Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Year in Review, Part Three – Best Comics and Novels of 2014

Best Science Fiction Books
Prophet is an impressive comic. Its basic composition is clear for all to see yet it combines words in pictures in ways that only the best comics can do. The result is not only one of the best comics but also one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read or watched this year. The third collected volume dealt with the combination of the story’s two main storylines which also happened to be the two opposing sides of a large conflict between various species and factions. Prophet is an excellent comic not just because of its interesting story. What really makes this comic worthwhile is the storytelling. Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milonogiannis know how to craft an exciting and visually fresh narrative. The continuation of this story was published in monthly single issues but I have yet to see solicitations for the fourth trade paperback volume. I really hope that I get to read the further adventures of all the John Prophets as this comic book revival series has been a pleasant and engaging surprise since the start.

I haven’t read many science fiction novels this year. I’m not sure why because I seem to continuously have an itch to read or watch science fiction but I often get distracted by something else. That makes me sound like a bit of a liar or as someone who’s exaggerating how much he’s been thinking of reading science fiction but regular readers of SUR will have notices how scattered I am when it comes to reading. There are just so many interesting books to read that I can barely keep focused on finishing what I’ve already started. You’d think that writing here would help with that but not nearly as much as I would like.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

A Year in Review, Part Two – Worst Comics and Novels of 2014

Worst Science fiction novels
This should have been a good book and that is one of the main reasons it disappointed me. The idea of writing a Star Wars novel that takes pale immediately after the end of Return of the Jedi is a good idea. What happens when the Rebellion destroys the leader of the Empire? Apparently, you fuck off to the outskirts of the galaxy and fight with space raptors and bicker in a public political setting. Granted, the ideas here were good. Leia continues to own her part as ambassador and her identity as the politically savvy member of the group. She even gets to struggle with the idea that Vader was her father. Space Raptors aren’t necessarily terrible per se and neither is the idea that Luke would fall in love and find a pupil just a few hours after the end of the Episode VI. The problem is that the execution of all those ideas fell flat and that’s that what made this a bad book.

Again, these are examples of books that have good ideas but fail to impress due to the authors’ inability to integrate the ideas in the narrative in a successful way. The biggest problem with these books though is that it treats the cast of TOS as something untouchable. It’s as if the writers are walking on eggshells the entire time because they can only use what’s been established in canonical Star Trek stories (such as the TV series and movies). No more, no less. That’s certainly one of the difficulties of writing tie-in novels so I do not hold a grudge against Dayton Ward and Greg Cox. I’m unaware if Ward and Cox are super Trekkies that do not want to tarnish the image of the Enterprise crew or if there was heavy editorial intervention or a combination of both. I don’t think having that knowledge would let me like these books anymore. I found then to be boring and lacking the energy or even the interesting premise of a lot of Star Trek episodes. Overall, it felt as though these stories were of little consequence. When you read a book like that you can’t help but think to yourself what the point of it all is.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Year in Review, Part One – Progress Report 2015

Here am I after another successful year writing a blog. It’s been a good year and I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to blog on a fix schedule. A lot of what I said in last year’s end of year review posts applies to this year. I’ve got more abandoned posts, I still have a secret project that my sister and I are working on which we will be definitively uploading in 2015. Plenty of stuff happened at SUR and I’m gearing up for plenty more good things to come for next year. Join me as I take a look at this year’s posts.

The biggest lesson I learned this year is that blogging at a rate of two posts per week drains you. It’s a lot especially since I continue to read and review more novels than I originally expected. I don’t know why it happens, it just does. I don’t focus too much on what I’m reviewing or worry about keeping strict balance or variety of mediums (comics, books, and movies or television). Somehow I manage to keep a decent variety of reviews but novels at still a pretty large focus. That’s unfortunate only because reading them is nearly always more time consuming than reading comics or watching a movie. Aside from that, there isn’t really a downside. It’s quite nice to have SUR there as an excuse to read books I’ve been wanting to read for years but haven’t because I was distracted by other things.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Blog Fantastic 032: Hogfather review

I’ve been reading the Discworld novels one at a time by publication order. I was going to read the sixth books, Wyrd Sisters but I thought it’d be fun to skip ahead to book twenty, Hogfather because it’s a Christmas book. There were a few problems with doing this because skipping over a dozen books meant that I missed out on books two and three of the Death series (Reaper Man and Soul Music). The biggest problem with that was not knowing who Susan Sto Helit is but you eventually find out while reading this book. She’s Death’s granddaughter. In the grand scheme of things that’s pretty minor and so I’m pleased with my decision to squeeze in a festive book in my reading list for the month.

I said this is a Christmas book and it is but the holiday isn’t quite the same in Discworld. There, they call it Hogswatch and it is celebrated on the last day of the year, December 32nd. They have a Santa Clause like fellow who go around in his sleigh pull by four boars (Gouger, Rooter, Tusker, and Snouter). He also goes down chimney ands to give gifts to the good girls and boys. Instead of leaving our milk and cookies he’s expected to find sherry and a meat pie. For the most part, he’s rather similar but Santa Clause and Hogfather’s origins could are quite different but I won’t say how because that would spoilt a big part of the book.

