of execution or dialogue but despite McCloud’s age at the time, he had big ideas and he had a lot of ambition. Both of those things can easily be found within these pages and close to twenty years after its initial publication, it still has a lot of weight to it. The comic has aged pretty well.

I’ll always be impressed as to how clearly McCloud shared his thoughts and analysis of comics. I didn’t agree with everything he said, and that’s perfectly fine. McCloud was even aware that everything he was saying wasn’t necessarily going to be taken as fact and he even encourages readers not to. He states that his goal with Understanding Comics was to promote discussion of comics in more intelligent circles.

Understanding Comics was clearly and ambitious project for McCloud but he succeeded. It’s ambitious in its subject matter and in its executions but it delivers. That’s what makes it so good and that’s what makes it so enduring as a work of critical analysis.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 006: Mort review

Mort by Terry Pratchett
Cover art by Josh Kirby
Published by Corgi Books

The main joke of Mort is rather simple, Death is a job like any other and a, uh, man I suppose, does the job like a baker bakes or a carpenter makes things out of wood. Being a master storyteller, Pratchett plays it smart and quickly gives us the joke and moves on to more interesting things. The real subject of the book is Mort's apprenticeship to Death and how he manages to mess things up and, in the end, makes things right again.

Mort is lanky, somewhat incompetent young man. He’s not very good at much of anything, especially not at the family business. He father brings him to market one day and tries to set him up with an apprenticeship in the hopes that somebody else will be able to whip Mort into shape and teach him to make a living. By chance or fate (or maybe history in this case) Mort ends up as an apprentice to Death. Somewhat clever, Mort’s name, short for Mortimer, is the French word for Death. As is to be expected, Mort doesn’t seem particularly suited for the job of Death which happens to be a blessing in disguise. Seriously, how boring would Mort have been if it ended after 20 pages with “. . . and Mort learned a trade and his was very good at it. The End.”? Thankfully, Pratchett has Mort inadvertently prevent the death of a princess he was supposed to guide to the afterlife and changes the course of history. He enlists the help of two wizards, Death’s daughter and tries to fix his mistake before the entire history of Discworld is affected. 

Overall Mort is a very funny book. Part if the humour is in the events that take place. Another more significant source of humour is in how Pratchett writes these events and his overall commentary as narrator on the story that’s being told. I'm continuously surprised by Pratchett's ability to include little snippets of world building throughout the entire novel. Some ore quick recaps of elements we've seen before, such as the fact that light travels slowly over Discworld due to the high concentration of magic. Other elements are new to this story. The most important new element is the uncompromising force of history on Discworld. Everything is preordained, historical events from the most important to the most insignificant, have already been planned and are simply waiting to happen. If for some reason history doesn't occurs as planned, the magic of Discworld ensures that it does. Certainly, for a time things are rather confusing but once more time has passed, things begin to make sense again and no one seems to remember what did or didn't happen and history continues to move forward.

Pratchett's description of history on Discworld is rather confusing; much in the way time travel can be in works of fiction. If all history is predestined, was it not predestined for Mort to inadvertently stop the assassination of princess Keli? I guess the simple answer is there is a correct history and sometimes incorrect histories are created at which time the correct one fixes the mistake and continues with its slow crawl toward the future. Another explanation is that this is a Discworld novel which means the Creator doesn't have to offer explanations to everything and it doesn't matter if explanations make sense or not when he offers some. Something things just happen a certain way and we and the rest of Discworld must learn to adapt.

Josh Kirby keeps it up with yet another great cover for a Discworld novel.

Just a little while ago I read The Maximortal by Rick Veitch in which he stipulates that ideas can be so powerful that they can become real. It's not such a strange idea in fantasy fiction where many pantheons of gods only continue to exist if people continue to worship them. In Mort, wizard Cutwell is given the job of convincing the kingdom of Sto Lat that their princess is truly alive and not dead as history says she should be. The people, believing she is dead since that's what history dictated as being true, have a hard time believing this or even noticing that the princess is alive. Town criers shout her name throughout the city but they don't seem to recall why, pictures of her are pasted all over walls but nobody seems to notice them. Since the people no longer believe the princess is among the living, then she will, over time, cease to be alive. There's also something to be said about free will on Discworld but I don't think magic and history really seem to care what people think. Despite the feeling of chaos that permeates the world, there is some order to the pizza shaped planet riding atop the shell of Great A’tuin. Now that I think of it, so far all the Discworld stories have been about people not following he rules and making their own paths. I guess Discworld is all about free will.

