Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back Issues: Captain America!

On the eve of Marvel Comics finally resurrecting Captain America (who they killed off at the climax of their hugely disappointing "Civil War" event), it's natural to look at the character's storied past. Remembering the times when the character has been written and drawn really well comes as a comfort, especially since we don't yet know how Marvel will screw up the character's return. We know they will screw it up - this is Marvel we're talking about, after all - but we don't yet know how. Will the returned Cap be a Wolverine-style sourpussed killer? Will he have superpowers? Will he be radically altered, philosophically?

We'll know shortly, and in the meantime, I've been enjoying some back issues. Not as many as you'd think - this character virtually invites dumb handling, and most writers haven't resisted the temptation to make him a simpleton.

For two issues during the short run of the Cap spin-off title Sentinel of Liberty, Mark Waid amply resisted that temptation in a nifty little tale I love to re-read. The fact that it's drawn by Ron Garney, one of the best draftsmen working in comics today, just makes it all that much sweeter.

The story begins right after Captain America has been rescued by the Avengers from ice-bound suspended animation. Iron Man has taken him to Brooklyn in a well-intentioned attempt to make him feel a little less displaced - but their first stop is the spot where Ebbets Field used to be, so Cap - a diehard Dodgers fan in his youth back in the 1940s - isn't exactly filled with reassurances. And the crowd of spectators don't help - Cap is chewed out by one old guy who tells him he ought to be ashamed of himself for pretending to be Captain America.

The two issues are narrated by Iron Man, and Waid captures his wry conceitedness perfectly as he himself wonders if Cap can ever really belong in the present day:

I'm sure Cap was capable in his day .. but we asked him to resume his costumed-acrobat act as if nothing has changed in his absence! Poor guy must feel like a caveman! America's become a lot more complicated - and dangerous - since he left. How can anyone expect him to be on his toes in a world so far advanced from the one he calls home?

These worries are immediately tested - giant robots with mind-dominating eye-beams show up and start enslaving passersby. Cap and Iron Man spring into action, with Iron Man offering maddeningly condescending advice that's meant to be helpful: "Cap! Stay back and protect the civilians! Let me handle these bruisers!"

And he does just that - until one of them crushes one of his jet-boots and hurls him straight at an oncoming bus crowded with people.

Iron Man can't recover his balance in time to avoid totalling the bus, and here Garney's genius is on full display: we see Iron Man flying toward the bus, we see the panicked passengers and driver - and then flashing across the page we see Captain America's shield, thrown with perfect timing to be between Iron Man and the front of the bus at the moment of impact (Capt's shield is composed of a unique alloy of adamantium and vibranium - so it's not only indestructible, it absorbs and repulses impacts).

It's a thrilling little sequence, as Iron Man bounces off the shield and lands in a heap. "Cap?" he asks, and Cap says, "the civilians are okay" - zing! Iron Man asks "Was that sarcasm?" and then rips into one of the robots.

And promptly gets mind-controlled! And the robots' first command: destroy Captain America! That's how the first chapter ends.

The second chapter continues Iron Man's narration with the great line "Looking back, it's a miracle he didn't mop the city with me." This can't help but put a smile on the face of comics geeks, because it reaffirms the special status Captain America has in the Marvel Universe, a status exactly paralleled by Batman in the DC Universe: he's a first-rank heavyweight despite having no superpowers. It's a tricky role, and lots of writers fail to convey it. But Waid gets it perfect in this little story, set up by Iron Man's bemused recollection of how badly he underestimated his adversary:

I remember thinking, even in my haze, that Cap didn't stand a chance against me. The Brooklyn battlefield he remembered was decades gone. He'd been in our time less than forty-eight hours - not nearly long enough to acclimate to his new world. In desperation, he bounded towards the vacant lots he remembered from his youth - only to find himself instead in the middle of a superhighway! Even with one bootjet crippled by the robots, I figured I was more than a match for a disoriented acrobat wrapped in a flag. Despite my muddled mind, I almost felt sorry for him.

And then the punchline: "What a waste of perfectly good brain cells."

Cap proceeds to use wits, agility, and some handy construction equipment to cut Iron Man down to size, and when the giant robots try to hypnotize Cap himself, their efforts fail - his willpower apparently being significantly stronger than that of skirt-chasing, martini-swilling Iron Man. The robots are defeated in short order, and Iron Man discovers a new respect for the man he considered a relic from the past. It's a neat little story, nothing epic, perfectly capturing one moment in these characters' relationship with each other.

I wanted lots and lots of such moments in "Civil War" and didn't get them (well, didn't get many of them - there were a couple), and gawd only knows what moments - perfect or very, very much otherwise - will crop up in "Captain America - Reborn." Still, because the potential is there, I'll be sure to investigate.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Boys in peril in the Penny Press!

In one of those macabre coincidences that sometimes crops up in the world of deadline-publishing, the current issue of Rolling Stone features a hard-eyed article by Fred Goodman on whether or not Michael Jackson will cover the spread and actually make good on his promised string of sold out summer concerts. As Goodman writes:

The stakes are huge for Jackson: his finances have been pushed to the limit by the upkeep for his lavish former home Neverland Ranch; his penchant for wild spending (Jackson has been described as "a millionaire who spends like a billionaire"); and the $25 million out-of-court settlement he paid over child abuse allegations from 1993.

Goodman goes on quite a bit after this about the rest of Jackson's outstanding debts, all of which might have been settled by one successful string of mega-concerts such as those promoters - and fans - envisioned for the upcoming months. As one source puts it, "You are talking about a guy who could make $500 million a year if he put his mind to it."

Of course, in between Goodman's deadline and right now the ultimate schedule change intervened, and fans will be left wondering about those concerts for the rest of their lives (I wonder how many of those bought-and-paid-for tickets across the world will be kept as sad souvenirs rather than turned in for a refund?). Certainly all the people with legal judgements against Jackson are out a payoff, since their money was entirely dependant on him earning it, but those of us who weren't ever fans have to wonder if there weren't at least some beneficiaries of this turn of events.

Goodman writes that some of the shows' preparations were stalled a bit by Jackson's 'perfectionism,' including one bit of perfectionism that just plain infuriates: "For one," Goodman says, "he has put out a casting call for children's choirs proficient in sign language and 'exactly equal' in racial diversity." What somebody who felt compelled to pay $25 million as an out-of-court settlement (one of many) on child molestation charges is doing planning to travel with multiple choirs of hand-picked children, Goodman doesn't explain. Probably if you gave mega-celebrity and the power that comes with it to every persistent pedophile on Earth, they'd all act much the same way - in any case, it's now permissible to breathe a sigh of relief for those prospective choirboys (even if just hearing such a thing makes you want to throttle their parents).

Sighs of relief don't come quite so easily over the issue's other boys, the Jonas Brothers. Jenny Eliscu writes of their Holy Grail:

Everyone in the Jonas Brothers operation - the boys themselves, their management and label - seems unsure exactly how to position the band so it can hold on to the loyal kiddie fans and at the same time move closer to achieving what it craves the most: musical credibility.

At the heart of this repositioning are the key three: Kevin (the goofy one of mediocre talent), Joe (the pretty, gay one of mediocre talent), and youngest brother Nick (the ambitious, squinty-eyed one of mediocre talent). These three give roughly 10,000 interviews a year, so a certain lack of candor on their part is to be expected. But that's not the only peril a reader must navigate when reading an alleged 'profile' of this group, because Disney is involved (it owns Hollywood Records, the brothers' label)(and it grew all three brothers in its Disco biotech facility on the salt flats outside Bakersfield), and Disney leaves nothing whatsoever to chance.