In many was Hogfather delivered what I’ve come to expect from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. There was humour abound, much philosophizing and satirizing as well. The structure of the story was different though. The book is made up of four storylines that are all, at best, loosely connected at first. Those storyline are:

1-The Guild of Assassins is hired to murder Hogfather. In turn they hire the services of Mr. Teatime (pronounced the-ah-tim-eh) to do the deed. He accomplishes it successfully in the very beginning of the book but how he did it isn’t revealed until the end of the book. It’s the mystery that ties the other storylines together. 
2-Susan Sto Helit , granddaughter of Death and governess to two children (in a very Merry Poppins way but funnier), is trying to find out what happened to Hogfather. Along the way she is aided by the Death of Rats, a rude raven, and the “Oh God” of Hangovers.
3-In Unseen University, the school of wizards, Archchancellor Ridcully is trying to find out why so many new gods (or anthropomorphic personifications), such as the Verruca Gnome, the Hair Loss Fairy and others,  are sprouting up all over.
4-Since the Hogfather is dead, Death has taken his place in order to fill the void. His main goal is to restore believe in Hogfather in order to bring him back.

As the story progresses some of the storylines cross path and they eventually all crash together for a big finish. It’s probably one of the most satisfying conclusions for a Discworld novel that I’ve read so far. The entire book might be the best so far, actually. While we know who hired the Guild of Assassins we do not know why until the very end. When we do learn why it’s a thematic punch to the face as Pratchett delivers and incredible amount of big ideas that are tied to humanity’s very existence and thriving nature on Discworld which echoes are own existence in the real world in a rather stirring way. 

I won’t spoil it here but Pratchett deals with the notion of why believing in fantasies such as Hogfather or the Tooth Fairy prepares us for believing some of the larger ideas of the universe. It’s form of mental exercise, basically. Stories and fantasies also act as a way for us to explain the world around us when we’re unable to explain it any other way. Learning and understanding how the stories and fantasies evolve throughout the ages also helps to better understand ourselves.

Hogfather delivers on some of the great elements of all Discworld novels. Pratchett has populated his world with dozens of interesting characters. Best of all he knows how to make them interact in ways that feel real but are also zany, completely unusual, and delightfully entertaining. That’s not to mention how witty he is with his narration. Hogfather provides additional proof (as if any was needed) that Pratchett is the king of satire. His observations are accurate and they betray his wise and uncompromising understanding of people and the world we live in. They’re also hilarious as anything you’re likely to come by. The best of all, his humour isn’t one-note. His mastery of all things gut-busting can be found on every single page and it appears in the form that is best suited to the particular scene being told. It includes situational comedy, wordplay, witticism, clever dialogue, comedy of manners, gallows humour, philosophical jokes, etc. You name it and he’s done it. Even multiple times and millions of fans around the world have enjoyed it. You’d be hard pressed to find a better book to give to a book loving friend in order to pass along some holiday cheer. Happy Hogswatch!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Star Trek: The Newspaper Comics vol. 1, 1971-1981 review

Did you know there once was a Star Trek newspaper comic? It’s true. Around the time of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture Paramount launched a daily newspaper comic chronicling the further adventures of the Enterprise and her crew. The daily strip was set during the timeline of the movie, rather than being set during the time of the original television show’s run. It’s very likely that this was done in order to make the daily strips more marketable and relatable to late 70s and early 80s Star Trek audiences. Having launched at the very end of the 70s and just a few days before the release of The Motion Picture it made sense that the comic strip would tell new stories of Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

This volume collects the first half of the US strip produced by Los Angeles Times Mirror Syndicate. There was also a UK strip which remains uncollected to this day but Rich Handley, who wrote the introduction to this volume, has collected the US and UK strips. He’s responsible for initially bringing this project to Dean Mullaney, the editor of IDW's The Library of American Comics imprint, which resulted in the two volume collection of the entire US newspaper comic. Handley is looking to have the UK strip collected as well but it’s unclear if this is a project that Mullaney and IDW are actively working on.

The Star Trek comics strip debuted on December 2, 1979, just a few days before the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It did not have a long life as it ended on October 25th, 1981. There are two primary reasons for the short lived existence of the strip. The first is that the young Star Trek newspaper comic had to compete with classic series such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon which had both been in print for decades. There was also a newer rival as Star Wars was also being distributed as a comic strip. There was simply not enough of a fan base to allow for all those various titles to survive in the newspaper landscape. The second reason is that Star Trek received rather poor circulation in newspapers in the US.

There are lots of picture in this post and I have to apologize for the quality of the images. I didn't want
to damage the book on the scanner. I'm starting with this picture because it's a simple image that is
well executed. I like it. 

The upside, of course, is that a publisher has finally collected the strip in its entirety and reproduced it for a new generation of fans. Using Handley’s private collection as well as many others that IDW could get access to (purchased and borrowed), the publisher was able to put together yet another stellar collection as part of their The Library of American Comics imprint. They’ve done a very successful job putting together many collections of classic and influential comic strips and while I’m not entirely certain that Star Trek: The Newspaper Comic deserted such a prestigious reproduction it’s nice to know that IDW continues to produce some of the best archival comic book collections. 

Artist Ron Harris adding some dynamic action in a Sunday page.

I recently sat down and read the first volume and I had good time but it was also a very frustrating read, mainly because of the nature of Star Trek stories and the format of daily newspaper strips. In short, I just don’t think that Star Trek lends itself well to the format. While my overall impression is a negative one there were still some rather impressive illustrations by writer/artist Thomas Warkentin. His drawings were, hands down, some of the best things about this book and it’s unfortunate that some strips simply look better than others because of how well they were able to be reproduced. It reminds you that this truly is an archival project and for that element alone I like this book. Yet none of that really matters if you’re looking at the quality of what’s being reproduced and that’s where even Warkentin, who is without a doubt the best writer and artist of the strip as far as this collection goes, fails to deliver a completely satisfying set of stories.

