Month: December 2016

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

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I couldn’t find the cover of the edition I read on the internet, except for this unsatisfying small image, so I’m using this one instead. If anyone’s interested, my edition was published in 1986 by Triad Grafton. My cover has two men who are completely identical, except that one wears a tie and the other a cravat, running from a giant skeletal man in the sky, left hand outstretched, who has clearly survived a trepanning. In the right background totters a stilted clown, behind whom you can see the city of London and the dog-headed god Anubis. The left side of the lower background has three dark trees standing in an drab field. The cover artist is Richard Clifton-Dey. I apologise if this description is gratuitously comprehensive, but I really liked this cover and think that my readers deserve  to experience it in some form.

I’ve never pitied a villain like I pitied Dr. Romany from Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates. The poor guy, who is really more of a magical clone, sees all of his grand plans unraveled by his incompetent goons and a time-traveling historian who just got lucky, before being shunted back a century and forced to live through his failures twice. His motive is relatively sympathetic – his group wants to restore Egypt to its former glory and prevent the country from ever being dominated by Europeans. By the end, I didn’t want Dr. Romany to be killed or humiliated any more than he’d already been, I thought the ideal ending for him would be to spend the rest of his life in some sort of Home For Traumatised Villains That We Secretly Respect.

The Anubis Gates is about Brendan Doyle, a historian who taken back in time to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge give a lecture and ends up trapped in a Dickensian London. (I’ve actually got a relative named Brendan, and it struck me that this was the first time I’d encountered a novel protagonist with the same name.) Also in the mix are the body-stealing lycanthrope Dog-Face Joe, a young widow crossdressing as a beggar boy, and the stilt-walking clown Horrabin whose terrifying voice is described by Powers as like that of Mickey Mouse’s. It’s a testament to Powers’  plotting ability that all of these crazy characters, as well as a few time travel paradoxes and bits of magical esoterica, are woven into a satisfying plot that ultimately makes a surprising amount of sense.

As I read the book, I decided to myself that it’d make brilliant television. The story is too complicated for a movie, but I figure that the BBC would have all the required sets and costumes lying around in some warehouse somewhere from all those period dramas they keep on making. Wikipedia tells me that The Anubis Gates is a beloved novel, winner of several prestigious awards, so there would be an audience for it. I’d pitch it to the television people as Outlander meets The X-Files, except for that close questioning would reveal that I haven’t seen the second show and would therefore be exposed as someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The only other thing I’ve read from Powers is The Drawing the Dark, something about a Merlin and a grail quest in Austria. The book didn’t connect with me, perhaps because I was only around twelve at the time. I remember that one character painted over an image of the archangel Michael until it was darker than the night itself, and alcohol was important as well. I’m informed that his novel On Stranger Tides inspired both the Tales of Monkey Island games and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Tim Powers is clearly a name I need to remember.

Anyone interested in science fiction, horror or even fantasy will find something to love in this novel. Historical readers might also like the setting, although I don’t know what they’d make of all the time travel and occultism. The author I have an easiest time comparing Powers to is the underrated Robin Jarvis, both writing novels involving contemporary protagonists being sucked into England’s past, a steady escalation of the bizarre and a love of the monstrous. (Powers fans should try out Jarvis’ Tales of the Wyrd Museam series or the Dancing Jax trilogy.) Readers who are squeamish should definitely avoid this one.

 

Two Reasons I don’t much like the Legion of Superheroes

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So recently I read two books about the Legion of Superheroes, from two separate continuities, from Mark Waid and Paul Levitz. (They got a book each.) The Legion themselves is a large superhero team from the year 3000, and I don’t like them for these two reasons.

 

Superheroes aren’t very impressive in futuristic settings

Back when cameras were first invented, the ability to create a realistic image of almost anything must’ve seemed like something from another world. Even in the nineties, I considered photography to be an art form taken seriously. Nowadays, when practically everyone has an iPhone in their pockets, no photo, no matter how good, can impress me. It’s become far too easy. That’s the main reason I have big reservations about photographers, especially wedding photographers, who think they have a right to tell me how and where to stand just because they have a fancy camera and a tacky bowtie. I swear they can smell my loathing.

Same thing happens with superpowers in the far future. Who cares if you can shoot lasers from your eyes, if the cop down the street can do the same with his gun? Unaided flight, superhuman strength and invisibility are made less remarkable by the sheer fact that science fiction technology can do anything the author wants. Superhero stories are better set in a more familiar environments, so there’s a clash between the absurdity of the characters and the mundane places they operate.