So when you read a piece on the Jonas Brothers, you have to tap around regularly for the steel corporate framework just under the surface. Some pointers:

Is much made of the fact that Nick, though the youngest, is the band's leader and a 'genius'?


Is Kevin's general uselessness obscured by trivia? Check - he tinkers with their state design!

Is the faintest hint that ANY of the brothers might be gay rigorously avoided? Check - the subject never comes up, and the obviously stage-managed text-breakup between Joe and Taylor Swift (they wrote competing breakup songs!) is trotted out as factual one more time.

Is no allusion whatsoever made to the fact that when Nick isn't actually asleep, he's smoking? Check - the subject's never approached.

Are all the photos either work-related or oh-so-adorable? Check - the brothers onstage, Nick sweating backstage, Nick (in three-piece suit, no less) checking playlist, Nick and his adorable little puppy dog.

Unfortunately for the brothers, their Holy Grail has never been reached by any teeny-bopper group in the history of the world - and only very, very seldom even by the standout single member of any group. Most such groups struggle through various stages of being ridiculous, pathetic, and overreaching, without ever achieving anything even remotely resembling credibility. The waiting list for I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! is three-dozen deep with boy-band members who aren't Justin Timberlake, after all, and even the tiny number of Timberlake-style success stories out there are haunted by the ultimate cautionary tale of such unlikely success.

That cautionary tale is gone from the world now - if there were any justice in the multiverse, he'd spend the rest of eternity being drugged and coerced into bed by a creepy, hideous higher power who'd then fondle him and make him swear not to tell, no matter how suicidally horrible it made him feel. Lacking that, we could always raze Neverland Ranch and salt the earth where it once stood. Just a suggestion.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Speaking of Books - and Life!

Our book today is one of J. Donald Adams' collections of the "Speaking of Books" columns he wrote for The New York Times over the course of many decades; this one called Speaking of Books - and Life, and it amply demonstrates a truth I've been known to champion myself: well-done book criticism is a boon to the soul.

It's that 'well-done' part that catches you, since book criticism badly-done is hay maker to the literary and rhetorical crotch. Lazy authors of other kind of prose are not only expected but almost forgivable - a 300 page novel? Whose attention wouldn't wander a bit in the writing of such a thing? A 600 page history of the Ostrogoths? A little nodding comes with such a thankless task. But writing lazily or sloppily about books? Somehow, that feels so much more sacrilegious, probably because reading is so inherently personal. Which 'serious' reader hasn't had at least some long, passionate conversations with other readers about these mysterious silent things that speak so loudly to our lives? Which serious reader wouldn't rank some of those conversations among the best they've ever had?

On some level, we all know that well-done book criticism is that kind of conversation. The critic's job isn't merely to point out the strengths and weaknesses of whichever specific book happens to be on his dissecting table at the moment (although there should always be a part of that - the critic must advocate and also warn, but that happens in those epic conversations too); he must also digress, irritate, flatter, outrage, distract ... and above all stimulate. Reading well-done book criticism should be like engaging in one of those great book-conversations, even though the two participants aren't actually talking to each other, even though the critic might very well be dead and gone (arguing with Hazlitt is no less fun now than it was when he was alive, and don't even get me started about Erasmus ... ). The critic's job extends far beyond merely summarizing the particular book he's reviewing - he has to contextualize, he has to set the scene, and he sometimes has to teach.

And we the readers return the favor! We read some Olympian pronouncement from the likes of Stpehen Leacock or Alexander Cockburn or Edmund Wilson or Henry James or Mary McCarthy or W. H. Auden, and if we agree with it, the sun seems a little brighter, the birds a little more melodious - and if we disagree, we set immediately to a mental scrambling to justify ourselves, a process that's sweetly anger-fueled no matter whether the recipient is still alive to get our irate rebuttal. Hardly a day goes by when I don't phrase both sides of the debate this way about some new-published thing, between me and some long-gone book-friend who'd surely have loved or hated it in direct proportion to me.

That's what well-done book criticism should be - and so seldom is! Book critics are only human, after all (well ... most of them), and they're just as prone to becoming jaded, cynical, or hidebound as any other kind of critic. The average review in the world's most influential review organ, Adams' old stomping ground The New York Times, is an utterly lifeless thing, often compelled to be so by its enforced brevity (and by ham-fisted editors who know nothing of their craft). Not that brevity is lethal to wit - but most good book critics improve if they can expand a bit, which isn't possible if you're limited to twenty inches above the fold in a newspaper.

Adams could do it, did it every week for what seems like an endless number of weeks. And he was almost always all the above-mentioned things: digressive, flattering, irritating, often stubborn but never actually closed. His book column became something of an institution, and at the height of his popularity his least printed assertion would prompt an avalanche of mail. In any newsroom (and this applies online as well), there's a peculiar status accorded the writer who actually provokes written responses, and Adams certainly did.

And more than just getting letters, he also read them all - and thought about them. This particular volume of cullings from his collected works is all about those not infrequent times when reader response and careful thought caused him to change his mind (he was that rare formally gifted thinker who wasn't afraid of such a change at all, in fact welcomed it). Adams was fonder of learning than he was of preaching, and it often happened that correspondents of his would receive a dashed-off missive with a typically breakneck opening, "I've just received a letter about ..." The "Speaking of Books" column was always at its most fun when Adams brought this reader dialogue before his audience. An example:

This department, I fear, will have to keep its sackcloth and ashes in a more convenient place. In the course of some recent remarks on obscurity and the perverse use of words in contemporary poetry, I seem to have gone off the deep end by quoting in support of my protest a line which reads, "Green of nightfall, alive with the clicking bats." I confessed inability to establish a connection between "green" and "nightfall," and my failure to imagine any sense in which bats might be described as "clicking."

By a score of readers who express general sympathy with my reservations about the content and manner of much of contemporary poetry, I stand rebuked, gently and otherwise, for these particular objections. On the matter of the bats, especially, the weight of evidence is overwhelming. What makes my penitence harder to bear is the fact that I fancied myself here to be on definitely safe ground. For several seasons a bat made his home with me in a house I once had in the country; that is, he took up residence in his dormant daylight state behind a storm door on the upper front porch, where he became so much an accepted member of the household that he was known as Michael.

Though I never heard a clicking sound from Michael or any other bat of my limited acquaintance, I am assured by my correspondents that the adjective is apt. So many of them identify the sound that I must conclude it is simply one that I never chanced to hear.

And Adams was just as diverting when he stepped back not to assess his own stance on something but to take a long view of some literary fad that had come to his attention:

I speak of these matters because I have been wondering whether any significance attaches to the recent popularity among adults of certain books about animals. Is this mere chance, or may it be accounted for in other ways? The question must be pursued cautiously for what should be obvious reasons. Everybody knows that the taste for certain kinds of reading fluctuates from period to period; the Elizabethans were as fascinated by how-to books as we are, and produced them in similar profusion, but during intervening centuries the phenomenon was less marked. At the beginning of the present century the historical romance (as opposed to the more serious historical novel) enjoyed wider popularity than it does today. And so the pendulum swings.

That long view makes Adams particularly thrilling reading when he makes mention of recent or contemporary literary figures (as he often does, obviously) who've since gone on to be enshrined in the literary pantheon. When he writes about "the younger people," the names that follow - Eudora Welty, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Flannery O'Connor - won't strike many readers today as particularly youthful, and it's exciting in an almost illicit way to watch a heavyweight critic swing his arms around in their company, as when Adams comments, "On Michener and Mailer I reserve judgment; both have skill, but what will they do with it?"