Some of the funniest moments I the book involve Death learning how to have fun. He has much more recreational time than what he is used to now that he has Mort helping him. Reading about Death trying to understand a conga line or fly fishing are pretty great. I particularly like the part about him going to a bar. That scene is done from the bartender's point of view and it’s pure comedy gold.

One of the things I love about Discworld is octarine. Pratchett describes it as "the eight colour of the spectrum, the colour of magic, the pigment of the imagination." It's a great little piece of world building that's accompanied by other elements of Discworld such as the number eight having magical properties (octagons, for example, are powerful magical symbols).

Four novels in and Pratchett's Discworld continues to impress. He always provides a strong and interesting story told in the most idiosyncratic way while also finding time and space to slip in bits of story that will have you spending the bus ride to work thinking deep philosophical and metaphysical thoughts. Welcome to Discworld where logic exists but Sir Terry tosses out the boring parts in exchange for fun and magic. Rincewind makes and appearance in this book and that’s one more reason why Mort is very funny and a very good book.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Less Than Heroes review

I appreciated Less Than Heroes more than I liked it. It is very good though. It’s unfortunate but my lack of enjoyment can be largely attributed to my distaste for the art. I’ll get to that later though. Yurkovich mentions in an essay collected in the back of the trade paperback that he’s a fan of superhero comics of the Silver and Bronze age. That’s were a lot of the inspiration came from. When reading the comic I also got the sense that Watchmen was also an inspiration and that was partially confirmed in the essay. I think there is also a hint of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (I later discovered that this was indeed and inspiration by reading an interesting article on CBR). Not necessarily that things are overtly weird, but there is a sense of quirky oddball superheroics present throughout the story. That could also be the Silver age influence on Yurkovich’s writing though.

Yurkovich’s Less Than Heroes is another comic in the superheroes-done-realistically genre of comics. Unlike other comics that have tried this approach, Yurkovich heroes are not government registered vigilantes. Instead, they’re (often) unionized work for hire vigilante working in syndicates that offer their services to large cities that have problems with supervillainy. The biggest and most well-known group is the New York Superhero Syndicate (NYSS). They’re the biggest because New York also happens to have the highest concentration of supervillains. Hiring a group of heroes can be very complicated and extremely expensive. In a scene during the last chapter, we see the mayor of Philadelphia trying to hire the NYSS’s Delta Squad to help save his city. The leader of Delta Squad presents multiple contracts and other legal documents to be signed before any of her team members go and do anything for the city. I thought it was very interesting that the NYSS aren’t paid. Instead, the city of New York has agreed to provide them with health care and life benefits. It’s a great little scene and Yurkovich pulls it off rather well.

Unlike many of the larger cities, Philadelphia didn’t want to pay the exorbitant price of hiring a superhero syndicate. Instead, they choose to hire an independent non-unionized team called Threshold. For the team it’s a great opportunity to work as a hired superhero without needing to be affiliated with the larger teams. For Philadelphia, Threshold presents a team of heroes that’s probably not worth the money the city is paying. They have a lot of recreational time in no small part because the city is populated with freelance superheroes and because there aren’t a whole lot of villains in Philadelphia. By the end of the comic, Yurkovich will have forced Threshold to prove themselves as a team after the arrival of the Stamp Collector and several other villains from New York. Whether they succeed or not is partially up to the reader’s interpretation. What’s clear though is that the NYSS’s price may have been far too high for Philadelphia. Perhaps Threshold isn’t so bad after all. Either that or they’re a useless bunch of posers.

