Sunday, March 25, 2007

Comics! Immortal Combat in the JSA!

It wasn't peppery young Elmo nor yet our archnemesis Pepito who provided us with the fourth issue of Geoff Johns' relaunch of Justice Society of America - it was instead our smart, laid-back (and, not incidentally, pretty damn funny) young friend Mr. Allison, who seemed impressed by the issue (Elmo had already warned us that the issue was a 'feast').

And feast it certainly is - Johns again demonstrates a beautiful sense of pacing and character. He's completely wrong for a big, sprawling team book, but watching him try so hard to prove otherwise is worth the price of admission every issue.

And he's not afraid of the epic, either - he shares that with Brad Meltzer over in Justice League. There, a newly-intelligent Solomon Grundy uses a sooped up Amazo to attack the Justice League; here, Vandal Savage uses crews of super-powered Nazis to attack the descendents of the original Justice Society. Both are great big ambitious plots, and both writers fail them miserably.

Hard, without an abacus handy, to even count all that's wrong with this Justice Society issue. Dale Eaglesham's artwork is wonderful as always, but it's hampered by a choreography that sucks like a sump-pump.

Take the opening combat between Vandal Savage and Wildcat's kitty-cat young son (can we have a moratorium, please, on cat-based superheroes? Every single last one of them - most certainly including this new one, ripped from four panels of 'Kingdom Come' - are unbearably lame-ass): in one panel, the two of them are squared off face to face. In the next panel, Kitty-cat is leaping over Savage's left shoulder from behind. And so on and so forth (there isn't a panel of the Wildcats/Savage fight that makes a lick of sense).

Or take the Blue Valley scene, in which a detachment of the JSA rescues a bunch of civilians from a bunch of the Nazi super-villains dispatched by Vandal Savage. Has a lamer sooper-battle ever been contrived in a modern comic? There's a super-speed battle between the Flash and 'Baroness' Blitzkrieg that's more boring to look at than two pensioners playing chess in Central Park, but there's not much else.

And that doesn't hold a candle to the other set-piece of the issue, the confrontation in Philadelphia between another squad of the JSA and an even bigger batch of super-powered Nazis (one of whom is a super-powered version of a TOPLESS BISMARCK ... an idea that could ONLY have made sense while the Johns was deeply, philosophically stoned). Yeesh, what a disaster. Here the artwork is at its most static, and with its most crippling lack of credibility. Captain Nazi opens the sequence by hurling the Liberty Bell at a hapless group of civilians. He's duly chastised for this by our very own useless heroine Liberty Belle, right before Hawkman and Green Lantern engage with this Captain Nazi in close-on combat. That fight should by rights last an entire issue (and end only one way), but here it's over after a page, and it happens OFF PANEL. In the meantime, Damage blows up the fat Bismarck-guy and accidentally catches useless little Liberty Belle in the concussion. She very melodramatically falls down, but she's back on her feet, apparently unharmed, in four panels. The new useless Hourman helps her up, and he and she and Damage have a nice cozy little chat right there in the heat of battle, just as we see a trim and healthy Captain Nazi tossing aside an unconscious Hawkman and Green Lantern. This patent piece of silliness is done only to set up a face-to-face confrontation between Damage and Captain Nazi. Just as the evil Nazi is taunting Damage about his disfigured appearance, he's finally struck down - not by Hawkman, the seven-thousand-year-old warrior-hero, and not by Green Lantern, one of the most powerful beings in the DC universe ... nope, by useless little Liberty Belle THROWING THE LIBERTY BELL at him. So remember that, the next time you're facing a super-powered Nazi: when battle-maces and energy-rings fail, just hit him with a cracked, 260-year-old BELL.

But the biggest problem with this issue is also its biggest strength: Vandal Savage.

Mr. Allison isn't the only comic-reader we've known who puts his finger right on it: Vandal Savage is a seriously kick-ass villain. It's odd that DC, with its long and rich history, doesn't have more of these, but in this as in so many things, much depends on the execution. There's Lex Luthor, of course, but the whole gimmick of villain-as-respected-businessman only works for limited time (although the current run of DC continuity - most certainly including the latest twists and turns over in '52' - has milked it a wonderfully long time). And there's Darkseid for the epic dimension, although even thirty years ago, Keith Giffen in 'Ambush Bug' was keen to how easily the character can be tipped into parody. And there's the Joker, easily DC's most complex and compelling villain (the only one the other villains should be afraid of ... in other words, the villain-equivalent of Batman), although the number of DC writers over the years who've been able to convey that can be counted on the fingers of one hand (and that number certainly won't be increased by the next Batman movie, Heath Ledger being a literally incomprehensible casting choice).

But Vandal Savage? He's the serpent in DC's garden of Eden - an immortal who's been around since the birth of mankind, EVIL the whole time (the corresponding good guy, Immortal Man, was always a wuss by comparison and proved it by DYING in the first Crisis, the tool). No superpowers to speak of, although tough as nails, and most of all, embodying every time the intangible quality of COOL. Meltzer over in Justice League chose brute force - Grundy and Amazo - over that element (ironically enough, one of the prime candidates for that category in the DC universe is Doctor Destiny, who makes a surprise appearance at the end of this very JSA issue), but Johns clearly had the peculiar generational nature of the JSA in mind when he picked a villain who's seen the team in all its incarnations (this could also be said for Per Degaton and the Ultra-Humanite, but to say the least, they both lack the aforementioned cool factor).