The writers of his own age suffered also from the fact that Adams was an energetic reader of the classics of the Western canon. Such readers are notoriously hard to please, although not all of them are as adroit about it as Adams:

Besides this man [Samuel Johnson], who knew the depths of human misery, I get damned impatient with those avant-garde writers who seem suddenly to have discovered (I have Samuel Beckett particularly in mind) that human life is not a bed of roses, as if it ever were. But the first man capable of sensible and sensitive reflection knew it as well as they. I suppose every man must discover the fact for himself - and express it in the terms of his age. Nevertheless, I wish we had, among more writers, a little more of Sam Johnson's courage, a little more of his contempt for odds. He might rail, but he never cried in his soup.

If Adams were alive and still writing today ("Jonathan Safran Foer would long since have been frightened into a different profession" - no, no ... we'll make a different point), I might point out to him such writers as Tom McGuane or Pete Dexter and try to make the case that courage of the type he admires didn't entirely vanish from the world after the Great Cham. Alas, that isn't possible - but maybe someday somebody will reprint his book-columns, so the conversation can resume.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fact and Fiction in the Penny Press!

With a post title like that, you're all probably expecting me to turn right away to this week's People magazine, which features a corporate hack-job "profile" of Gossip Girl rancid tobacco addict boyequin Chace Crawford as one of the summer's "hottest bachelors" ... since the piece hyperventilates quite earnestly about how hot Chace is, how funny Chace is, how romantic Chace is, and how straight Chace is (and since the profile never alludes either to the stench of tobacco or the fact that Chase is life-splittingly hung over every single morning, that he wasn't even blow-dryably close to photographable for the first two or three hours of the shoot), it certainly qualifies as an example of the grey nether-ground between fact and fiction.

But no, I leave such vitriol for others (including the good folks at IHateChaceCrawford, who've certainly got their work cut out for them with this vacant-brained piece of pork rind)! We've got slightly bigger fish to fry in this installment of In the Penny Press, and we'll start with the Fiction end of the spectrum, which brings us to the latest issue of Esquire. This issue has some other interesting stuff in it (although it's once again simply loaded with stupid mini-articles giving tips about grilling, and once again simply loaded with full-page ads for cigars, for all the world like we lived in an alternate reality in which none of the magazine's hip young go-getter subscribers know that smoking causes mouth, lung, heart, kidney, throat, brain, and skin cancer, not only in you but in all the people you smoke near)(top-notch habit, that - ever so attractive), but the clear highlight from a marketing perspective certainly has to be the short story by Stephen King. It's called "Morality," and it's a big-boy work - as its title implies, it's a little morality play about normal people facing abnormal moral choices, with not the slightest hint of the supernatural anywhere to be seen.

Quite apart from its merits or lack of them, "Morality" only solidifies in my mind a conviction that's been growing for some time: sooner or later, American readers are going to have to figure out what to do with Stephen King.

It was one thing when he was just churning out progressively unreadable schlock horror novels - plenty of people do that, and it's easy for those so inclined to ignore. That got a little more complicated when he bought a picturesque mansion, let Sunday magazines photograph his enormous library, and most of all started donating serious amounts of money to worthy causes. These are literary warning signs, the kinds of things a schlock horror novelist does when he's beginning to want to be taken seriously as a writer.

Uproarious laughter is the proper response from the publishing industry, accompanied by a brayed version of the rhetorical question, "If you wanted to be taken seriously, why'd you write about friggin killer clowns?" But it's been a long time since the publishing industry had what's known in bull-riding circles as "a pair," and so King's steady encroachment on the lower slopes of Parnassus hasn't been endured stoically - it's been actively encouraged. In 2003, the National Book Foundation gave King a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and psychics from every state in the Union were bombarded with the same message from Nathaniel Hawthorne: "What the fuck?"

There's been a book of essays on the craft of writing; there's been a couple of novels with only nominal horror-elements (if you don't count the prose); there've been straight-up fiction stories in mainstream quasi-literary magazines, and now there's "Morality" in the latest Esquire.

Reading the story doesn't help us know any better how to think about this new, emerging Stephen King. It's the story of a struggling young couple in New York - Chad is a substitute teacher who never gets enough work to pay the bills, and his wife Nora is an in-home care-provider for a wealthy stroke victim named Reverend Winston. The two of them are living a life of quiet desperation, always on the edge of solvency, when Winston makes Nora an offer she at first wants to refuse: all his life, he's been a perfectly good, moral person, but before he dies, he'd like to know what it feels like to commit a sin. Since he's recovering from a stroke, he's not really able to do the actual committing himself, and that's where Nora comes in. If she'll perform his sin by proxy, he'll pay her an enormous sum of money, enough to solve the young couple's money problems. She agonizes over the idea, Chad agonizes over the idea, and then they decide to do it.

The sin? Nora is to enter a playground, walk up to one of the little children, and punch him squarely in the face, while Chad films the whole thing for the Reverend's viewing pleasure. Nora does it, they collect their money, and then King hauls in a rather predictable array of moral aftershocks. And by that point, any reader of short fiction that isn't by schlock horror novelists with Nobel aspirations will see more problems than can be readily counted, starting with the biggest three: 1) the entire story is based on coincidence, 2) all three main characters in the story behave in ways no real person would ever behave, even for a moment while very drunk, and 3) the act the good reverend chooses for Nora to perform might be a crime, but it's sure as Hell not a sin.

1 & 2 are the real problems here, though: King might want to try his hand at mainstream fiction, and certainly everybody in America is entitled to try a little self-reinvention, but there's no getting around the fact that King's apprenticeship for writing conventional fiction is nearly 40 years of writing schlock horror novels in which lazy, shopworn contrivances of the worst ilk are standard reading fare, in every book, on every page. You can't snap your fingers and suddenly be a writer who didn't learn his trade that way - and no matter how many high school water polo teams King underwrites, he doesn't strike me as having one-thousandth the humility necessary to re-learn writing from the ground up.

And if he's not willing to do that, we're all going to see more variations on "Morality" from him - in Esquire, in The New Yorker, and who knows where else - "serious" tales of ethics and suburbs and characters lunging at three-dimensionality. None of it will be any good - how can it be, when all of it was learned in a candle-lit House of Wax? - but all of it will want to be, and when one of the top-selling novelists of the 20th century so loudly wants something, every reader is pulled into the melodrama of it.

And really, that same theme of overreaching finds its way into the "Fact" portion of the Penny Press this time around. In the latest GQ (the with a naked Sacha Baron Cohen on the cover, advertising his upcoming film, the most-hyped/least-funny film since, come to think of it, Borat), John Jeremiah Sullivan (think of that wedding! talk about schlock horror!) does his level best to write a serious, probing piece about a subject who was a walking punch line from the moment he first shuffled onto the public stage: Levi Johnston, the wavy-haired lantern-jawed bo-hunk who impregnated Bristol Palin, the idiot daughter of Sarah Palin, the idiot Alaska governor John McCain, in a desperately irresponsible gimmick-trick, picked to be his vice presidential candidate in the last election. The pick alone forced the majority of voters to confront the fact that McCain was just plain insane, and that probably cost him the election, and the entire world stepped back from the edge of an unthinkable abyss - but even before then, Levi and Bristol were "on the rocks," as the tabloids say, and once the votes were counted, the Palins pried him off the skin of their family like a bloated tick.

