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.

Worst Fantasy Novels
It’s unfortunate but I returned to Brian Jacques Redwall series too late. There’s nothing specifically wrong or bad about Mossflower or the other Redwall books I’ve read. I used to enjoy them a great deal but I never read too many (maybe five or six, tops) and so I wanted to return to the series and give it another try as part of The Blog Fantastic. I had fond memories of the anthropomorphic animals and their medieval world but what I encountered was paint-by-numbers fantasy. Good versus Evil, so plain and predictable that a character’s specie will tell you if it’s a good or evil character. The good always win and often without directly killing the bad characters. There is a good amount of detail, particularly in the descriptions of food and the different dialects of various animals. The moles are simply a delight. I like the overall wholesome quality of the books. It’s often been remarked as being a series of Christian fantasy though I think that’s just something Christian fans like to say as there isn’t anything specifically religious in the books I’ve read.

This year while reading Mossflower I discovered it’s a good book but I’ve completely outgrown it and all the other Redwall books. It’s too nice, too inoffensive. I need more conflict in my books and I need challenging storytelling and Mossflower didn’t even begin to satisfy on that front. The next time I’ll be reading a Redwall book will be with my kids, no doubt.

Let’s be clear, just like Mossflower, this book isn’t bad. I’m listing it as the runner-up to the worst fantasy book I read in 2014 because it didn’t completely match up with my expectations. I think Fritz Leiber is overhyped but not necessarily overrated. I’ve read a lot about Leiber and the significant influence he had on several generations of fantasy, specifically sword and sorcery, writers. It’s well deserved even if I didn’t particularly warm up to his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories as collected in Swords Against Death. My problem with this collection was almost entirely my expectations. I was expecting to be completely blown away by this book but instead I was a little confused as to Leiber’s writing style and I struggled to understand why he remains popular to fantasy enthusiasts, even to this day. It was very clear to me why he’s regarded as a giant of the field but I admit I didn’t entirely enjoy his stories. There’s an upside to it though because I found Leiber’s book to be fascinating. It’s one of those odd books that I can admire though not really enjoy. There’s enough here to get me to give it another try. That’s something I plan on doing next year and hopefully I enjoy it more.

Worst Comic Books
Last year’s list split comics based on when the collected edition of title was originally published. I’m giving up on that this year because I really don’t follow new comics much and I also don’t care when specific things have been published. I realize that by not keeping with up regular comics this end of the year list loses some of its relevancy but I pulled away from buying monthly singles issues because I was tired of keeping up. Reading comics was starting to feel like a rat race and I was buying books I didn’t particularly enjoy simply because it was becoming important for my pull list to stay relevant. When something you like to do starts to feel like something you have to do it’s time to pull back and that’s what I did.

Here then, is my list of the worst comics I read in 2014, regardless of when they were originally published or collected.

Star Wars: Jedi vs. Sith and Star Wars: Outlander: The Exile of Sharad Hett:
While I was reading a lot of Star Wars related material back in May I stumbled on these two volumes. They’re mostly terrible. I disliked them so much I couldn’t even bring myself to write a review. Jedi vs. Sith is the worst of the two. It involved a bunch of kids on a hick planet who are discovered to be force sensitive. They’re immediately taken to the frontlines of a war between the Jedi and the Sith where they wage impossible battles with beings far more skilled than they are in basically all facets of warfare. It’s notable for being a comic that features Darth Bane who apparently has a novel trilogy devoted to him. I guess for diehard fans of Bane this comic is a big deal but for me it’s just a big turd. It has no redeeming qualities that I could see.

The second disappointing Star Wars comics I read, Outlander: The Exile of Sharad Hett, is a little better though it also fails to entertain on many levels. The entire story is founded on the idea of taking characters who have a small, often non-speaking, part in one of the prequel movies and try to make a canonically important story. It’s such a wrong-headed approach because you get the sense that the creative team cares more about making sure their story matters in the grand scheme of things instead of putting their efforts into telling a story that’s worth being told. It makes the entire thing feel very amateurish despite how professionally they might apply their skills in the production of Outlander. There’s nothing wrong taking minor characters and using them to tell big stories but it’s difficult to do so in the Star Wars expanded universe because in a galaxy with thousands of characters vying for attention writers tend to focus more on the plot and action to the detriment of good storytelling. It all feels flat and unimportant resulting in an easily forgettable reading experience.

Runner-up: Teen Titans: Earth One vol. 1:
Poor Jeff Lemire didn’t have a very good year. I was excited to read his science fiction comic Trillium but was ultimately disappointed by the story while being impressed by his willingness to play with the format in service of the story. It didn’t end up on this list because I appreciated that he tried to tell a story outside of his comfort zone and at the very end of the day it matters more to me as a reader to know that he’s willing to try different kind of stories and techniques instead of trying to repeat his successes. Teen Titans, on the other hand, is an unnecessary retelling of the Teen Titans coming together for the first time and forming a superhero team.

The entire Earth One line of DC Comics is a marketing conundrum that seems destined to fail. The whole idea is to publish hardcover graphic novels of about 140 pages in length which deal with the origins of the Earth One versions of superheroes we know and love. It’s similar to Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics but I think the publishing format of graphic novels instead of a regular monthly title hinders the efforts of the Earth One line. It kills the momentum these comics can build because readers are waiting a year or more between volumes and the volumes that they do get just don’t have enough substance to satisfy. So far the first volumes of Earth One Stories (Batman, Superman and Teen Titans) have been decompressed retelling of origins stories. It’s a stupid idea destined to be executed in the more uninteresting ways. 

I don’t know why I bothered with the first two but I was hoping Lemire would be able to do something interesting or different with Teen Titans. What I got was a DC version of Marvel’s Runaways created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona except it was shit. Runaways is one of my gateway drugs. It’s the comic that introduced me for good to the crazy world of American comics, specifically superhero comics. Similarly to what happens to the main protagonists of Runaways, the Earth One version of the Teen Titans are just regular kids until strange things start to happen. The book’s twist is that all the teenagers’ parents work for a secret government project that experimented on them and turn them into superhuman beings. Their parents are evil! So the Titans decide to band together and fulfill the wishes of the people who have ruined their lives and conspired against them. To be continued . . . without me.

A Year in Review is also to be continued. Come back in a few days for a list of the best comics and novels I read in 2014.

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