As I mentioned earlier, the most disappointing thing for me was the art. Yurkovich has a very blocky style. The characters look stalky and stiff. Yurkovich also uses shadows and shading rather liberally and it doesn’t really mesh well with his square lined figure work. I did, reluctantly, get used to it. By the end of the comic I even began to accept the art’s intentional irregularities in figure and form. Despite not liking the art, it did fit well with the story’s tone. The story, much like the art, is quirky and angular, this story is the result of careful thought and planning on Yurkovich’s part as opposed to a story that flourished naturally on the page. From what I could gather from Yurkovich’s essay, he’s been thinking about his own universe of superheroes for quite some time. Despite all this, the unappealing art makes it difficult for me to truly like Less Than Heroes past my appreciation for this interesting take on the superhero genre. There are even things about the art that I appreciate, the lack of overly rendered musculature and artificial looking anatomy, but then other things like the 3D art and computer graphics, take me right out of the story.

I have to conclude that Less Than Heroes isn’t for everybody. There is equal part worship and disdain for superheroes and it takes a particular type of reader to be able to appreciate that. Readers who are more open to varied styles might even enjoy Yurkovich’s art much more than I did. I’d rather see Yurkovich develop his writing and work in conjunction with another artist. That sounds mean but heck, I had a hard time with it. I’ll end things by encouraging you to check out this interesting article about the origin and production of Less Than Heroes. You can find the article on CBR here.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Louis Riel review

As Seth T. Hahne points out in his review of Louis Riel on Good Ok Bad, biography, and history as a whole, is difficult to write. It’s impossible to write it objectively and it can be very difficult to even try to do so. Seth outlines the difficulties a bit more in his review but I’m not going to bother repeating him here. You should be reading Good Ok Bad anyway. Seth is top notch when it comes to comic reviews. What I’d rather focus on is the difficulties inherent in taking biography and attempt to present it in narrative form. Both history and narrative have their own difficulties but I have to say I believe their multiplied when trying to do both at the same time. If nothing else, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel deserves to be respected and studied for its level of ambition.

Louis Riel, as the title suggests, is the biographical story of the titular Canadian hero told as a comic strip. That’s one of the reasons I decided to read the book (I borrowed it from a friend, thanks!). The other reason is that I have an interest in reading more comics by Canadian creators. It’s not something I always follow through with and sometimes when I do, I’m disappointed with the comic or the book in question. If that wasn’t enough, I’m easily distracted when buying books and I don’t always make it home with what I initially intended to buy. Other times, it’s just not in my budget to buy all the books I would want (I borrowed this comic from a friend, thanks!). All of those reasons explain why I’m only reading Louis Riel now when it’s something that’s been on my radar since I first started to read comics.

Despite being such an ambitious project, Brown met his ambition head on and completed a book that can be confidently classified both as a comic book (or comic strip as Brown seems to prefer calling it) and history book. Furthermore, the finished product is good as a comic and good as a history book. When considering both aspects together, Louis Riel is rather fantastic. It is a bit unfortunate that the combination of comic and history is also the book’s primary weakness. I think part of this is that some of the history doesn’t suit itself well to narrative interpretation. I’m thinking primarily of the fourth part which is essentially a simplified transcript of the court proceedings after Riel turned himself in to the Canadian government. It could also be that because this is a biography, Brown tells the story to the end, by which I mean the end of Riel’s life. The structure of Riel’s life, or any other famous historical figure’s life, doesn’t necessarily present itself to a solid narrative structure. Again, I’m thinking of the fourth part which takes up a considerable amount of pages, and it is essentially an epilogue. The thrill, the political intrigue, the rebellion, the action, the multitude of interesting characters, most of those elements no longer play a part by the beginning of the fourth part of the comic.

The best thing Brown did with Louis Riel was to include his extensive bibliography, index and notes sections at the end of the book. It was as enjoyable and interesting to me to read the footnotes than it was to read the actual comment. In the Notes, Brown presents different and often conflicting sources. He goes one step further and details some of the thought process he had on how to translate the story and the history he found in his sources to the comic strip. Sometimes this required some interpretation on his part and other times he did a bit of streamlining in order to simplify the comic and avoid negatively affecting the narrative flow of things. On one or two occasions, he even admits to having invented something in order to explain some history. What makes it so good is that Brown presents it in an unapologetic way. He changed some stuff or he made a decision to include or exclude things based on what he was trying to accomplish, which is telling the story of Louis Riel as a comic strip. Combined with a heavy (and required) reliance on a variety of sources, these additional sections go a long way into giving Louis Riel some depth and weight as a comic but also make it an important work in cartooning history.