Cast off, cast out, no longer part of the apparently ongoing story of the Palins (Jeremiah Sullivan makes a horrifying offhand reference to a "2012 run"), and, touchingly, no longer allowed to be much part of the life of the child he engendered with Bristol - that's where this article finds young Levi. Jeremiah Sullivan meets up with him in small-town Alaska, where Levi does what can only be referred to as a sinful amount of bear-hunting but appears to have no job and no job prospects (beyond the offhand mention of a possible reality-show about hunting)(all these heart-stopping offhand mentions combine to make this piece considerably more frightening than King's story). Our author does a wonderful job of conveying what virtually every small town in Alaska makes a visitor feel:

It is a shithole surrounded by such loveliness. Stand there and blink back and forth, shutting your left eye, then your right. Left eye: spit of highway, aggressive proliferation of half-abandoned strip malls, a few roads dwindling off to little houses. Right eye: the mountains, the expanding sky, the shadowy crevasses, a bald eagle. Highway, strip malls, little houses; mountains, sky, crevasses, eagle. Highwaystripmallslittlehouses; mountainsskycrevasseseagle.

Both eyes: Wasilla.

And he's equally evocative on that sharp, nauseating moment in American history when all these various Wasilla people suddenly threatened to matter:

It takes some mental effort to recover the feeling of how much he seemed to mean at one time, and practically yesterday. Obama has made him seem kitschy already, has stolen his power to signify. Not presuming anything about one's politics - referring instead to the sheer dynamism of events since the election. We are a couple of beads further along the necklace of cultural time from Levi. We are post-Levi. It's decadent to think of him now. But the chemical traces remain of a plausibility structure inside which his very face seemed full of information and even warning. Something was happening to the country, it was splitting in two. Levi looked like a place where the ripping might start. We were laughing at him then too, of course - that was largely it. If McCain's choosing Palin had been cynical (as born out by their recoiling from each other in defeat), not until his embrace of Levi did it become farcical. .... We knew he was there only because it had been deemed worse for him not to be there. That gave him a curious magnetism. And John McCain, fine, he was trying to win a campaign, he's an opportunist. He's also a United States senator and a war hero, and there was something in how he greeted Levi - how for a second it mattered whether he greeted this boy, and in what manner - like an acknowledgment. Not of one man to another, exactly, but of one force to another. It was either the beginning or the end of something. Briefly recall when you didn't know which.

That's just about as good as hopped-up Red Bull deadline-prose gets, and the whole article shines with it. For the brief span of its pages, we can indeed recall when we walked around every day wondering very dark things about our own countrymen, urgently asking ourselves the same questions over and over again: Can't they see what's happening here? Can't they see what's at stake here? Are they REALLY going to treat the most important presidential election in modern memory like an evening of 'American Idol'? "Hey! The grumpy old guy picked a hottie hockey-mom who's JUST LIKE US!"

Then you stop reading, and you close the magazine, and reality reasserts itself. Fact separates from fiction and both start behaving themselves again: John McCain will never be president, Obama is alive, in charge, and still enjoying popularity in the polls. Sarah Palin will not, cannot ever be taken seriously as a candidate for national office, and apart from reading a very entertaining magazine article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, none of us needs to think about Levi Johnston at all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Queen Victoria Series!

Our books today are the four breathless, fervent volumes that comprise the Queen Victoria Series written in the mid-'70s by Jean Plaidy.

And right away that name calls for a veritable blizzard of defending and explaining, doesn't it? Because Jean Plaidy is of course a pseudonym used by Eleanor Burford (you can see why), who was born in 1906, died in 1993, and in between wrote several thousand novels. Jean Plaidy wasn't the only pen-name she used, far from it: most famously she was also Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, but if memory serves, there were many, many others. For decades, her novels (a great heaping mass of them historical novels) fell from her creative teats and hit the floor like baby rats - fully-formed, stripped bare for function, and avid for survival. During her publishing heyday - otherwise known as the 20th century - her books were most often looked upon by the literary establishment as the worst kind of tripe. She was certainly on John Mortimer's mind when he created his great lampoon of the type, that "bottler of historical bilge-water" Miss Amelia Nettleship - in a scene that had to be ever so satisfying to write, Mortimer has his feisty Old Bailey hack Horace Rumpole eviscerate her methods and her prose style in open court, prompting a great deal of embarrassment about the actual literary merits of her "rattling good yarns."

Amelia Nettleship is ultimately serene about Rumpole's outraged verdict on her art, and doubtless Jean Plaidy never bothered to mourn the fact that she was never taken seriously by the TLS. In fact, considering the fact that her sheer output almost certainly means she was gravely mentally ill, I doubt she bothered to take much of anything seriously. In order to write the number of books she did in the number of years she had, she must have been quite literally writing (or dictating) during every single waking moment, whether she was on a cruise, on the phone, or on the crapper.

A friend of mine recently had to make deadline for a short story that simply wasn't exciting his creative juices, and he wondered aloud how he might do that (he wasn't hinting at anything, mind you - although the overwhelming majority of people who wonder such things aloud in my vicinity are not-so-secretly hoping I'll offer to take the whole chore off their hands, this friend rather stubbornly remains in the minority). I told him the one and only way: you have to locate the internal filter, the internal editor that all writers have, and you've got to consciously shut it off (note to all you misguided fans of Joyce and Kerouac: this cannot be done by using drugs - that actually makes the internal editor more of a butt-insky, not less). Once it's turned off, put your fingers on your keyboard and don't stop typing until your task is done, or mostly done. When we parted ways, he seemed doubtful to say the least.

When next we met, his eyes went slightly wider as he told me, "It worked! I just didn't stop - no word-choices, no agonizing, no pausing at all, and suddenly I had 25 pages! 25 pages!" But you should have heard his tone - it wasn't admiration or joy, far from it: he sounded like the horny kid in town who doesn't believe his buddies when they tell him one of the whores in the local whorehouse is 60 years old and he patronizes her just to, um, verify it. In other words, he sounded vaguely disgusted - both that he'd managed to profane his art that way, but also that I knew the way in the first place. You could practically hear him thinking, "That explains a lot."

There's a weird kind of algebra that attends a writer's amount of production. If you write 100 books, 300, or a thousand like Jean Plaidy, Louis L'Amour or the author of the 'Toff' series, you're immediately considered a hack of the first water, somebody who never paused, never reflected, never agonized over word-choices, and certainly never revised (the ill-informed often characterize Danielle Steel as a modern-day example of this, but she's absolutely blown out of the water by the likes of Nora Roberts, or even dear old Betty Neals). And likewise if you only write the one book, you're immediately considered something of a hothouse flower, not a person who had all that much to say, somehow precious or even worse, lucky. I think it was Anthony Burgess who once carped that E.M. Forster made really prolific authors look bad, because was the first one to make a nice small number of books - eight, say - look civilized. Turning off that inner editor opens wide the door to a level of productivity those who don't do it often look upon as virtually supernatural, and productivity like that puts most quality-inclined readers in mind of those vacant-eyed fish who spew forth thousands of guppies and then swim away, nurturing none of them.

I hope it's needless to say I consider this algebra (and indeed, all algebra) complete hooey. When it comes to writing, there's no legitimate connection whatsoever between fecundity and profundity - Quantity is absolutely no bar to quality. It's true, revision is often a profound boon to prose ... but as an old friend of mine used to say, you can't polish a turd. Look at a writer like David Guterson - he must be doing something in the lulls between his gawd-awful books ... ten to one it's revising that's taking up his time, and look at the results! A stadium piled high with money, but a literary output that stinks to high heaven. No, I'm convinced that the key here isn't how fast you write, it's how firm a grasp you have of writing's basics before you even start. If those basics are in place and you turn that inner editor off, you may write a lot, but it won't necessarily stink (note that my friend in the above anecdote didn't say those 25 pages were markedly worse than the 25 pages he'd have written in two months if he'd done it his original way). Anybody who claims a sparse output is a required sign of reading quality has yet to make the acquaintance of Anthony Trollope, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Elmore Leonard, or William Vollmann.