The first sample of many terrible alien designs to come. Those
things like kind of look like scarves? Arms.

This is a closer look at their faces. They're essentially big, cartoony eyes
with what appear to be a series of neck flats for mouthes. Just nasty and boring.

He certainly has a knack for writing dialogue that feels true to the character and harkens back to the actors’ performance on the original television series. Unfortunately, convincing dialogue and to-the-point storytelling, even when well done, it’s enough to carry the book. The main problem is the format of the newspaper strip. The structure of the comic strip is very simple. Monday through Saturday saw the single strip which is often made up of about three panels. Sundays consisted of a full page in colour. The problem is that three panels a day just isn’t enough to make for a satisfying Star Trek story. It has a choppy rhythm that is ultimately disruptive and breaks any momentum that the creative team can possible build in three-panel doses. The longer Sunday strips are good for building momentum but they’re undermined every Monday by a three-panel recap strip to reintroduce readers who don’t read the Sunday paper back into the story.

Another full page but this time it's with art by Warkentin and it's made up of daily strips.
Notice how it's mostly made up of talking heads? Just riveting stuff.

The comic strip brought with it the writing credits of well-known writers and artists. The most famous contributor to the comic was Larry Niven, famed science fiction writer and Gerry Conway, celebrated comic book illustrator. Unfortunately I did not get to read any of the stories by either of them as the first volume mostly collects the stories written and illustrated by Thomas Warkentin, the first person to work on the comic strip. He held the most reliable and sustained tenure on the title. He left after completing eight complete stories from the first daily in 1979 to 1981 after which he was followed by several other writers and artists. Based on the last two stories that are feature in this collection Warkentin was likely representative of the best stories the newspaper comic had to offer as the stories that followed are of a lesser quality. A lot of that has to do with the art though as Warkentin’s style was cleaner and more precise than that of the artists who drew the last two stories in this volume.

This is the first half of one of the earlier Sunday pages. I just love the red suits
with jet packs which Warkentin took from The Motion Picture. Great stuff from early on.

That being said there could very well be nice surprises in the second volume but I will probably not find out anytime soon. The reproduction of the strip was expertly handled by IDW but that also results in a high sticker price. The books, even when purchased at online bookstores, are a little too expensive for my tastes. I enjoyed reading Star Trek: The Newspaper Comics but not enough to cough up the money for the second volume. The biggest deal breaker here is the format of the comic strip. It simply doesn’t work well enough to justify spending money on the second volume. The newspaper comic format has such a bit impact on my reading experience that I wasn’t able to read this book from cover to cover. It took weeks to read in its entirety because I would sit down on weekends or evenings and read one story at a time. The narrative flow was too erratic and choppy that I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the stories being told, no matter what a particular story was about or how much I enjoyed the art.

Here's another terrible alien design. These poor bastards don't
even have eyes!

It’s fitting that IDW gave this newspaper comic the prestige treatment as they’ll most likely attract the attention of lifelong and diehard fans of the franchise. The stories (their format, execution and reproduction, and price) are not for the occasional fan of the movies or some of the television series.  The comic strip will likely only be loved by those who have watched and rewatched all the movies and (at least) all of TOS. A lot of what makes Star Trek enjoyable, including the enhanced visual effects of the movies (in comparison to the television series) and the soundtracks, are obviously not part of the reading experience but it’s also missing the momentum and the Act structure of the episodes.  For the most part this is a “talking heads” comic and while that’s pretty true to the TOS episodes at least on the TV series you could see the characters inhabit the fantastic setting of the Enterprise’s bridge. The TOS movies were able to expand on the visions of the original series and it’s unfortunate that the strip, intended to attract the same audiences as the new movie, doesn’t have any of the gravitas of its theatrical counterpart. Likewise, the format itself presents a clear disadvantage to readers compared to other available Star Trek reading material at the before, during and after the original publication of the newspaper comic. I’m thinking primarily of other comics by Gold Key and Marvel Comics but paperback novels were also widely available at the time. I’ve read Star Trek in all three of those formats and the comic strip is the clear loser in nearly all categories.

Before buying this comic you must ask yourself how big of a Star Trek fan you are. Not in order to brag about it or to compare yourself to other fans (doing that will only prove that you’re an asshole) but in order to determine just how likely you are to enjoy this collection of newspaper comics.

Mushroom head aliens? Yes. Only in Star Trek, unfortunately.

Mudd cameo. It's difficult not to love these panels. 

I'll end it here with a great illustration of the Enterprise by Warkentin. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Superman for All Seasons review

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have done a lot of work together. I’ve had the pleasure of reading a lot of their collaborations (though not all) and I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees. The more recent book of theirs that I’ve read is Superman for All Seasons and I really like it.

I was expecting something similar to what he did at Marvel with their origins stories for Daredevil and Hulk. That’s not exactly it. It’s also different form their work on Batman which focuses, more or less, on telling mysteries set Gotham that used many of the main cast of characters from Batman stories. Superman for All Seasons begins with Clark Kent’s late adolescence and tells the story of his first few years as Superman. It’s not an origin story, not really. Nobody even mentions Krypton. It’s more of a story about Superman than a Superman story. I’ll do my best to explain that but let’s backtrack a little.