The problem is, Vandal Savage should be unbeatable. The only way to make him NOT unbeatable is to indadvertently make him ridiculous, which is what happens in this issue. He boasts of starting world wars, of being the power behind Hitler, of discovering fire - but what's he DOING while he's boasting of all this? Breaking crockery in a tiny kitchen fighting Wildcat's gay kitty-cat bastard son. Cue the ridiculous.

Vandal Savage should be unbeatable because ANY immortal would be. If you want to eliminate the next generation of the Justice Society, you don't send stupid-ass Nazi death-squads to ambush them at family reunions; you pay a drug addict $20 to plow a car through an intersection and flatten them when they're five. You pay an orderly $2000 to pinch an IV when the next generation is in its cradle. Against an enemy who implaccably hates you and who has forever to do it, mortals - no matter how brave or powerful they might be in the maturity between their helpless infancy and their defenseless old age - cannot possibly win. If you make Vandal Savage that implaccable, undying enemy, you create a story with only one plausible ending.

Needless to say, pinched IV's are not the stuff of four-color comics, so this issue has dorkus-malorkus Nazi death-squads and Vandal Savage fighting a kitty-cat in a kitchen and eventually getting hit by a truck (guess the one thing he didn't learn in 100,000 years was to LOOK BOTH WAYS). So a carefully-laid and meticulously-crafted plan to eliminate the Justice Society fails because some guy gets hit by a bell and some other guy gets hit by a truck. And for this Johns gets to call himself a writer.

And yet, and yet ... the issue, the whole storyline, has been FUN, something that's certainly missing over in Justice League. And with the promise of Legion activity right around the corner (Dream Girl AND Lightning Lord on the last page!), it looks fair to KEEP being fun. We here at Stevereads will certainly be there to see.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Penny Press! Atlantic and the TLS!

The prestigious old Atlantic Monthly (of late cravenly decamped from its home ancestral home of Boston) recently acquired our very own semi-feral super-genius Elmo as a subscriber, so their editorial board will no doubt have to look a little sharper in the months to come (we here at Stevereads are except from such precautions, since we were the ones to tempt the entirely-feral Elmo from the fens with a few sugar cubes earning his primitive gratitude ala Androcles and the Lion). The current issue is Elmo's first, so we couldn't help but read it with eyes ever-so-slightly vicariously refreshed.

Not all that an auspicious start, all things considered. The cover article - on who stands to gain financially from global warming climate changes - was no doubt meant to be frolicsomely cynical and on that ground (and all other grounds) falls spectacularly flat. Considering the fact that a) all those land-grabbing opportunities come hand-in-hand with unsurvivable winters all across northern Europe and unsurvivable summers all across the rest of the planet, and b) our own weekend getaway at Montauk Point - not to mention the homes and workplaces of our hapless friends at Boston, Waimea, Venice, San Diego, and Big Pine Key will be uninhabitable - considering these things, one is hard-pressed to divine the laff-quotient in an article that monetarily divvies up the sea-girt, sun-baked remains of a once-gorgeous world.

The piece's companion article on the crisis in Darfur was, unfortunately, similarly unconvincing - seeking as it did to shift the blame for that crisis off the shoulders of men and onto the vagaries of climate change. When you add to all this the fact that the title's most reliable standby, the mighty book-critic Ben Schwartz, chose this time around to utterly waste his precious column inches writing about some idiotic fashion book, well, you don't get a very favorable debut issue for Elmo.

Fortunately, for good or ill, Christopher Hitchens can almost always be counted on to generate interest of some kind, and this time around is no exception. This issue he reviews 'Cultural Amnesia,' a collection of literary essays by Clive James, and a thoroughly condescending job he does of it, too. James, an entirely better and more comprehensive literary critic than Hitchens has been in a good many years, is generously tolerated throughout the length of the review. Hitchens is very patient in pointing out all the ways James could have done a better job, and he ladles on the faint praise:

"In attempting to do this anthology justice, I am running the risk of making it sound more eclectic than it really is."

And how about this little gem, grubbed over by Hitchens:

"But in order to appear ungrudging, he [James] is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that 'the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.'?"

Well, yes, actually: apt and considerably neater than any formulation Hitchens has coughed up in his last four or five dozen literary pieces.

Having Christopher Hitchens review Clive James isn't exactly like setting a fox to guard the hen-house; it's more like setting a fox to guard a less drunken, more talented fox. Sour grapes on Hitchens' part are understandable, and this review is rank with the fumes.

But worse than that is Hitchens' sniveling, hypocritical cowardice. At one point he writes:

"It is men like Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus whom he [James] envies, while of course never ceasing to wonder (as we all must) how he himself would have shaped up when the Nazis came."