Or Jean Plaidy. Say what you want about Amelia Nettleship, work the algebra any way you like, but the plain fact remains: her books are consistently well-researched (though some that research is then bent double in the cause of heaving emotions), expertly paced, and mighty damn enjoyable. You almost can't pick one that has no entertainment value at all, and several - especially whenever she's writing about British royal history - are, well, rattling good yarns.

Like the Queen Victoria series, to get back to our nominal subject! Plaidy takes up Victoria's story when she was still an unknown little lump of a girl, daughter of the vile Duchess of Kent, sequestered in the countryside and hardly ever brought to court - despite the fact that an odd series of circumstances had made her next in the line of succession. Naturally, the emotional highlight of this dreary back-story are Victoria's two meetings with her future adored husband Albert (after the first meeting, she was unimpressed - in non-Victorian parlance, she disliked the stick he had shoved up his ass; after the second meeting, she concentrated more on the ass itself and liked what she saw), and he's hovering in the wings of the second volume, The Queen and Lord M., although as you can tell from the title, the lachrymose Lord Melbourne - Victoria's beloved Whig Prime Minister at the outset of her reign - gets the lion's share of the spotlight. Virtually the whole book consists of him advising her on one thing or another while she achieves various mixtures of outrage and incomprehension, as when trouble with those filthy, contentious Irish threaten to remove Lord M. from power:


"It's true. If the vote went against us and we were defeated we should fall and Sir Robert Peel, the Leader of the Opposition, would come along and ask Your Majesty's permission to form a new Government."

"I should never give my permission."

"But that is something you would be obliged to do."

"I .... the Queen!" Her eyes were brilliant, her cheeks flushed. "I never would."

"Your Majesty's temper is a little choleric," he said with a tender smile.

"Do you expect me to agree to this when I know what it would mean? You would cease to be my Prime Minister."

He nodded, making one of his grimaces which usually amused her but did not do so on this occasion.

"That," she said firmly, "is something I should never allow."

Lord Melbourne's eyes filled with tears and at the sight of them she wanted to repeat her determination even more emphatically.

"Alas that you cannot enforce your sweet will," he said, so poetically, she thought, that she could have burst into tears. "Ours is a Constitutional Monarchy and that means that we all - even our Sovereign - must obey the rules of the Constitution. The Government is elected by the people and since our Reform Bill all sorts and conditions have been allowed to vote. Therefore Your Majesty's Government cannot always be of your choosing."

"But to change Governments. How foolish! Why?"

"Because ours is not a strong Government. Our majority is small and popular feeling is against us. Sir Robert Peel is waiting to jump into my shoes."

"I will never allow that!"

He shook his head at her.

"Your Majesty will have no choice. If I go out, he will come in."

"And all because of this silly Irish question!"

"Many consider it of importance."

"I would rather lose Ireland than let you go."

(To which final sentiment several dozen Donoghues, Powers, Tenneys, and Ogdens then living in Donegal might have responded, "Well jayzus, then, fookin' let us go!")

Now, I'm not blind. I can see as well as you can all that's wrong with that passage. There's almost no characterization, and what there is doesn't go below the surface - and there are only two points to the exchange, and one of them is repeated twice, and the other is repeated three times. There's all kinds of stuff that ordinary, everyday revision would have caught and fixed, and of course if you're writing 200 novels a year, you simply can't indulge in ordinary, everyday revision. But there's a good deal right with that passage as well, no matter how predisposed you are to say otherwise. First, the history embedded in it is completely accurate, and that's true for almost every scene in almost every one of Plaidy's historical novels - at virtually every point when she's writing about Queen Margaret or Charles II or Eleanor of Acquintaine, you can rest assured she's having them think things they actually thought and say things they actually said. That's nothing to sneeze at, when it comes to historical fiction. More of it doesn't have that than does - a lot more. And second, the rhythm of the dialogue here is flawless - the alterations between unadorned talk and little sprigs of exposition are so smoothly done you don't ever think of how badly they could have gone wrong. And third, and connected, there's a clarity to Plaidy's prose that's very appealing in long stretches - and that derives in part from the fact that she simply didn't have the time to muddy things up.

The story goes on to The Queen's Husband, which backtracks and expands on the Victoria-Albert romance. Albert was pretty to look at and well-educated, and when he got to England as the Queen's betrothed, he was more than a little frustrated by the largely impotent, ceremonial nature of his position, and that's the central point of this volume. But Plaidy manages to get in some fairly pointed dialogue between young Albert and his brother Ernest before the match, when they're still in the European hinterlands being groomed by their imperious uncle Leopold, who intends to impose a strict modern education upon the two boys:

"Will our father agree to that?" Ernest wondered when the boys were alone together.

"Agree," cried Albert, "of course he'll agree. Uncle Leopold is the most important man in Europe."

"He has bewitched you," said Ernest.

"Bewitched! Who's bewitched? Now you're thinking of the grandmothers' fairy stories."

"You seem to think he is the most brilliant, magnificent, clever ..."

"Oh, shut up," said Albert. And then: "But he is."

"There, I told you so. No wonder Unlce Leopold loves you. You flatter him so innocently."

"How could one flatter innocently? Flattery in itself suggests something false."

"There you go, Herr Florschultz's model pupil. No wonder Uncle Leopold decided you should have the prize."

"What prize?"

"The Queen of England, idiot."

Believe me, there's a lot going on in that passage too, and all of it is being handled with the dexterity of a seasoned fry-cook. The final volume in the series, The Widow of Windsor, of course features John Brown and the usual assortment of exotic functionaries, all of it heavily draped in the somber colors of lost true love - it's a fairly low-key way to end the series, but if I remember correctly, Plaidy wrote a single stand-alone Queen Victoria novel about ten years after she finished this series (I want to say it was called Victoria Victorious, but I'm probably getting it confused a little with the sublime and hilarious Julie Andrews movie of very nearly the same name), a novel that turned outward, as it were, and focused more on the politics and spectacle of Victoria's whole enormous reign. I'll make a mental note to hunt it down at the library one of these days.

And so should you, though that pre-conditioning is probably pretty strong. In addition to your inner editor, if you turned your inner snickerer off, you'd get a lot more reading done, but that's a harangue for another day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Savage Beauty

Our book today is Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford's best-selling 2001 biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and it's an author/subject pairing made in Heaven. Milford of course write Zelda, the definitive life of F. Scott Fitzgerald's needy, stupid mess of a wife - and when that book was new, more reviewers talked about how beautifully it was written than spared even a word for Zelda's own meager and deservedly-forgotten literary output. Indeed, Zelda is a beautifully wrought book - massive research lightly worn, massive legwork casually described, memorable turns of phrase on practically every page.

And unabashedly sympathetic, which isn't always the case with long biographies. That's understandable - after all, the biographer is spending large amount of every day cooped up with their subject, indelibly aware of every flaw and shortcoming. That tends to produce one of two reactions: either the biographer becomes a fact-piling sycophant, or the biographer starts to hate his subject. Few indeed are the biographers who can walk the line between those two reactions, let along walk it for long stretches of pages - and yet, so many biographies are published every year that a list of just such successes would be moderately long! I'll get to such a list in due time, but for now, I can heartily recommend Milford's other biography to all of you: Savage Beauty is a wonderful, wise, and heartfelt examination of one of America's first pop-star poets, as Milford is quick to point out:

Deep into the nineteenth century there had been literary gentlemen who filled lecture halls and athenaeums with their deft recitals of poems and sermons. But Millay was the first American figure to rival the personal adulation, frenzy even, of Byron, where the poet in his person was the romantic ideal. It was his life as much as his work that shocked and delighted his audiences. Edna Millay was the only American woman to draw such crowds to her. Her performing self made people feel they had seen the muse alive and just within reach. They laughed with her, and they were moved by her poetry. Passionate and charming, or easy and lofty, she not only brought them to their feet, she brought them to her. In the heart of the Depression her collection of sonnets Fatal Interview sold 35,000 copies within the first few weeks of its publication.