As a comic, Louis Riel works rather well. As I started to mention above, the only part I can truly complain about is the fourth part. The narrative loses its momentum by committing to the biographical portion of the work. Another element that played with the pacing of the comic strip was the strict adherence to the six panel grid. It’s unrelenting. Every single page (with exception to the pages of maps) is composed of six panels (two columns of three panels or, if you prefer, three rows of two panels) all of identical shape and size. If that wasn’t enough, the action is not developed on a per page basis. Instead, it’s built on a panel basis. One page can be composed of Riel speaking with someone at Fort Garry for two thirds of a page and one third of John A. Macdonald talking to someone in Ottawa. The resulting effect is one of constant forward momentum. The reader has nearly no time to breathe or, for that matter, to stop and think about what he’s reading.

In the book’s Foreword, Brown mentions that the art for Louis Riel was based on the style of Harold Gray from Little Orphan Annie fame. I rather like the art. It has a simple, somewhat objective but with a fair amount of caricature, look to it. I think it’s a great choice because it forces the reader to focus on the events and not on action by the characters even though Brown demonstrates on more than one occasion that he and his art style are up to the task for those scenes as well.

Louis Riel is a fascinating little comic. I say little because for such an audacious biographical comic, it easily could have been much longer. It’s pretty surprising that Brown does so many so well. I’m thinking particularly to his attention to detail, his ability to streamline things for the purpose of narrative clarity as well as the inclusion of the bibliography, index and notes. Louis Riel isn’t flawless though, nor is it a masterpiece of comic storytelling. There are a number of areas in which it doesn’t quite succeed but I do believe it’s an important comics work, surely one to be proud of.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Books of Magic review

Alan Moore can easily be considered the pioneer of the Vertigo comics universe while Neil Gaiman is responsible for giving it much of its heart and soul. At the very least, the parts of the “Vertigoverse” that form a shared universe. As many people know, Vertigo is also the home of many great comic runs that are unrelated to other comics and inhabit their own little worlds. Those are actually some of the most famous Vertigo titles. They include but are not limited to The Invisibles, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Scalped, Y: The Last Man and Fables. Vertigo does have many other series and mini-series that are linked together. Stories that are set in their own comics bus share a universe with other titles. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Dreaming are all examples of this. Although Moore is the one who cleared the path for more mature and intelligent comics to be told, it’s Neil Gaiman who’s responsible for giving the Vertigoverse a sense of coherence, a direction and its tone.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing had a tone of its own, but it never carried past his own tenure on the title. Gaiman's own series, Sandman, is more representative of the tone of Vertigo than any other comics from the publisher. The Books of Magic has that same tone that readers can find in Sandman. It’s not surprising considering they’re both by Gaiman.  

Gaiman can do horror just as well as Moore but he chooses not to. In his Vertigo comics he explores the ideas of myth, magic and identity. He's also very concerned with the idea of choices and individuals’ perceptions of reality. He's also quite the fan of stories that introduce someone to a hidden world of wonders, stories of initiation. It's evident in so many of his stories: Several Sandman stories, Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Books of Magic.

The Books of Magic is the story of young Timothy Hunter's initiation into the world of magic. He's guided by four magicians which Gaiman playfully nicknames the Trenchcoat Brigade. It's composed of Doctor Occult, Mister E, the Phantom Stranger and, of course this being a Vertigo comic, John Constantine. Each one takes Timothy on a journey. The Phantom Stranger brings him to the past and shows him the development of magic. Constantine takes him to America and shows him how magicians live in the modern world. Doctor Occult (and Rose) take Timothy to the land of Faerie and many other to show him all the lands in which magic is present. Finally, Mister E takes Tim to the very End. They travel to the future and see how magic transforms itself all the while witnessing some of Timothy’s possible futures. The Trenchcoat Brigade’s intentions are to positively influence Timothy whether he chooses the walk to path of magic or not.