That parenthetical is SO sweet. Considering Hitchens' stance on any number of political issues in the past six years, we here at Stevereads don't consider the question of how he'd have reacted to the Nazis one of life's enduring mysteries. When Hitchens, at another point in the review, makes disparaging reference to 'high-sounding justifications for violence,' the irony was almost too thick to read through.

Irony carries over to the TLS too, and it reaches its sharpest point in the letters page. Recently, James Fergusson wrote a piece about the second-hand book trade, and it garnered this very straightforward, very sad response:

"James Fergusson may well know a lot about the second-hand book trade of yore, but where has he been for the last decade or so? As a bookseller myself, I wouldn't have thought it possible to write at such length on the subject over the last century and include just one cosily dismissive paragraph about the effect of the internet; in the mid-and late 1990s, you heard a lot of that sort of complacent plus ca change from booksellers, but I never thought I'd come across it again. The fact is that, in the half-decade before the millennium, modernity finally caught up with the second-hand book trade, and it took internet technology no longer than five years to liquidate the old order Fergusson lovingly describes. What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully effecient, a golden age for book buyers: instant access to virtually everything you want, a trade composed overwhelmingly of small-time amateurs who don't really need the money, prices in free fall and fewer than half-a-dozen points of sale that really matter, all on the Net. One hopes Fergusson's world of musty shops personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn't bet on it."

That's from Peter Lloyd, who writes from - follow along now - Little Bushant, Glascwm, Llandrindod Wells - and if anything he understates the matter, since he confines his remarks to the world of second hand bookselling. When the grim truth of the matter is that ALL bookselling is staring at its doom, in the form of the Internet. Customers in their uncounted thousands discover every day the convenience of simply ordering the books they want online - wait three days, and there they are, boxed up on your doorstep.

There are two factors missing from this new world, Peter Lloyd or no Peter Lloyd.

The first is the odd chemistry of your odd, ungainly, soon to be extinct book clerk. The Internet has no analog to having an obviously knowledgeable clerk gently scoff at your pretentions (be honest now, all you out there: how many of you have felt this particular goad and had it STAY with you long after, maybe even had it change what you read, although of course such scoffing is entirely wrong for the book clerk to do), or the enthusiastic recommendation that cuts through the cant of a dozen bad high school teachers. Really good book clerks (a phrase that sounds strange these days in and of itself) can change the way you read, and that's an entirely magical thing no 'customers who bought this also bought' can even hope to duplicate.

The second thing is serendipity. Plain old serendipity! You're prowling the bargain-carts at the Strand or the Brattle, you're crawling along the indoor shelves of ANY bookstore, second hand or otherwise, when you find something you had no idea even existed, something you then pull down and pour over and decide you want very much, in fact can't live without.

Serendipity. All of us here at this website have felt it: the chance finding of one book while looking for another, the gems discovered when you had no idea you were looking for them, and all the other permutations we're all so familiar with. Take away physical bookstores, and you take away that all-important element.

No doubt the idiosyncratic love of book-buying will survive the removal even of that element; perhaps some simula-program will come along that will digitally reproduce the alcoholic free associations of serendipity. We here at Stevereads are inclined to doubt it, but we stand, as ever, ready for posterity to prove us wrong.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Stevesees! '300'!

We here at Stevereads are fully aware of the awesome power we hold over the hearts and minds of the blogosphere. We won't say the knowledge humbles us (that wouldn't be very believable, now would it?), but it does keep us mindful lest our slightest offhand endorsement send the multitudes scurrying out to buy, watch, or snort something that may end up disappointing them.

In a perfect world, we would simply refer you all to Locke's website (which, I agree with him, would really have to be called something a little less creepy than 'lockewatches'), where he would hold forth regularly on all the movies and TV that catches his fancy. You've all seen a glimpse of what that would be like; say what you want about either one of us, but one thing we certainly share in common: we both know how to entertain the troops.

Unfortunately, unlike the rest of us here at Stevereads, Locke's got stuff to do the live-long day. We'll get what he gives us, but a long, rambling website is only in the cards if Santa is very, very good to us.

In the meantime, we here at Stevereads shall shoulder on with our adjunct corollary, Stevesees! True, our impeccable taste in judging movies and performances took a little bit of a pecking at Oscar time, but the memory of the blogosphere is notoriously short, so we can forge ahead with our head held high!

Especially when this installment of Stevesees deals with a sure-fire winning bet. That doesn't happen often, so it's an easy joy to do the reporting when it does.

Of course we're referring to Zach Snyder's film version of Frank Miller's sparse, visionary graphic novel '300.'

Over at the great new literary website Open Letters, the talented young poet/novelist/literary critic John Cotter inaugurates a regular feature called 'Peer Review,' in which the critical reactions to a given thing are put under the microscope and assessed for their various woolly tendencies and drifts. If we did that here for '300,' this entire entry would degenerate into a spittle-flecked rage-fest such as the Interweb has never seen.