There’s too many characters

Far, far too many. We never spent enough time with any Legionnaire to get to know them well, which is a great pity, as characters like Saturn Girl or Lightening Lad would have great potential in a spin-off comic. That’s the direction I’d advise DC to take with this property, split the Legion up into smaller, more focused groups and give the more interesting characters their own stories. X-Men would be the obvious model for this approach, but I doubt there’s enough interested readers to sustain a burgeoning Legion universe.

That all said, apparently there’s a classic Legion of Superheroes story where they fight Darkseid. I love that villain, so I’m going to be keeping out an eye for that book.

The Dark Lady: A Romance of the Far Future – Mike Resnick

4780343Leonardo, an insectoid alien who studies human art, is entranced by multiple portraits that depict the same young woman, despite being painted by different artists in every stage of Earth’s history. Their only other similarity is that their male artists were drawn to danger, and it is this thread that Leonardo follows as he reluctantly embarks on a galactic search that will see him encounter a misanthropic millionaire, desperate bounty hunter, a suave cat burglar, and ultimately the Dark Lady herself. Although we never reach a satisfactory answer about her identity, this book’s true value lies in how Resnick articulates Leonardo’s alien perspective on human behaviour.

Also, part of me thinks this Dark Lady has something to do with Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I don’t care if one work influenced the other, both are great in their own right.

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Asterix and Obelix’ Birthday: The Golden Book – Albert Underzo and Rene Goscinny

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Asterix and Obelix’ Birthday: The Golden Book collects several pieces of obscure Asterix bits and bobs, framed by a narrative about the indomitable Gauls preparing for their birthdays. We see an in-universe travelogue written in the sixties, the characters speculating on what an Asterix film would look like, and various parodies of great works of art with Asterix characters. While interesting, only die-hard Asterix fans would get the most out of this one.

Batman: featuring Two Face and The Riddler – Various

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You know the way a review of this sort of book goes,  we’ve got a collection of reprints that’ll prove gratifying for long-time fans and educational for Batman newbies. (The index of villain appearances might even be useful for any Bat academics reading.) The variety of art and writing styles aptly demonstrates how American comics have evolved over the last centuries, and gosh, I really like this sort of thing, so of course I’m going to tell you to go read Batman: featuring Two Face and The Riddler.

The foreword is particularly interesting, being written by Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker and frequently voices the Joker in cartoons, soon before the release of one of the nineties Batman films that’s seen as a campy embarrassment today. Nowadays mainstream Batman is more influenced by Nolan’s noirish realism than the exuberant silliness of the Adam West show. I personally consider both styles valid, although given that I haven’t seen Batman’s most recent film I could be completely wrong about the currently accepted Batman aesthetic.

As for the villains themselves, I found the Riddler oddly sympathetic. His story is that ever since he cheated at a puzzle during school, he’s dedicated his life to trolling people with riddles. He can’t stop himself, it’s a compulsion. Somebody should really give the guy an acceptable outlet for his puzzle-posing predilection, may I suggest being the snob who writes those infuriating Mensa activity books or setting up elaborate Easter egg hunts as a training exercise for the Gotham Police department. Knowing him, they’d probably be laced with explosives or something, but it’s for scenarios like this we have the phrase ‘baby steps’. My favorite Riddler moment was that time he painted a crossword on the billboard, a crossword that the reader could attempt to solve while the Dynamic Duo puzzled up their way its side. That was brilliant evocation of the sort of thing you can only do in comics, and it’s a trick I’d happily steal were I writing in the medium. I’ll happily admit that the Riddler’s conundrums are ridiculous, their answers even more so, but the way I see it Batman’s ability to navigate the villain’s labyrinthine logic is just one of the reasons he’s the World’s Greatest Detective, and besides, you can’t expect much lucidity from a man dressed like a green question mark.

The internally dualistic Two Face was a less interesting character, although he too had a narrative moment I’d adapt if I were making my own Batman film. During a raid on a cinema, Two Face has one of his goons project a clip of him demanding money from the audience before Batman swings from the rafters and kicks him in the face. Imagine yourself in that audience, think of the effect that experience would have on your underwear. Absolutely brilliant.

If you like Batman, you’ll like this book.

 

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Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz – Eric Shanower

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Here’s something I never knew that I wanted so much; a comic adaption of my favourite Oz novel written by Eric Shanower and brilliantly illustrated by Skottie Young.