I’m not a huge fan of origin stories but hey are necessary to have for characters that live in a serialized medium like comic books. Knowing a character’s backstory, their very beginnings, helps to define a character. It gives them motivation and it helps the reader better understand why a character does what they do. The problem I have with origin stories is that some people feel it’s important to retell them over and over again. Reimagined origins or retelling with the purpose of focusing on a specific aspect of the character that was at best loosely defined before or at worst tacked on to the character later on in order to modernize them or make them more accessible to a new generation of readers. Personally I think it’s annoying as hell to have new original stories for some of the most popular superhero characters every few years. Batman and Superman have probably had more versions told of their origin stories than any other superhero characters.

I haven’t read Superman for All Seasons until now because I thought it was going to be another original story. I gave in because I felt like reading a Superman story and I hadn’t read this one yet but mostly I picked it up because of Tim Sale’s art which I really like. I like the way he draws Clark Kent and Superman. He convincingly makes them look like different individuals without giving them different body shapes or giving one different physical attributes than the other. His Clark Kent is wide and solid looking. He’s big but Sale gives him delicate features which makes him boyishly handsome while also giving him an air of friendliness and approachability. He convincingly illustrates the alter egos of Clark and Superman. Clark wears clothing that is a little loose which retains his bulky look without giving him muscular definition. His glasses accentuate his innocence and friendliness. When he’s Superman, his costume is tight, which serves well to show off his muscles which immediately gives him a strong presence. Without his glasses his eyes are drawn to be very squinty but it’s done in a way as to make him more threatening. This doesn’t always work because his features are still drawn rather small for the size of his body, particularly his face, but in doing so Sale maintains an air of approachability while also giving him a bit more menace (he’s a crime fighter after all).

Sale didn’t disappoint with his work on this book. It helps that Bjarne Hansen did a wonderful job with the colouring. The entire book is given a classy painterly look. The colour palette is nuanced and soft but it does so without becoming lifeless, stiff or muddy. Sale’s art is usually very clear, even when he uses a lot of black shapes. With Superman, compared to his Batman work, there are very few pages with heavy inks. Instead there are clear lines, well defined shapes but it’s Hansen that gives the art its depth. He grounds the characters into the background and he helps to sell the double-page spreads throughout the book of which there are many. One of the tricks Hansen did in the comic that I like was using slightly flatter colours for the superheroic elements of the story, like Superman’s costume or Lex Luthor’s robots. The bright colours contrast with the painted colours used throughout the book and the effect is to make all the superhero stuff leap off the page. It’s quite a pleasant and effective colouring technique.

While the art was good, even better than I was expecting, partly because of Hansen’s colouring, the story is what made this comic so damn good. I previously said that this comic isn’t a Superman story, it’s a story specifically about him and that’s the great idea that gives the comic its thematic weight and separates it from so many other Superman comics.

People say that Superman is different from other super heroes because his “real” identity is that of his super-powered identity, not his human identity. I think that depends on who is writing Superman. Some people say there are two types of Superman stories: those that focus on the man and those that focus on the super. I would say that this particular story focuses on the man. In writing Superman for All Seasons Loeb focuses on the man, specifically he focuses on the idea that Clark Kent becomes the hero of Metropolis because of the nurturing and care given to him by Jonathan and Martha Kent who found him in a rocket ship when he was still a baby. With this comic, Loeb argues that its nurture, not nature, that helped shaped Clark into a heroic figure. By doing so, he’s also clearly establishing his Superman story as one of those that focuses specifically with the man.

As you might have guessed from the title, Superman for All Seasons is divided into four chapters, each one dealing with a particular season. Each chapter is also narrated by an individual close to either Clark or Superman. The narrators and chapter pairings are: Spring/Jonathan Kent, Fall/Lois Lane, Summer/Lex Luthor and Winter/Lana Lang. The Spring and Winter chapters focus on Clark and how the emergence of his superpowers have affected him and the people from Smallville that are closest to him. The Summer and Fall chapters focus on the Superman identity and how it has affected the city of Metropolis and some of its key individuals. I think that the Spring and Winter chapters are the highlights of this book as Loeb succeeds to make Clark’s fantastic emotional turmoil relatable and believable.

Loeb makes his themes and his approach to Superman’s story quite clear in the first issue. In a scene beginning with Clark and Lana are walking around in Smallville the narration by Pa Kent reads:

Sometimes, when the corn was planted, it shot up to soon. / The roots hadn’t taken hold, so the stalk couldn’t support its own weight. / The corn would turn sour. / I don’t know if Clark knew how lucky he was growing up in a place like Smallville.

The narrator is comparing a stalk of corn to Clark. Being raised in a small town like Smallville has given Clark the time to set down roots and to become morally grounded. Doing so will make him stronger later in life after he’s “shot up”. The analogy here is likely making reference to moral roots, being raised in a small town has given Clark a specific perspective on life. It’s immaterial and doesn’t focus on financial wealth. Instead, it focuses on family, being kind to others, and finding happiness in small comforts. There is also a link with Clark’s emotional maturity and the development of his powers. It’s telling that his superpowers emerge at the end of his teenage years. By that time in his life he’s already learned the lessons that will guide him in using his power in a responsible way. Certainly there is a learning curve but for the most part the foundation was strong and so he eventually learns how far he will go in using his powers.

Another clue as to what this narration can means can be found in Sale’s dedication in the trade paperback. “For Norman Rockwell and his love of a vision of Americana that resonates through its limitations” Many of Rockwell famous paintings and illustrations highlight a simple way of life. His work is underpinned by core American values which were often sentimental and idealistic. He offered a vision of America that was simple yet complex, evocative, and thoughtful.