The Boston Herald talked about the movie's 'homoeroticism' and gave it two thumbs up 'from the Third Reich.' The Boston Globe talked about the movie's 'homoeroticism' and went on about how its subtext was the straights versus the gays. The New York Times talked about the movie's 'homoeroticism' and went on about the analogies to the Iraq War and American xenophobia.

All of which makes you want to lock all professional reviewers in a small room and then lose the key.

'300' is the story of King Leonidas and his loyal band of Spartans who held the Hot Gates pass against probably no more than 50,000 Pesians and Persian allies (in Herodotus' original account, it's about 100,000; in Frank Miller's graphic novel, it's rounded up to a million - gawd only knows how many it is in the movie). They knew they would die (according to Herodotus, that is - it should be borne in mind throughout ALL discussions of the movie that in all likelihood the events it depicts never in fact happened at all), and just as in Miller's 'Ronin,' that knowledge gives the Spartan almost superhuman abilities.

Almost superhuman. They all still die. But in the process, a movie is delivered the likes of which the waiting world has never seen. There were glimpses, yes - in 'Sin City,' and in Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' - but absolutely nothing in all of cinematic history prepares the customer for the experience of watching '300.'

It isn't at all like watching a video game. It certainly isn't, as one critic maintained, like watching your buddy get a lap-dance. It isn't a grey wash of CGI with no heft or meat on its bones.

Instead, '300' (not 'Sin City,' in which the black-and-white only served to make the seams show - in addition to the known fact that no movie featuring Josh Hartnett in any capacity can possibly be good - nor yet again the 'Lord of the Rings' movies, in which the effects were seamlessly enslaved to the live action) is the very first example of a completely equal marriage of men and machines, of effort and effect.

This movie, this thing, is like nothing ever created before. Time and again, while watching it, the viewer is struck by that one fact: I've never seen anything like this before.

It's not just the exotic imagery and broad vistas - although no imagery has ever been more exotic, and no vistas have ever been broader (except maybe in Akira Kurosawa's 'Dreams,' but even that was circumscribed by non-CGI boundaries). Every single frame of this magnificent movie looks better than it could ever have looked with entirely live actors on an expensively-purchased soundstage in Lower Belgravia. This movie is the moviemaking of the future, at least if movies care about spectacle in the future. In recent memory, only 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' even comes close to it for sheer self-confident otherworldliness.

Here is the sheer eye-popping wonder of the Siege of Gondor, but entirely without the sense of scrimping for cost. Here is the baby-archangel sequence from 'Brazil,' but entirely without the virtually visible strings attached.

It isn't all spectacle - contrary to what every single reviewer has maintained, there's quite a bit of good acting in this movie. Butler himself is quite good as King Leonidas, and his supporting cast turn in uniformly strong performances, especially considering the fact that they were emoting and responding in many cases to empty sceens and blank backgrounds.

There are, then, human elements a-plenty to this movie. But there's no doubt about it: they aren't its point. Its point - its challenge - is to up the visual ante for all future 'epic' movies. In fact, watching this movie - being subsumed into it, really - made me yearn for this same amazing technique to be applied to EVERY epic storyline out there. In the hands of a director as game and capable as Zach Snyder, just imagine how many eye-feasts like '300' could be enfleshed in gorgeous, reality-warping, unprecedented visuals. The technique of '300' would at last make possible a living rendition of Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso' (you all snicker, but only because you haven't read it ... if there is anywhere in literature a precursor to comic books, Ariosto is it) (and yes, I'm aware that a very fragmentary, very partial two-hour 'adaptation' of the 'Orlando Furioso' was already filmed, a weird, utterly unsatisfying movie starring a very young Ron Moss ... but geez! It's SUCH a small fraction of the whole it doesn't warrant serious consideration), or the full panoply of the Mahabarata (once again, yes, I'm aware of the BBC adaptation from a decade or more ago ... in this case a much, much worthier version, but still cripplingly limited when compared to the original), and most of all, most achingly of all, Homer's Iliad - not the latest effort by Wolfgang Peterson, worthy though I alone seem to find it, but the real thing - gods romping everywhere at their will, action in outsized portions - that has never been captured and has never been ABLE to be captured, before now.

Notice I'm not punch-drunk on this new technology ... I'm not, for instance, saying it could be used on a work such as 'War and Peace' (which is, nevertheless, badly in need of SOMETHING ... great works of literature shouldn't languish as long as this one has in between viual adaptations) or even 'Life and Fate.' No, I'm only talking here about works that beg for a gigantic canvas, shot through in unbelievable colors and shapes.

The 'Lord of the Rings' movies are pretty nearly perfect, it's true; but 'The Lord of the Rings' as a novel veers constantly between the high epic and the wee folk boiling potatoes - it couldn't have made use of the techniques of '300,' at least not in the way I'm suggesting. Peter Jackson handled his material with confident genius, but there are no boiled potatoes in '300.' as everyone who's seen it would readily acknowledge. It's grand-scale entertainment, and as such it's beyond comparison with anything that's come before.