Milford takes us on a fascinatingly fact-and-figure-based tour of Millay's actual working life, tracking sales figures for each book, accounting for the exact sums of publisher advances and speaking fees. In her poetry performances ("readings" is so sedate as to be misleading), Millay often affected a vaguely ethereal pose, and Milford sometimes seems to be deliberately working against that, constantly nailing us down to tax returns and sales receipts. It's a mark of her talent that she makes it all so compulsively interesting.

She also gives us a complete picture of Millay's reception as a poet - it's fascinating to read all the excerpts included here from contemporary reviews - not all of which were kind, as in the case of Horace Gregory's 1935 review of Wine From These Grapes, in which he spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on facts from Millay's biography. Such a technique is ubiquitous today, but at the time it was relatively rare in such worthy precincts as the New York Herald Tribune's Books section - and regardless of where it appears, it irritates Milford, who's firmly but not didactically on the side of her author:

This may have been the first time her life was being reviewed,her work taken to task for its reception and popularity; it would not be the last. Millay's poetry appealed to a larger public than most poets every hope to reach. Gregory reduced that appeal to immature girls - or, as they aged, to unhappy women. It was an attack disguised as a review.

I've read my copy of Savage Beauty many times, savoring not only Milford's sharp prose but also her able evocations of the surrounding times of Millay's life (not all first-rate biographies remember to do this), and again, I strongly recommend it to everybody. And of course no mention of the book would be complete without including one of Millay's poems! I'm rather fond of virtually all of them, so I'll pick one almost at random, but naturally, I recommend her Collected Sonnets over any damn biography ever written:

The doctor asked her what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days.
And she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
'Twould have been easier - then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
An questioning her, she'd never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came ...
She said at length, feeling the doctor's eyes,
"I don't know what you do exactly when a person dies."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Comics: The Infinity Saga!

Our 'book' today is the great seven-issue "Infinity Saga" story arc from 1970's Marvel Comics Thor, a baggy magnum opus that would mark Stan Lee's departure from regular scripting chores on this title (he was leaving all his usual Marvel haunts around this time, or had left them already and was 'training' the next generation of writers, uncredited, of course). He leaves Thor with a real flourish, uncorking just the kind of quasi-mystical cosmic-sized storyline that's perfect for the character and his mythological cast.

Perfect because what other good use can you find for Thor? The character is as strong as the Hulk, and he controls the weather, and he's got thousands of years of experience in combat - in normal comic book terms (A.I.M., Magneto, the Red Skull), he's pretty much unbeatable. And unbelievable - as I've mentioned here before, why would the Norse god of thunder bother to spend any time at all stopping the Stilt-Man's latest crime-spree? No, the character is much better served with sprawling cosmic epics - and despite his undeniable skill at small interpersonal moments, Lee clearly relishes such epics. His run on Thor is saturated with them (especially if you include his Tales of Asgard backup features, where he simply gave the tendency full rein), and "The Infinity Saga" is one of the best, despite the obvious signs all through it that Lee was growing a bit tired of the genre - or worse, finally running out of nifty ideas.

The story starts clean enough - Thor is striding down the streets of Asgard, home of the gods, having been summoned from Earth (where he'd just spent two issues kicking Doctor Doom's ass and off-handedly destroying the armed forces of Latveria) by his father, Odin. At the time of this story, Thor and Odin are on good terms - which is fairly remarkable as far as Thor goes during Lee's run (in fact, Lee's Odin might be one of the most consistently unpleasant parent-figures in all of comics - if Superman ever read these comics, he'd be glad Jor-el wasn't around to endlessly criticize his taste in girlfriends). Thor shows up in the royal audience chamber and finds Odin mighty perturbed. He's been troubled by portents of dark evil at the edge of the known universe, a great nebulous hand that seems to be wiping out whole worlds. These portents are matched by some closer to home: not only is the weather on Earth all screwed up, but in Asgard the massive Odin-sword is slowly inching from its sheath. If it were ever to be unsheathed, the resulting shockwaves would tear apart all creation, as Thor well knows (it came up in a previous Lee Thor epic, one we'll cover in the fullness of time). "Each fateful day I find it thus!" Odin says, re-sheathing it. "Each fateful day I sheath it anew!"

And that's not all: all through these things, Odin's had one word repeating in his head: Infinity, Infinity, Infinity! He has no idea what it means, but, as he tells Thor, he suspects knows somebody who does: the Silent One, a mysterious robed figure who appeared recently and, true to his billing, says nothing. Odin's sure he's connected to the mystery of Infinity - and he's sure the danger can only be faced in the heart of nebulous disturbance - the World Beyond (you can see what I mean here, right, about Lee's slightly flagging inspiration? The names in this story tell it all: The World Beyond, Infinity, The Silent One, The Guardian ... as generic as as generic gets). Odin has already sent three of Thor's friends, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, to investigate the World Beyond, and now, over Thor's objections, he goes himself - with the Silent One following right behind.

Loki, Thor's evil half-brother, sees the fireball of Odin's departure and takes the opportunity to return from exile and raise a troll-and-giant army to attack Asgard. His minions capture Thor's best friend Baldur the Brave and Thor's Asgardian girlfriend Sif (the fact that Thor for the longest time kept a girlfriend in Asgard and a girlfriend on Earth can be chalked up to the fact that Lee was, pound for pound, the coolest writer comics have ever had), but Thor quickly rescues them and tells off his brother, irritated that Loki can be so petty even when something as big as the World Beyond is threatening them all. Evil half-brothers! There's simply no living with them!

Predictably, Thor decides to go after Odin. He whirls his hammer and flies to the World Beyond, which turns out to look a lot like Scotland - lots of rocks and mist, plus irritable natives: in the case, a four-armed giant who calls himself the Guardian and insist Thor has to die. While they're grappling, the Guardian points out that the only exception he's ever seen to the rule was the white-haired old guy who showed up recently and was claimed by Infinity himself - naturally, on hearing that Odin passed this way, Thor goes wild to find his father and promptly kills the Guardian to get him out of the way (this also is a feature unique to Thor during Lee's run at Marvel: although he's careful to observe Earth politeness when he's on Earth, when he's offworld Thor kills his enemies with a happy recklessness). But there's another obstacle: out of the mist steps Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, who've been taken over by Infinity and turned into Thor's enemies! They mindlessly shuffle forward to do battle with him, but since he can't bear to lift a hand against them, he creates a cyclone with his hammer and sends the three of them back to Asgard - along with his hammer.

At the same time, we get some great surrealistic shots of Odin off somewhere fighting against the unseen Infinity while the Silent One watches - these and other panels throughout "The Infinity Saga" really give artist John Buscema a chance to strut his cosmic stuff in a way he wasn't doing in any of the other Marvel titles he was drawing at the time (yes, you heard that right: he was drawing more than one title a month, all superbly, and all on deadline, often for years at a stretch ... sounds impossible, doesn't it?)(of course the pinnacle of his 'cosmic' style happened in Silver Surfer, but it's more prolonged here in Thor)(his artistry is here immensely helped out by the stunningly clean inking job of Sam Grainger and Joe Sinnott, and by a superb coloring job done throughout by an uncredited master, Stan Goldberg).

There are two problems with Thor's strategy for disposing of his brainwashed friends: first, according to the enchantment Odin put on his hammer, if it's away from his possession for longer than one minute, he reverts to the puny mortal surgeon Don Blake, and second, whenever the Guardian gets killed, he gets revived by Infinity. That happens now, and poor schlub Don Blake is facing a quick, messy end as the Guardian advances on him.