 The mention of limitations is linked to the story being told in the second half of Superman for All Seasons. After a confrontation with Lex Luthor, Superman learns that despite all of his powers there are certain things he simply can’t do. He’s superhuman but he’s not omnipotent. This is an important element of his character because the knowledge that he cannot do everything and anything means he, like all of humanity, is required to make choices. He’s had to learn to live with larger than life powers and then he had to learn that his choices as a super-powered being will have larger than life consequences.

While it’s not stated in the text as a part of this story, I also like to think of limitations as being an integral part of Superman. As a being that is so incredibly powerful he’s constantly a danger to normal people around him. Losing his temper could accidentally result in large scale destruction and potentially thousands of deaths. How does he interact with the rest of humanity when he’s Clark Kent? In order to function normally he has to suppress his impressive gifts. Many of Superman’s limitations are self-imposed. Limitations in the use of his power, both in what he is willing to do with them and in how much strength he uses in everyday situations. He does this in order to prevent himself from abusing his powers and hurting others.

This brings us back to his Clark Kent identity and the idea that Superman is his “true” identity. I completely disagree with this idea of a “true” identity. Superman is a complex character and you could argue that Clark Kent has existed far longer than Superman. Superman is a construct of Clark’s that allows him to use his powers while maintaining a life in which he can, as Clark, live like a man. This is another form of self-imposed limitation because it shows that Clark is not willing to fully embrace, on a permanent basis, the identity of Superman. He wants to maintain his connection to humanity and the best way to do that is to continue being part of humanity. Clark lives a human life in order to continuously provide his Superman identity with moral and intellectual guidance.

Loeb and Sale wanted to write a Superman story that lent itself well to large panels, many double-page spreads. They certainly succeed at that. The large panels and the overall decompressed aspect of the writing and the art really help to give this story resonance. Superman for All Seasons is a contemplative work and by keeping the focus tightly on Clark’s development into his new identity as the hero of Metropolis  the creative team succeeds at giving their book the thematic resonance they were attempting to achieve. I particularly liked the use of narrators that gave an outsider’s point of view of Clark’s struggle in cementing his identity as Superman. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Letters From Father Christmas review

I discovered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien because of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. For a little more than a decade, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were all needed from Tolkien. I knew there were other works floating around, some related to the books I’d already read and some other mostly unrelated works. In the last couple of years I’ve gathered some of those other books. The first I read was The Children of Húrin which I thought was excellent. That was some time ago but I’ve finally finished reading another book by Tolkien: Letters From Father Christmas.

The book collects a familial tradition that Tolkien began in 1920 when his eldest child, John, was but three years old. Every year the children of Papa Tolkien would receive one letter (sometimes more) from Father Christmas. They came in envelopes which were covered with little flourishes and unusual postage stamps that looked like something you could only get in the North Pole. Inside each envelope was a letter written is shaky handwriting that also had plenty of flourishes. They were handwritten by Father Christmas himself! He also drew pictures for the children on occasion and as the years went by his letter would be accompanied by additional notes from the North Polar Bear scribbled in the margins and later still, Ilbereth the Elf would write on behalf of Father Christmas when he got particularly busy.

The letters vary a little in content based on the time of year they were written. If in November, for example, Father Christmas mentions how busy they’re getting up in the North Pole preparing for Christmas and he’ll often conclude by asking the children to tell him what they’d like as gifts. Otherwise, the letters tell of some of the activities going on in the North Pole since the last letter that was written. This often deals with some of the shenanigans the North Polar Bear has gotten into it (he’s well-meaning but very clumsy), a quick mention of what Father Christmas and his friends have done in the summer and how they’re preparing for Christmas day. A few letters focus on the thievery of the Goblins or their invasions of the store rooms.  They’re fun and rather precious reads when you consider their real-world origins but ultimately reading them in quick succession you can’t help but be very aware of the formulaic nature of each letter. The content of many letters are so similar that it just feels repetitive. The Goblin invasion I mention above is the biggest exception to this formula.

Despite the letters’ shortcomings as a serial narrative, Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderfully delightful book when you pull back from it and consider the tradition Tolkien (secretly) had with his children under the guise of writing letters from Father Christmas. That’s truly important because the letters are lovingly crafted. Seeing the amount of work Tolkien put into his letters is marvelous. His illustrations are colourful and fun but also quietly majestic at times. The envelopes are decorated and the scripting in the letters is stylized. Each and every person who writes in the letters (Father Christmas, North Polar Bear and his cousins, and Ilbereth) all have their very own style of writing. Father Christmas’s writing is shaky because he’s old, North Polar Bear’s writing is very blocky and makes use of many straight lines since it’s difficult for him to write with his paws (indeed, he does better when using the pen with his mouth in later letters), and Ilbereth has a very spidery script which reminds me of Elvish writing from The Lord of the Rings. As if to strengthen that link Tolkien has Ilbereth write in Elvish in one of the last letters.

What really makes Letters From Father Christmas a good read are the letters themselves and their presentation in the book. The production value of my edition is simply lovely. Thick, glossy paper which helps to bring the various illustrations and reproductions of the letters (and many of the envelopes those letter came in) to life. That’s very important considering the amount of craft put into the production of the letters, not just their content. It’s a hardcover volume which is important because this is the kind of book readers will likely flip through on a regular basis. Yet, it’s also a slim and rather compact hardcover, somewhere between the size of a mass market paperback and a the trade paperback (of not a novel, not of a comic book). It’s one of those rare book productions that manage to be both sturdy and handsome while also being compact and easily readable.