One thing above all others: there isn't even a hint of homoeroticism in this movie. Unless all these critics are saying so merely because our Spartan heroes where no shirts and have buff bodies - which, if true, would be pretty damn dumb. The Spartans are topless to denote an easy, offhand fearlessness; the Persians are decadent and effeminate not for petty sexual reasons but to display the enervating effects of unlimited wealth and power. This movie is above all a daring thing, and daring things are always vulnerable to cheap jibes

We here at Stevereads urge you all to ignore such cheap jibes, even the jibes you yourself might already have thought up. Go and see '300.' Go and be amazed.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Comics Quiz!

An unpardonable omission from that last comics-entry: it had no QUIZ! So here we go: in honor of the fact that the LATE Captain America (....) had no superpowers, and in honor of the upcoming soon-to-be-fantastic Spider-Man movie, we combine the two to ask the following -

Despite the fact that he can lift a family sedan over his head, Spider-Man has a history of fighting villains who don't themselves possess superpowers at all. Name five of these baddies! Extra points if you can specify which ones actually engaged in fisticuffs with the web-slinger, despite the fact that in the REAL world, they wouldn't last more than five seconds or so.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Comics! The King is dead, and all that!

The thing you have to understand about today's comics, the thing that trumps everything else, is how goddam GOOD they are, almost universally across the board. And by 'good' we here at Stevereads mean 'written for adults' - in the very best way that can be meant. Not 'adult fanboys,' but actual card-carrying adults. Dramatic storytelling. Expert pacing. On-spot characterization. And artwork that's better than it ever has been.

The latest batch of comics Elmo stole from my archnemesis Pepito illustrates this fact handily enough. Every title in the pile, each individual one, is pound for pound better than most of the issues in each title's history.

Even devil's advocate - Brad Meltzer's current incarnation of the Justice League is undoubtedly a failure; the pacing is all wrong, the narrative flow is an unmitigated disaster; you'd need an abacus to count all the missed chances, dramatically speaking.

This should be everything, keep in mind: a newly-intelligent Solomon Grundy manipulating Amazo to destroy a fledgling Justice League - that's grade-A stuff, mythic stuff. And even in devil's advocate, even on a title that's a failure, there's a degree of intelligence and energy in the storytelling that if nothing else give hope of better days ahead.

(Even so, we had to laugh at the scene where an enraged Vixen dive-bombs Amazo from high overhead, accelerating to 217 miles per hour; right before impact, she whispers 'triceratops,' so I guess we're supposed to think she's manifesting the weight and power of a triceratops in order to hit Amazo that much harder ... and she does, oh-so-coolly ripping him in two. Somebody should get a memo to Meltzer right away on what would REALLY happen if she hit a solid target at 217 mph with 9000 pounds of mass behind her. We won't spoil the surprise here at Stevereads, but you should all be thinking not of lame-ass third-tier superheroes but of Seaworld ... where the first three rows WILL GET WET!)

But devil's advocate isn't necessary for most of this batch. Jeff Smith, for instance, is always a delight, and the second issue of his Shazam! mini-series is full of good stuff - from a Doctor Sivana unabashedly modelled on Dick Cheney to a version of talking-tiger Mr. Tawny that actually manages to be cool (of course, if anybody can make a talking cat cool, it's Jeff Smith). The only qualm-causing aspect of the issue is Smith's revamp of Mary Marvel - getting her powers as per usual, but staying a little five-year-old girl. To say the least, the effect is creepy - so we're earnestly hoping the powers that be at DC don't take it into their heads to make Smith's mini-series in any way part of normal continuity.

Still, Smith's artwork and writing are so clean, so much fun - we earnestly wish he'd consider doing a comic book version of Lil' Abner. He'd be perfect for it.

Then there's the latest issue of Detective Comics, featuring quick, intelligent writing by Stuart Moore and highly detailed artwork by Andy Clarke, artwork that takes a little while to catch up to you. There's nothing remotely earth-shaking in the issue - standard Batman-and-Robin-vs-bad guy stuff, but considering how many titles at Marvel and DC are in the midst of reality-redefining catastrophies, that's something of a blessing.

Did somebody mention reality-redefining catastrophies? Well of course that's the heart and soul of DC's '52,' and after a sucky issue last week, this week rebounds incredibly, packing all the pathos, drama, and ass-kicking of an old-fashioned Lee/Kirby multi-issue epic into a mere 25 pages. We here at Stevereads have in previous entries praised the creation of heavy-hitting new characters like Isis and Osiris - well, we should have spared ourselves the trouble, since they both get offed in this issue (she's napalmed and he's EATEN ... hee). But we're not complaining, because in the process the powers that be at DC are transforming Black Adam into something remarkable. We thank whatever gods may be that he (and Renee Montoya) are turning out to be the real stars of '52,' not the much-hyped and thoroughly ridiculous lesbian Batwoman (and where's the press attention for the latest issue of Outsiders, which featured lesbian action so graphically depicted I wanted to shield Elmo's eyes?).

Discerning eyes will have noticed that all the successes so far are from DC, and there's a good reason for that: Marvel is currently experiencing a downward-spiral of suckitude unseen since the launch of the New Universe, many moons ago, and nothing seems to be able to stop the tailspin.