Even in the midst of his own battle, Odin sees the trouble his son's alter ego is in and fires off an energy-bolt that stuns the Guardian long enough for Thor's hammer to return to him. Thor and the Guardian face off again, Thor charging straight at him with inimitable ferocity and hitting his favorite refrain from the Lee/Kirby years: "As thou art strong, so Thor is strong! As thou canst fight, so Thor canst fight! But as thou be mortal, Thor be God of Thunder!" Nothing like a little taxonomy to clarify a scrap.

Thor defeats the Guardian and finds the Silent One beckoning him. The walk through the mist a bit, and then Thor meets the last person he'd expect to find out here in the middle of nowhere: Hela, the goddess of death! Buscema takes the old slightly frumpy Jack Kirby version of the character and makes her an arresting figure - eight feet tall and unapologetically curvaceous (she's a whole lot more impressive-looking than a little goth girl in a tank top, if you know what I mean).

She pops up out of nowhere and stuns Thor with a bolt of life-ending energy; as she vanishes from the scene, we see Thor rapidly aging and dying - until the Silent One revives him, at the cost of his own life. Thor takes one panel to grieve over the old creep, then he flies off to Odin's side ... only to find Odin looking just as brainwashed as Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg! Yep: while Thor was busy with Hela, Odin lost in his fight against Infinity and was taken over - and he promptly attacks Thor.

It's a fight he can't possibly win, and he knows it, and Odin knows it (even brainwashed, the guy's a champion windbag, telling Thor, "'Twas I who made thee what thou art! 'Twas I who gave thee godly power. For I am the Will, the Word, and the Way! And I say thee now ... thou must fall!") - so Thor flees back to Asgard, where in his absence the good guys - including Baldur and Sif - have been trying to come up with a way to push the Odin-sword back into its sheath, to no avail.

When Thor shows up and tells them the worst possible news, that Odin is possessed, they're naturally distraught. They've seen how tough it is to break Infinity's possession: the sexy Norn Queen Karnilla came to Asgard specifically to break that possession (she agreed to do so in exchange for the, er, gratitude of Thor's friend Baldur - she loves him, but he can't return that love as long as she's a kinda-sorta enemy of Asgard ... it's one of those fascinating quasi-subplots that Lee could string along literally for years) and failed until Loki reluctantly helped her. He's been hanging around this whole time, snarling and sniping, despite continuously having it pointed out to him that if the Odin-Sword actually comes out of its sheath, he'll die too. Evil half-brothers! I tell you!

Eventually, Loki sees the light and actively tries to help; he and Karnilla pool their vast magical energies and fire off a bolt of power designed to stop Infinity from merging completely with Odin. The bolt fails, but it gives Thor an idea: if Karnilla uses the life-force of all the strongest Asgardians for another try, it might work. They do, and it does - Odin wakes "as though from a haunted dream" and summarily destroys the remnant of Infinity still hovering around.

He returns to Asgard and undoes all the damage (everything on Earth is righted too), and everybody lives happily ever after. It turns out that months ago, while Odin was in one of his period semi-hibernations known as the Odin-sleep, Hela had split off a portion of his soul, and that portion had become Infinity, and Hela, being the goddess of death, had very much liked Infinity's world-gobbling ways (that's why she was on the spot to zap Thor when he was in the World Beyond). Since Infinity is now re-absorbed into Odin, the crisis is passed.

Or is it? In a coda only Stan Lee could pull off, Odin sternly warns everybody that since Hela was denied her prize of Odin's soul, she'll certainly come looking for Thor's (nobody - including Lee - seems to recall that she already did come looking for Thor's just a couple of issues ago). The triumphant chapter ends in looks of horror all around.

Odin comes up with a temporary plan: "Thou shalt assume thy human form - be the mortal Donald Blake and hide thyself 'pon the distant planet Earth. Once thou art safe, the time will come to plan." In a bolt of energy, Thor is sent back to Earth and into hiding, and then Lee shifts the scene to Hela's cold, foggy underworld and gives us one of those great, seemingly effortless glimpses into the souls of his so-called villains that were, up until he came along, utterly unheard of in comics. Hela, it turns out, isn't really a bad guy at all - at least, she doesn't see herself that way: "Why do the living so fear my touch? Do I not bring peace to those who long have borne life's burden? Do I not bring rest at the end of life's weary journey? Do I not banish pain from all who may suffer? Do I not cure all ills and put an end to all wounds? In truth I am gentle - in truth I am fair. To me, all are equal! I deny none my embrace." It's hammy stuff, true - but it's epic hammy.

Loki goes to Hela to tell her that Thor is hiding on Earth, and while he's doing that, Baldur is going to Karnilla to ask her help in saving Thor - help she's happy to give him, if he finally renounces his allegiance to Asgard and swears fealty to her. Outraged, he draws his sword in front of her minions, but ultimately her arguments sway him and he swears. She sends him to Hela's realm, where he's just in time to stop Loki from blurting out the part about Thor being in human form. There follows a panel-quick battle in which Loki uses his vast sorcerous powers to flatten Baldur - a good reminder that not all Asgardians are created equal: Thor and Loki are the two biggest hitters. But Hela, bored with the fighting, banishes them both from her realm before Loki can spill the beans.

She decides to visit Earth herself, and she tries to be inconspicuous by donning the world's sexiest pill hat .... but, um, she's still eight feet tall, which draws the attention of two gun-wielding lowlifes who try to mug her (this was 1970 New York, after all ... a Norse death-goddess walking the streets might be believable, but a nighttime stroll without a mugging? Please!). "It was not yet your time," she tells them (Buscema puts in a neat detail of her pupils turning to skulls), "but since life means so little to you that you would take another's, I shall hasten your entrance into my silent realm."

Still, the delays in finding Thor are irksome to her (she gets a little distracted, in fact - she keeps the disguise but starts walking in midair about twenty feet off the pavement, which is something of a dead giveaway, as it were), so she decides to take an indirect approach: she finds some fire-fighters saving people from a burning building and starts rapid-aging them. Don Blake hears about this on the radio and, despite the warnings of his friends and his father, he becomes Thor in order to save innocent lives. And as soon as he's done doing that, Hela stands waiting. He has no choice - if he resists, she'll just strike at bystanders again. Thor submits.

And just at that moment, Odin appears! "Hela, hear my words," the old windbag says, "though I be the Power and the Light, the Judgement and the Will, thou I be the Sovereign Supreme of all that was and is and yet shall be - I be one thing more: I be father to the Thunder God. And to thee I say ... Thor shall not die!"

She's unimpressed. She knows perfectly well that Odin has too much respect for the natural laws of the universe to kill her - she knows he won't do away with death itself, not even to save his son. "You know full well," she tells him, "while I do live, not even you may stop me. And even lordly Odin would not dare to slay me."

"To save my son - Odin dares!" he yells, and he kills her with an energy-burst (and a classic Stan Lee sound effect: "sshossp!"! That's the sound of death dying!).

Thor knows immediately the impossibility of what Odin's done - without death, the universe will be overrun with life and suffering (after all, Hela was right about the beneficial role death often plays in the natural cycle of things). Thor's not morbid by any means: "Believe me, father," he says, "I find life sweet - and have no wish to die! But, let me die a thousand times, rather than cause the calamity which is to come."