In The Books of Magic, Gaiman demonstrates one of the skills Moore used while writing Swamp Thing. He seems to effortlessly incorporate existing DC characters into the richer world of Vertigo comics. It’s not surprising when you consider that Gaiman is a protégé of Moore. Over time there some pretty interesting differences have developed between both writers and depending who you talk to either one of them can be considered the superior author. Moore's work can be dry, cold and so structured it can make the reader feel alienated. Gaiman on the other hand has a softer approach.

I’ve just realized that part of this review is more of a comparison of Gaiman and Moore Vertigo comics than a proper review of The Books of Magic. It seems a bit late to go back now so I might as well continue with my comparison and how it relates to The Books of Magic. Both authors clearly love magic. There are several different types of magic and Moore and Gaiman each write about a specific kind of magic. Moore's magic is based in the real world study of magic, the magic that can quite literally be found in the day to day. He's studied the works of Crowley and the Jewish Kabbalah and has applied that to his work as well as his life. His comic that focuses on magic, Promethea, is a wonderfully complete story about the rules of magic. In fact, you could easily argue that a significant portion of the series is an essay in comic book form outlining the complicated rules, symbols and iconography of magic and how to understand it. In short, Moore's magic is overly structure and complexly defined.

Gaiman's magic is simple. He offers simple rules that can be combined in many different ways in order to offer thrilling results. Like Moore's magic it has a structure and some rules, but it's simpler. It's not as heavily as obviously structured but it’s all there. Based on the magic and the lands of the fantasy books of his childhood, Gaiman's magic could be said to be based in fiction instead of reality. This fictional magic also has symbols but their meanings are left to interpretation more so than Moore's. For Gaiman, there is no rule more important than the rule of names. He's also an ardent believer than there is nothing free, everything has a price. It's like a second law of thermodynamics for the magical realms. Every gift is met with an equal gift or service in return.

Gaiman demonstrates this best in the third chapter of The Books of Magic which is my favourite. The chapter focuses on one of the best elements of Gaiman's oeuvre and one of his most distinct collaborators, Charles Vess, is along for the ride. I love Gaiman's Faerie. It’s inspired by all the fairyland he encounter in the fantasy books of his childhood all condensed in one elegant and potently magical place. Of all the artists to have worked with Gaiman to this day, no one captures the essence of faerie quite like Vess. Artistically, this chapter is also my favourite. It’s gorgeously illustrated, the lines are elegant yet otherworldly and the colours are spot on.

For Timothy Hunter, magic is choice. It's as simple as that. You choose to live a life of magic; you choose which path to follow and which side you'll follow it on. You can even chose to make your own path. It’s not limited to Good and Evil, Chaos and Order, etc. It’s about the ability to make choices. Balance is still important to Gaiman though but it’s a balance on the micro scale, not on the macro. If an individual offers a service or a good, the person who took it has to offer something of equal value in return. Once again though, the power of magic is in the choices you make while giving and taking.

If there's one thing you need to have understood from this review is that Gaiman knows magic. More importantly, he knows his kind of magic and that's about all we can really expect to see from any author. He offers the reader a world where magic can truly be felt, you can experience the magic along with Timothy. Some things are left unexplained or ambiguous (the battle against the Cold Flame in India or the key Tim receives from Titania) and that’s the beauty of it. It adds incredible richness and depths to the comic. The Books of Magic is an excellent example of Gaiman casting one of his spells on the reader by engrossing him in the world that’s already in place but giving it a fresh spin and adding some depth and characterization. It’s a great comic and it really puts me in the mood to grab another Gaiman book and jump feet first into the land of Faerie or any other magical lands.