Not even something as well-done and sweet at the 45th anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four, which did have its moments (like the charming tone of Ben Grimm's dealings with little Franklin and Val, or Sue matter-of-factly referring to Ben as the heart and soul of the team, or Doctor Doom - of all people - pointing out the evils Reed Richards committed during the Civil War). But nothing write Dwayne McDuffie can do gets around the fact that the FF split up and fought AGAINST each other in Civil War (a point worth repeating, no? During the climactic battle of Civil War #7, Reed Richards is there to beat and LOCK UP his wife and her brother). The issue's main story ends with Reed and Sue leaving the team to 'work on their marriage,' but it can only turn a blind eye toward all the open cans of worms left over from Civil War.

The main one of these is the fact that Civil War tore Marvel's community of superheroes in half, and it LEFT things that way - sign up or get locked up in the Phantom Zone, period. Not a dream. Not a hoax. Not an imaginary story. The basic state of affairs now in Marvel Comcics is a fascist dictatorship - that kinda makes it hard to go back to telling ordinary superhero stories about Mole Man attacking Manhattan.

Which makes the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis' 'the Initiative' launch of the Avengers all the more ironic, since in it, Mole Man DOES attack Manhattan, and a newly-minted team of Avengers spring into action to fight the menace.

You can't help but trip over problems, right from the first page, when the Wasp asks 'Am I to assume a training exercise to see how we work together is completely out of the question?'

She gets a smug response, and a very large amount of property damage ensues - exactly the kind of thing the Registration Act was designed to prevent.

The battle itself isn't all that interesting, except for the fantastic artwork of Frank Cho. No, the issue's only real point of interest is the sequence of scenes in which Tony Stark and Carol Danvers, standing before a cool wall-display of every 'right-thinking' superhero currently in play. Like a couple of mouth-breathing virginal fanboys (pause here while Hippolyta deadpans 'is there any other kind?'), they set out to assemble 'the greatest roster ever.'

Cue the irony here, since the roster arrived at is the single worst one since the dark days of the Forgotten One and Doctor Druid.

Iron Man, of course, and the Wasp, and the always-pleasing presence of the Black Widow (the Steve Epting-pencilled stretch where she led the team stands as one of the best runs on the title). But after that, things start to fall apart - Ms. Marvel is OK, but the perennially-boring Wonder Man is here straight out of the 80s, right down to the inability to fly and the Reagan-era tracksuit. Add to that the only superhero in the Marvel lineup MORE boring than Wonder Man - the Sentry, as dumb and derivative a character as anybody's dreamt up in quite some time. Super-strength, vague energy-powers ... whatever! Yech. And that pales beside the final member, the Greek god Ares, who for the last 30 years has been one of Thor's super-villains. He cares nothing for mortal life, and he carries an enormous axe - but hey, at least he registered.

Still, the discussions are interesting. Carol Danvers asks the question Avengers (indeed, super-team) fans have always asked: why not just assemble a team of powerhouses? At one point Carol declares that the Wasp was the best Avenger, and at another point Stark says the same of Thor. Neither nominates Captain America, and the reader can't help but notice the reason why: because Carol and Stark are both victorious Nazis, and Cap is off in a gulag somewhere. It couldn't matter less whether or not our team stops Mole Man: it's bad guy v.s. bad guy.

The whole thing is made all the more depressing by Bendis' comments in the letters page (you almost expect disagreeable parts of each letter in the future to be blacked out). He promises a big surge of super-villains in upcoming weeks, and he writes "Now that we know who the heroes are, we will set up for the villains."

Some of us - especially those of us who maintain that there's no second, subversive meaning behind all this Civil War nonsense - aren't quite so certain we now 'know' who the heroes are, but it's instructive to know that Bendis doesn't have that problem.

But then, none of this touches on the week's comic that everybody's most likely to have heard about, right? Talk about press attention: in the latest issue of Captain America, a handcuffed Steve Rogers is heart-shot by a hypnotized Sharon Carter. See the news on your local evening broadcast.

There are at least eight different ways this could be reversed, but we here at Stevereads think not. Given the current fascistic atmosphere at Marvel, we think the Steve Rogers Captain America might very well be dead, the identity to be replaced by ... well, what the Hell difference does it make WHAT replaces him? The whole foundation of the Marvel universe is now rotten beyond recall, except by some kind of total rewrite. Which would be - will be - boring and time-consuming and utterly manipulative.

It's a sad state of affairs, but at least we still have DC, surfing an almost unprecedented high.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

in memoriam: arthur schlesinger

We raise a glass, then, to Arthur Schlesinger.

He died last week. One minute sitting at a restaurant, telling stories and enjoying himself, and practically the next minute, he was gone. This was tragic but entirely fitting, the kind of end he'd have certainly wanted, if he'd paused long enough to contemplate something so silly.

All of you are too young to remember anything of this, much less the man himself, so to recap: Schlesinger was the son of historian Elizabeth Bancroft; he was a freakishly intelligent early-admin to Harvard; he (like everybody else with a heart and a brain at the time) fell in with the doomed campaigns of Adlai Stevenson; and he, for services rendered, was taken into the fold of the Kennedy administration as a 'special assistant' to the president.