When I pull back from the book itself and think of the idea of collection something very personal, something that used to only exist for one particular family, my enthusiasm wanes a little. These are inherently private letters, from a father to his children.  You could probably discuss about Tolkien’s intention for hours (did he mean for the letters to ever be published?) but I think it’s a moot point considering the book was released by his estate. The more I think about this the more I think it doesn’t matter as much as I originally though. The letters existed for many years but their future was uncertain. By collection and publishing them the Tolkien Estate has ensured that a part of Tolkien will continue to exist in the eye of the publish for as long as it remains in print and a little while longer after that. I think I would mind less about my intellectual heritage if it was published in such a nice way as Letters From Father Christmas.  

One of the nicest thing about this book is that it has a completely different appeal to me as a reader than the rest of Tolkien’s work I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m not a Tolkien scholar or even an exceptionally passionate admirer of his life and body of work. I rank him as one of the most gifted and serious fantasy writers of the 20th century but this is my first time reading a book by Tolkien the non-fantasy writer. Don’t tell me that because there are goblins, bits of magic and that Father Christmas is a potential pre-cursor for Gandalf that Letters From Father Christmas is and should continue to be considered a work of the fantasy genre. You’re missing the point. These letters weren’t written by Tolkien as a scholar or as a fantasy novelist, they’re written by Tolkien as a father. They’re imbued with so much love and joy that it’s impossible not to appreciate this book’s charm. I’ve read letters and essays by Tolkien and they’ve often had a stuffy, overly-serious tone so to read his Father Christmas letters addressed to his children was a special treat because it added some much-needed lightness to the man and his legacy.

I’m still a tiny bit bothered by the implications of publishing something so personal, especially posthumously, but this isn’t the first time a publication has been released after an author’s death and it likely won’t be the last. Yet, I’m starting to think that if the Tolkien Estate made the decision and his children were involved (they were, primarily Christopher Tolkien) then I really shouldn’t let myself be bothered by it and simply enjoy this wonderful gift from the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Realism, Hope and Optimism in Warren Ellis’s Ocean: A Review

Warren Ellis is the best writer of science fiction stories in all of comics. There, I said it. I mean it too. His comics are regularly intelligent and well-paced. He’s very skilled at taking big and sometimes complicated ideas and simplifying them enough to make them easily digestible. He manages to do this (exactly how, I don’t know) without dumbing it down or changing the idea to fit the story he’s trying to tell. Instead, he uses scientific ideas as the starting point for his stories and builds the rest around it. His entire comic book writing career has dealt with scientific ideas whether or not he’s writing a strictly science fictional story. This style of writing is often paired with a large dose of realism all of which gives his writing a very specific flair.

In order to understand Ellis’s approach to writing science I need to give a quick overview of two important movements in comic books: revisionism and reconstructionism. The 1980s saw the emergence of several highly regarded mature comic book works such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Their impact on the comic book industry was a nearly immediate attempt to recapture the same feel of those comics but it was done so by creative teams that lacked the crucial understanding of those influential works. Comic books of the early 1990s were plagued with what is now known as the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic. Writers and artists would try to emulate the harsh realisms and brutality comics such as Watchmen only to end up with senseless violent and poorly thought-out comics of their own.

What made those critically acclaimed mid-to-late 1980s comics so good was the use of realism in telling in storytelling. By adding social, political and real-world physics to comics the revisionist movement was born. This use of intelligent storytelling was often combined with experimental narrative techniques. The Dark Knight Returns used a 16-panel grid as the basis of every page while Watchmen did the same with a 9-panel grid. Both works also considered the realistic implications of having superheroes. In The Dark Knight Returns this is mostly apparent in Frank Miller’s use of news media while in Watchmen Alan Moore took superheroes as the foundation for his world building of an alternate America. Taking fanciful ideas and treating them with the utmost seriousness and concern for verisimilitude was one of the driving forces behind such revisionist works.

After the many failed attempts at recreating revisionist comics a second movement was created with the release of Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in 1994. This movement, called reconstructionism, had the intent of recapturing the wonder and awe of superhero comics which used to inspire them as young readers. This wasn’t just a return to form for superhero comics. Instead, it was a counter movement to revisionism since it kept the intelligence of revisionist works while imbuing them with a more hopeful tone. I must point out that revisionist works like Marvels and Busiek’s later series Astro City weren’t simply about having fun with superhero comics. They had emotionally potent and often literary stories to tell but they did not shy away from using highly fictitious elements (superheroes and pseudo-science, primarily) in their stories. They were not concerned with the often stark portrayal of reality that was often found in revisionist comics.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with Warren Ellis. His comic book writing career began in 1990. By 1995 he wrote a companion comic to Marvels called Ruins where he presented highly revisionist and scientifically accurate (at least in theory, we do not have real superheroes to provide any additional prove) depictions of various super-powered beings in the Marvel Universe. He presented Invisible Woman as being blind when using her invisibility powers since her eyes new longer interact with light correctly (I apologize for being vague or inaccurate on this point, it’s been a while since I read Ruins). Wolverine is the victim of adamantium poisonings, the Hulk is essentially a walking tumour, etc. Rising to fame as an important and skilled comics writer during the nineties would result in Ellis’s entire career dealing with aspect of both revisionism and reconstructionism in his work.