Odin knows all this. He knows he has no choice but to restore Hela to life, knowing full well the first thing she'll do is claim the life of Thor. With tears in his eyes, Odin says, "May the mighty Thor bring glory to Valhalla, as he hath brought glory to the grieving Odin." He restores Hela, and she begins the process of withering Thor into her silent realm. Odin embraces him briefly, then just before the end he tries one last gambit - he transports Sif to Earth, to Thor's side. She sees what's going on and right away turns to Hela:

"Hela! Though thou be the queen of death, thou art a woman too - surely love hath touched thy heart?"

"Why speakest thou to me of love?" Hela asks.

"'Tis all I know! 'Tis all there be!" Sif says. "Without it, life hath no meaning and no joy! Thou still couldst save the dying Thor - thou must! Thou must, O Hela! The regal Odin may not beg, for he be Lord ofAsgard. But I am a woman, as thou art a woman! I beg! I plead - Sif doth implore thee.

Or if my words should not move thee - this last request I make thee: do but spare the mighty Thor ... and take Sif's life in forfeit."

"Thou wouldst die to save thy true beloved?" Hela asks, with tears in her eyes. "Sif asked if Hela had e'er known love ... and now I answer nay! But at last, I know what it doth mean! Not even death may crush it"

She restores Thor to youth and vigor and vanishes, and Sif and Thor embrace. Thor openly wonders if Odin transported Sif to Earth merely to pay her last respects, or was it possible that Odin anticipated what might happen? Unfortunately, the old coot has fully recovered from his grief and is right back to his old self. "I am the Way! I am the Light!" he blusters. "And none may share my Odin-thoughts!" Whatever, gramps.

The final issue of this arc catapults our characters straight into the next story line (hint: Evil half-brothers! There's simply no living with them!), but shortly after that Stan Lee would begin 'sharing' his writing chores, and then he'd abandon regular comics altogether (in the '70s, we were told he was 'spearheading' Marvel productions in Hollywood - which seemed a dubious concept when it started producing garbage like the "Hulk" and "Spider-Man" TV series ... luckily, Marvel productions improved quite a bit once special effects grew up and the right people started getting involved - although still no Thor movie, and that's probably a good thing). "The Infinity Saga" was his last hurrah doing the kind of epic stories he brought to such perfection in Thor and Tales of Asgard ... after this, the title would go almost a hundred issues until it got this kind of treatment again (likewise Buscema would after this gradually lessen and then leave the Marvel fold, after spectacular runs on Thor, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and Conan, not to mention some of the finest Tarzan work this side of Joe Kubert)(although as you can see, the one artist's trick Buscema almost never pulled off was the great cover - his mostly stink, only the last one in this arc being any good).

By my count, the next "Essential" Thor volume (7? 8?) will likely include "The Infinity Saga," and since my 1970 issues are literally falling apart, I'll certainly buy that volume (even though in this case it's really pretty coloring that's being left out of that black-and-white series) - and you all should too, to revel in the glories of comics' Silver Age!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Gap in Nature

Our book today is A Gap in Nature, written by Tim Flannery and magnificently illustrated by Peter Schouten. It's an oversized hardcover full of text profiles and stunning paintings of 103 species of extinct animals, so until the author and artist team up again for an even longer, more comprehensive edition, this probably qualifies as the saddest single book ever mentioned on Stevereads. Because Schouten is so talented, your first impulse is to flip quickly through the book, soaking in one vibrant illustration after another - but doing that makes the whole thing even more crushingly sad, since the panoply here is as varied and evocative as any gallery of currently-living animals ... until you reach the end and realize all of these particular animals are gone. Schouten makes them all look so alive that the heartbreak may well be worse than a book full of photos would have been (there actually are photos of some of these 103, but nothing to match the colors and expressions Schouten uses).

Flanner is a favorite natural history writer of mine, and here he has an unremittingly grim task, describing in case after case just what is known of these vanished animals and when they disappeared. This book concentrates species who've disappeared in the last 500 years - there are no woolly mammoths or giant sloths in A Gap in Nature, although there are still some familiar faces.

There's the Steller Sea Cow, for instance, an enormous (30 feet long, 10 tons) relative of the manatee:

And there's the humble passenger pigeon, whose flocks once famously numbered in the millions, the rumbling whirring of which could be heard sometimes hours before the approaching flock itself was visible in the distance:

And of course the most famous vanished animal of them all, the great Mauritius dodo, immortalized not only by Lewis Carroll but by the great, underrated science fiction author Howard Waldrop, whose dodo short story "The Ugly Chickens" is well worth the effort for each and every one of you to hunt down and read (if memory serves, it was in volume 7 of Terry Carr's great anthology series "Universe" - and in a Waldrop collection too):

There are less familiar species here too, such as the Small Mauritian Flying-Fox, which disappeared a little over a century ago from the Mascarene islands. Flannery makes a good point in this profile and in many others, which is that it wasn't just the animal that disappeared, it was also the animal's function in the broader ecosystem. In the case of the Small Mauritian Flying-Fox, who knows how many plant species on the island had evolved in tandem with it, relied on it entirely for pollination? The bat's disappearance threatens all of those plants as well, in ways and to extents we'll never know now, because Pteropus subniger is gone:

And there's the tylacine from Australia, the largest modern-day marsupial predator, bigger than a coyote and highly sociable:

Flannery writes about the final days of the last captive tylacine:

The last thylacine to walk the earth was a female kept in Beaumaris Zoo near Hobart. Personnel problems developed at the zoo during 1935-36, which meant the animals were neglected during the winter. The thylacine was 'left exposed both night and day in the open, wire-topped cage, with no access to its sheltered den.' September brought extreme and unseasoned weather to Hobart. Night-time temperatures dropped to below zero at the beginning of the month, while a little later they soared above 38 degrees celsius. On the night of 7 September the stress became too much for the last thylacine and, unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.
I keep saying these animals are 'gone,' that they 'disappeared,' when the reality is in every single case far more pointed, far more personal. Flannery is mild and objective about it:

This sixth age of extinction did not begin, as you might imagine, with the arrival of the industrial era a few hundred years ago. Instead it first dawned at least 50,000 years earlier, when our species first left its African cradle an began its spread across the face of the Earth, precipitating other living forms into oblivion by the dozen. We cannot be certain, of course, about anything that happened so long ago, but evidence is growing that a common thread runs through the extinctions of the last fifty milllennia, and that Homo sapiens, either directly or indirectly, is that thread.

That's very well-mannered, but it pulls punches that should be allowed to land squarely. 'By the dozen'? Try 'by the tens of thousands' (in the time it's taken you to read this posting, mankind has 'directly or indirectly' caused the extinction of half a dozen more species; in the last five years alone, Rwanda, for instance, as stripped itself bare of rainforest). 'Directly or indirectly' doesn't begin to cover the sheer intentional murderous frenzy with which humans systematically depopulated every ecosystem they entered. 20 percent of the megafauna of Africa, 40 percent of the megafauna of Europe and Asia, 80 percent of the megafauna of North and South America, a whopping 95 percent of the megafauna of Australia - all wiped out by one species, by modern humans, who also, incidentally, wiped out all the other species of humans who once lived on Earth. A Gap in Nature could just as easily be called A Gap Made in Nature, to remove all doubt that this might have happened accidentally.

The book was published in 2001 - the world had tens of thousands of square miles more forest, jungle, and swampland in 2001 than it has today. In those eight years, almost 60 percent of the planet's frogs species, for instance, have died off, and their former ecosystems have been correspondingly damaged, probably beyond the ability of tardy humans to fix. Burgeoning population and technological development in almost every country in the world puts almost every animal in the world under explicit threat - all except these. In an odd way, that's one of A Gap in Nature's unexpected little mercies: these 103 species, after negotiating the twists and turns of the world for innumerable generations, are at last past caring. Who knows how big a new version of this book will need to be in a few years.