He came to that administration fully-vetted as a serious historian. He'd written an semi-immortal work, after all, 'The Age of Jackson,' and he'd written it as a young man, fiercely intelligent and deeply inquiring.

As hardly ever before or since, the Kennedy administration was the perfect fit for such a creature. He basked in the particular aura of Camelot - the cocktail parties that lasted until dawn, the gorgeous secretaries, and most of all the all-pervasive feeling that a vital new age was dawning, an age that could divest itself of all the dead trappings of previous generations.

That's what they did, those two Kennedys and the brace of greyhounds they assembled around themselves: they activated HOPE ... they accessed nothing less than that tired old chestnut, the American Dream. They sucked in everybody - from Negro porters to Dupont society matrons - and created a feeling of fresh beginning, a feeling that it was no longer the world of your parents but yours, to make of what you could.

Schlesinger drank it all in; he revelled not only in the genteel debauchery of the Kennedy social scene but also the thrill any historian would feel if they had their hands on the live wire of history being made. And he was always explicitly clear in maintaining that the two worlds didn't detract from each other.

He insisted on it, in fact: that historians owe it to their readers to live in the real world, not cloistered academic towers. He walked the corridors of power carrying the notebook of the historian, so it was only natural he incurred the suspicion and dislike of both the historians and the powerful.

The only ones who mattered to him at the time always evinced a wry affection for him. Robert Kennedy bridled at the watching presence of so obvious a memoirist, but he allowed that Schlesinger had a first-rate mind (a rare compliment, given the source). JFK himself, naturally, took a deeper view. 'I don't currently have time for posterity,' he used to quip. 'I leave that to Arthur, God help us.'

Perhaps the best assessment of the man came earliest, however. As a freakishly young kid (although certainly not unprecedentedly so ... a small cadre of such early admins have paraded through the halls of Harvard over the centuries), he was classmate with Young Joe Kennedy, the broad-smiled, wide-shouldered, stogie-chomping, gin-swilling, debutante-deflowering older brother of the future president. Young Joe was the chosen one in that vast family; he was the one who old Ambassador Kennedy had naturally chosen to push for political office (nobody then dreamt of the Oval Office, regardless of what their memoirs might say), and he took the very earliest Kennedy shine to this provincial Midwestern kid. There were rumors that said Midwestern kid helped said Kennedy crown prince write more than one academic work that led to the graduation of both. In any case, Young Joe had this to say about bow-tied young Arthur: 'He suits me down to the ground: he knows everything, and he puts it all at my disposal.'

It's doubtful a more thoroughly Kennedyesque appraisal could be found, and it played out in the decades to come. Schlesinger worked for JFK until the awful day in Dallas, and then he worked for RFK, with an even more open, fervent heart, until THAT awful day.

The combination broke the working parts of him, as it did the working parts of so many. He pretty much retired to scholastic work - and to a certain degree of prescience, writing 'The Imperial Presidency' in 1973, a book that looks darkly at the tendency of the executive branch, when in the hands of unscrupulous men, to gobble up as much power as it can get its hands on.

Schlesinger lived long enough to see just how exaggerated that tendency could get, and in his last years he took great delight in skewering the evil midgets currently encamped where once he saw giants walk.

He left us when we needed him most, but that's always the way of such men, and such times. The only consolation - and it's a big one, in fact the only one - is that he transformed his White House access into two magnificent works of history, 'Robert Kennedy and His Times' and 'A Thousand Days.' These are permanent works, as full of intelligence and gossip and pitch-perfect pacing as was their author.

So we raise a glass to Arthur Schlesinger. and we offer a humble nunc dimittis to the great historian of the Kennedy era.

Friday, March 02, 2007

dark days at the TLS

It isn't often that we here at Stevereads find ourselves at odds with the mighty TLS, but it happened quite a bit in a recent issue. The 16 February issue, to be exact, the one with John Brown's yelling, canting face on the cover - in which there was a plethora of pieces that stirred the exact opposite of the reactions the TLS usually inspires. Usually, the appearance of a new issue inspires us here at Stevereads with hope and joy - but this particular issue had ... well, let's just call them major snags. Most of the big showpiece reviews seemed slightly crabbed, needlessly argumentative, even, dare we say it, wrong.

Some of the problems are small. For instance, Caroline Moorhead spends a long and very favorable review of 'Decca,' Peter Sussman's collection of the letters of Jessica Mitford. It's a warm and enticing review, enlivened by frequent stunning quotes from Mitford's utterly infectious letters. And then right at the end, you get THIS slapped across your face like mackerel: 'This collection of letters, edited by Peter Y. Sussman, is much too long." Um, OK. Yeesh. Buzz-killer.