Warren Ellis used a realistic approach in his science fiction writing which often brings him to deal with revisionist motifs. Yet, Ellis is also quite capable of including reconstructionist ideals in his stories, too. A lot of his superhero comics are characterized by his realistic approach to science in his stories while also employing a sense of wonder and awe to the science and his storytelling. A lot of that has to do with the tone of a specific story. Ellis is as capable of writing a revisionist work at the same time that he is writing something purely reconstructionist. He’s a an oddity amongst comic book writers since he’s written series that combines the style and content of both movements into under one title, with little or no narrative and storytelling conflict. Planetary is probably the best example of that.

Both these movement are tied to superhero comics (for the most part) it’s difficult to apply them directly to his non-superhero work. Most of his non-superhero work is science fiction and since a lot of superhero comics are a sub-genre of science fiction you can see echoes of revisionism and reconstructionism in his science fiction comics.

Warren Ellis deals with hard sciences and near future science fiction. Some of the very first lines in his Wikipedia page say that he “is well known for sociocultural commentary, both through his online presence and through his writing, which covers transhumanist themes (most notably nanotechnology, cryonics, mind transfer, and human enhancement).” Sometimes I think his mind lives in the near future while he body occupies the same time and space as the rest of us which allows him to write so convincingly and intelligently about complex ideas that have their roots in the sciences (social, technological and natural).

Those are some of the thoughts that float in my head each time I read a comic by Ellis. This is what I had in the back of my head when I recently reread Ocean, a single volume science fiction story by Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.

Ocean’s plot is pretty straightforward. Set 100 years in the future, United Nations Weapons Inspector Nathan Kane travels to a space station named Cold Harbor in rotation around Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. A significant yet highly secretive discovery has been made in Europa’s ocean. A very large number of coffins are submerged under the planet’s icy surface, along with weapons that are capable of destroying planets. Kane’s been asked to investigate and, if need be, take action to ensure they’re not put into use by individuals with nefarious goals. It would have been a simple mission if the Doors corporation didn’t also have a station in orbit to make things complicated, and highly dangerous, for Kane and the scientists of Cold Harbor.

What makes Ocean an engaging and worthwhile read isn’t the plot. That’s actually rather run-of-the-mill. What’s truly wonderful is the tone which conveys a great sense of respect for other cultures, humanity’s future and the scientific ideas that Ellis is playing with. A big part of the tone is established by the clean and very precise art of Chris Sprouse. He’s aided by regular contributor Karl Story who handles the ink. Ellis’s distinct pacing allows Sprouse’s page layouts to be very cinematic. He also gives the interiors of the space ships and space stations are surprisingly open, almost breezy, feel.

The rest of the tone is the result of Ellis’s writing choices. Consider his charactesr. Nathan Kane, the lead protagonist, is a black man. Something we don’t often see in comics today, let alone ten years ago. Three quarters of the crew at Cold Harbor’s crew are women, professionals in their field of study. They’re skilled and intelligent but they’re also quirky (without being stereotypical) and unique. All five main characters accept and respect the people with whom they work. This isn’t the focus of the story but it anchors it and gives the story weight and meaning. Ellis builds his story starting with the science, continuing with characters and leading to the story. That’s the formula to a lot of his work. He does this while celebrating a great deal of positive things and without ever making it a sickly sweet read. We have his English wit to thank for that, I’m sure as the dialogue is filled with snark and sarcasm.

Ellis doesn’t shy away from showing you a potential future where conglomerates have delved deeper into their invasions of our individual rights and privacy for profit. He won’t hesitate to craft a story in which humanity’s roots are discovered to be a long-dormant humanoid species from the same solar system that lived to kill and destroy. In essence, he doesn’t pull his punches. He will show you the worst of mankind in most of his work but this is counter-balanced with his compulsion to show you the best of mankind. He’s cautionary as well as being hopeful. It’s all incredibly humanistic. Even the figurehead of the Doors corporation in Ocean is sympathetic in his own way. He’s delusional, sadistic and hysterical, absolutely, but also a sad and pitiful man that you’re made to understand is only trying to make the best of a very, very situation. 

It’s clear that there are some revisionist elements in Ocean, particularly the realism of the technology of space flight. The science also includes the rather interesting idea of guns designed to be safely used (for the shooter, not for the intended target) in a space station or ship. The action piece in the last issue works wonders with artificial gravity and atmospherics within the station. Despite all of this, I would argue that Oceans has more in common with reconstructionism because of the comic book’s overall tone. It’s inherently optimistic. Certainly the Doors company is a frightful look into our potential future but the organization is defeated by a small group of five intelligent individuals. The comic remains hopeful and positive in face of the clearly evil and equally realistic villains (one group of villains acts more as an allegory of our past errors than as actual murder-obsessed ancestors to humanity) of the book.

The book’s main theme is to supplant positive aspects of humanity over negative ones. The Doors manager wants to harness the destructive power of the alien technology for personal gain while the scientists want to understand along with Kane who wants to understand it and make judgement on the value or lack of value to humanity. The Doors corporation wants to continue mistreating humans, even stripping individuals of autonomy in order to attain higher profit margins while Kane wants to learn from the errors of our parents and ancestors in order to build a better future for all. While Doors chooses attempts to mean their goals by crushing individuals freedoms Kane succeeds in his efforts by celebrating individual differences and unique abilities of the individuals that surround him. That, ultimately, is what makes this a hopeful story. Ellis shows a clear love and respect for science and both possibilities of developing it (negative and positive) but he suggests that intelligent, educated and determined individuals will find a way to overcome any negative aspects of future scientific discoveries.