In the fourth installment of L. Frank Baum’s hallucinogenically imaginative Oz series, Dorothy and her more hesitant cousin Zeb travel through bizarre underground lands, after falling beneath the Earth’s crust during the famous San Francisco earthquake.  Soon after her adventure begins, Dorothy reunites with the former Wizard of Oz in her attempt to return to somewhere normal, or at least Oz.

I’m particularly fond of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz for its constant danger. Later on in the series it is established that death is impossible in Oz, but underground Dorothy and her friends are threatened by plant-like Mangaboos, invisible bears, and wooden gargoyles (which Dorothy calls guggles). The sheer amount of wackiness in the Oz series fuels my dissatisfaction with the more conventional fantasies that followed it – why, in a genre whose name is synonymous with imagination, are so many of these books blatant Tolkien knock-offs? This story is also notable for Zeb, a young boy who reacts to the surreal wonders around him like a normal person, as opposed to his cousin, whose capacity for shock seems to have completely evaporated somewhere during the first book.

Eric Shanower’s translation from prose novel to comic script is so professional that I barely noticed it, as nothing I remember from the original appeared missing, although I was impressed by his clever way of justifying a frustrating plot hole from the original book.

Skottie Young’s art is the real star here. Look at how expressive Dorothy is on the cover, and how she looks like the twelve-year old she’s meant to be. I’m impressed at how Young has managed to draw a character that I recognise as the indefatigable Dorothy, without copying Judy Garland or the original illustrations. The amorality of the Wizard is captured perfectly, a cynical yet charming bad guy whose good side you want to be on, something like Henry Kissinger or John Howard.

Disney ought to commission an animated adaption of the Oz series based on the designs in this book, and market it towards fans of the Adventure Time and Steven Universe. (After all, they’ve been interested in Oz since Walt’s days, even going so after to make Return to Oz.) Beyond Young’s art and Baum’s dad-joke humour, the show ought to draw artistic influence from the Kroft Brothers (creators of H. R. Pufnstuff) and avoid anything High Fantasy or being dark for dark’s sake. I think it’s a massive pity that such a creative property has been languishing in the public domain for so long, when all it really needs is the right people, the right audience, and the right funds, in order to reinvent itself as a pop-culture phenomenon. It worked for Sherlock.

I’d recommend the Oz series to all young fantasy readers. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is the novel I’d point them to if they’re only willing to try one. I’m split in half over whether it’d be better to recommend the original novel or its comic adaption. The comic is probably more accessible, but I figure that if you’re smart enough to agree with me that Oz is clearly awesome, then you’re probably smart enough to read a thin illustrated novel. On the other hand, Skottie’s art is beautiful and it deserves a wide audience. I don’t know, just try Oz out at least once in your life.

Here’s a link to the manuscript of the novel.

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The Flash: Move Forward – Francis Manapul

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This was the first solo Flash book I’ve read, and I can’t say that I was disappointed.

The Flash is the alter-ego of Barry Allen, a police scientist who gained superspeed after being simultaneously doused in esoteric chemicals and struck by lightening. His ability to run really fast isn’t the only reason he’s remarkable, he’s also sharp enough to invent a uniform small enough to fit in his ring, which he can make pop out and wear at opportune times. What makes the Flash a fun character is that while he has only one superpower, his writers get very imaginative thinking of new applications of this ability. Manapul has him think really fast, to Sherlock Holmesian levels, and I remember this Justice League comic written by Grant Morrison where the Flash breaks a safe trying every single combination in one second.

Reading this particular book, I was confused about what constituted the character’s status quo – I thought that the protagonist Barry Allen was in a relationship with Iris West, not a coworker. Manapul could’ve done better in introducing new readers to the cast, instead of assuming they’d know who was who. At the very least, I could’ve done with a one-page recap of the Flash’s origin story.

But I overlooked my confusion once the true nature of the main villain, Mob Rule, was revealed. Mob Rule is the former best friend of Barry Allen, a super soldier with regenerative powers so potent that if you were to hack off one of his limbs, it would grow into a clone. So effectively the guy is a one man army. He needs to be in a movie.

The titles of each issue were also beautifully done, with the words being spelt out by objects from the story’s world, like puddles, wreckage or even panels. It’s lovely to see something so reminiscent of Will Eisner’s The Spirit being done in a modern comic.

To any comic fans reading this review, try out Manapul’s Flash run. It starts out slow, but it grows on you. This particular volume promises great things for its sequels.

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