Or Jon Barnes' review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Murder of Mary Rogers' by Daniel Stashower ... Barnes reviews the book's central facts, the murder of the lovely cigar girl, the miraculous powers of ratiocination displayed by Edgar Allan Poe in putting forward a possible solution to her murder. All well and good, but Barnes also retails Stashower's derring-do conclusions:

'John Anderson was the man who had first employed Mary in his cigar store, the man responsible for her fame, and after her murder he grew rich, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest men in the city. After his own death, in the course of a protracted court battle over his fortune, two pieces of highly suggestive rumour came to light. First, that Anderson himself had once got Mary Rogers pregnant and that he paid for an abortion. Second, and most singularly of all, that Anderson had supposedly paid a certain writer to compose a fiction which would avert suspicion away from him and on to some other, nameless suspect. The records are vague but there can be no doubt about the identity of the writer accused of the deception. His name I shall leave to your own powers of ratiocination.'

Great. Edgar Allan Poe, accomplice to murder. Just great.

Then there's Alex Burghart's review of two books of medieval history, Veronica Ortenberg's 'In Search of the Holy Grail' and Paul Hill's 'The Anglo-Saxons.' Burghart does both books justice and writes very well in the process, so the reader is happy. Then the second shoe falls:

'Both Ortenberg and Hill have important things to say about J.R.R. Tolkien's contribution to the repackaging of the Middle Ages in the present day. What they both miss is that Tolkien is actually the villain of the piece. In creating a fascinating, heavily resourced, wildly dramatic narrative he succeeded in undermining the very period he was trying to promote. Those who bought and buy into his stories rarely go on to read about medieval history but rather become obsessed with the fantasyland. The remainder lump in those who like medieval history with the elf-fetishists and stay well away.'

Elf-fetishists. Lovely. Tolkien as the villain of the piece. Yeah, THAT makes for sunny reading.

And it gets worse. It gets darker. David Wootton reviews a new re-issue of 'Europe's Physician' by the late great Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper's book is a biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, who Erasmus considered a first-class booby.

Trevor-Roper was one of the 20th centuries very best historians, and Wootton entirely agrees with this - and eventually reveals that the reason he agrees is because WE'RE ALL GOIN' TO HELL:

"It is because common culture is gone for ever that Trevor-Roper's 'Europe's Physician' will have no successors. The texts it is based on are in Latin and French, with a smattering of Greek. The secondary sources are in Italian, German and Dutch. The manuscripts are in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. No young scholar would want to write this book, and perhaps no young scholar could. But if you want to understand the age of religious wars, or if you want to be reminded that the purpose of a great history book, as of a great play or a great novel, is to transform how you see the world around you, then you should read this last relic of a lost age. Great history books are few and far between. This is one.'

At the risk of repeating ourselves, Yeesh.

Let's not cue the Great Darkness just yet, shall we? Lord knows, we here at Stevereads spend a great deal of our free time bemoaning the future. 20-year-olds in 2007 America are almost universally ignorant of a broad range of essential subjects. The only things they actually know, basically, are a) the events of their own personal lives in the last five years, and b) the price and availability of all the drugs and alcohol within 200 blocks of where they happen to live. We here at Stevereads often seem to gleefully revel in these horrifying facts.

But geez, enough's enough. Wootton's doom-and-gloom scenario, in which the next generation of historians won't even be able to READ the works of the previous generation - much less match their travel-vouchers - is just too damn depressing. AND it's contradicted by some of the books appearing on bookstore shelves even now, some of which have even been mentioned here at Stevereads.

No, however tempting apocalyptic doom-saying might be, it's lazy. Real, serious history is still being written (doomedly, quixotically, since the AUDIENCE for it thins with every passing year) - some of its products dating well after Trevor-Roper cited his last op cit. We here at Stevereads are the first to decry the present generation, but we keep our ear to the ground. There are fifteen-year-olds currently attending Boston Latin who are every bit as smart as Hugh Trevor-Roper ever was, and HUNGRIER than he ever knew to be, because unlike him they can FEEL how much more the questing world needs them. The good Muse Clio is safe in their hands, no matter what David Wootton might think. He, perhaps, hasn't actually met any of these bespectacled youngers ... but we here at Stevereads have, and we're not so pessimistic.

But NONE of this holds a candle to the biggest offense the issue has to offer. Stephen Abell finally gets around to offering the TLS' review of Norman Mailer's 'The Castle in the Forest.' The review is intensely intelligent and, it must be said, largely negative - but that matters very little in the shadow of, of all things, the review's ILLUSTRATION. Right there, while the review is making its stately case and holding Mailer accountable for every one of his sentences and ideas, the accompanying illustration has Mailer dressed in a Nazi uniform, saluting with one hand and waving a Nazi flag with the other.

Because Norman Mailer wrote a novel about the boyhood of Adolf Hitler, the TLS editorial board thought it appropriate to publish a picture of him as a Nazi.

The mind boggles. Literally no explanation could possibly hold water. The TLS owes Mailer a prominent, abject apology - and twenty years ago, he'd have squeezed it from them in a court of law. These present editors had better hope he's lost a step or two since his litigious heyday.

So it was a dark week at the TLS, but everybody's entitled to be off their game once or twice. We'll check in next week and hope for the best.