The Maximortal review

Rick Veitch is very underrated in my opinion. For nearly two decades he was at the forefront of comic book experimentation, creator rights and intelligent deconstruction of the superhero myth. Even his comics didn’t exist in a vacuum (nothing does), he played a pretty important part in the development and the deconstruction of superheroes. I won’t really say much more on the matter since I don’t feel I have the appropriate background and information on Rick Veitch’s career to give a comprehensive look at his achievements. I do know a few things for a fact, his comics are important works that challenge readers and the industry but they are, unfortunately, rather unpopular among the comic reading masses.  

It’s not all bad though. The more I read comics by Veitch the more I get the feeling I need to read more of him. Sometimes that feeling is mixed with the thought that he is largely underrated and that motivates me to read more of this stuff. The first work of his that I read was The One and it was glorious. It was simultaneously a wonderful and terrible experience. There was such venom seemed into the pages of the comic. There was also a sense of glee to be found in the dark lines of the black and white collection, as if Veitch was having a grand time creating a comic that could be, at times, so vile. Partway through the comic though, I started to pay attention. Veitch was saying something and it shocked me as a comics reader to find out that there is much more than just the latest superhero issue to comics. I’ve had similar experiences in the past but this one was mixed with a sense of taboo. I shouldn’t have been reading and enjoying a comic that seemed to take the genre it was exploring as a joke.

Fans of Rick Veitch will notice that when I first read The One I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t understand the creator, either. It’s after reading Brat Pack that I understood Veitch loves superheroes. It’s also because of his long time admiration of these modern myths that he was so good at tearing them apart to see what lies beneath. He fearlessly and unapologetically ventures into uncharted territory and it’s that exploration that results in such comics as The One, Brat Pack and The Maximortal.

The Maximortal is about two things. The first is about The Maximortal himself, a Superman copycat that’s done with a significantly darker and satirical twist. The second part of the comic is about the creators of Superman and, you could say, the modern myth of the superhero as we know it today. The story of Maximortal, or True Man as he’s actually known in the story, is intermixed with the history of the first half of the Twentieth Century. We see how he played a part in World War II as well as the Manhattan project. We also see how he influenced the works of physicists of the time (specifically Oppenheimer and Einstein). Veitch also has True Man’s existence preceed his creation at the hands of this story’s Siegel and Shuster analogues.

The Siegel and Shuster part of the comic is that one that strike’s an emotional chord in any regular comic reader. Their abuse at the hands of their publisher is upsetting not only as a fan of their work or the genre or the medium in which they worked, but also to readers who support creator rights. In short, they were taken advantage of and it’s still a legal battle that’s relevant today. Having recently read The Comic Book History of Comics, I was able to pinpoint the parts of the story that are based in fact and it’s upsetting how poorly Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were treated. Veitch masterfully combines both story to increase the level of depth of both stories. I don’t think they would have worked as well had they been told independently of one another.

A significant part of the comic is based in fact, even outside of the Siegel and Shuster portion. Veitch meditates on the idea of superheroes and their origin. He also argues as to why he thinks the creation of Superman (True Man, whatever) was a product of its time and why it endured. He supplements those ideas in The Maximortal with an essay about humanity, the superman, the rise of fascism and other strong nationalist movements and the works of Nietzsche.  Much like Veitch’s important contributions to comic books weren’t created in a vacuum, Superman wasn’t created out of thin air either.

One more thing of note, Veitch introduces another thought provoking element in his comic. He includes the notion that ideas are themselves alive, even to the point of having their own physical bodies. The idea of the superman became so prevalent to the mindset of the first half of the Twentieth Century that it resulted in the idea becoming real. Sure, Superman isn’t the same as Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but the idea of a superior human has become and intrinsic part of our modern culture.

It's not my favourite of Veitch's works but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. So far, I’ve enjoyed every comic by Veitch that I’ve read. Even if you don’t like his comic, they will always give you plenty of things to think about a long time after you put the book down. One of the things I wanted to review on my blog when I was toying with the idea was comics by Rick Veitch because there aren’t a whole lot of places that have offered interesting discussions of his body of work. I know that the above isn’t really worthy of much praise but it’s a step in the right direction. I’ll have to follow up this review with more reviews of his other comics. Well see, maybe along the way I’ll start better understand his contribution to comics and even if I don’t, it’s a good excuse to read some good comics.