Ocean is one of Ellis’s lesser works, that’s not really up for debate. Yet it’s still quite satisfying because it fits so nicely within Ellis’s style as a writer and deals with a fair amount of his pet themes. It’s not essentially reading for people starting to discover his body of work but it does play a role in emphasising the kind of writer Ellis is and the kind of comics he writes. It’s not just for the Ellis completest but for any comic reader that enjoys comics that are made up of equal part action and thought provoking storytelling.  

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez review

Bumperhead is the second original graphic novel that creator Gilbert “Beto” Hernandez has done for Drawn and Quaterly, following last year’s Marble Season. Marble Season was a semi-autobiographical story that dealt with the joys of childhood. In my review I described it as “love letter to the magical delights and misfortunes of childhood”. Beto used his own experiences as a framework for the story and with Bumperhead he set out to do the same thing with his experiences as an adolescent. The result is a fascinating story about a young man who was forever shaped by his adolescent years and the life lessons that can be taken from his past experiences.

The book feels similar to a few recent works by Hernandez. Marble Season, of course, because it focuses on a period in a person’s life and develops that into a larger narrative. The other comic is the recent collection of Julio’s Day which tells of Julio’s entire life, from birth to death. Bumperhead combines these two narrative formats into a familiar yet different story of its own. The book starts with Bobby, a young man who is teased for having a big forehead, continues to spend a large portion of the book on his teenage and young adult years to finally wrap it up with a few pages of Bobby in his golden years to end with a strange and unconvincing declaration that he’s had a good life.

Along the way, Hernandez deals with several issues. The first is the passivity of youth and how that can shape a sad, isolated and depressing adulthood. Bobby doesn’t seem interesting in committing to anything one thing in particular. He loves music, he loves girls, he likes hanging out with his friend and taking part in recreational drinking and drug use but he doesn’t have any ambition. He does all of these things but a particularly attractive girl or an excellent record are enough to make him change interests. When discussing his future with a girlfriend, Bobby mentions he doesn’t have any interests in going to college. He’s simply happy to be done with high school and he’s ready for whatever will happen next. What he doesn’t understand is that by choosing not to pursue any in particular nothing worthwhile will ever cross his path.  

It’s not surprise that he ends up working a job he hates and living alone. That is, until he discovers the punk movement and decides to get angry. He uses this anger to create a new lifestyle for himself but it’s hollow. It has no meaning for him. People get angry for all sorts of reasons and we often try to maintain the anger for extended periods of time. So long that we often forget what initially caused us to be angry.  Bumperhead deals with this theme and we see Bobby deal with his anger in different ways throughout his life only to have it end with the recognition that it’s often not worth holding on to our anger as it’s a self-destructive emotion.

Bumperhead also proves to be an interesting remuneration as to how the smallest things from our past (regrets, thoughts, actions, feelings) can and often do haunt us for the rest of our lives. It’s a neat look at the idea that high school never ends. No matter what we do to change ourselves, we remain the same. We struggle with our identity and the identity of others to the point of stressing ourselves out. The consequences are that it begins to affect our health. We care so much about what other people think of us that we change and continue trying to change to no avail.

Bobby makes his way into the punk scene of the 1970s only to slowly move away from it all. He returns to the scene a few years later but he doesn’t recognize the movement anymore. He sees other punks, shirtless with shaven heads and piercings. He admits to himself that he doesn’t belong anymore. Did he ever truly belong within the punk scene or was it just a way for him to run away from his past experiences? Just like he moved from one girlfriend to the next during his high school days, in adult life he moves from one scene to the other. At one time he’s a lazy, booze sloshing couch potato, then he becomes a heavy drugs user only to move in and out of the punk scene for a few years. Along the way he breaks old friendships, makes new ones as he meets new people only to sever ties with them, makeup with old friends, and start all over.

At times Bumperhead feels like an anthology story. Beto uses the same characters is somewhat different roles in order to present the reader with alternatives to the lives of Bobby and the supporting cast. In each iteration the characters seem unhappy and it takes them their entire lives to recognize that they should stop pretending to be something they don’t truly want to be and simply be themselves with all their likes and dislikes. Even the characters who were consistent throughout the entire comic (and their life), such as Colette a born-again Christian who becomes a nun, doesn’t seem particularly happy with her life choices.

It’s quite nice that Beto doesn’t appear to be judging any of his characters. Instead, he presents their lives with such ferocious veracity as to make his themes that much more effective. Similarly to his black and white illustrations his storytelling presents a stark dichotomy, heartfelt portrayals of humanity contrasting with some of the worst decisions individuals can make in a lifetime.

This year Gilbert Hernandez won his very first Eisner Award for an untitled short story released in Love and Rockets: New Stories #6. He’s been nominated before but it’s shameful that the Eisner Award has failed to recognize such an important creator in comics. Gilbert Hernandez has worked with his brothers Jaime (and sometimes Mario) Hernandez on their ground-breaking and consistently spectacular comic Love and Rockets for more than thirty years. As if that accomplishment wasn’t enough, they’ve used Love and Rockets as well as their side projects to tell some of the most harrowing and heartfelt set of stories in any medium since the 1980s. They’re master storyteller, both of them, and it’s about damn time that Beto gets his Eisner. I wouldn’t consider New Stories #6  his best work but the man definitively needs to be recognized as being one of the great storytellers of our time. He’s worthy of your attention and readership and he’s got dozens of books in print, just waiting for you to dive in and shake you up a little. When people argue against comics being a trashy medium or being nothing but superhero stories, I suggest they read something by Los Bros Hernandez. The works of Gilbert Hernandez act as definitive proof that comics can tell some of the most powerful stories in print.